Friday, November 16, 2012

DJ Self-Assessment Card

Tango Jockeys put the dancer, not themselves, in the limelight.

How a DJ becomes a TJ

Over the years, I have learned what makes a disc jockey good from many examples of ruined milongas.  Mostly DJs who ruin a milonga are not evil, they just are inexperienced and do not know the depth of the task they have taken on.  The worst DJ possible is one that wants to reinvent the milonga in their own 
image and likeness, throwing out tradition, form and predictability.  

Originally, I wanted to help DJ's, but I think this is the role of an entire community to support the DJ's.  We can all be advocates of having the best music to dance to.  The entire community needs to be educated and advocate for the best dance music at their own milongas without being too passive nor aggressive.  I have helped some DJs that were open to help.  One woman was an outsider in the city.  I took her aside, and told her about tandas and cortinas.  I wanted her to be successful because she was trying her best, and she just did not know.  She took my advice.  Others in town had never taken the time to tell her, and just did not come to her milongas after one try.

I hope that this Self-Assessment will help you if you are a DJ to become a TJ (a tango jockey*).  I am inspired to write this post from the knowledge and ideas that Christian Tobler and Monika Díaz bring to the German-speaking world of tango.  They are self-taught tango musicologists in Switzerland. They have made it clear to me why TJs are rare.  Someone who knows how to make a
milonga more than just a tango dance party; the TJ creates a wonderful dance event.  Updates to the post now include four appendices with more TJ's who truly have great milongas.  The appendices support what is in the self-assessment, and give more depth to things briefly mentioned on the "report card" matrices:
  • The TJ's responsibility to buy or influence organizers to have high quality equipment.
  • Resources for buying quality music.
  • How a TJ deals with listeners' wildly different views of volume.
  • How a TJ deals with tempi during a milonga.
  • A video documentary by musicians/recording engineers condensed recordings (MP3's).
One day your or I may be forced into the position of being a DJ out of the need in the community.  So now is the time to start being educated and know what makes a DJ become a TJ.  I do not want this to be a tango-arrogance enhancing tool.  It is to help our little, fragile tango world; so use it it in this spirit.  Send improvement suggestions to:

DJ/TJ Report card values (1-5):
1 = Describes the “still learning” inexperienced DJ (bless their hearts).
5= Describes an experienced TJ very well.  
Color Code
Signifies “essential” TJ element

Tanda Architecture & Music
Plays excellent dance tango with a conscious success formula (below)

Understands traditions of tanda structure with cortinas. (see below)

Features a single orchestra in most tandas.

Tandas with longer tunes are still limited to 12-15 minutes.

Plays tango hits, but also knows many lesser-known, high-fidelity, danceable tangos.

Plays milonga tandas that have a warm up phase (slower).  Late-night milonga tandas are also slower.

Plays non-danceable cortinas that clear the floor.

Plays cortinas long enough to clear the floor.

If there's a nuevo tanda, it does not replace the milonga tanda.

Christian Tobler prefers a formula like this:
1928-37 ~15-25%
1938-47 ~65-75% (Epicenter of the Epoca de Oro)
1948-57 ~5-15%

Common structure of a complete set of tandas, recommended by Tobler:
4 tangos = tango tanda (or 3 instrumental tangos)
3 milongas = milonga tanda (a BsAs standard)
3 Valses = vals tanda (I often hear and enjoy 4, but 3 is the standard in BsAs.)
Start-up of evening tanda structure:  Tango/Vals/Tango/Tango/Milonga
The rest of the evening is: T-T-V-T-T-M = about 1 hr. 
Here is a good resource for tango structure too:  Tango DJ (Blog)
And in German:  Christian/Monika
Technical knowledge
Uses the best recordings, reproductions, avoiding MP3s (see below)

Is attentive to changes in volume between recordings, and changes in room noise.   Never blasts or plays too quietly.

Understands how to operate excellent equipment and actively influences organizers to provide excellent equipment. (Appendix 1)

Understands how to equalize the sound system to the room or has equipment that does this (this can be an add-on to permanent equipment).

