Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Alternative music revisited - When does it cease being alternative?

Here I go again, complaining. Two consecutive posts neutral in tone are enough to tone it down! Coming back to the same old topic of crap "DJing"...

Last week, I ran into a local organizer at a milonga. He remarked that I didn't go to his milonga. I paused for a second, meditating the consequences of my crude honesty. I thought to myself, someone's got to say something, might as well be me. I told him that it was nothing personal, but that frankly, the music was awful. His reaction seemed to be a combination of mild amusement with a bit of offense taken. With a nervous laugh, he got a little defensive saying something along the lines of the crowd of the milonga not being demanding because they don't know the music. True, his classes are comprised of mostly younger people, the majority of them just beginning. I am not claiming to be a music connoisseur, but for me this is just a cop out. It's akin to parents feeding their newborn just McDonalds' and TacoBell's, their excuse being that a baby doesn't know good food, so it shouldn't matter. But the real reason is that they can't be bothered to feed and properly nourish their child, much like this organizer can't be bothered to actually sit down and make a proper playlist.

My main complaint is that there was way too much so called alternative. It is called alternative because it is something, as its name vaguely hints, that should be played as an alternative, sparingly, if at all. When I walked in this milonga a few weeks ago, there was some 'alternative' playing. I don't even know if it was Gotan Project, Electrocutango, Bajofondo, or whatever. It all sounds the same to me. I thought to myself, "good, hopefully the tanda will be over by the time I put on my shoes, and there will be no more of this crap music the rest of the evening". How wrong I was... The usual accepted DJ playlist tanda format is TTVTTM, short for tango-tango-vals-tango-tango-milonga, but the format used in this milonga was CCCTCCC, short for crap-crap-crap-tango-crap-crap-crap, crap meaning either an electrotango/nuevo tanda or a very badly constructed tanda.

I understand why people relate more to electrotango/alternative music, especially outside of Spanish speaking countries. Firstly, it is music from another time, and oh how times have changed (I guess). Secondly, there is the language barrier that makes it difficult, albeit not impossible, for people to understand the music. As much as I'd like to be a dictator and just impose what I consider to be good music on these people, I realize they can just choose to leave. So the compromise would be to play these tandas alternatively - meaning very sparingly - just to appease the unenlightened. Then as people gradually gain appreciation of the good music from the Golden Age, these electrotango/alternative can be phased out.

My grief with electrotango/alternative is that these cease to be tango for me. Just because some lounge music has a bandoneon playing here and there with chill out ambient music on the background definitely doesn't make it tango. It's because these kinds of organizers play this music so much that people come to expect it to be played much even in proper circumstances. Whenever I am DJing and am asked to play some nuevo, I chuckle contemptuously and tell them to go to a lounge bar. Seriously, they play that kind of music! And it fits the atmosphere much better than a milonga. Even worse yet, the way I see some people dance to this cortina music makes me want to snap in uncontrollable rage. I don't know what they're dancing to; it looks like a hybrid of ballroom with bachata with some other shit... but certainly no tango... please make it stop! My eyes are burning!

To elaborate on the badly constructed tanda, it is a grave insult to D'Arienzo if you mix one of his best milonga songs like La Cicatriz, for example, with two other milongas that are not so good from a contemporary orchestra. Of course, I have nothing against contemporary orchestras. In fact, given the opportunity, I'd like to form one, and it's something I intend to do in the next few years (stay tuned! Not for a living, obviously). But it still forms part of alternative music for milongas. I guess it's acceptable to play a Sexteto Milonguero tanda every once in a while, but don't mix it with D'Arienzo! You just don't do it... It's like wearing a black belt and brown shoes. Or wearing suspenders with a belt. Or wearing a hat or a cap to a milonga. Don't do it, dammit!


  1. Um, I now realize the content of the post has little to do with the title. Whatever

  2. From the title one might think you've embraced the alternative! But I couldn't agree more and I like your food analogy. I don't go to milongas that play alternative and avoid DJs that play badly constructed tandas - unfortunately it means I don't go out a lot.

  3. Brilliant! At the point of CCCTCCC you got me literally laughing out loud :-)

    As to the title, is it alternative? ;-)

  4. Excellent! Thanks, I needed this, just having been subjected to Gotan and Otros Aires and crap like that... It could be even worse, I guess, like an experience I had in Berlin: half an hour of random Turkish pop (or whatever) followed by half an hour of Canaro on shuffle, with people cavorting in a largely uncoordinated fashion. Rinse and repeat, for hours. And I couldn't leave because the person I was staying with didn't want to leave just yet...

