27 November 2013

The tango performance - inspiration and interpretation

"The criticism of tango performances not being close enough to an idea of what 'social tango' should be, is a bit silly to me. It's a performance - dance is about connecting to music AND to the space. The space of a performance will influence the dance. Criticising that is almost like criticising operatic singers for not singing like choir singers." (comment in a Facebook discussion about tango performances)


What does a tango dancer want to achieve with her performance? What do we as onlookers want to achieve from watching it? And what could happen in the meeting point between these two perspectives?

When I'm listening to a pianist performing, I look for three factors that are important to me:

- musical interpretation

- choice of repertoire

- technical skills

Whether I like the performance, depends on these factors and how they work together. Not all three are equally important to me at all times. I can be impressed, but not necessarily moved, by a technically brilliant performance. I can be moved by a beautiful interpretation of a piece I love, even if the performance isn't technically the best - although technical skills are very valuable as a tool to bring out a musical interpretation.

I would imagine that these three factors are important also to people who don't play an instrument themselves. Since I'm a musician, these three factors often produce an additional factor:


This inspiration could be to work harder on my technique, to find new ways of interpreting music, to try new repertoire, and maybe also to look for new ways of expressing myself. The last point depends on whether self-expression is important to me. It isn't to all musicians: some have the philosophy that their work is to serve the music and the tradition.

When our four factors work together, it could look something like this:

(article continues under the picture)

If I'm going to use this newfound inspiration, I might want to have an idea of what I'm going to use it for. Is it to play for my own enjoyment? Is it to improve my own skills? Do I want to play in a concert? Am I going to play with other musicians?

In many ways, this translates nicely into dancing. There are some differences, though:

We'll often find an important difference in repertoire and progress. Music students start with easy repertoire and progress gradually to more difficult. The teacher decides the speed of the progress plus makes sure that the student does technique exercises. Even if there seems to be more focus on base technique in tango these days, the repertoire that's taught to beginners is often the same as the repertoire the "tango heroes" use when they perform, like boleos, ganchos, sacadas and volcadas.

We also have the artist's job description. The typical famous musician doesn't teach beginners and intermediates as a big part of his work. His teaching is probably also more "hidden". The typical famous tango dancer has teaching as a big and visible part of her work role. When she performs at festivals, she has probably just given classes to many of the people in the audience, also to those who are beginners.

So the distance between a tango performer and her audience will most likely seem smaller than the distance between a musician and his audience, and so roles, goals and expectations in tango are more unclear, maybe especially to the beginner.

To add to the confusion, there's the setting. The typical tango performance feels a lot like a concert with an audience. The difference is that the tango performers' entire audience consists of people who "perform" themselves and might want to be inspired - but they'll most likely be using the inspiration in another setting: on a social dance floor.

Then there's an additional matter: the reasons why professional tango teachers give performances in the first place, and how these reasons influence the way they choose to perform. This is an important issue because it will have an influence on how we are inspired - and by what. It could also be problematic. If the audience is looking for inspiration to use in a social context, and the inspiration they get from the performance is based on the performers' need to impress with technical skills because competition is fierce, we often end up with an intention mismatch.

This shouldn't necessarily have to be a problem. But we'll have to admit that in real life, it is. Very often, the floor changes after a performance. Many of us have been kicked in the butt, bumped into, stepped on, or been generally hindered in the ronda because people are doing things that don't work well on a busy dance floor.

It seems to me that misunderstandings are common in the meeting point between performances and the audience.

So. How do we understand and interpret the professionals' skills, so we can channel our inspiration into something constructive and use it for something that's relevant for our own dance? How do we adapt difficult performance content to our own competence level? How do we translate it into something we can use in a social context?

Or should we understand, interpret, channel, adapt, translate? There's always the option of just enjoying the dancers' performance, admiring their skills, allowing the dancers to shine, forgetting about yourself for a moment before you return to the real world with the ronda, the floorcraft and the simple moves.

And the performer: should she take her audience into account when she decides how she performs? Does she have any responsibility to "educate the masses" through her artistic work? Should we demand of her that she restrict herself just because the audience consists of active dancers that might (and will) misunderstand her intentions?

I think it's a pretty cool phenomenon that a whole audience can be inspired by a performance. If we compare it to other types of performance-audience settings, I also find it quite unique. But maybe because it's a different setting, it also demands something different from us as: the understanding of what and how we're watching, and an awareness of what can be created - good and not so good - from what we're watching.

This understanding is something that I believe everyone - dancers, teachers and performers alike - could think more consciously about, even if we won't reach the same conclusion.

24 September 2013

Of Mice and Musical Men

"Some people just want to show off - you know, like 'look how musical I am!' Why can't we just be in the music?"


In cartoons, typically old Disney movies, sound effects are often used to enhance movement; for instance a downwards glissando sound if someone falls of a cliff. In tango, this has morphed into the expression "Mickey Mousing", which means to design one's dance to match different qualities in the music. The way it's being used implies that visually accurate interpretations of the music are both superficial and artificial. This view makes me a bit sad.

