Michael Lavocah

Tango DJing - Part 3: Shaping the evening

n the previous part of this article we looked at how to put together a good tanda. This is a foundation skill, but for the experienced DJ this has been left behind. The key question is what to play next, and this is where DJing becomes an art. Music is energy and emotion. As we have seen, a tanda not only has an energetic quality, but also a shape. The same is true of the whole evening. Through their musical selections, the musicalizador creates an energetic shape and structure that arches over the whole milonga, making it a unity, a complete and satisfying whole.

The good news is that this is not the work of the DJ alone. The next tanda is the meeting of the DJ with the atmosphere and energy in the room, which the dancers co-create with the DJ. People talk about “reading the room”. This is an important and rare skill, but, in my opinion, the reason it is rare is that many DJs are too worried about choosing the music (probably because they don’t know it well enough) rather than building a connection to the dancers. The DJ must have a dual attention: partly inside, to her feeling for the music, and partly outside, to the energy and atmosphere in the room.

If you have a good connection to the room it becomes much easier to choose the next tanda. It is a question of feeling. What is the energy in the room doing (rising, falling, staying the same) and what do you want to do with it - follow that direction, change it, or make a contrast - to change the musical colour and mood? Are people sitting down? At any moment, there is more than one right answer. This is down to the DJ and the atmosphere and flow she wants to create. Sometimes, the song that “wants” to come next may even start playing in one’s head - and then one has to remember what it’s called, for which there is no substitute for knowing the music really well.

Increasing the energy could mean choosing music that is faster, or that is more intense. Making a contrast could mean moving from rhythmic to lyrical music, a change of tempo, or a change in the complexity and sophistication of the music.

It’s helpful to map out the musical space through which the music moves by considering the qualities of the music and their polar opposites, for instance: fast or slow; simple or complex; hard or soft; calm or dramatic; smooth (legato) or choppy (staccato); more rhythmic or more lyrical; dynamic or “square”. Whilst some of the music is situated at a pole (e.g. either rhythmic or melodic), most of it is more balanced, occupying a space somewhere along the axis between the two extremes. For example, both D’Agostino-Vargas and Tanturi-Campos balance rhythmic and melodic elements in their music.

On the other hand, the music will always have more qualities than one can describe with categories, especially once we start to consider the different emotions that tango elicits. This is why we talk about energy. Although it can sound a bit vague, it includes all these qualities, and it is something that the dancers feel.

How do you know when you have made a good choice?
There is nothing mysterious about this. Good music makes people want to dance, but it also makes the ronda flow better, because the music affects the movements of the dancers. Watching the floor gives you instant feedback. What is the atmosphere like in the room?

Playlists or improvising
If the situation is predictable, i.e. a regular milonga with a known and usual crowd in attendance, the DJ can do a good job with a fixed playlist, i.e. with all the music decided in advance.

On the other hand, even in a known situation, one’s plans can easily be disrupted. The weather and the room might be much hotter than normal (the dancers don’t want so much high energy music), or colder (the dancers need warming up). Now the DJ has to react to the floor. He first of all must read the mood of the milonga, and then choose what to play next.

DJing is thus not a one way process. It is a dialogue between the DJ and the dancers. To DJ is an act of sharing - of sharing one’s love for the music. The good DJ is seldom frustrated by not being able to dance because of DJing duties. He is in relationship with the dancers, and is, in a sense, already dancing with everyone in the room.

Keeping track of what you are playing
Some of the improvising DJs map out their tandas on paper, with one tanda cycle per line, something like this:

Donato Canaro
Firpo Di Sarli
D'Arienzo '37 Troilo '41 Canaro De Angelis

Why would you do this? The main reason is that it gives you, at a glance, an overview of where you are in the milonga. As a beginner DJ I didn’t do this, but as I became more focussed on the energy flow it became useful. Since each row is one cycle of 6 tandas - about 70 minutes - such a map can also help you plan ahead, to finish at a particular time.

Learning from other Djs
The best way to improve as a DJ is to learn from other DJs. One way is to ask for feedback, but only from experienced and mature DJs. Most people give feedback which is to do with their own personal taste. Such feedback is basically useless.

Learning from other DJs also means listening to them play. Put your own musical taste to one side, and look at the atmosphere that the DJ is creating. To give a personal example, my own DJing improved when I noticed that the women DJs I was listening to were often creating a different atmosphere to the men. Their music seemed to me less dark.

