Sunday, November 28, 2010

Snobbery revisited - a way to break a vicious cycle

Yes yes, here I am again, the snobbery apologist. I've been back to the US for a few weeks, and I've DJed at a few milongas, and I have to say, I am absolutely appalled. I'm not an experienced DJ, but I have never felt my work be so unappreciated. A few experienced dancers and organizers come up to me at the end complimenting me on the music. Of course I have no way of knowing whether they mean it or it's just courtesy, but I'll take it at face value. The not-so-good dancers (yes, I'm being my judgmental self, so what), though, grew restless and continuously came up to me asking me for salsa and nuevo....... Seriously? Asking me for nuevo is asking for a backhanded slap to the face. Please don't make me resort to violence. And salsa? This is a city with a huge hispanic population; you can go pretty much anywhere else to dance salsa. Try asking for tango at a salsa bar...
From my perspective, it boils down to two things:
1) people have come to expect these kinds of things by being accustomed to poor, negligent DJing, as I've remarked on a previous post. To continue with the analogy of the previous post, I felt like a parent feeding their kid a 5 start hotel full course meal with the retard child complaining that he prefers McDonalds' happy meal.
2) Organizers continuing to acquiesce to these people's demands, continuing a never ending vicious circle. Why should they honor the requests of people who have no idea what a milonga should be? To keep them coming to the milonga and make it profitable? I believe tango should be above money and profits... On the long run, chasing the money has made this community stagnate.

Leo, who I consider my mentor, is the one who first encouraged me to start DJing. I remember a conversation with him where I asked him how you would evaluate a DJ's performance. He told me that, for a regular milonga, seeing the best dancers pleased would be a good indicator, while for a festival or a workshop milonga the visiting maestros' reactions would be the gauge. At first, this struck me as a very elitist approach, although I didn't say anything. But it's the way I've been DJing since I started. The rationale was that keeping the best dancers on the floor would make others follow suit. Now I really agree with him, that from the perspective of a DJ, at the risk of being perceived as snobby and an elitist, one has to cater to the best dancers' demands (whether or not they're explicit, which in most cases they're not, unlike others...), not the other way around, catering to "the unenlightened masses", who in a way are unenlightened because of a vicious circle started with negligent organizers who are only chasing their share of the pie rather than really promoting tango (although this is arguable, as with all vicious circles... like the chicken and the egg).
You can give me all the arguments of bad economy and the need to be pragmatic in making sense in the short term business perspective. But it's time to swallow the pragmatism in favor of a long term vision, of creating a community that really understands and loves tango.
I'm ashamed to say that I gave in to the constant demands for salsa, and even gave the DJing duties to a co-organizer for a tanda of electrotango. But next time, I'm standing my ground and not giving in.


  1. You're doing the right thing: Play for the experienced dancers. If you play the CCTCC sets, you'll just annoy the better dancers, who won't be back. This will leave a milonga full of uneducated dancers that won't learn what a well DJ-ed milonga feels like.

  2. I have an idea..... when people ask for nuevo, I'll give it to them............. as cortinas.
    Come to think of it, I actually did that. Beautiful Piazzolla pieces, though not for dancing, unless you're Chicho.
    Most people didn't realize, except a nuevo couple who stayed in the middle of the floor doing inverted ganchos and whatever it is they do

  3. As a DJ I've had these problems myself. Personally I dont have a problem playing nuevo, but I'm more and more selective about what I do play. Playing some bit of electrotango in the middle of the set can totally ruin whatever energy you've been building up during the milonga.

    My solution is usually to play some jazz influenced nuevo tanda. That at least keeps the energy flowing.

    I liked your comment about asking for tango in a salsa bar. I dont really know why people think salsa is a good choice anyway. I know they do it in BsAs. But maybe that's because you'll never hear the other nuevo music in a traditional milonga. They play it at those venues because Argentina is at the end of the day a Latin country. It's probably like us playing some Elvis or the Beatles :)

  4. Requests for nuevo typically come from beginning/intermediate dancers who think they can "connect" with this type of music more, but whose dancing is atrocious no matter what music is playing . . .