There are many reasons why I dance tango, but the most important one is the music. I find every feeling in it. Sadness, despair, longing, but also happiness, humour, playfulness. I'm also intrigued by the orchestra leaders' musical choices and preferences and how they create their individual trademark sound, and by the musicians and the vocalists. Sometimes I can't tell exactly what I'm responding to: the emotional message itself or the aesthetics and the craftmanship that create the message.

Taste is of course a complicated matter, and I don't like all tango music. But today, I'm talking about the music I love, the music that makes me want to dance.

And this is the key point: this music makes me want to dance. I don't just want to hear it; I want to dance it, to physically express the feelings the music evokes in me. It demands a deep focus: to really listen and to extend the feeling of the music into movement. The joy of experiencing the musical qualities in my body is substantially different from the joy of just listening.

Above all, I want to experience the music together with someone. If a partner actively expresses musical qualities, I can physically feel what he hears - and hopefully, he'll feel that I hear them, too, all the things that create the emotion of each tango: The difference between staccato and legato parts. The difference between soft and loud, light and heavy. The transitions that join the phrases together or separate them. The way the different vocalists swirl their melody lines freely around the main beat. Biagi's aggressive attempts to get even more out of a piano that sounds like it's already about to break down. A sudden appearance of a solo violinist, leaving a lazy trail of honey over D'Arienzo's spiky compás. Di Sarli's piano punctuations in Indio manso - just one shiny star to mark the ending of a section. The way Donato throws us down into darkness towards the end of Me voy a baraja, only to let his bandoneóns lift us up again. 

I notice that the Mickey Mousing expression is being used to criticise dancers who use a lot of dynamic variation and precise details, when the onlooker thinks it's "too much". But if the dance is rich in detail, is it automatically less genuine and less heart-felt? How can one, just by looking, tell the difference between a person who just plasters the moves onto the music and a person who wants to express something the music makes her feel? When is it displaying how musical you are, when is it displaying your love for the music?

When is it showing off, when is it showing yourself?

I've seen countless performances where the dancers have made me discover new things in the music. I've danced with guys that have shown me musical elements I hadn't noticed before, even when I thought I knew the music well. 

If that is Mickey Mousing, well, then I want more of it. 

26 August 2013

The long and winding road

"The most important task for a teacher is to make yourself superfluous."


Imagine that you're learning French, only with different teachers. During one of the lessons, teacher #1 talks about French pronunciation. You repeat words until the teacher is reasonably happy, then practice at home. Next lesson, teacher #2 is unhappy because the pronunciation you learnt from teacher #1 is wrong. He shows you the correct pronunciation, you repeat words until he's reasonably happy, then practice at home. Next lesson, teacher #3 is unhappy, too - but about something different altogether: the grammar you've learnt from the two previous teachers. Apparently, it's all wrong, so teacher #3 spends the lesson correcting your mistakes and showing you the correct grammar. You do some sentence exercises until he's reasonably happy… and then the summer holidays start. Come autumn, teacher #4 stops by to talk about essay writing in French, and teacher #1 is revisiting to check on your pronunciation, which is wrong.

This wouldn't go down well in an ordinary school, of course. But in tango, it happens all the time, especially if you live outside Buenos Aires. You might recognise something similar from your own tango life: We have dozens of different visiting teacher couples. Many of them visit only once. The time intervals between each visiting couple are irregular, often long. In between, we go to workshops with local teachers. No one talks about how to practice.

I spent my first years of tango learning like this. I took courses and classes and workshops and prácticas and private lessons, teachers came and left and sometimes came back again, and most of them said that I should change something I had learnt from other teachers - at least that's how I understood it, because after all, I was a beginner. What did I know about tango? My only solution was to practice, because I had learnt in school that if you did your homework, everything would be fine. Only I hadn't actually been told how to practice my tango, and the teacher wasn't there anymore to check up on the homework I'd been doing. Then the next teacher came along, and history repeated itself - or so it seemed. And I was so very frustrated. Months passed, years passed, and I was still looking for the correct way of dancing.

"Aha!!!", you say, "Seems you misunderstood something. There isn't one correct way of dancing. Tango is not about correct or incorrect. It's about letting different teachers show you the different aspects of dancing, so you can choose what's right for you and find your own dance."


The point is that I was simply not used to learn like this. I had "learnt to learn" in shool, a traditional education system, from I was seven. If we compare this system to the way many of us learn to dance tango, we'll find that the differences can be fundamental. A traditional education system often looks like this: it's long-term, there's a pre-set curriculum, there's one teacher per subject. There are lessons at least once a week, there's organised homework in between, and the teacher checks on your homework. Everything is designed so the students can follow a continuum. Even my music education was built up like this.

So naturally, I wanted to learn the way I was used to. I wanted one teacher who worked with one technique and had a well-planned curriculum. I wanted continuum. I wanted a highway, not a bumpy country road with detours and dead-ends. I did get this from one teacher couple, but other couples kept coming along, steering me off my track and into a new direction.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm questioning the traditional education system (i.e. the school system). Not all of it, but one particular thing: the way it teaches us that the curriculum is sacred and that it has huge consequences for us if we reject or replace parts of it. Critical thinking isn't encouraged until you are on a very advanced level. Before this, you dance to the system's tune, the only correct way of dancing. This leaves the beginner missing some tools - tools that I believe to be important no matter how you learn to dance:

- how to put seemingly unconnected modules into a whole
- how to identify and reject the modules you don't need
- how to recognise which modules are missing

Acquiring these tools might demand a lot from us, of course. It demands from the teachers that they ask the right questions instead of just giving the right answers, and that they tolerate being questioned back. It demands from the teachers that they guide the students in how to learn and not just what to learn. It demands from the student that she acccepts not getting the answers served on a silver platter, and that she becomes an active researcher instead of a passive learner.