Knows how to adjust a microphone so it never squeals (not rocket science).

Insists on speaker placement that is not harmful to hearing on one side of the room (placed below or above two meters) if possible.

Extras for the TJ who is dancer-centric
Projects or displays the composer/orchestra/name of song/name of vocalist.

Knows and chooses the best versions of tangos for dancing (not just something that they "discovered").**

Announces the last tanda before the penultimate tanda and plays the Cumparcita so that couples who came together can dance the last dance.

If the DJ is also a passionate dancer, he/she has remote equipment.

Understands some traditions about what tangos are not played at milonga.  (If you do not know, ask someone from BsAs.)

Listens to the organizer, who knows the expectations of those at the milonga. The crowd expects mostly Época de Oro tandas?

Is a DJ, avoids being a hobby "musicologist" playing all the music we have never heard but should.

Provides short silence pauses between songs.

Appendix One for curious DJ's:
Regarding owning equipment:  A TJ does not necessarily have to own their own equipment and move it around to each milonga.  Ultimately it is up to the DJ's influence organizers on equipment that allows them to serve the dancers better. If I am a pianist playing at a piano bar on an out of tune upright piano, maybe I need to have a talk with the owner/organizer and suggest getting an 88-key Steinway or a 97-key Bösendorfer.  A "DJ" with  keeps coming back to the same milonga with poor equipment; a "TJ" refuses to come back to a place which makes him/her create a disservice to the dancers.  Ditto for musicians that rely on a place that provides a piano.

Appendix Two:
Resources for high quality music:, Japanese CDs imported by Bernhard Gehberger (, and Buenos Aires Tango Club at  (Thanks, Teresa Faus, Munich, Germany.)

Appendix Three for curious DJ's:
All about volume
from Andy Ungureanu, Wiesbaden, Germany:
Musicians and DJ's have the same problem with dancers who widely disagree if the volume correct: Andy's tips:  "Loudness is a very difficult topic. If I get complains, it is about loudness, but in all directions; one guy complains it is not loud enough and 10 seconds later, before changing anything, another one complains it is too loud. My solution is to have a good loudness compensation in the software to keep all songs equally loud and the other one to keep the overall level at 85-88 dB (A). For this you need a measuring device, or a calibrated app. In a recent paper several apps were tested and the result is that you can forget them all, except one for iphones.  The sensitivity of the public is also very different. Argentines and Italians want it extremely loud, Germans a little bit less loud. It depends also on the quality of the recordings. Almost all are mastered in such way that the range 1 - 6 KHz is pushed up. It is the range where the voice clarity is (2,5 to 3 KHz) and the overtones of the bando (3-8 KHz) but also where the distortions become very annoying. When you hear it at home you think this is a good recording, because it is brighter. But if such a record is played too loud and you are unfortunately near or below the speaker, the violins go straight through your brain. The solution is a band compressor and limiter. But this is a very dangerous tool if don't know what you do. Since most DJs have problems with a simple equalizer, it is better if they don't use such thing."

Appendix Four for curious DJ's:
The issue of tempo from Harry Wohlfart:
"There is another issue: changing speed within a tanda. Many of the available tanda sets (especially those from well known Argentinian DJs) don't change speed (measured in Steps per minute or Spm for me) at all. Or they go, say 60/62/64/60 Spm, thus, ending with the same sped they started. Many even get slower. Do so, if you want to finish the usual weekly milonga earlier. If you want it lively, get people excited, speed them up. Not every tanda, of course, but the idea is, don't make people sleepy. Be aware of the speed of what you play, measure it. Simply count! I never encountered a software that does this in acceptable quality, so I had/have to do it manually.
Who said DJing is just going ahead and play? There is work to be done before you really start. Some forget this.   To make a long story short: Know your music!"

Appendix Five for curious DJ's:  Learn from musician's frustrations with compressed sound (MP3's).

