I recently read a rant by Susana Miller, owner of the mythic tango club “El Beso”, about tango DJing. She said that in Buenos Aires DJs have a pool of 1500 tangos that they play. And they won’t deviate from those because those are the tangos that people know by heart – bandoneon variaciones, lyrics, pauses – and that people are happy to dance.
The most traditional tango teachers have told me that they would only dance a tango if they knew it very well, like, if they have heard it 100 times at least. “Would you go on live TV and read a text you never set your eyes on?”, my teacher asked once, “why would you go and dance a tango you never heard, then?”
My Tango DJ mentor is also not afraid to say that when he started DJing, he was very well aware that many of the dancers in the milongas of then knew much more about tango than he did himself. If Gavito asked for Pugliese at that time was because Pugliese needed to be played.
In Europe, things are a bit different. According to Susana, in Europe there is proliferation of tango “archeologists” that call themselves DJs. I can see where she comes from, although I think this is unfair. Europeans have taken the “improvisation” label quite literally and it is not unusual that many DJs will scavenge through the market for unknown vinyls with unknown versions of tangos to transfer them and present them in their sets. It is also not a surprise that a couple of people started to take tango re-recordings very seriously and got hold of shellacs and vinyls of the original stuff and started transferring them with higher quality. It is known that many of the recordings you will possess by some of the mainstream tango labels had sound engineers of dubious knowledge and taste. That is why some recordings are marred by infuriating reverb that gives everyone the feeling of being dancing on an empty huge tiled bathroom .Or that they are so quick that one starts thinking those Argentines must spent the other half of their lives in the gym working out, only to realise that the transfer was made with a higher RPM rate, pushing the sound quicker and higher.
And if it is true that I commend this search for the real thing, it is also true that I am sometimes confronted with DJs whose priority is to showcase unknown tangos. Some of these DJs are so worried with their “archeological” diggings on anecdotes surrounding the recording of the music, that they forget the real reason why they are in the DJ booth for – to give dancers what they want.
“Leave your ego at the door” or “play the music dancers want” are two phrases that were told to me early in my DJing career and that I hope are showcased everytime I DJ. That includes giving dancers music that they feel confident with, music they have heard before. Of course there is the odd unknown one that can be introduced, after all the DJ, with all their study and procurement work is in a good position to introduce dancers to new things. But do those with measurement. Hold your archeological vein. Dilute it in tango everyone is happy with. And listen to the dancers, just like old DJs used to listen to milongueros. They know best what they want to dance!