I'd love to hear if any of you have learned and/or taught tango this way. If so, what are your experiences?
And if you have learned tango in more traditional ways, what does your learning story look like? Did it work for you?

7 August 2013

On cabeceo and charity

"I don't like the cabeceo concept. It's undemocratic." (quote from friend)


I'm convinced that at every milonga, especially here in Scandinavia, there are women who spring obligingly out of their chairs and onto the dance floor with guys they don't want to dance with. We've been taught from childhood to be polite, to be kind, to be including, and this is deeply rooted in many of us.

The obvious irony is that since we've been taught to be polite, the seemingly democratic *) system of asking directly just shifts the right to choose from the "ask-ee" to the "asker". You have to be strong to say 'no, thank you' to a person who stands in front of you.

The cabeceo system, on the other hand, is democratic in the sense that it's bilateral. It takes care of both asker and ask-ee, both men and women. The cabeceo makes sure that rejections are hidden and smoothed over. No one needs to be publicly humiliated - which is a good thing. But the system also makes it a lot easier to reject people, and we won't feel so bad about it because we don't have to interact with the person we reject.

Effectively, the cabeceo system grants us the right to decide who we want to dance with.

As a natural consequence, it also grants us the right to decide who goes home feeling like crap. It grants us the right to decide which personal qualities should be rewarded - and, in the end, to say something about who should be allowed to dance tango.

This is where it quickly becomes undemocratic. Because who has the right to dance tango? The young? The socially adept? The quick learners? The girls who follow meekly? The technically advanced? The super musical?

Does the cabeceo grant any rights for the socially awkward, the introvert, the beginner, the unconfident, the old, the slow learner, the guy with the back problem?

Don't get me wrong. I'm 100% for the cabeceo because I want to choose for myself - for several reasons. Some guys use too much force. Some have a history of teaching on the dance floor, a habit that I dislike so heartily that I'm unwilling to dance with these persons even if they don't try teaching me. One particular guy I know just messes around and makes a joke of everything, thinking the chicks should be grateful for getting a dance with him. I won't even consider dancing with He of the Creepy Sexual or Blatantly Sexist Remarks.

And, to be brazenly honest, my inclination is to prefer a tanda with an advanced dancer to a tanda with a beginner.

I, too make undemocratic choices, and the cabeceo makes it easier and at least seemingly less painful. But - and this is the beauty of it - since the cabeceo system gives me the freedom to choose, it also makes me a bit less choosy, a bit more willing to accept dances with someone who hasn't figured it all out (because who has?). If I don't feel forced, I might become more generous.

But in the end, the cabeceo isn't an autonomos device that relieves us of responsibility. It takes care of appearences and etiquette, but it doesn't take care of ethics. If I want the cabeceo system to be an ethical system, I need to make it so myself.

I'm voting for Cabeceo with a little bit of Heart. Use the cabeceo system for your own wellbeing, without constantly putting other people's joy and comfort before your own, but with a bit of consideration.

Why I'm coming over all biblical here? Well, I guess it's because we've all been granted charity dances, but tend to forget about this as we improve. Charity dances could actually be one of the reasons why we have improved - or even why some of our current favourite dancers didn't quit seven years ago.

Or why you didn't quit.

(This post will not be open for comments. I've seen all the pros and the cons already. Hopefully, you still might want to bring this thought with you.)

*) I'm using the word "democratic" in the meaning "for everyone" in this post.

20 June 2013

The musical dancer's notes

Statement from tango dancer: "I like to dance tango, but I don't like the music."


The music has always been the number one reason why I dance tango. In the beginning, I just lost myself in it, but as I got to know the music better, my main focus became another: to express the music through movement, together with my partner.

So. Which key elements in our learning environment are helping us to become more musical dancers? I think that there are many such elements, and each element is worthy of its own blog post. But for starters, I've made an illustration to sum up the elements that I find especially important - to see how they work together.

(the term "musical dancing" is of course problematic - it will always be partly subjective and open for interpretation. But for now, I'm defining it as "wanting to do something that fits the music in addition to walking on the main beat")

Which elements - these or others - do you feel have helped you learn to dance more musically?

24 May 2013

Dear unpublished commenters - an open letter

Dear unpublished commenters (you know who you are),

Do you ever wonder why your comments aren't published? Why your comments are deleted?

Do you ever notice that people become cranky in their responses to you when you *are* published?

I have a couple of thoughts as to why.

As long as you keep taking people's writings, kneading them like they were children's playdough into a little platform for you to stand on and speak,

as long as you pummel every blog post's content into a different shape, reconstructing people's thoughts so that they become opportunities to talk about something else that you find important, well, you can't expect your efforts to yield any results.

