Musicality: the connection of music and movement

The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. … The music derived from the fusion of various forms of music from Europe.

Wikipedia entry on Tango

This month, our popular Musicality Workshop is back “Dance to D’Arienzo”.

Workshop announcement

Tango is a feeling.

Tango Teacher

Apart from the Female Technique Workshop another popular type of class one sees commonly advertised is the Tango Musicality Workshop. I don’t recall taking one of these but in those classes where the topic is the music one would expect to find the exhortation to listen to and to feel the music. I have serious doubts whether exhortations of this sort have much effect since there is no system for teaching how to feel the music if one doesn’t already. When there is an actual attempt at systematic teaching the focus is often on the different interpretation of different orchestras. These workshops are typically taught by dancers who have little or no knowledge of music beyond dancing to it: they neither play music, know any music theory nor have any knowledge of ethnomusicology. The standard ethnomusicological story is like that we see on the Wikipedia entry: tango spontaneously emerged out of a fusion of various European and African genres in the back streets of Buenos Aires due to the intermingling of European migrants and African slaves.

Occasionally one does see announcements of musicality workshops conducted by musicians who play tango. From what I see these go into technical detail that is more relevant to the craft of the musicians themselves rather than helping dancers interpret the music in their dancing. Instead of looking at the historical antecedents of the music and providing an understanding that helps dancers listen to it, interpret and be moved by it in their dancing, musicians are mainly concerned with the form of the musical score that is written down.

There is an apparently unbridgable divide between musically illiterate dancers and teachers on the one hand, and musicians on the other. The latter seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. Workshops run by musicians seems to focus on music theory and the various aspects of the way tango compositions are organised, but do not put the music in any historical context to provide us with some understanding of its origins. Nor do they break down the music to those of its components that are relevant to movement and gesture. In fact, judging from the fact that most contemporary tango orchestras are play in a way that is either completely undanceable or at best barely danceable, it seems that contemporary tango musicians themselves have little to no understanding of the aspects of tango music relevant to dancing.

The apparent lack of serious inquiry in to the historical origins of tango seems to be due to the prevailing assumption that tango is sui generis so that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to inquire into the supposedly “dark” origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness in inviting movement. The reasoning seems to be that unlike the European tradition in which there are obvious and studied continuities from the Renaissance to Baroque, Classical and Modern periods, tango is more akin to the popular or Ethnic musical genres that spontanously emerge from the natural creativity of the common folk. This is largely a myth which has the unfortunate consequence of creating the sort of confusion and misunderstanding that propels the contemporary dancer into fallacies such as that tango is a ‘living’ culture that is constantly and randomly ‘evolving’ by adapting to the current circumstances.

The task of gaining a proper understanding of tango music is especially urgent for those who want to preserve traditional tango practice. It can be safely said that there is a general lack of understanding of music in general, and tango music in particular, among tango dancers as with the wider public. This lack of understanding means that people do lack the ability to listen to tango music and make informed judgements. It may be what is behind the many tango fads and kitsch ‘nuevo’ forms (see Beauty). If we could find a way of teaching people to understand the underlying structure of tango music and to appreciate it this would go a long way towards reinstituting the primacy of danceable traditional tango and thus reversing its degeneration into vacuous cliches that we see on the dancefloors of most milongas outside of Buenos Aires today.

One of the problems that we encounter here is a communication gap between those who understand music and those that they are trying to teach. Musicians are comfortable communicating to other musicians or to music students who are willing to invest time and effort into understanding the intricacies of music. However, the rule of pedagogy is that things need to be simplified to the level of the student so as to then bring the student up to a level where the knowledge gained is useful, as to do otherwise is to lose the student. Musicians tend not to understand this necessity to simplify in order to bring people along, the result being that musicality is taught by people whose background is studio dancing but who have inadequate understanding of music as a form that cannot be picked up in the dancing studio but that is written and has its own sort of structure.

