what makes tango music tango?

Shaun (course leader) has asked me this question a couple of times, so I’m giving it some thought. There are of course a number of musical elements that come together to make a tango sound like a tango…

Tango almost always sounds intense, dramatic and melancholy, even though it’s not always in a minor key.

Perhaps the most intrinsically tango theme is the notable run or lead in from the fourth beat to the first (tango is always 4/4 unless its a tango vals but that’s another musical genre). This pre-beat, or ‘and’ moment is reflected in the dance by the intention shown by the leader that he is about to step before he actually does. It gives the music a characteristic ‘vaaarumph’ sort of sound that drives you to move, with a purposeful step. For the guys its a sort of suspension and surge, for the women a sort of resist and submit. This emphasis on the 4-1 is very evident in the music of Osvaldo Pugliese, you will hear it if you listen particularly to the piano in this rendition of ‘la yumba’…

Typically the orquestas of Carlos Di Sarli and Anibal Troilo have quite a slow very rhythmical tempo, often emphasising the 1 and the 3 beats making for a more formal, regular structure to the overall sound, almost like a slow 2/4 (march) rather than a 4/4 rhythm. I could only find one video from Troilo, which isn’t a perfect example, but you can hear in this video, that the 1 and 3 are emphasised, in addition to the ‘and’ 1 moment…

For many people, Angel D’agostino and Vargas made some of the best tango for dancers, because they left space in the music for the dancer to fill and add their interpretation to shape the music. Piazzolla and Pugliese are sometimes accused of being too driving, not leaving any room for the dancers to be a part of the orchestra. Their music is great for listening to but you couldn’t dance a whole evening to their music, it’s almost too demanding.

One of my favourite contemporary groups are the bajofondo tango club, although they don’t claim to make tango music…
“we don’t like the label of “electronica tango”, because we don’t consider what we do to be either tango nor electronica. We believe we do music of the Rio de la Plata, and if you want to create a music that represents today’s sound of places like Buenos Aires and Montevideo –at least in our view-, obviously genres such as tango, murga, milonga and candombe are going to be present, because they are part of the genetic-musical map of that part of the world. But the 40 years history of Argentine and Uruguayan rock, hip hop and electronica also are part of that map and the history of that place”.

It’s fun to dance to their music, I do really like it, but it’s obviously not intended expressly for this purpose. In fact if you watch the video you’ll see that no-one is dancing tango at their concert, they’re just jumping around. The tracks last much longer than a typical tango, which is usually about 3 minutes. Longer than this is difficult to keep going, you start to feel you need a change, or you want to hear the finale, or just stop for a minute. There are also certain tango dancing etiquettes that are difficult to follow when the music drifts too far from the norm. for example the number of songs you dance with one partner before thanking them and sitting down again. This drifting away from writing tango music to dance to really began with Astor Piazzolla, another of my favourite tango musicians. His signatures are really compelling, moving melodies, and the frequent use of 3-3-2 (or 1xx-1xx-1x) rhythms. You can hear this very clearly in ‘libertango’…

The Orquesta de Juan D’arienso is typified by quite a fast tempo. In this superb film you can see how the rhythm is kept by the piano, but then when the piano gets to do a fancy bit the rhythm is taken on by the strings and the bandoneons, the melody and the beat gets swapped around between the different sections, and all the while you can hear D’arienzo driving the orquesta to really emphasise the lead in to the first beat of the first bar of a phrase.

So, characteristic tango elements are…

  • The ‘and’ moment,
  • A Melancholy, dramatic feel,
  • Multiple rhythmic lines,
  • Multiple melody lines,
  • Trading melodic or rhythmic elements from one instrument to another.
  • Use of tango instruments; typically bandoneon, violin, double base, piano, but also flute, guitar and more recently base guitar. Percussion is not used in traditional tango but contemporary tango often has quite prominent beats and bass lines.

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