Or is it just that you don't read properly what others write?

All the best,
Tango Immigrant

Ps. This post is open for commenting. It's entirely possible - although not guaranteed - that I'll publish your comment this time.

10 May 2013

Words of comfort

(dancing with famous teacher / dancer)

Him: "That was really comfortable."
Me (in my head): "Shoot."


Lately, I've been contemplating a word: cuddleshuffle, which seems to be a novelty word meant to describe "walking in a nice, close embrace". I'm not conviced that I like it.

Sure, I'm all for a lovely embrace and more walking / less (badly executed) tricks. It's just that this cuddleshuffle word creates a funny image in my head - one of dancing with a teddy bear, wearing felt slippers and possibly also flannel pyjamas.

It makes me think of laxness, not relaxedness.

And laxness is not what I want from tango. I want compactness, engagement and commitment, even when standing still. I want to dance with - and within - a stately and confident body, wearing spiky heels and a dress. Even if I'm wearing sneakers, I want to feel like I'm wearing spiky heels and a dress.

So my question is this: Do the words we choose - and the way we use them - have any impact on the way we dance?

If we can take the word cuddleshuffle and make it mean something more than, well, cuddling and shuffling, if it can help us get rid of unnecessary tension and put more emphasis on a warm, committed embrace and a great walk, then let's use it.

If it just makes us believe that dancing in a close embrace only equals pottering around the dancefloor without any intent, I really want us to look for a more useful word.

10 April 2013

From the other side of the DJ table

Friend: "Why does DJing have to be such a hair-splitting undertaking? I wish he would just put on some music and cut the crap."


This week, I had my first DJ job ever; at Tangomood's Monday practica in Oslo. This is an unguided practica with a distinct milonga feel, where quite a few beginners mix with some more advanced dancers.

As I sat down in front of my computer to prepare, I felt a bit split. Who was I actually going to play for? The beginners? The advanced dancers? The people who know a lot about tango music? The people who don't know much about tango music yet (and would much rather dance to nuevo / alternative anyway)?

I decided from own dancing experience that it was over-ambitious to create an evening where everyone was happy. So I settled on one specific goal for the evening: making dancing to traditional tango music easier for the beginners. Criteria: everything I played should have a consistent beat throughout and a nice melody to connect to. With a bit of luck, the advanced dancers would like it, too.

So far, so good.

Sitting down at the computer again. Wanting to play everything in my iTunes library. Wanting to play reliable Canaros from the thirties every third tanda. Wanting to play only instrumental pieces to avoid confusing the beginners with extravagant vocalists. Wanting to play only vocal pieces because the instrumental pieces might become boring. Wanting to build super uniform tandas. Wanting to build super varied tandas.


Meanwhile, an imaginary crowd of advanced dancers were still floating about in the outskirts of my mind, asking for more subtlety, more novelty, more variation, more whatever. And I was in this crowd myself.

In Norway, we have this expression: "meeting oneself in the doorway". Hello, dancer-who-criticises-the-DJ-then-wants-to-become-a-DJ.

Ok girl, stick to the criterias. Consistent beat, nice melodies. Look for what you love yourself. Listen with other people's ears.

After some more grinding of teeth and ripping hair from head, I finished my playlist (yes, a playlist! I know!) with what I thought would be beautiful, fun and unpretentious stuff for this particular evening.

How did it turn out? Apart from some nice feedback, I don't really know. Reading the floor is not easy for a beginner DJ. And there will always be people who dance without actually enjoying the music. There will always be people who sit at a milonga, and you won't be able to tell why.

But there were both beginners and advanced dancers on the dance floor, and they were smiling as they danced.


If you have been DJing, do you remember how you felt the first time?

13 March 2013

On tandas and safety nets

I just came back from Viento Norte - Festivalito Milonguero. Throughout this event, as is common at milonguero events / encuentros, (almost) all of us said "thank you for the dance" after one tanda.

It's been two days, and I miss it already: this buzz of excitement we experience every ten minutes.

The electricity in the room when the floor is empty and the cortina is drawing to an end. The electricity inside. What is the DJ's choice for the next tanda? Will it be something I love? Will I be able to find the right person for Donato, Di Sarli, D'Agostino?

I miss the anticipation in the room before each tanda.

Girls on the edge of their chairs, necks craned, backs straight as rulers. Guys standing tall, looking across the dance floor. Heads swivelling to locate the next favourite partner. Secret smiles as decisions are being made. Determined looks as the tanda starts. Eyebrows shooting upwards, happy nodding, broad grins, guys walking towards their lady. Humorous exclamations of disappointment if someone else was chosen. Misunderstandings, blushing and bashful laughter.

I miss this carefreeness, one that I don't find elsewhere. I miss the carefreeness of not having to plan ahead for the tanda after, a tanda I don't know anything about. The carefreeness of not having to worry about getting stuck with the right person, but the wrong music. The carefreeness of not making anyone feel bad by saying "thank you" after one tanda.

And most importantly: I miss being reminded to dance without a safety net, to dance knowing that there's no next tanda if I fail miserably during the first four tangos. I miss being reminded to walk into the embrace, into the music, into now, to challenge myself to immediacy, without hesitation or reservation.