Myths of diversity and popular culture

The cliches that we hear in Tango workshops and read online is that tango emerged in Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century out of a mishmash of European and African genres, out of the intermingling of immigrant workers from Europe with African slaves practicing Condombe rituals, in the back streets and the brothels of Buenos Aires. It gives the impression of a cultural form emerging sponteously out of the creative spirit of the lowest strate of society generating something truly spectacular and transformative.

This idea of emergence may sound plausible to those who are exposed to the fads of Western pop and rock music that apparently create something novel every decade. In fact, pop is based on an extremely limited musical vocabulary and what makes up for this poverty is the addition of an ostinato rhythm added by the drum kit or electronic drum machine. This phenomenon, which addicts the mass of consumers of pop and rock is quite new in music. Prior to pop, rhythm emerges out of the music itself rather than being added externally by the drum kit. As Roger Scruton points out in Understanding Music, without this external addition, much of pop would lack its impact. Scruton writes:

There is an extreme case of ostinato phenomenon, in which rhythm seems to become detached from harmonic and melodic organization, so as to be fired at them from outside, as it were. I refer to rhythmic ‘backing’, as exemplified by a certain style of pop.

To see how the ostinato rhythm is external to much pop music compare Genesis “No Son Of Mine” (1991) with an ‘acoustic’ version by Genesis in which the drum beat goes out for a portion of the song whereby it loses its impact. When played on acoustic guitar with no drums at all much of the impact of the original version is lost.

So pop music and all the apparent novelty is completely spurious, comprising short chord progressions repeated cyclically with little internal rhythm generated by melodically or harmonically but imposed by an artificial beat. The reality is that music of any sophistication or complexity is a fairly technical skill that is hardly the domain of the poor and the illiterate. Most complex musical genres emerged over long periods of time passed on from one generation to the next. Music that requires any sort of orchestration, ie., that has several musicians playing different instruments playing in concert necessiates it to be written down. It is more likely that, as with the various forms of rock music, novely involves several variations within a genre are created, much as funk and RnB are variation on jazz.

While it is common to find today many musicians who play in rock or pop bands who do not know how to read music or know music theory, this is possibley only because much contemporary music is a variation on the blues, that is, they use a cycle of basic chords. Tango music, especially the danceable variety, is more complex. While Carlos Gardel might have run through a chord progression on his guitar while he sang, a tango formation of four or more instruments playing for dancing is already a complex affair that is unlikely to have spontanously and organically emerged out of the back streets of a port city.

It is much more likely that, as rock is but a variation on the 12 bar blues, tango is a local variation on a more permanent tradition that has a longer and wider span. This approach differs from the more standard approaches that are currently in fashion, that are influenced by a sort of relativist anthropology and which emphasise diversity rather than commonality, and prefer to find the ‘roots’ in the oppressed underclasses rather than privileged culture. My view is that music if any complexity involves cumulative development and technical training of some sort and is unlikely to emerge spontanously out of the oppressed underclass. We are not talking here about banging out a rhythm with a couple of sticks. The building and playing of instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and bandoneons demand fairly complex technical skills and materials that do not come easily and cheaply. I suspect that the idea that semi-literates can play tango music is significantly due to the fact that a lot of modern music such as rock seems to be played by semi-literates. But much of modern ‘guitar’ music is based on the 12-bar blues and most 12 year olds can learn to play a blues tune in a handful of lessons, after that it’s all pretty much the same.

In fact, we do find that tango is actually a part of the evolution of partner dances that originate with British country dance. My suggestion is, instead of reading the standard accounts of the origins of tango in the back streets of Buenos Aikres, a better way to gain insight into the origins and structure of tango music is to read the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Contradanza, subsequently known as Habanera. Cuban Habanera is the key connection between the English country dance and European contradase on the one hand, and Tango and the other latin folk dances on the other. The key contribution that Habanera makes to European contradanse is the addition of an African rhythm. It thus explains the key African contribution to the latin dances that are based on the Habanera rhythm.

