Given my line of work, I have the privilege of traveling the world. In each new city, I explore the milonga scene on nights when I don’t have a gig.
Amazingly, wherever I go, I hear the exact same music. Old recordings from the Golden Age of Tango. Beautiful music no doubt and music I enjoy dancing to, but for me there is something troubling about our becoming so uniform in our musical choices.
Some people might say it really isn’t tango if it doesn’t have that patina of old Buenos Aires. Not me. I prefer to think of tango as something vibrant and alive and not something stuck in the past.
Others might argue that this monoculture of music gives a shared identity to milongas everywhere, just as the shared code of the embrace allows us to transcend language and cultural barriers and dance with complete strangers as if we had known each other all our lives. Certainly there are many people who enjoy this music above all others for dancing tango.
But great as that music is, don’t you feel that you are missing an essential piece? I certainly do. When compared to live music, I feel that dancing to recordings is a bit like listening to AM radio – or having virtual sex. It is one-sided, onanistic and missing a whole spectrum of frequencies.
In a dance that teaches us extreme lessons about communication between two people, we are losing something if we don’t bring real, live musicians into the conversation. When you do, the experience explodes. Live musicians bring improvisation and uncertainty – exactly the things that make dancing tango so fascinating. When you dance to live music there is a natural flow of energy between those who create the music and those who dance it.
As a musician, I know this to be true. When we play for dancers, there is a thrill that runs through me. I play differently. The same happens, they tell me, out on the dance floor. Last Friday we played at a milonga in Crest, France. As I played my harmonica I watched one couple become increasingly covered in sweat as they tangoed to a fast set of our original songs. A smile wrapped clear around the man’s head. Later, when I met him at the bar, he said that when our set finished he turned to his partner and said, “Mon amour, isn’t it great to be alive!”
I am happy that the old music survives in recordings. I am happy that my music will outlast me in our own CDs. I love listening to the music that came before. But when we dance exclusively to recorded songs we break the natural bond between live musicians and live dancers. (Today, at most milongas we have dead musicians and live dancers.)
I propose that we tango dancers (I speak to you as a dancer now) commit to repairing this imbalance. Let’s strive to dance to live music half the time. Search out those milongas that book live performers and reward the organizers for doing so by paying twice as much to get in. (You can’t have the live music experience if you aren’t willing to pony up!)
In exchange, we will get that authentic tango thrill where you, your partner and the musicians commune.
Come on dancers, it’s time to go live!