I even miss the sting of sadness when a perfect tanda is over, a sadness coloured with the comfort of thinking that if we danced another one, it might have become just a little less perfect...

7 March 2013

Female tango composers: Dorita Zárate

Since it's International Women's Day tomorrow, I thought I'd celebrate by starting off a series of posts about women that are unknown for many of us. These women have something special in common: they were composers in a time when the tango music world was dominated by men.

In these posts, I'll focus on women who composed music that was recorded, so we can listen to their work.

The first female composer I discovered was Dorita Zárate. In addition to one milonga that wasn't recorded, Por ella, she wrote one tango - No esperaba verte más - and one milonga - Zorzal - that were recorded by Carlos Di Sarli.

(collage by me - images found at Tangos al bardo and tango.info)

Sadly, I couldn't find much information about Dorita Zárate online. There's a small biography in Spanish at Tangos al bardo though, which tells us that Zárate's real name was Teodora María García, and that she was born in 1917.

Zárate was a singer as well, and her career started early: when she was only 15, she won a contest for new voices at the Radio La voz del aire. She sang occasionally with Ciriaco Ortiz - who used to call her "Gauchita" - and even with Rodolfo Biagi on the radio.

Dorita Zárate wrote both music and lyrics to No esperaba verte más and Zorzal.


* No esperaba verte más  Carlos Di Sarli - canta Jorge Durán - 1946

* Zorzal  Carlos Di Sarli - canta Roberto Rufino - 1941

* Zorzal  Orquesta José García - canta Alfredo Rojas 1942

Zorzal was also recorded in 1969 with Enrique Rodríguez and Dorita Zárate herself, but I couldn't find this one online.

Zorzal is a type of bird - for instance a blackbird - but to me, it looks like the lyrics might be about a man that was a great singer:

Lyrics copied from tangostangos.com.ar

If you have additional information about Dorita or her music / lyrics, you're welcome to post it in a comment. I'll be away this weekend, so comments will be published on Monday =)

4 March 2013

Yo no sé por qué te quiero - beauty in simplicity

Drawing music is both fun and useful. It always makes me see something I didn't notice - or didn't know I had noticed. So this weekend, I made a drawing of a tango I love a lot: Yo no sé por qué te quiero. It was written in 1934 by Francisco Canaro; with lyrics by Ivo Pelay. My favourite version is Canaro's own recording, canta Ernesto Famá 1934.

You can listen to it here: archive.org and YouTube. The links are to the same recording - I hope that at least one of them works if you live in a country that restricts online listening. The links open in another tab so you can listen and look at the same time. 

I'm fascinated with how Canaro builds his composition out of one, very small idea. Basically, most of this tango consists of one tiny structure:  ╱╲

Here are the two parts - A and B section.

This is by no means a full musical analysis - and it's not meant to be - but we can still see how Canaro builds a whole story with his small fragment. I especially like the way he's changing the mood from the A section to the B section. He uses the same idea, but breaks up the structure, adding suspense.

If you leave a comment, I'm very much interested to hear if this did make sense or not - and if you are familiar with music notation / have done this kind of thing before.

Additional links:

- Francisco's younger brother Rafael recorded a quite beautiful version a couple of years after.

- Lyrics and version by José Carnet / Nelly Omar on Todotango

26 February 2013

Traditionalists have feelings, too

Guy at local milonga: "You really like tango music, don't you?"
Me: "Um. Yes!!!"
Me (in my head): "Now that's a strange question."


You've probably read the tango music discussions on blogs and Facebook - you know, the ones concerning "do we want more nuevo / alternative in the milongas or not?" In these discussions, there's always some person using words like "traditionalist", "tango music police" and similar - in a tone that seems quite sarcastic. These persons' comments usually imply that traditionalists are people who protect tradition just for tradition's sake, without any further thoughts, and that they are conservative, reactionary, dogmatic, narrow-minded and generally afraid of new stuff.

I'm sure that there are traditionalists that fit this description perfectly. I'm also sure that some traditionalists are writing stuff that is upsetting to those of you who love nuevo. And of course: there are lots of nuevo lovers who don't generalise!

But still. I'm becoming increasingly cranky from being labelled as something that I can't relate to.

The thing is: I'm not a traditionalist just for the sake of it. Basically, this is not my tradition - or, to put it differently: it doesn't have to be my tradition if I don't want to. I'm not an old porteño that experienced the Golden Age. I'm a modern Norwegian girl with no prior connection to the history of Buenos Aires. As an immigrant to the country called Tango, I can choose to be a rebel if I like.

As I've pointed out before, I only liked nuevo and alternative music in the beginning. Actually, I'm not sure if I would have continued dancing if it weren't for the nuevo tandas at the local milonga and my beloved Gotan Project CD.

But then something happened: I went to a class where the teachers danced to El Flete by D'Arienzo. And I thought: "Hey, this is fun stuff!" I went home and listened again to the few CDs I had and found more fun stuff I had ignored. The rest is, well, history - pun not intended.