* For Europeans only:  “Jockey” is not a gender-specific term.  Europeans like to say “Disc Jane,” for women.  The term “disc jockey” started in the US.  The term “jockey” is not gender specific in English.   There are no Disc Jacks, therefore there are no Disc Janes.

"Yo no sé que me han hecho tus ojos" by Alberto Moran, rather than Miguel Calo's version.   Thank you for playing another version, but I prefer hearing a great band rather an honorable mention version or even worse a garage band play the same song.

Photo Credit:  I cannot find the source of the "great" DJ photo.  If you know, please inform me.

Print-out DJ Self-Assessment matrices from above, are at this link.  Or for the version in the MS Word format:  Go to this link.   I will be updating this from time to time.  You can edit for yourself and your community norms.  For now, I suggest just giving this page link to DJ's if they need or really want help.   Note:  This information is for the good of milongas worldwide.  Of course permission is granted for copying.


  1. I really love your article. It's a highly valuable contribution to establish a better DJ/TJ culture.

    Let me please focus your attention to another brilliant artice by MsHedgehog: Was that good? DJ questionnaire

    Kind regards


  2. I'd add only one pedantic little correction: the cortina needs to be long enough for everyone to clear the floor, not long enough to allow for cabeceos. Cabeceos don't take place during the cortina, but when the opening bars of the tanda sound.

    Otherwise, this is a great questionnaire.

  3. Cassiel... I will add that link. I read it, and in many ways it is better than this shorter view. Actually that is what I wanted -- not a report but a quick assessment card. However, an post like hers is perfect. Also, off-line you told me about your interview with Christian Tobler. I think that your interview needs a link and more than that a translation of parts of that interview. -- thanks for the feed-back. Mark

  4. Terpsi... you are of course [mostly] right. The cabeceo (nodding of head literally) happens after the music starts. Why dance a milonga with a woman who likes it slow and easy? That is a terrible waste to have a milonga set go by with someone who doesn't like a milonga tanda. But where we disagree is that even in BsAs, the cabeceo's verb can be in the imperfect or preterite tense. That means that in the imperfect (on-going process or action), a cabeceo can go on for a very long time. Certainly you have heard of men who catch the eye of woman even while dancing (which I avoid doing). I would say that the cabeceo is mostly longer process, which is consummated by the preterite (completed action). Also, you have not had to deal with places that ASKING is common. I don't ask, but I must get my non-verbal request in during the cortina or dance by myself in the corner. So you are technically correct, but for different reason not in touch with perhaps the majority of milongas that are going on all over the world. Maybe I am wrong. I am not that widely travel to know. But don't put any money on that bet! :-) But in spite of this unfortunate lack of tango etiquette going on outside (and inside) of BsAs, I was truly thinking of the imperfect tense (a longer process): "Le daba el cabeceo por la noche y finalmente me respondió."

  5. With regards to the length of the cabeceo, I noticed something I hadn't expected - in Buenos Aires (caveat: in the milongas I went to) the cabeceo was lightening fast. I was unprepared for how fast - to the point I was afraid to look up too soon (before I was ready to dance). Once I got used to it, of course I had to come back home where (in the US) cabeceos can take what seems like ages!

  6. Hi Mark. For your
    "Tanda Architecture & Music" card, I suggest adding this essential element: "For each tanda, chooses only tracks that are mutually compatible for dancing."

    Also, I'd be interested to hear why you propose a good DJ be "willing to shorten tandas when there is an overwhelming gender unbalance." I don't recall seeing a DJ do this. S hortened tandas (tango tandas of three tracks) is something I find only in the occasional beginners' milongas in Europe, and then apparently regardless of balance of sexes.

  7. Mari... these are great insights that I will not have. I have dedicated my free time to my children, and BsAs is a distant dream. But I appreciate what you and Terpsi see and experience. I think it is important.

