The right time to talk to the DJ

I am afraid that most people will now avoid coming to talk to me whilst I DJ… But fear not, I like talking to people! But what is the right time to talk to the DJ? It may sound like an easy one, but believe me, it ain’t. And it is not less experienced people who make this mistake, it is very experienced people who make this mistake.

Let’s first establish that the tango DJ is there providing a service and, as such, should be distracted only when available. Coming to greet the tango DJ when fading out a cortina is not a good moment but it keeps happening to me, with dancers from all strata. In the airline industry, pilots should reduce at minimum non-flight related conversation. They are only allowed to speak about non-flight stuff when the airplane is stable, out of condensed important actions. In surgery, especially when performing intricate surgery, one should not interrupt the surgeon with stuff strictly related to what it is being done, although the discipline here is not as high as with pilots. But it should be the same with tango DJs. You should really think about when you come to speak to them. Certainly not during a cortina, definitely not when fading it out, probably not towards the end of a tanda. Most likely, the DJ will be busy choosing what to select for the next tanda.

I take notes during my sets and one of the things I take notes on is when I have a hiccup (fortunately these are rare). One funny observation is that most have happened when the DJ booth is in the middle of the dancefloor. I virtually had no technical mistakes when I was DJing at a stage with difficult access to the DJ. Makes you think, hey? Most hiccups have happened when people were talking to me whilst I was working on something that needed to be sorted out there and then. This is even more important when the DJ as DJing on the fly, and does not bring a pre-prepared playlist.

I am aware that after writing this post you will be thinking twice about coming to say hello. And I am sure the teasing jokes will come. But please don’t think twice about coming to say hello, I love it and it is one of the amazing things about being a DJ, a lot of people come and give you that friendly hug that I really really value. But next time you’re in a milonga, do think if your hello can wait 1 minute. I sometimes wait a couple of tandas to find the right time to say hello to the DJ, and that gives me also the opportunity to tell him/her that I am enjoying the music!

The pre-set playlist versus on-the-go playlist

I have heard this debate for many years and many times. And whilst people think that these are two very different ways of doing things, really, if done properly, they are very similar. I am very happy to discuss them, because I use them both.

The DJ with the pre-prepared set comes to the milonga with an idea. They want to shape the milonga with their music, entice the dancers with a script that they devised. More energy here, a bit more relaxed there… Nothing wrong with that! The problem comes when the dancers want something else. Whether there is too much energy or there aren’t enough people to build a quorum to dance certain music… It needs a change. It is only with this pre-requisite that this DJ can exist. Building your playlist before the set is perfectly acceptable but having the mastery to change it there and then is a must. When I DJ with pre-prepared sets (not very often lately), rarely  my end product looks anything like the list I had originally planned (in fact, it has happened only once in over 150 sets).

The pre-prepared set is also not an excuse to leave the computer alone and go dance the whole event, coming to the laptop only to skip the cortina (or even worse having pre faded cortinas, which take no account of what the crowd is doing).

The DJ who comes with no music in his playlist before he starts has an advantage. His playlist will be modelled to the dancers because it will be built as the milonga is developing. This method requires perfect knowledge of your library. There is no time to be looking for a track to fit this tanda, let alone build a tanda from scratch. Obviously, you ask me to make up a D’Arienzo tanda in a minute and I may come up with five. But that is only because I know what D’Arienzo I have and I know what goes with with. Pre-listening is a very nice tool to confirm that the music you were thinking for that tanda is indeed the perfect music. Pre-listening is not good to look for a track for a tanda. Lots of pre listening will make the DJ centered in the computer screen, rather than on the ronda.

Whichever method you use, the playlist should be tailored to the dancers in front of you. And for that you have to do two crucial things… Know your music inside out, and pay attention to the milonga. You won’t go wrong!

No to TTTVTTTM!

Recently I attended a very well renowned event and was eager to dance to the sounds of a renowned DJ (whose music I had danced to very happily two weeks before). I got there a bit late, traffic problems and all that, when someone told me,

“He is playing three tango tandas and then vals/milonga!”

It has been a few years since I have witnessed anyone deviating from TTV TTM in a decent milonga. And there is a reason. It is because it works.