During the last six years or so, I've discovered a whole world of qualities and emotions in the music from the Golden Age: The sharp and energetic rhythms of D'Arienzo, fleetingly touched with lyricism. The robust, down-to-earth sadness of Rodríguez with Moreno. The slight naïveness of Fresedo.

The reliability of Canaro, paired with the milk chocolate-y voice of Maida and the incredibly cute "po-po-po-s" from a muted trumpet. The bandoneóns in some Donato tangos, sounding like birds. Oh, and these pianists. The majestic Carlos Di Sarli and the manic Rodolfo Biagi.

I've laughed when dancing to "Gato". I've found the perfect calmness with D'Agostino. Heck, I'll admit it: I've even cried. Not on the dance floor, but in broad daylight in front of my laptop, tagging Di Sarli's "Hasta siempre, amor". I don't even understand that much of the lyrics. It's all there in Horacio Casares' voice.

So I'll keep defending the traditional music. Not because it's traditional, but because it makes me dance through every emotion during a three hour milonga.

(and yes: I find some traditional tango music mind-numbingly boring. But who knows - I might like it at another stage of my life)

Links to the music:

Juan D'Arienzo instrumental 1936 - El Flete

Enrique Rodríguez canta Armando Moreno 1942 - Yo no sé por que razón

Osvaldo Fresedo canta Roberto Ray 1935 - Isla de Capri

Francisco Canaro canta Roberto Maida 1935 - Tu y yó

Edgardo Donato canta Horacio Lagos 1936 - Me voy a baraja

Carlos Di Sarli instrumental 1956 - Viviani

Rodolfo Biagi instrumental 1940 - El yaguarón

Edgardo Donato canta Horacio Lagos 1937 - Gato

Ángel D'Agostino canta Ángel Vargas 1944 - Esta noche en Buenos Aires

Carlos Di Sarli canta Horacio Casares 1958 - Hasta siempre, amor

22 February 2013

Illustrated: wanting to be a DJ

(click image for larger version)

Illustration by me - have a happy weekend everyone =)

8 February 2013

Paciencia - to walk or not to walk

(me, some years ago, dancing with friend to "Desde el alma" / Pugliese)

* pause / stretched tone in music *

Me to friend: "Stand still!!!"


Hopefully, I'm more subtle on the dance floor these days. But sometimes, I still want to say it: Stand still!!! This dance of ours isn't a questionnaire where you earn one point each time you hit a beat.

Actually, you may earn more points by passing over a few beats.

If you want to explore this, please join me on a guided YouTube tour with Noelia Hurtado and Carlitos Espinoza. They're strong musical dancers, and they almost seem to make standing still a trademark.

Oh, one thing before we start - when I say "stand still", I don't mean "freeze like a rabbit caught in the headlights"! You'll see in the videos what I mean.

So. Which musical elements could inspire us to stand still?

1 - The Singer

In my world, the tango vocalists are heroes - even if they weren't always meant to be (in the early tango years, the vocalists were just singing the last part of a tango, as estribillistas). These voices are so beautiful, and it would be nice to acknowledge their presence in the music!

In the first video, Noelia and Carlitos mark the point when the vocalist starts singing at 0:56.

Music: "Qué lento corre el tren" - Enrique Rodríguez canta Alberto Moreno 1943

2 - The Musical Theme and The Solo Instrument

There's a lot of musical food in instrumental tangos as well. In the next video, our dancers are showing us two things by stopping:

- something new and very pretty happens at 0:26 - the music gets softer and less staccato; a new musical theme is introduced.

- the start of the violin solo at 1:19.

Music: "Ya no cantas más" - Orquesta Francisco Canaro 1934

3 - The Musical Decoration

The next video is a milonga. Noelia and Carlitos seem to be marking the appearance of the singer at 1:46. But they're actually playing with something else: the long tones of the violin that go along with the singer.

Music: "Flor de Monserrat" / "Pobre negrito" (milonga) - Rodolfo Biagi canta Alberto Amor 1945

(music starts at 0:55)

4 - The Lyrics

Ok, this is a tough one for us non-Spanish speakers. But it might be achievable in some cases, even for us!

The tango in the last video is called "Paciencia", and we can hear this word very clearly in the song. The melody is even dragged out, with long tones, to emphasise the word more. It's double clever, really, since it actually means "patience". You can "see" the word at 2:08 and 2:23.

Music: "Paciencia" - Juan D'Arienzo canta Enrique Carbel 1937

(music starts at 0:40)

The music will always make suggestions for us to interpret. The only thing we need to do is listen.

One thing though: Even if we love the music, the flow we create together with our friends on the dance floor is more important. So we need to choose our moments of standing still with care.

4 February 2013

Download: Di Sarli timeline

In my last post, I wrote about how I think it's easier to learn tango music if you make a system for listening.

So last week, I tagged all my Di Sarli recordings from A to Z. As usual, I tagged each recording with year and album artist, so if I click the various columns in my Di Sarli folder in iTunes, it gets sorted by singer or year.

But it's still a lot of information to remember...

"We should have a timeline of all the singers", my bf said. "We could print it out and tape it to the fridge". I found this such a brilliant idea that I spent the weekend in Photoshop, designing a timeline.

