Salon Canning vs the tango organiser: why there are no good tango DJs

My Friend: Hi … organizers! Will you help Tom find good tango in your cities?

Me: I like anything with Golden Era music. Thanks!:)

Organiser 1: [Links to FB groups for those cities]

Me: Thanks! However, it’s hard to tell from FB groups which organizers/DJs play good quality Golden Era music, ie. no music after 1950.

O1: what are you looking for? milongas, classes, practicas?

Me: The Salon Canning experience lol

O1: it’s hard to predict sometimes even if you know the dj

Me: The DJ should inform the organisers about equipment set up and DJ set.

O1: they rarely do it

Me: I know. But they should. It’s like lottery.

MF: Hahaha the world would be a better place but only at Canning man… It’s a hit and miss everywhere yes

O2: Tom, O1 is right. You can’t be sure about the sort of music that DJs will play in the milonga in [country name]. Usually the music can be really ‘surprising’ meaning ‘shitty’. There are a few djs you can trust.

One of them is O1 :)) She played in my milonga and it was really cool. So I can highly recommend her. BTW, when will you play at …, O1??? I miss you!

As for …, there is good music at milonga …. The DJs are very good, with a good taste [dj’s]. They play traditional tango music.

And in … there is a great new milonga on … as well run by an Italian, Argentinian and Uruguay DJs who really take care about what they play. So you should be satisfied, Tom.

If you want you can check my milonga on …. We invite DJs and we try to find the good ones, I mean the ones who don’t experiment too much :))))

Me: Thanks O2, that sounds good. Basically I’m interested in the standard trad BA repertoire and a decent audio setup … no direct audio cable into the laptop audio jack, decent DAC and no lossy mp3s. Apparently that’s still a lot to ask. I still find DJs who haven’t heard of TangoTunes and use mp3s and the audio jack. This was excusable 5-10 years ago. I really wish there was some way of screening for these things. But I accept that being a musician I’m hypercritical and most people don’t care. I’ll check out those recommendations. Thanks again!:)

O2: Oh! So to be honest, you will suffer on … if you come because we don’t t have such an equipment at our place. Our regular lovely place has been closed because of pandemic, and now we are renting a students’ club dancing floor which is not perfect at all. Especially in terms of the sound. But if you just look at it like meeting new great people :))) you will have fun. I promise you 🙂

Me: Ok I’ll adjust my expectations. Which is your milonga?

[I’m starting to get frustrated as I’m getting a sense that the information I’m getting is all but useless and I want to get rid of the red herrings they’re throwing my way and focus on what I want, which was the original reason I’m having this conversation. I also noticed that O2 seems to be clueless about proper DJ-ing audio equipment.]

Me: People focus on the music that the DJ selects, which is either trad or not. But I heard “trad” DJs with really awful sound. And the three things that the DJ needs to really understand is sound files, music player software, and DACs. I discovered this by way of listening to classical music. The standard Mp3 + iTunes + audio jack (built-in DAC) are not designed for music reproduction, you know, what used to be called “Hifi” … High Fidelity. Modern music (electronic, pop) is recorded to sound good on the cheapest device possible. But tango is very fragile and needs super careful treatment and curation. But people aren’t doing that. There is a website called https://tangodjsforgoodsound.info and I think you guys should put your basic audio set up there, and make sure you always carry it with you. I’m guessing that people aren’t losing their DACs. I’d suggest having a Dragonfly DAC as a backup.

O2: That’s interesting. I will talk about this with guys who really care about the sound and quality of the music they play. Thanks for sharing it.


 

What’s interesting about this conversation is that these “organisers” and “tango DJs” appear to be completely clueless about what amounts to a basic audio setup for tango, and when I broach the issue they try to change the subject and finally just go cold as I’m not responding to their efforts at marketing. They appear to know little or nothing about it, or at least its not something they want to discuss. Instead, they want to focus on “meeting people” and “DJs that don’t experiment too much”, and that the DJs are Argentinian, Uruguayan and Italian . What does that mean? When you go to Salon Canning you’re not there to “meet people”, you’re there to dance. Also, you expect no experimentation from the DJ. You expect what you get every time you go there, traditional Argentine tango music. It’s always the same. Even at the hipster milongas in BA the music was never something I had to pay any attention to since it was all acceptable. Yet you go elsewhere and whether the DJ is Argentinian or not the music is consistently frustrating and jarring.