I could possibly fathom why three tango tandas in a row could be nice. One could draw out a smoother energy curve. But a milonga is much more interesting when it has the uplifting energy of a vals and the happy rhythms of the milonga percolating through the dancers. There are also many dancers who prefer vals and/or milonga to tango. What about those?

So please, keep that TTTV TTTM for yourself. Stop being clever. Play for the dancers.

About mistakes in DJing

The cognitive versus technical mistake

Some of you may know I am a surgeon. In surgery, there are two types of errors, cognitive and technical. Technical errors happen when a surgeon doing the right action gets that action wrong, like cutting a structure whilst trying to do something else. This is usual in inexperienced surgeons. Cognitive errors are those that happen when the surgeon has the right technique but gets the wrong technique. Perfect technique at the wrong moment, when the cutting motion is amazing only to realise the wrong structure was cut. Happens.

Let me translate this to tango DJing. The more experienced you get as a DJ, the less technical mistakes you make. It is often obvious that beginner DJs press the wrong button and start the music again, stop the music half way through it or skip it through to the next track before time. Or don’t fade out a cortina. Or get tangled with the system and produce an awkward silence in the middle of a tanda. With experience, these errors will start to become less and less numerous. They never stop, mind you. The best surgeon still makes technical mistakes and so does the best DJ. I have seen the most amazing and experienced DJs getting a red face in the middle of a huge event. I have been there myself. More often than I wished. But technical mistakes don’t bother me so much. They tend to be sporadic, inofensive and really, you take it as a laugh. It is not unheard of dancers clapping more easily a technical mistake than a great tanda, especially at good events, where knowledgeable dancers know how hard it is to play good music.

What I really cannot take is the cognitive mistake. Those DJs who consistently dish out crap tandas, put haphazardly through the milonga and with no criteria at all. I can handle very well somenone getting stuck with a computer but what I can’t stand is well known DJs trying to tell me that a Troilo instrumental can be mixed with a Troilo Fiorentino. That is lack of knowledge, not to call it something a bit more offensive. Or even worse, no Troilo at all – that is just bad taste. Cognitive mistakes (like overkilling the fast milonga tanda by following it with a Lamborghini-like D’Arienzo Reynal) are the proof that you have spent a lot of time getting very good at working out your interface but haven’t spent enough time reading about your tango music, or even worse, listening to it.

So, next time your DJ gets stuck with a technical mistake, relax! You know once this is resolved the music will resume and the dance will flow.

In search of a good music processor!

I went to Richer sounds (who guarantee best price and will cover whichever price is on any other outlet), camped myself at the back for over an hour and tested the following:

  • my own laptop sound
  • DacMagic XS
  • Dragonfly black
  • “my” Traktor 2 soundcard

(all within £79 – £110 price range)

 

I tested playing the music with Embrace interface (Mac only) with

  • Bahia Blanca 1956 Di Sarli,
  • La abandone y no sabia 1944 Tanturi/Campos,
  • Vieja Recova 1950 Pugliese/Vidal
  • Lo vi en tus ojos 1944 OTV/Carol

I also tested El Flete 1936 D’Arienzo and Primavera 1929 Canaro but not as exhaustively

 

Overall, the main loser was the inbuilt soundcard on my MacBook Pro computer. I wonder how I spent so long DJing with it. Glad I decided to upgrade a couple of years ago.

 

As for the winner, it really depends on what you like. I ended up by buying the DacMagic XS.

 

Cambridge Audio Dac Magic XS – it only has one channel and it has a volume control in the actual DAC. The size is miniscule and it is extremely portable, with a very robust feel to it, like it can handle a few bumps. There is no need for software update on a Mac so very easy to rock and roll. The sound was very round, silky and involving. Especially with Bahia Blanca or Vieja Recova, it made me think like I was in the centre of the orchestra. Every sound range was very balanced and it felt like I could listen to endless music with it. No wonder it was Whathifi’s best pick of this range for a few years in a row. (£79.99 @ Richer Sounds)

 