The standard sort of anthropological readings of the history of tango are politically correct in that the current academic fashion is to stress the lowly origins for popular culture, diversity, difference from the formal European tradition, and the transgressive aspect whereby these forms challenge the mainstream or acceptable culture, where white Europeans intermingle with dark women in seedy locales. Thus, a reviewer of Chasteen’s 2004 book “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” writes that:

Dance could unite people across boundaries of class, race, and – since the dances under study are couples dances – obviously gender. Yet precisely because popular dance ruptured those boundaries, elites, the state, and the Church all considered dances with African cultural influence transgressive to the social, political and sexual order of things. … Chasteen argues that the story of transgressive popular dance is one of race mixing, a reason official culture so long opposed it. Indeed Chasteen posits that Church and state never succeeded in repressing transgressive dances since powerful men enjoyed the “privileged sexual access to poorer, darker women” (p. 204). The full extent of the sexual politics …

We can see how these sorts of narratives are spun by academics following the current fashion in political correctness and ‘radical discourses’, with plenty of ‘transgression’ and ‘oppression’ to get the book accepted by academic publishers and ultimately to be ordered by dance departments and paid for by university libraries. In other words, in the present climate of academic culture studies this is the kind of thing to need to say for the book to be accepted by predominantly female, leftist, probably lesbian and almost definitely radical feminist dance department and sociology academics: a narrative of the appropriation of exotic African cultures and oppression of poor dark women by powerful white men.

It’s all very exotic, radical and titilating, but whether there is any truth to it or not (which is questionable) pretty much useless from the point of view of a person wishing to learn how to dance tango as a form of self-improvement and cultural development. On the contrary, I suggest that the understanding of tango in terms of the evolution of the structure of tango music, rather than giving us spontaneous diversity of local musical forms, provides us with an understanding of what they have in common and the connection between them. While perhaps less radical and titilating, and more boring and bland, showing connections and continuities with established mainstream culture provides, in my view, a more useful way into the form for the student.

The basis of danceable tango: the habanera rhythm

I propose that in order to understand the basic rhythmic structure of tango we need to trace it back to its roots in the habaneira rhythm and to understand (i) what the habaneira rhythm is, (ii) what are its varieties, (iii) where it originates, and (iv) how it influences dances such as tango. In addressing these questions in the simplest way possible my primary source for the time being is going to be Wikipedia. So I will cite the Wikipedia entry on Contradanza and insert my comments. The roots of tango trace back to English country dance, subsequently known as Contradanza. First, Wikipedia informs us as follows:

Contradanza (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic “habanera rhythm” and sung lyrics.Outside Cuba the Cuban contradanza became known as the habanera – the dance of Havana – and that name was adopted in Cuba itself subsequent to its international popularity in the later 19th century, though it was never so called by the people who created it.

So here we can see that what became known as the Habanera in the 19th century was derived from the English country dance that traces back to the Reneissance and contradanse of the Baroque period. This form subsequently became rhythmically based on an African rhythm in Cuba and came to be known as Habanera which forms the basis for many folk dances in South America.

The contradanza was popular in Spain and spread throughout Spanish America during the 18th century. According to musicologist Peter Manuel, it may be impossible to resolve the question of the contradanza’s origin, as it has been pointed out by Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán in humoristically labeling the genre as “anglofrancohispanoafrocubano” (English-French-Spanish-African-Cuban).

The most conventional consensus in regard to the origin of this popular Cuban genre was established by novelist Alejo Carpentier, in his book from 1946 “La Música en Cuba.” In that book he proposes a theory that signals the French contredance, supposedly introduced in Cuba by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), as the prototype for the creation of the creolized Cuban Contradanza. However, according to other important Cuban musicologists, such as Zoila Lapique and Natalio Galan, it is quite likely that the Contradanza had been introduced to Havana directly from Spain, France or England several decades earlier.

