Terence Clarke

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What Tango DJs Do

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I tire, little by little as each evening’s milonga passes by, from the lack of imagination on the part of most of the disk jockeys. You would think that, in the history of the tango form, only forty or fifty were ever written and recorded, and that those recordings are the only versions allowed at most milongas.

Over and over again. Again. Again.

Before I went to Buenos Aires, I assumed that this was a problem just in the United States. The Americans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the history of tango music: who wrote, what tangos they wrote, and who recorded them.  After all, there are actually thousands of tangos, written and performed by thousands of musicians, small groups, and orchestras. The variety provides excitement itself to the study of the music, and the possibility of dancing to so many different kinds of tango is riveting to anyone who knows the depth of that variety.

All you need do is study the history of the music. But few in the United States have made that effort, and most assume that the forty or fifty to which we must dance every week ad. infinitum are the very essence of the tango form.

It astonished me to dance at milongas in Buenos Aires and to find that, for the most part, the same sensibility is the rule there. The same tangos. The same repetition. The same boredom.

Then my love Beatrice Bowles and I traveled to Istanbul (where, by the way, we found some of the best social dancers of tango we’ve ever seen), Amsterdam, Paris, New York and other major venues.  The music was basically the same in all these places as well. Those ricky-tick Thirties orchestras, heavy on the bass-line and constantly repetitive, with Germanic insistence on a one-two beat and lots of whining violins and similarly un-inventive bandoneón licks.

You may think I exaggerate. But I guarantee that if you go to a couple dozen milongas anywhere in the world, you will dance to the same tangos by the same orchestras in each one. And if you’re hoping for contemporary tango, something out of the ordinary, music that will re-energize your dance and ask something of you and your partner…as they say in New York, “Forget about it!”

My favorite exchange about the music came during a milonga for which I myself was the disk jockey. This was during a series of milongas Beatrice and I put on at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. It was on a Friday evening, part of weekly Friday events held by the museum, to which various bands and musical groups of every sort of popular music were invited. In our case, the milonga we organized was intended to be like those long-time notable ones held in Buenos Aires… La Confitería Ideal, Sunderland Club, et. al.. We got a few hundred dancers and, because the Friday events were free to the public, a few thousand onlookers. For us, these events were simply thrilling, as I think they were for the dancers and the audiences.

During one of them, about halfway through, a man approached me with a disgruntled look on his face. I had watched him dancing, his movements being pedestrian and out of tune. He asked me, “When are you going to play some damned tango?” I had not played one of the forty or fifty about which I’ve been complaining in this piece. I was playing singers and orchestras not particularly well known, and I was playing a lot of modern tangos…but tangos which, though contemporary, were eminently danceable. In my humble opinion, the music was memorable, and I was told so by many of the dancers who emailed me later to thank us for the fine evening…and the wonderful music.

I explained to the fellow before me that everything I had played was notable for being tango… in fact, well within the traditional tango form, and that the one goal I have as a disk jockey, no matter the particular numbers I play, is to give the dancers the opportunity to really dance and enjoy themselves. “You’ve got to have more variety,” I said. “And better-played music,” I said. “Music that’s interesting,” I said. The fellow turned on his heel, and I did not see him after that. I presume he left.

I for one was glad to see him go.

Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, comes out this April.


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