Argentine Tango Music

By Tine Herreman the first Yale Tango Club DJ

If you go to the neighborhood CD store and locate the tango section (usually under World Music), you will find CDs by Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel.

Carlos GardelCarlos Gardel was a very famous Argentine singer and movie star whose effect on the ladies was comparable to that of Elvis Presley. He is the national hero of Argentina (together with Maradona). He died a tragic death in a plane crash in 1937. His music goes more in the “tango chanson” genre. It is not danceable. In fact in Argentina people consider it insulting to dance to rather than listen to his music. It’s not worth the bother. Carlos Gardel’s music is armchair tango. Better have some kleenex handy. It’s very beautiful and unspeakably sad.

Astor PiazzollaAstor Piazzolla came of age during the 30s and 40s, and first did what the established guys were doing (but not as well), and then, in true contrary fashion, decided to go do something completely different. Dancing, he decided, was Out, and big drama brain trip tango was In. People have to sit down and listen to the guys playing. He produced a lot of recordings and it is very powerful and inspiring music, but dancing to it is a lot like dancing the hussle to classical music. It is a difficult challenge, and for most people other than professional tango dancers, the result looks and feels inadequate.

Astor Piazzolla’s music is armchair tango. If you are really into both Piazzolla and dancing, I suggest you explore Osvaldo Pugliese’s recordings from the 1950s-60s (see below), it is equally dramatic but a lot more danceable.

Tango music for dancing

Orquesta Tipica: Juan D'Arienzo conducting his OrchestraOrquesta Tipica: Juan D’Arienzo conducting his Orchestra. Tango music for dancing was produced in large quantities and high quality and variety from the mid-30s to the late 50s. These years are known as the Golden Age. A tango orchestra (called an Orquesta Típica) generally had about 10 musicians: a piano, a bass, 3 or 4 bandoneons, 4 violins, sometimes a viola or a guitar, and often a singer.

The orchestras are named after the orchestra leader. The orchestra leader was in charge of deciding what everything would sound like, and all the orchestras sound distinctive and recognizable. So if the DJ tells you you were just listening to Juan D’Arienzo, you were listening to Juan’s orchestra, in which Juan was most likely not handling an instrument, and whoever was singing, that was also not Juan himself. The singers are male in about 99% of cases; in those days it was considered unseemly for women to sing in tango orchestras for dancing.

Tango is still being played and recorded now. Mostly though, it is the same classic compositions played by contemporary bands and for some reason nobody ever really explained satisfactorily, the vast majority of these sound very similar to each other and not as fresh and exciting as the orchestras of the Golden Age. Some people like the fact that contemporary recordings sound bigger and less scratchy and, well, less old. There are a few real innovators on the tango scene, producing jazzy-sounding tango, or tango with pop, electro and techno influences. More about that another time.

Tango, vals and milonga

When you go to a tango dance, also called a milonga, about two thirds of the time you will hear actual tangos, one sixth of the time it will be vals (tango vals, waltz), and one sixth of the time you will hear milonga music, in repeating cycles. Tango vals is in 3/4, like the waltz you know, but faster; you step on the first of the 3 beats, and optionally on either the 2nd or the 3rd beat. Milonga is often but not always faster than tango, and generally you will step on every beat and also do doubletime steps. Tango is nostalgic music, often with male singers going on about how they were driven to the depths of despair by beautiful women with dark liquid eyes. Vals lyrics are often about new love, or about flowers or one’s mother. Vals and milonga are happy music and brighten the mood of the party. Most CDs have primarily tangos with a few valses and milongas.

The Big Orchestras

DJs at tango dances will generally play music by the Golden Age orchestras listed below. If they know their stuff, they might also bring in some minor orchestras which you don’t have to worry about unless you are a DJ. These big orchestras are listed below, in some vague (and somewhat biased) order of importance. The period in which they produced their most danceable material is listed. Singers would remain with an orchestra for a while, generally several years. If you like songs by a particular orchestra with a particular singer, you can confidently shop for more knowing you’ll probably like that too. The list below is not at all exhaustive: there are thousands of tango CDs in print. Some of the albums are in bold larger font, these are especially recommended if you want to buy your first albums.