My online tango friend Bononno (his blog is Tango High and Low) started a topic on a tango forum “What makes a good DJ?” To quote:

I’ve been thinking about this for a while but am only now getting around to asking. (I searched the archives but couldn’t find anything in the forum on the topic.) After listening to some wonderful DJs and some really atrocious DJs, I’m wondering why this happens. The corpus of danceable tango songs is large, but not that large. There’s a fixed body of songs from which to draw, almost exclusively from 1925 to 1950. There are certain orchestras that are essential to any milonga, and some that aren’t. But I know from experience that some DJs play one magnificent tanda after another, with appropriate cortinas, and others are all over the map, mixing classic tangos (generally fine) with later songs that are almost never played. Generally, these tend to be overly dramatic, largely vocal songs from the late 40s and 50s. Generally, these are songs I am unfamiliar with.

 

I am also beginning to wonder about Argentine DJs. We’ve got a bunch who live here and others who come through here and most of them are not to my liking (some are terrific though). They have a fondness for offbeat songs or very late examples of Pugliese and Troilo, which are difficult to dance to and go on for far too long. The cortinas often consist of cheap top-40 rock-and-roll, which generally spoils the mood of the milonga. Or they play 10-minute salsa songs. (A bad idea at a milonga in my opinion.) Is this a porteño thing, playing vulgar rock and outlier tangos? I realize the tradition in B.A. is a bit different than what we have come to expect elsewhere, but there’s a lot of beautiful tango music out there; no reason not to play it.

 

What’s surprising is that there a number of good, solid DJ playlists available, recommendations on which composers to play and what periods, and so on. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a DJ, but they could at least stick to music that the crowd can dance to and wants to hear. I’m not asking for favorite songs or orchestras (I have mine, you have yours), but it’s awfully frustrating to go to a milonga and sit out many of the tandas because the music is just not something that moves you to get up and dance. In tango, there’s no need to try to expand the repertoire into obscure or unloved tangos; you simply have to pick and choose the best from what’s available. And there’s a lot.

It should be simple, so why isn’t it? As Bononno recognises, the tango DJ should stick to the established tango repertoire and have a clue about organising the tracks, and that’s hardly rocket science. The more difficult part lies in getting a decent sound.

There are two reasons why tango DJs who are moving around on the milonga scenes around the world are allergic to traditional tango music. First, there is the technical difficulty of getting a decent sound out of Epoca de Oro music. Most DJs know little more than to set up some music or DJ software on their laptop and to get some tango music to play. The worst case scenario is if they use something like iTunes and mp3 music files. Better if they use some sort of a “lossless” format and a better music player. But that’s still going to be far from enough and so they “experiment” in order to spice up a set which is falling flat.

In order to make traditional tango music come alive ideally you need high quality transfers from the shellac records to high resolution 24bits/96kHz FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files with no “cleaning” or compression at all. You try to clean up or compress the file and the music sounds flat and lifeless. You’ll just have to live with the pops and noise. Then, you’ll need a decent set up on the computer. You’ll need music player software that is designed for quality sound reproduction. Neither iTunes nor even DJ software for electronic music like Traktor is adequate for this. You will need something dedicated to high fidelity reproduction like JRiver Media Center or Audirvana. Finally, you will need a decent external USB DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter). The built-in DAC inside your laptop is not adequate to quality sound reproduction. Yet I continue to see tango DJs plug the audio cable directly into the headphone jack on their laptop. It’s a complete joke.

Tango music would be consistently great if tango DJs and organisers cared about DJing as much as they care about promoting themselves. Unfortunately, and this is the second reason, they don’t. What they sell is red herrings: meeting people, dancing lessons, workshops, events, marathons, and loud high energy DJ sets spiced up with a lot of non-standard numbers, in other words, they sell a lot of buzz. With very few exceptions, sticking to quality traditional tango music is not in their business model. Their business model is selling tango product. Also, too many seem to crave all the attention they get on their FB pages, their 100s of international FB friends, promoting stuff with posters, a lot of online technique lessons, etc. If you, on the other hand, just ask for traditional tango or the Salon Canning experience they tune out. You can feel the Arctic wind. They just couldn’t care less. It’s boring and they couldn’t get attention on their FB pages and the associated status, international friends, exoticism, or product for that. There would be no buzz. Salon Canning is the tango marketing buzz killer.