Whilst the beginner DJ will tend to play the same music everywhere, the experienced DJ plays differently for different audiences. This means you need to hear them more than once to really get a feel for what they are doing.

Another thing to listen for is which periods other DJs prefer. Are they fans of the “golden decade” of 1935-1944? Perhaps their musical range is even narrower, and centred on the peak year of 1941? Or perhaps they are a bit more adventurous, and play more sophisticated music from the late 40s as well? Do they play any music from the 1950s - and if so, how much? What about music from before 1935? In Buenos Aires, one still does not hear much from this period, but it contains a lot of good music, for instance, many valses of Francisco Canaro with Charlo. This era has other moods and gives the DJ additional colours with which to paint.

Energy dynamic during the milonga
Imagine if you will a short evening milonga - say three hours. In this situation, there is not really much dynamic to the evening. Most people will arrive at the beginning and want to be dancing much of the time. The DJ will probably play music with quite high energy from the beginning to the end, although perhaps trying to make the final tanda a bit special.

Now imagine a six hour milonga. The situation is quite different. Some people will come for the whole milonga, but it’s more likely that people will either come early and leave early, or come late and stay late. This creates three phases to the milonga: an early phase, with the early arrivers, and beginning with relatively few people; a transition phase, where the floor may be very crowded; and finally a late phase, with the latecomers. These phases will have different atmospheres.

Even if everyone comes for the whole six hours, playing high energy music for the whole time is not a good idea. The DJ will probably want to start gently and build the milonga to some sort of climax - perhaps with a subsidiary climax earlier in the evening.

The first part of the evening: clearly this is not the time to play all your most exciting tracks. On the other hand, some DJs treat this period with little care, playing music for which they don’t have much feeling - almost as if this part of the evening were a práctica. Personally, I think this is a mistake. Every moment of our life is important, and deserves the best. It is simply that, in this first part of the evening, what is best is different to what is best later on. Think about the atmosphere you are creating for the people who are arriving, as well as the for those already dancing. If people are slow to arrive at the beginning, then it’s fine to play three tango tandas in a row, if you want to.

The middle part of the evening: if it becomes very crowded, the DJ must manage the pista through her musical selections, but without letting the energy drop.

The end of the evening: the DJ has to create a satisfying end to the evening. There are many ways to do it: the final tanda could be very energetic, or intensely lyrical, or (less common) even reflective and intimate. If you have a fixed finishing time, you need to plan how you are going to get there (how many tandas to go, and of which kind).

The purpose of these reflections is not so much to analyse the phases of the milonga, but to point out that in most situations there is a dynamic to the milonga and this needs to be reflected in the music. Music is energy. Each tanda puts a distinct kind of energy into the room and onto the floor, according to its qualities. The experienced DJ is aware of the many different musical colours at his disposal, and uses them to create the atmosphere of the evening.

Different DJs control the flow of energy in the milonga differently. Some build the energy slowly over a long period. Other DJs look for more rapid contrasts, which can be more exciting. Still other DJs make a big contrast every tanda, which for me is too much. It’s all very well having coherent tandas, but the flow of tandas must be coherent too.

This sort of analysis leads to a more profound understanding of what other DJs are doing than simply looking at how they construct a tanda. Indeed, one can lift a tanda from another DJ, but it won’t sound the same when you play it yourself because the musical context has changed.

The highest level of DJing takes the dancers on a musical journey. Basic to this is building trust through good tanda selection. Sometimes there comes a moment when, as a DJ, you feel you have the dancers in the palm of your hand. Then you know you can take them anywhere, playing a wider and perhaps richer selection of music than either they or you anticipated.

Levels of DJing: summary
1/ coherent tandas
2/ coherent tandas, with logical transitions between them
3/ coherent tandas, coherent flow. A defined musical shape to the whole milonga.

So: you want to be a tango DJ?
Knowing what to play requires a deep knowledge of and feeling for tango music. This only comes from spending a lot of time listening to the music, which is a labour of love. There are no short cuts. Spending time with music - not just tango music, but all good music - deepens our sensitivity and increases our capacity to feel. I believe that the motivation of the DJ is key, and I would encourage any putative DJ to honestly reflect upon why they want to be a DJ. If you love music and want to share your feeling for music with other people, then you will have what it takes to become a good DJ. Study the music, build trust with the public, and play from your heart.