Audiophile Dragonfly Black – it has only one channel but no volume control in it. It is even smaller than the DacMagic in the shape of a USB stick with a 3.5mm connector on the other side. It felt a bit fragile hanging of the computer unlike the other two who had cables to connect the laptop to the DAC (but I suppose you can always get a connecting cable). No need for software on a Mac, it just accepted it as it was. And boy it rocked – what a sound! Louder than the DAC Magic, it had an edgier sound, more heavymetalish and muscled complexion. I was really impressed at the beginning but as the music went by I started getting a bit tired. It gave the OTV sound a bit more spirit but made the Pugliese and Di Sarli sound a tad overwhelming. It was considered whathifi’s best DAC of 2016 on this range but I don’t think they tried it with World music (not really expecting them to test with tango). (£89 @ Richer Sounds)

 

Traktor 2 soundcard – it has two channels, volume control and a mechanism to channel all the sound to one or other channel. It is the only one that will allow pre-listening from the USB, the other two need the pre-listening from the computer 3.5mm socket. It is also very small and portable but bigger than the other two (impossible to make it smaller, really). I have heard some people who had the previous version of Traktor 2 to complain about the tightness of the connecting ports but the previous version had 6.35mm sockets whereas mine has 3.5mm and I never had problems. I have been using this for a while but I remember the set up wasn’t completely straightforward. It involved downloading a driver and installing it. I am no IT wizard but I am not inept either and I remember giving me a fair amount of grief, especially to set it to use both channels without doing something stupid. And yes, for that it works a treat with Traktor but not so well/easy with other system (and I don’t particularly like Traktor). I use Embrace anyway so I do the pre-listening from my laptop’s 3.5mm socket. It gave the music a real bass boost, which worked a treat for the 1940’s tracks and also to a couple of early Canaro’s and D’Arienzo’s I played it with. It sounded a bit more electric than the other two as if the music was charged with extra energy. (£69 online)

 

The winner by a very small fraction was actually the DacMagic. The sound was rounder, silkier and more involving. The Dragonfly was also really really good, but it had an edgier side to it that I thought was a bit too much for the sort of stuff that we play in milongas. Finally, the Traktor soundcard did very well, especially in boosting the bass. The inbuilt sound card of the laptop is something to forget. If you don’t have a sound processor please get one.

 

I ended up by buying the DacMagic XS. I needed a backup and after testing these three sound processors I thought that having two Traktors was probably not as good as having a choice. I have been having really good feedback on the quality of my music since I bought the Traktor and I really like it. I did this test with my Sony headphones but it is a different ball game in a large hall with people shouting over the music. I suppose I will still be doing a bit o re-discovery with the Dac Magic but I am quite happy with my choice. But the message for the day is that if you want to buy something for your sound, your music, it is best to try it yourself. For as many good reviews that there are around the web, it is how you want your sound that matters. On top of that, if you do it in a nice shop like Richer Sounds with the advice of really knowledgeable people, it makes it a very entertaining afternoon.

 

Finally, I was a bit miffed that the same Traktor this year costs £20 less than last year. But so it does the DacMagic (£110 last year) and the DragonFly (£105). Which tells you that it is cheaper now to be a slightly better DJ than it was last year. How about that? Now there is only the small matter of spending thousands of pounds to get that library right! 😉

When the ronda is with you…

This is a video of the Encuentro Una Mirada, in Bristol, September 2016.

Una Mirada

I remember listening to this track for my first time. It was about 10 years before, I’d just bought a CD from Laurenz, burned it into my iPod and was going to work when his voice just took my breath away. I had to stop. I was having goose bumps, shivers and uncontrollable laugh at the same time. When the track finished I replayed it. and did it until I got to work. Laurenz became an obsession. A good one.

So it was fitting that I had to play this track in this hall, less than a mile away from where I heard this track for the first time (I can pin point the place where this happened, such an impression it created on me). And the result was beautiful. People walk to the instruments and when Podestá steals the music for 20s, everyone pretty much stops, waiting for the bandoneons to take over the track, waiting for their time to start walking again.

It’s for moments like this that I DJ for!

 

 

 

Una Mirada

unamirada

It is not every day that the stars line up this much. But for me this weekend, they do. I will be DJing in one of the best events in the UK, in a beautiful venue, with an incredible set of fellow DJs surrounding me, playing for over 100 beautiful milongueros!