  5. Ah so refreshing to know I am not the only one who wants to scream at bad DJ-ing. Being a DJ is not an easy thing and should be taken a bit more seriously, at least in my neck of the woods. It can wreck your night if the music is CCCTCCCT - Love it.

  6. I sympathise with your viewpoint but dont agree..

    i can tell between Bajofondo and Gotan and Electrocutango; why because i have listened to them enough...

    I have been to enough milongas where the CCCT

    and the crap is endless plincky -plonky poorly recorded early tangos with some guy singing like a badly oiled gate.. I know enough people who been exposed to this stuff that they have stopped dancing tango..

    I dont need gotan or bajofondo to have an nice evening at a milonga, and if you put a tanda of a contemporoary orchestra why not next to D'Arienzo as to any other of the great golden age music. A tanda is meant to be a change of mood, of sound, of orchestra, of tempo. I would put Joaquin Amenabar next to D'Arienzo quite easily. It isnt brown shoes and black belts; DJ is offering courses and you want each course to taste different to the one before....

  7. Thanks, everybody.

    Note that when I said mixing golden age orchestras with contemporary orchestras was comparable to brown shoes and black belts I meant that in the same tanda. There isn't anything wrong with brown shoes or black belts by themselves, just when you wear them together.
    Sure, why not play a contemporary orchestra between golden age orchestras? As long as you can make the flow between tandas work nicely, go for it.
    I have already mentioned that I'm all for supporting contemporary orchestras. The way I see it, there are two major causes why most worthwhile milongas play golden age music exclusively. The first is that as other genres became more prevalent in Bs As in the 50s, tango orchestras started shifting to more concert like music, rather than music for dancing, to the point where orchestra leaders preferred to have their music listened to and not used as background for dancing. I don't have an extensive knowledge of how orchestras continued to evolve till present day, but in general the music is not played for dancing. There are exceptions, of course, like Sexteto Milonguero, who explicitly intends the music to be danceable.
    The second cause is that, no offense to today's tango musicians, the level of musicianship back in the day was much higher. The number of tango musicians back in the day was orders of magnitude higher than it was today. As tango was slowly phased out of mainstream, the talent in music probably has preferred to go for a career in a more lucrative genre, unfortunately...

  8. Also, you mention that the DJ offers courses that taste differently. I completely agree with this analogy. First there is the flow between courses (or tandas), and then there is the mixing of ingredients in a course. What I referred to as brown belt and black shoes is analogous to putting a scoop of chocolate ice cream on top of a steak that is floating on lentil soup. Yeah, WTF indeed... Individually, nothing wrong with any of the food, though some may have preferences to different kinds of food (or music), but the way it is put together..... it's how I felt with a milonga tanda with La Cicatriz in the middle, sandwiched by two Forever Tango-like orchestras. In this case, an analogy of a caviar hamburger would be more apt... caviar being La Cicatriz, and the other two songs being the crappy stale buns with a hot sauce packet that you stole from a fast food joint...

  9. there is one BIG problem with alternative music: it is the beginners who prefer it, so it is in disrepute, because many people rely on flawed logic to conclude that if you like alternative, you must hence be a beginner and dance horribly.

    Some of the most impressive dancers I know can dance tango to classical music, jazz, blues, whatever! For them, Tango is not some dogmatic idea they defend to the last drop of blood against impurity, but simply about achieving connectedness and expressing your experience of the music as a unit of two people.

    Now, I grant that there IS bad music. In addition, there are horrible ways of combining individually awesome songs into tandas that cry out for a humanitarian intervention by UN blue helmets.

    BUT: most often when people "discuss" music (in fact, they usually rant), they say: this is undanceable (because I can't dance to it), this song is shitty (because I don't like it), when in fact they should be saying:
    *I* lack the musicality to make this work for a partner dance, OR *I* have difficulty appreciating this style of music.