The earliest Cuban contradanza of which a record remains is “San Pascual Bailón”, which was written in 1803. Certain characteristics would set the Cuban contradanza apart from the contredanse by the mid-19th century, notably the incorporation of the African cross-rhythm called the tresillo. The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The basic habanera rhythm is most familiar from Bizet’s Carmen. It is made up of a Tresillo as demonstrated in the following visualisation:

This basic rhythm gives tango music the swing that invites people to dance. Play the same tango more legato and it becomes listening music. This is the reason the post-1950 tango recordings that are predominantly arranged for the listening audience are not danceable. In the same vein, you can not dance to traditional tango unless you are able to hear and respond to the underlying swing of the habanera rhythm, or more specifically, the Tresillo beat, that is implicit in all danceable tangos. Conversely, nce you are able to discern this rhythm dancing to traditional tango becomes fairly straightforward.

Below are some more videos with examples of the Habanera rhythm as well as some discussion of the rhythm in relation to tango. Unfortunately the latter are all in Spanish with no available subtitles. I will try to find a translation of English language videos and add them as soon as I do.

The Wikipedia article on Contradanza tells us that the habanera rhythm’s time signature is 2/4. An accented upbeat in the middle of the bar lends power to the habanera rhythm. This can be written as follows:

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This rhythm can be heard in the bass line of these examples of habanera. In the first set of examples we can hear how the habenra rhythm is incorporated into what is otherwise Eurpean music by the Cuban composer Manuel Saumell (1818-70) who was trained and workded in Havana and was one of the first to introduce Cuban folkloric musical styles to a classically-grounded genre. In the first interpretation we can hear a transition from what sounds like European dancing music to distinctly Cuban habanera when the double bass and shaker comes in with the habenera rhythm:

In the following sample the piano plays the habenera rhythm with the left hand which gives the pieces a swing:

The  bassline in the following samples sounds very close to Bizet’s Carmen:


Syncopated cross-rhythms called the tresillo and the cinquillo, basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin and African music, began the Cuban dance’s differentiation from its European form. … This pattern is heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics, known as the congo, tango-congo, and tango. … The syncopated rhythm may be vocalised as “boom…ba-bop-bop”, and “da, ka ka kan.” It may be sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, vocalized as: “pa ti pa pa”, beginning on the second beat so that the last “pa” coincides with beat one, ending on the beginning of the cycle so that the part contributes to the cyclic nature of the rhythm . . . Carpentier (2001:149) states that the cinquillo was brought to Cuba in the songs of the black slaves and freedmen who emigrated to Santiago de Cuba from Haiti in the 1790s . . .

Contradanza subsequently formed the basis for variations in Cuba and elsewhere, such as danza habanera, danzon and danza:

although the contradanza and danza were musically identical, the dances were different . . . A danza entitled “El Sungambelo”, dated 1813, has the same structure as the contradanza – the four-section scheme is repeated twice, ABAB (Santos 1982) and the cinquillo rhythm can already be heard.

Habera rhythm in tango

The habanera rhythm forms the basis of the early tango and continues in some form throughout:

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter-note followed by three eighth-notes, with an accent on the first and third notes. To some extent the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo and “La Morocha” (1904). . . .

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires, noted the milonga was “so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and … has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs . . .

Here is an example of a habanera El pañuelo de Pepa by Manuel Saumell we can almost hear a danceable milonga in the bassline, played either by the Viola in the first video, the left hand on the piano, or the guitar playing the rhythm in the trio in the second video below:


What is interesting is that the 1-2 pulse of the milonga emerges out of the more complex habanera rhythm which can be counted 1 and-2-and 1 and etc.



Here you will find my replies to the discussion on TangoVoice which are being censored by the owner without his or her notification as of mid-2018. TangoVoice apparently did not censor any discussion until the issue became hypergamy and misandry in women. Below are my responses that are being censored.

Ultimate Values and Desecration

Currently it is possible to say that there are two sorts of Argentine tango. One is the milongas in Buenos Aires that maintain the traditions of tango. The other are the milongas outside of Buenos Aires that are primarily commercial outfits. Whether or not they promote themselves as traditional and are operated by Argentines, the latter are fundamentally oriented to commercialising cultural product and seem to inevitably downgrade the value of the tango experience. Traditionalists insist that tango cannot be commodified and commercialised.