  8. Chris... I am not sure that having shorter tandas is at all a good idea anymore. I experienced this in Metz, France when there was an huge gender imbalance. Women who are sitting down and do not get a chance to dance find the long tandas torturous, but once they do dance, the tandas wiz by too fast. Send me an email so I can understand your phrse "mutually compatible for dancing." I will soon be meeting with Christian Tobler in Switzerland, and I hope to perfect these matrices. Again, I am NOT a DJ, just one who appreciates those who have taken on this job. Let me add something about Metz's Red & Black Milonga recently: 50% late Pugliese's compositions, and the floor was crowded. The DJ definitely needs a mentor.

  9. Mark, I'm glad to hear you're taking the input of DJs on these materials. Because from other sources there's a lot of misleading advice for DJs on the net. Advice such as that to you above in the comment from London dance teacher Terpsichoral Tangoaddict: "the cortina needs to be long enough for everyone to clear the floor". This is a misunderstanding. What the DJ does is play the cortina until the floor stops clearing. If he played "long enough for everyone to clear the floor", this would be much too long in the many milongas where the floor rarely completely clears because, for example, some couples wait on the floor (rightly or wrongly) for the next dance track.

    I sent the email you requested. I wish you every success with this project.

  10. Mark;s private reply suggested I copy my emailed answer to the blog, so here it is.


    [Re "For each tanda, chooses only tracks that are mutually compatible for dancing"] What I mean is that each track in the tanda is compatible with all the others in the same tanda with regards to dancing. So, if one track is of kind that a couple wants to dance to, so will be the other tracks in that tanda. This is particularly important for the first track. The first track is the point where most dancers choose partners, so the DJ wants to ensure the rest of the tanda will be to the liking of any couple that chooses to take the floor on the basis of what they hear as the first track.

    I do my best to ensure my tandas meet this criterion and here are some recent examples: .

  11. Chris... I will add what other DJ's suggest -- I would call this "continuity" rather than "compatible," but I think the idea continuity is expressed (rightly or wrongly) by individual Tango Jockeys in these ways:
    (1) The same vocalist.
    (2) All instrumentals or vocal tracks (with which I do not agree).
    (3) Certainly the same composer/orchestra/time period.
    (4) The some level of fidelity. I think this is particularly important.

    Chris and other TJ's are going to be able to add to this. Again, I am meeting with Christian Tobler in Zürich this weekend. I know he doesn't mix vocal and non-vocal tracks; so everyone has their own ideas. What I really do not like is DJ's who wish to reinvent everything. A great teacher from BsAs had a weird order to the tandas so I never knew, for example, when a milonga tanda would come up. The organizer said, "Well, he has his own style." I said, "I understand, but just so you know, I will not come back to this milonga to experience 'his own style' again." I also explained that he should know what patrons of his milonga think. I liked the DJ as a teacher and person, but hated his quirky DJ ideas.

  12. Well, yes, I too have heard such definitions of detailed criteria from some DJs (usually those who are dance instructors) but I have to say I believe these are generally less than useful, and often highly misleading. Understanding of compatibility comes direct from the music and the dancing - a source which is available to any student DJ and is free of the struggle to interpret advice that comes in the form of words.

    By the way, if the suggestion above above is that compatibility requires the same composer, I think this is deeply mistaken. Many compatible tandas demonstrate this. Likewise the same time period. For example, in the 70s De Angelis recorded La Yumba in a style and feel very similar to that he used two decades earlier on Re fa sí, Pavadita, and Mi dolor. It's this feel that's make these four tangos compatible for a tanda. The dates of the recordings count for nothing. And also note that these four tracks are all by different composers.

    Most DJs go on what they are told by their ears. These are the DJs I most enjoy. Others go instead on what they're told by their computer screen - perhaps because their computer screen works better than their ears. Fine. But what's sad is that that most of the advice newcomers can read comes from the computerised variety of DJ. I hope each newcomer takes care when accepting advice to first consider from which kind of source it originates.

    Mark, I very much share your opinion about DJs who reinvent everything, striving to be different. The DJ that's good does not want or need to be different from good.

  13. PS TT wrote "Cortinas are long enough to allow cabeceos."

    Cortinas aren't normally used for cabaceo. They are used for clearing the floor. I suggest instead say:

    Cortinas are long enough to allow the floor to clear.


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