Dancers, Go Live!

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!

4 responses to “Dancers, Go Live!”

  1. Sylvie Avatar

    So true. I too always wonder why, although there are thousands of tangos, we hear most often only a few dozens in milongas in Paris. As for live music, some tangueros told me that they don’t like to dance on it. Why ? Probably because they don’t like (or they fear) what is the core of tango : improvisation, preferring the routine of doing the same steps on the same notes played the same way, again and again.
    This fact is related to the gap between the world of dancers and the world of musicians and music fans. In 8 years of attending many concerts of tango in Paris, only twice I met dancers I know from milongas.
    Maybe this is also the responsability of some teachers who focus more on the technique than on the spirit of tango and the authentic way of enjoying it. I was lucky because my teacher when I began learning tango in Tokyo was Juan Guida. From the very first lesson, he encouraged us to listen and listen and listen tangos at home.
    I remember what the maestro Ricardo Calvo said and which never left my head : “First, there is the music; then, the emotion you feel listening the music; finally, you dance to express your emotion, born from the music”.

  2. Guillermo García Avatar

    Great article Kevin!
    I’ve always wondered why so many people in the tango community are perfectly contented with listening to the same recordings over and over, no matter how good they are. I’ve even “interviewed” many friends with this question. Here’s my conclusion so far:

    When we love something, we are always curious about exploring it. We demand variety. We get tired of too much of the same. For example, foodies are always looking for new good restaurants. Car lovers are always looking for new car models. Gadget lovers are always looking forward to the next iPhone release. Tango dancers during the 40’s loved music and they demanded constant renewal from the orchestras. That is why the most popular orchestras (D’Arienzo, Troilo) had their musicians on salary and rehearsed every day, in order to fulfill the dance community demand for new arrangements and compositions.

    When we don’t particularly like something, we usually don’t want much variation of that something.

    I’m perfectly fine with the same phone I’ve had for years. I am always praying that my car won’t give up, because I dread having to look for a new car.

    You see where I’m going… if the tango dance community and the tango DJs are perfectly happy dancing to the same recordings every day of every week of every year, I suspect that pushing for more live music is like trying to push me to look out for new car models.

    Before we even talk about live music, let’s consider the fact that most tango dancers in the USA are completely unaware of what happened to tango music after the 40’s. And shockingly, most tango DJs are also unaware! However, we know that some of the best things that ever happened to tango music developed during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The only explanation I find to this phenomenon is very simple: Most tango dancers today don’t seem to be particularly interested in the music. Statistically speaking, I think the music is seen more as a “tool”, as a necessary metronome.

    The Ricardo Calvo phrase cited by Sylvie seems to be the key: “first the music, then the emotion, then the dance to express the emotion”. That is how tango dance was born. But today the most common paradigm seems to be “first the idea of dancing tango, then take some classes, then the dance to enjoy doing cool steps and embracing somebody. Oh and I guess we need some music to do that”.

  3. Guillermo García Avatar

    It is true that most musicians playing tango today have gone toward different aesthetics, mostly influenced by Salgán, post-forties Pugliese and Piazzolla. It is a real pity because many invaluable musical elements from the 40’s have been practically forgotten. All the nuances D’Arienzo created in the 40’s, for example, are extremely expressive in a very original way, i.e. totally different from nuances done in classical music and therefore a real asset of Argentine music (as opposed to elements borrowed from classical music, as we see a lot in modern Pugliese or Piazzolla, and many of today’s live bands).

    So in my opinion that is something the musicians should take care for. It’s sad to see invaluable knowledge vanish, we cannot let that happen.

    The consequence is that a lot of live music today is produced for concerts, not for milongas. Besides the reason I just mentioned, there is also the fact that live music follows the supply-and-demand rule of any free market: today’s milongas do not represent, as they did in the 40’s, a solid market for musicians. Concert venues and CD albums are a doorway to a much wider audience.

    However, there is a lot of post-40’s music, and a bunch of live music today, that is perfectly danceable, and yet it is quite resisted (or rather, ignored) by many social dancers and tango DJs. My impression is that many social dancers feel uncomfortable if they don’t recognize the “color” of the music. By “color” I mean the global timbre of the music. An orquesta típica always has the sound color of bandoneons, violins, piano and bass. Very different color than a traditional guitar quartet, or the quintessential bandoneon-guitar combination, or traditional bandoneon-guitar-bass or bandoneon-piano-bass trios. Or the Hugo Díaz sound on the harmonica! (which was actually popular in the Bay Area tango scene 17 years ago, before DJ fundamentalism took over).

    Different color, not recognizable, not much motivation to listen to music in the first place… let’s declare it “undanceable” and stick to known colors! That is more or less the reaction I see from the social dance tango community.

    But hey, what percentage of the general population is interested in music? I mean interested enough to attend live concerts. Ten percent? Twenty percent? Maybe that percentage is not any higher in the social dance tango community. Is there a correlation between wanting to start dancing tango and being a music lover? I believe there was a correlation back in the 40’s, but now the interest has shifted toward video games, smart phone apps, and other forms of modern entertainment. So it’s likely that social dancers today are not any more interested in live music than the general population.

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