In the modern world, traditional values are being replaced by instrumental values. These two sorts of values are fundamentally different. Instrumental values are concerned with means to ends. I have a goal and see something as a means to an end. When I learn to dance I must view learning and dancing as a means (as instrumental) to some further ends. Values, on the other hand, are concerned with the ends that we are ultimately aiming for. There must therefore be a disagreement about the ends of dancing tango between the traditionalists and the consumers of tango outside of Argentina.

When one looks at much of the marketing for tango on the internet the images resemble that of ballroom and club dances. The dancers are cool, fit and sexy, wearing cool and sexy outfits, engaging in a fun and exciting activity. These images reflect contemporary culture which has dispensed with ultimate values in favour of short-term hedonistic gratification. There is no attempt to achieve the sort of experience of transcendent beauty that was the end of art until about a hundred years ago. Instead, music and dance aim only to provide entertainment.

There is, however, a difference between art and entertainment. The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton tells us that the goal of art is beauty and that we need beauty to make life worth living. If we only ever experience mood lifting entertainment we will in the end feel spiritually depleted. Therefore, people came to the view that art has a spiritual function to put us in touch with beauty that transcends ordinary reality and is thus redeeming.

Commodifying a form like tango must therefore inevitably involve corrupting it in one way or another. It requires appealing to our lower instincts. It requires the product of kitsch art which provides immediate gratification but only by producing feelings and experiences that are inauthentic. The problem is that, because beauty is no longer valued in culture generally, we have lost the ability to evaluate critically the products of the mass culture industry. The education system no longer teaches the history of art other than in order to contrast it with the achievements of modern and post-modern art that no longer aims at beauty, but merely at novelty, creativity and being interesting, at ‘deconstructing’ ordinary reality in order to desecrate it.

Because so much of contemporary culture is oriented towards this sort of desecration, those who have been exposed to postmodernist forms of education have no way of understanding what traditionalists are talking about when they insist that there are certain ultimate values. It is extremely difficult to critically unpack the aesthetic values in cultural products like music, painting, architecture or dancing. Modern architecture is invariably ugly and dehumanising, and yet it’s not obvious why. Contemporary music is dumbed down and degenerate and yet we have lost the ability to explain why we should prefer something else.

The traditional practitioners of Argentine tango are therefore not alone, but share this difficulty with traditionalists and conservatives in all the other spheres of culture, in music, art and architecture. All of culture is set against tradition, viewing it as an expression of an oppressive patriarchal system that needs to be abolished in favour of a new utopia that dispenses with beauty and instead is constantly creative. It views the function of art to desecrate, to show what is ultimate and beautiful as being really kitsch and ugly, and instead to elevate what is ugly or ordinary to the status of art and culture. In such a culture insisting on traditional values and pointing to the beauty of a practice that ought to be preserved will inevitably draw derision and contempt.

Beauty and Interpretation: Canonical Tango Recordings

A. Milongas in Buenos Aires play only Golden Era tango music.
B. But there is so much great tango music, why insist on playing those old scratchy records? The noise is so annoying. Modern orchestras are just as good or better.

There is a schism in tango concerning the music played at milongas. I am not concerned with those who want to play electronic tango or non-tango music at their tango nuevo events. I will rather address the issue of pre-1950 vs. post-1950 tango music at ‘mainstream’ milongas in major cities.

The year 1950 is a rough marker of transition from Golden Era tango recordings to orcherstral recordings that are not considered by traditionalists as appropriate for the milongas.* In fact, for some the very concept of traditional Buenos Aires milonga culture is attached to the Golden Era music. It’s a completely different sort of practice. For them, you may call it tango if you want, but they don’t recognise it as an any significant way continuous with what they are doing but rather a radical, revolutionary, and in their view, regressive departure from the tradition that has really developed after 1950 but based on a canonical set of recordings.