General guidelines include, when buying music from the fifties, better buy instrumental.
Several series are available, some new, which are a good basis for a collection, no matter how small. These include the series “Colección 78 rpm”, “Reliquias”, “RCA Victor 100 Años”, “Solo Tango”, and for Juan D’Arienzo, “El Rey Del Compas/70 Años”. If you buy more than one CD by the same artist in the same series, you will get little or no duplication. Plus, the sound quality of these releases is superior to other series not listed.

I include links to the CDs at http://www.tangostore.com in Buenos Aires. Ordering from tangostore.com is as painless as ordering from a domestic source, but it feels more exotic and exciting! If you buy 5 or more CDs, the shipping costs (from Argentina, 3-day shipping) are compensated by the great price of the CDs, US$ 6-8 a piece, compared to US$13 and up from online stores like Towerrecords.com and Amazon.com; at these latter stores the CDs are often on special order so you may have to wait several weeks before they can even tell you if they are available. You can also try http://www.classictango.com in California, they have good prices and usually ship immediately. Also check out www.thetangocatalogue.com
Tangostore.com has 45 seconds of each song available to listen. You will rarely hear the singer in these snippets, as in those days, at least for dance music, the singer did not get to do his thing until halfway through the song. A tango CD is great value, because you usually get 20 songs on it.

Where to start: some recommendations

Recommendations for university tango club DJs
Starter CD collection (60 CDs) recommended by Tine Herreman. They could be all you ever need! They are the CDs in the Yale Tango DJ collection.

For practicing, or rudimentary DJing on the cheap
If you are going to buy less than 10 CDs, I suggest you select the CDs listed in bold in the table below, plus a subset of the others listed.

Orchestra Most 
danceable
Favorite singers Recommended CDs
Carlos Di Sarli 40s-50s Roberto Rufino, Alberto Podesta, Jorge Duran, 50s: instrumental 1950s:   RCA Victor 100 Años or Instrumentales Vol 2
1940s: any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Francisco Canaro 30s Roberto Maida, Ernesto Fama, instrumentals Roberto Maida Canta Sus Exitos,
Sus Éxitos Con Ernesto Famá,
Instrumentales de Colección
Bailando Tangos, Valses Y Milongas
– all in the series Reliquias
Juan D’Arienzo late 30s
also 40s-50s
instrumentals  Series El Rey Del Compas/70 Años, several  covering the late 1930s; 
De Pura Cepa and El Esquinazo are excellent. 
Also for the 40s and 50s, any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Osvaldo Pugliese 40s-60s Roberto Chanel, instrumentals (40s),
Big dramatic instrumentals only (50s and later)
Instrumentales inolvidables Vol 1, Exitos con Roberto Chanel (both 1940s, series Reliquias)
From Argentina to the World (1950s-60s)
Anibal Troilo 40s Francisco Fiorentino Solo Tango Vol 2
Rodolfo Biagi late 30s – 
late 40s
instrumentals, Jorge Ortiz, Alberto Amor Solos de orquesta  – Reliquias,
Sus Éxitos con Alberto Amor – Reliquias
Sus Éxitos con Jorge Ortiz Vol. 1 – Reliquias
Miguel Caló 40s Raul Beron, Alberto Podesta Al Compás Del Corazón – Reliquias
Sus Exitos Con A. Podesta, J. Ortiz Y R. Beron – Reliquias
Osvaldo Fresedo late 30s Roberto Ray, Ricardo Ruiz Solo Tango: Osvaldo Fresedo con cantores
or any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Angel D’Agostino 40s Angel Vargas any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Edgardo Donato 30s everything any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Lucio Demare 40s Raul Beron, others Sus Exitos con Raul Beron
Pedro Laurenz 40s Alberto Podesta, others Creaciones Inolvidables Con Podestá Y Bermúdez – Reliquias
Francisco Lomuto 30s – 40s everything any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Orquesta Típica Victor 30s everything any of the Coleccion 78rpm
Enrique Rodriguez 40s Armando Moreno Tangos Con Armando Moreno – Reliquias
Ricardo Tanturi 40s Alberto Castillo, Enrique Campos Coleccion 78rpm 1940-48
Julio De Caro 30s-40s everything, most are instrumental RCA Victor 100 Años
Alfredo Gobbi late 40s instrumentals Solo Tango
Alfredo De Angelis 40s Carlos Dante, Julio Martel, + 50s instrumentals From Argentina To The World
Compilation: 
Valses Inolvidables
40s all vals, most vocal, by various artists Valses Inolvidables
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