The DJ with the treasure tracks

First, let me define. Treasure tracks are those ones you cannot find anywhere in the mainstream CD collections, they sound good, they sound different. It sounds like ’29 Lomuto but you can’t put your finger in it. On the other hand, tracks everyone knows, well, that doesn’t need definition, those are the ones whose chords you mutter on your way home after a milonga.
All Djs love treasure tracks. It’s sort of in their blood. When you DJ tango (I mean when you DJ, not when you decide to play music to a crowd), you have to spend hundreds of hours per year listening to tango. It is beyond fun (although it is fun), it is painstaking work. You have to know your ingredients, how they mix and how they come together. So it is very exciting when you get a rare Japanese CD or a second hand CD from a collector in Buenos Aires and listen to all these tracks no-one else owns!

It is at this point that things can go very wrong. Sometime the eagerness to show off these treasure tracks gets on the way of the main reason why you are DJing in the first place. To play for the dancers. Shoving in four 1928 Canaro tracks that nobody knows will do nothing but wonders to your ego. And ego is bad on a DJ.

Tango is difficult. You have to look after yourself and your partner, possibly in a busy milonga and possibly dancing behind someone you don’t know… This is already too much uncertainty and 4 unknown tangos won’t make it any better or easier!

So, the way how I see it is like this. You have a treasure track that you want to play, the Canaro version of Primavera 1929 (very rare and a joy of track). Instead of playing it with other 3 tracks that no-one has ever heard of, think of lining it up with 3 known tracks. Even put it in the middle so that dancers have “warmed up” to each other and the dancefloor. And leave a well known track for the end, you want to end up in a high, with a sense of completion.

Bring on those treasure tracks but drop by drop not all at once! The smiles at the end of the tanda will thank you!

Demare – the wonderful Jazzy tango we all like but do not value enough!

Lucio Demare. Probably the most underrated tango artist for a long time, recently resuscitated by his utterly beautiful rendition of “No Te Apures Carablanca”. Everyone talks about Troilo and Laurenz and their bandoneons, Goñi and Di Sarli with their pianos, D’Arienzo with his relentless energy but Demare… Maybe some people know he wrote Malena? Probably not.

Born to an Italian family in Buenos Aires, young Lucio soon started playing piano (at the age of 4) and by the time he was 7 he was already playing it professionally. His father was also a musician and he played with him very often. When he became a teenager he was introduced to Jazz. And this is where his tango becomes so special.

Listen to Demare’s tango and underneath this lush, refined melody there are thousands of contra tiempos – syncopations that make his music so different. Compare Canaro and Demare. Canaro sounds very solid, no weaknesses. A simple, predictable, rhythm that allays a lot of anxiety to the dancers. This is why he was so successful. But listen to Demare there are torrents (pun!) of beautiful understated syncopations that add to the music. Listen to his masterpiece “No Te Apures Carablanca” (unfortunately starting to become overplayed these days). For the first 30 seconds is pure syncopated magic! And then when the silky violins come through again, the baseline again goes for the syncopation making the music different, delicious but spiced, dreamy but adult, fun but serious.

He spent a few years in Paris playing for a spin off orchestra that Canaro had created when he was invited to go to New York but could not relinquish the money generated in French tango clubs. Canaro left his two brothers (Rafael and Juan) playing in Paris, therefore still calling it Orchestra Canaro (what a businessman!). These times gave Demare a sophistication that would be impossible in Buenos Aires. And gave him a few contacts, Gardel was known to be very fond of his mother’s pasta!

Now I told you he had a Jazz influence? More than an influence, he loved tango but loved Jazz as well. And whenever possible he would leave the constrains of tango and jazz up his music. Listen to this version of Malena, which he composed for tango.

It could have been played today in a bar whilst you had Oysters and Champagne. This is how much Demare was ahead of his time. But unlike Piazzolla, Demare always left his Jazzy spirit quiet whilst playing tango, Jazz only just peeking out. Demare respected tango and respected dancers, and slowly the tango world is waking up to respect him.