    Similarly, the salsa, bachata, swing, hip-hop, etc. requests come from people who can barely dance tango and thus feel the need for a more comfortable dance so they can "enjoy" the evening spent at the milonga . . . what I don't understand is why they even bother going to the milonga in the first place, since it appears to be for that one salsa or swing set, where they can really show their stuff . . .

    As a DJ, I've never gotten a request for "nuevo" from a really accomplished dancer . . . the nuevo request is a barometer for the skill level/maturity of the dancer . . .

  5. This reminds me of an anecdote told by my teacher who used to DJ extensively. He once saw someone not dancing at all and asked him what music he'd like to hear and the guy asked for some undanceable modern tango. The DJ said that unfortunately couldn't cater to his tastes and offered him his entrance fee back.

  6. Sometimes I wish I could have a sign at my table that says "NO TALKING TO THE DJ". :-D
    I have learned that you have to stick with what YOU know works best and not make compromises for other people or listen to comments from people who don't know very much anyway. What should matter is noticing whether the dance floor is full or empty, and noticing whether the energy is fabulous or kind of lame. And that's it.
    While one or two "nuevo newbies" sit there complaining, I find myself touring Italy with my DJing, in some great milongas (I live in southern Italy), and I'm filling up my calender halfway 2011 already! All because I stuck with what I do best.
    If I want an opinion, I ask a mentor, not an unexperienced dancer who doesn't understand the music.
    People who like your music will come listen to your music and dance to it. People who don't can go somewhere else. :-)

  7. I agree with Tina's post . . . my standard response to a music request is "I'll see what I can do . . . then, if it happens to already be in the playlist, I pretend I went out of my way to play it :D . . .

    And I typically clarify ahead of time with the organizer what I'll be DJing, i.e., 100% traditional, some nuevo/alternative later in the evening, etc. . . .

    But I have to admit I have less and less patience now with boorish demands for "nuevo" during a milonga . . .

  8. @Captain Jep: The problem with Jazz inspired 'nuevo' is that it doesn't inspire tango dancing. There is more to dancing tango than just listening to the beat. There is something about those 40s orchestras that moves you in a tango way that cannot be said for, um, Jason Mraz (yes, I've heard that played at a milonga and we were expected to dance to it) or even electrotango.
    @malevo and tina: I do tend to requests if I agree to how it fits the mood and how it goes with the general flow. I don't make playlists beforehand, so if I'm not feeling inspired, I could actually be thankful for the unsolicited help... as long as it's not a request for electrotango or salsa....
    @anon: that is brilliant! I wish some of the organizers at milongas here and there had done the same with me when I sat there disgusted with the electrotango music.

  9. I think it's an important insight that other people will follow the best dancers onto the floor. People often figure out how to tell what is good dancing years before they have any strong opinion of what is good music or good DJing. And they are influenced by that opinion and those dancers.

    I'd add that a thoughtful and trustworthy DJ can also make good dancers less risk-averse, and that makes them more willing to dance with inexperienced partners. Because they know the music will be there for them if it's difficult, or for another dance with someone else!

  10. Interesting that you are preaching to the converted. I play what I love to dance to, and electro tango is way down on the list. I would need to hear Captain Jepp's jazz to know if I wanted to dance to it. That's how I hear music; its not a genre, its what moves you to want to dance. I had a fantastic dance to an alternative tanda in an evening of 90% traditional. I don't normally expect it. The idea of what a milonga 'should' be smacks of fascism. Go with the music that you want hear that gets you do dance, that works with changing moods of orchestras and tracks, but choosing anything because its a should or because its how they do it in BsAs, is a cop out IMO. If you don't do requests as DJ, don't do requests. Salsa breaks are to give a change of energy, horrible though Salsa music sounds to my ears, I play it sometimes.