    And there is nothing bad about stating things in this way - every single musical genre that has some complexity higher than your average cellphone ringtone requires long and engaged exposure in order to appreciate the underlying harmonic and rhythmic structure. Many variants of Jazz, but also classical music as well as the different varieties of Tango are all an acquired taste. I for instance cannot listen to Punk or Metal, but I know that there must be something to appreciate in this music, if one has more experience listening to it that I do. This is not to say that I want to defend a Punk tanda here - I merely want to point out that when people call music "crap", they most often simply lack the experience to judge it.

    I for one love to dance to classical music, but I understand that few other people do, because the rhythm is usually in the melody instruments rather than in a separate percussion section - which makes it very hard for people without experience in performing classical music to "get" the dynamics that go on in a classical piece.

    Being an experience tango dancer means two things for me:
    a) becoming intimately familiar with tango music
    b) developing both musicality and technique to a point where you can harness both to any kind of music you like

    I fully agree with you however on the fact that beginners must be educated rather than just given what appeals to them most. Alternative songs are more familiar to them and more enticing to dance to, but they will typically seduce them to do "too much" and to focus too much on fitting their still-awkward moves to a fixed beat rather than on how to make their moves more smooth and comfortable for their partner and themselves. So it is a judgment call: on the one hand, you want them to have fun so they stick with Tango - but on the other hand, you want them to stop jerking each other around to some electrotango.

    The role of a DJ has many dimensions - the most straightforward is making sure that as many people as possible leave the milonga with a smile on their face. In addition, you have a responsibility for educating your dance community in musicality, as well as for advertising tango to random visitors/first timers and to make sure they feel comfortable to come back.
    Thinking that as a DJ, your only standard is approval by the pros is to turn what you do into "art". A DJ is however not an artist whose sole responsibility is to stay true to himself and the purity of his vision. A DJ simply provides a service to a community of dancers - and that service involves providing immediate happiness as well as deferred gratification (in terms of musical education). The difficulty of the job is how to balance these two goals.
    A DJ who thinks his sole job is to provide immediate gratification to the experienced dancers (and the beginners can go f*** themselves if they don't like it) is simply failing in his educational mission.

  10. continued...

    The only thing I hate about Tango is the tango nazis (who would like to see you crucified if you do anything their granddaddy didn't do with his 8-count basic, or if you do it to any kind of music their granddaddy didn't know).

    So cheer up - be kind to beginners (because honestly, you were one too), and don't be a dance-racist who thinks everything that is different must be evil and expurged from this earth. Chances are, what seems strange to you is simply an effect of YOUR OWN limited horizon and lack of exposure to other ways of music and movement. Everyone necessarily has a limited horizon (noone lives forever to become experienced in everything), so everyone should try to cope civilly with the fact that others have acquired tastes that differ from yours.

    BTW, I'm going to be at the Boston Fusion Exchange this coming January (Tango, Swing, Blues dancers from all over the US, with Homer Ladas teaching) - I'm very excited to dance with a group of people who are very open-minded with respect to music, as well as to styles of dancing!

  11. OK apparently I'm gonna have to actively moderate this. Since we are blogging under pseudonyms, we need to take extra care to avoid name-calling. But on the other hand, 900+ word comments are excessive, especially when they combine concern-trolling, strawman arguments AND appeals to authority (Oh the joys of running a blog!). I will not delete ChrisS's comments after having approved them, but in the furture I reserve the right not to publish excessively long comments.

  12. Ha, so true. My biggest problem with the music is that it seems that most of electrotango is crappy, uninteresting lounge/chillout music or hiphop beats with some bandoneon mixed in.

    The old orchestras simply played music of higher quality. I agree with those who say that we can't stand in place dancing to the same music for a 100 years and I'm far from being a tango nazi... but for now I don't see anything fit to replace it. Electrotango stuff is mostly archaic electronica rubbish with a 90s aftertaste that simply has no edge over the Golden Age. I suppose some people believe that fhe reason that old music lasts so long is only because of snobbery of the milongueros but I think it's not the case

  13. What about the dj's that refuse to play tandas? What about the dj's that do, and then never follow the ttv-ttm format, and play ie: a tango, then a milonga, then an alternative, maybe another tango.
    And these dj's boasts and promote, they have the best music in town.....all the while the beginners and the seasoned uneducated dancer about tango music believe the hype! Now a new generation of tango dj's have been born, as they now have learned from the dj's mentioned above and think.....hey this is the right way to do it. I can't begin to tell you how many cities this is happening in!