The link below the picture is to the printable pdf version. It should work nicely for an A4 printout. If you think this could be useful for yourself or any of your friends, feel free to download, print and share!

All information is from the discographies at todotango.com, tango.info and tango-dj.at.

Feedback and comments are most welcome! Everything has been checked, double-checked and cross-checked, but let me know if you find any errors.

23 January 2013

The library in your brain

Piano teacher: "Could you play from measure 25, please?"
Student: "I can't start there."
Piano teacher: "Try from measure 17 then."
Student: "I can't start there, either. But I can start at the beginning!"

If I had an Euro for each time I've seen the above scenario, I'd have enough money to buy a Steinway grand piano. It seems our brains like single entities, patterns and succession. You may have experienced the same issue with the alphabet: If you start with a, you can go really fast, but if you start with a randomly picked letter, it takes a little bit of time for you to gain full speed. The way we've learnt it, the alphabet isn't 26 small items, it's one thing.

The brain also likes repetition of portions - at least for a while, until it gets bored. Back in ye olden days, we used to buy LPs and CDs, one at a time. This was a nice portion of information - it kept us interested until we knew every song by heart. I've also wondered if we learnt the songs quicker because they appeared in a set order on the record, but this is just an unscientific assumption. I never use the shuffle function in iTunes, though. I've always thought "there are too many tangos, if I don't play them in the same order, there's no way I'll remember any of them".

And I still have trouble remembering this music. A tango may sound fine in my head, but when I try to sing it, I realise that I don't really know it properly. I've even found myself singing the A section of one Canaro tango, then switching seamlessly to the B section of another. The way I'm listening to tango isn't optimal for learning. And when we go out to dance, the music is constantly on shuffle.

I guess the orchestras that played at the milongas in Buenos Aires didn't play their tangos in the same order every night. But they did get to play for more than one tanda at a milonga, which allowed the dancers to get familiar with each orchestra's style. Everybody would know how D'Arienzo anno 1938 sounded like, simply because D'Arienzo was playing live throughout 1938.

I'm willing to bet that most dancers knew each tango a lot better than we do. This music was pop music! It was played on the radio, and people bought the records and played them on their gramophones at home. And I'm sure the hits were played often, by popular demand - so it would have been easy to learn each new song. Many tangos were even transcribed into easy piano versions, and people bought the sheet music and played their favourites themselves, at home and for friends and family.

So there's a huge difference between the learning climate in Buenos Aires during the Golden Age and the learning climate outside Buenos Aires in 2013. The budding tango music lover of today needs to find her own way of learning about this music.

To make our brains work with us, it might be an idea to listen to our tango music in realistic portions. Listen to CDs that have an orchestra and year on the cover. Sort your music by orchestra/year/vocalist. Make smaller playlists. Use the shuffle function with care.

Make a library system in your brain, not just in iTunes.

Mentors would also be good. This will be for another blog post though: I'm splitting this topic up because many brains - my own included - don't like long blog posts.

Which, come to think of it, sort of proves my point…

15 January 2013

The languages of tango music

(conversation from real life)

Classical music person: "I don't like Mahler. I've tried, but I can't bring myself to like his music."

Me: "Oh well, we all have composers we don't like. I, for instance, don't like Schubert."

Classical music person: "I think you're a dolt if you don't like Schubert."


Why is it so important for us that other people share our musical taste?

Music is just entertainment, isn't it?

"You don't speak my language, we can't talk."

The way we use music makes me think of the way we use language. Let's look at languages as specified structures of sounds. We use these structures to communicate what we need, so a community has to agree upon a shared system (letters, words, pronunciation, spelling, grammar).

Language also helps us define who we are and where in a society we belong. You can use - or even change - your language to find your place in a community. Variations of a language, like slang or a dialect, will have an impact on how you're percieved and how you define yourself.

Then there are codes (like irony), cultural events (like how the word "Soup Nazi" suddenly means something, but only for Seinfeld fans), plus preconception: your own cultural baggage (like thinking French is a romantic-sounding language because you've seen in Hollywood movies that romantic things happen in Paris).

Both the content of a message and the person who sends the message will be understood and evaluated based on these things. The way a message is expressed will also be evaluated based on how clear it is and how it measures up to the quality standards which are often set by the experts in a community.

I think all of this can also be said when we try to describe music as a phenomenon.

"You don't speak my language, you don't belong to my tribe."

Tango dancers co-exist in the same community - i.e. we all define ourselves as tango dancers, and we try to share the same territory: tango associations, milongas, classes, discussion forums - even tango as a state of mind. We also share a musical language. But somehow, many of us are drawn to specific dialects of this language, so we're forming tribes within our territory.

When I started dancing, I preferred nuevo and some of the latest classical tangos. In a territory where I was unfamiliar with the people and the laws, I chose the part of the musical language that was the easiest for me to understand. The nuevo music was closer to pop music, and its low tempo and lack of details and complexity also made it easier for me to dance to. The latest classical tangos were also nice; they had a structure that matched my preconception of tango being dramatic.

I found the earlier tango music much more complicated (like Biagi's pauses and heavy stressing of some weak beats or the last part in a D'Arienzo tango, packed with flying notes). Also, this music's structure sounded old-fashioned and naïve in the meeting with my cultural preconceptions. Basically, this was something my grandmother would dance to. And the terrible sound quality made it sound even more old-fashioned. I also found it disappointingly non-dramatic.

With time, I understand a lot more of the tango music language, so I am free to take my preferences to another level: I'm still choosing music I recognise, but I choose differently: the music that matches my personality, my mood and my favourite ways of communicating. And with this, I also choose my tribe: the people that understand and interpret the tango music the same way that I do.

When I use the word "choose", it's not necessarily literally. The process of getting familiar with a musical language is probably too complicated for me to control every aspect of it. There's one thing I can control though: my will to check out something I don't like. I just have to determine if I dislike something because I don't understand it, or if I dislike it even if I understand it.

And we all have to determine how we should behave in the meeting with people from other tribes.

9 January 2013

Cabeceo - qué, yo?

A D'Agostino tanda was just starting, and I had my eye on a guy. I hadn't danced with him before, but I had seen him dance, and he looked calm and nice on the dance floor. And I'm not one to sit out D'Agostino tandas if there are calm and nice-looking dancers around.

I look at him inquiringly. He looks back at me.

Eyes locked.

Then: nothing.

I try to look a bit more ready to dance. He looks at me, expressionless, but doesn't look away.

I venture into smiling encouragingly. He stays grave, but doesn't look away.

I nod probingly towards the dance floor. He is motionless, but doesn't look away. 

The first D'Agostino tango is drawing to an end while we, apparently, are trying to stare each other down.

The situation has become slightly cringeworthy. Maybe he doesn't know about the cabeceo? I've been told they don't do it much in this neck of the woods.

Uh-oh. Maybe he thinks I'm hitting on him. Better show him that I'm only after a spot of dancing.

I bob my head with manic enthusiasm towards the dance floor. He heaves himself out of the chair.

O yay, result!!

I think.

Addendum: I'm still wondering whether this was 1) "cabeceoing"; 2) "mis-cabeceoing" or 3) "over-cabeceoing". I suspect 2) or 3) .

2 January 2013

A Caló challenge

The first thing I do when I start tagging a tango, is to check if I have more than one version - it could be different recordings from the same orchestra, or just different edits of the same recording. The last one often offers some surprises.

The biggest surprise this far has to be Miguel Caló's "Qué te importa qué te llore"; recorded in 1942 and sung by Raúl Berón.

I have two versions of this tango - and they are identical, except for the beginning, which is totally different in these two versions. You can listen to them here:

* Version 1

* Version 2 or use this player (the 4th track)

This is what I'm hearing:

Version 1: four measures legato + piano transition 1- four measures staccato + piano transition 2.

Version 2: six measures staccato + piano transition 2, which means that this version doesn't have piano transition 1, the one we hear at 00:06 in version 1. We only have the last tone of this piano solo, which is a strong indicator that somebody's been cutting. And the legato strings are also gone.

The two first measures of version 2 replaces the four first measures of version 1. These two measures can be found later in the song - at 00:20. I think this part has been copied and pasted at the beginning.

Conclusion: Version 1 must be the original one.

These recordings are totally identical from approx. measure 5 / 00:08 (version 1) and measure 3 / 00:04 (version 2) through to the ending - even if the tempo / pitch is slightly different; version 1 is higher and I think a bit quicker. Which pitch is correct, I don't know.

Age Akkerman took the challenge and compared the two versions - and you can see the cool graphs of his results here.

(this is an edit of one of my earlier Facebook posts)

1 January 2013

A country called Tango

My first tango efforts were made in Jekteviken, Bergen some years ago. As most beginners at, well, anything, I had high hopes of mastering the art quickly. When the beginners' course was completed, black dresses would be donned, red roses would be put behind ears and drama would prevail.

After the first class, I had realised that 1) this tango thing was somewhat different from what I had visualised and 2) it was an undertaking that wouldn't be completed in a jiffy. A quitter should, normally, have been in the making.

But, against all odds, this turned out to become the first and only enterprise that I've insisted on sticking to even if it's making me feel more useless than successful. There's this Friedrich von Schiller quote: "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens" ("Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"). It's been several years, and I'm still, stubbornly, trying to figure out this tango thing.

Actually - as you may also have realised since you're reading a tango blog - this tango thing is more than a thing. It's a whole country.

It's the dance form itself, deceivingly easy in its description: "you only need three steps: forward, side, back".

It's your body, it's other people's bodies. Shapes and sizes and smells.

It's the music: lots and lots of orchestras and singers and styles. Thousands of recordings. Scratching and whining and old-fashioned arrangements and lyrics you don't understand.

It's more than one hundred years of history that you don't know - not properly, thoroughly.

It's a community with all kinds of rules - written, unwritten, discussed by all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds.

It's tradition and transition, it's polarities and passionate Facebook debates.

It's uniformity and individualism, collectivity and egoism.

It's things to love and things to resent.

The tango thing is a country, and we're all immigrants.

This blog will be a travel journal written by one tango immigrant. As is the case with most journeys: things may have been seen by others before, but not by all. I hope you'll see something new on these pages.