So the question then arises what is it about these particular recordings that raises them to the status of canon that the latter, so-called modern tango recordings, are lacking? Why are there no post-1950 recordings that are allowed into the canon? This question is raised especially by those who view tango as a ‘living culture’ which is continuously evolving and who therefore reject the idea that tango is defined by static, rigid definitions that prescribe a particular set of recordings as defining the culture. They view this sort of attitude as essentially reactionary because it rejects the possibility of improvement. They don’t see why such old recordings, recorded on poor equipment on records that are a lot of noise, should be considered necessarily superior to more modern recordings which do not have noise, are recorded on better recording equipment, by contemporary orchestras.

There are two groups of people who might engage in this type of argumentation. First, there are people whose knowledge is limited to contemporary culture, that is, who have very limited knowledge of art, music and literature that predates 1960. For these people the 1950s is the end of ‘pre-history’, an era of chauvinistic semi-civilised dinasours whereas ancient history worth mentioning is defined by such personalities as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, John Coltrane and Miles Davis in music, Jack Kerouac in literature, and Maurice Duchamp and Andy Warhol in art. Anything prior to that is on par with Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, really the domain of archeology that has little relevance to contemporary life. These people see culture as constantly and instantanously evolving and transforming. As soon as something is created it becomes obsolete only to be displaced by the next act of creativity. Culture is the realm of constant change, novelty, creativity, transgression and originality.

For these people, the desire to define and preserve cultural practices (representational painting, classical music, classical architecture) is puzzling and out of place in the modern world, a desire ascribed people who lack proper education in how the modern world works, who reject the current reality and live in some weird isolated realm outside of acceptable society. For these people seeing a Caravagio painting, or hearing Beethoven is an experience in the same order as going to Disney World, but of course nothing like seeing the true innovators and setters of cultural standards like the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd: a truly deep and meaningful experience of the ‘old masters’.

Second, there are the actually educated people who do know something about the history of Western culture and do recognise that perhaps you can’t compare Andy Warhol or Jack Kerouack to Rembrant or Shakespeare. But they still believe that, great as they may be, the latter still belong to ‘museal culture’ that is at a distance from currely reality and therefore of limited relevance in the modern and post-modern world, consigned to academic curricula. These people can accept that there are those who will want to engage in outdated practices, but in recognising this they reject that such practices have any prescriptive or normative value. There is nothing better or to be recommended for doing so because to the post-modern intellectual all cultural expressions are fundamentally the same, so that there is no fundamental difference between Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

In fact, the latter group of intelligentsia pay only lip service to equality and in the end view any attempt to conservation and preservation as an expression of oppressive bougeois values. All culture prior to mid-20th century is viewed as tainted with oppressive bourgeois values and thereby fundamentally suspect. Therefore, any attempt to say that Western cultural tradition is not merely a personal preference of some people who go to concerts, but is actually in some more universal way preferable or superior is instantly accused of being an expression of racist, white-supremacist attitudes. These are expressions that are no longer allowed to state in public.

The anti-Western attitudes of the educated intelligentsia who occupy the professorial posts in the academy, and the historical ignorance of their younger proteges, have the consequence of radical narrowing down discourse concerning cultural criticism. 
As has been noted by the philosopher Roger Scruton, cultural criticism is extremely important for culture to develop and flourish, and the loss of our ability to engage in critical thinking and discourse about culture results in degradation in the realms of art, music, and architecture.

Criticism, Conservatism and Reaction

While the progressives view all forms of conservatism as essentially reactionary, there is a possible way of defining the difference between conservatism and reaction. Roughly, a reactionary is someone who wants no change at all, whereas a conservative says: keep what works, change what does not work. That is, the conservative attitude is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Conservatives view the established order of things as the hard won achievements that ought to be preserved and are easily destroyed to our detriment. They reject the progressive view that the established status quo is fundamentally bad and all progress is for the better.

To return to our original topic, the question then is whether the definition of a canon that defines the milonga culture is reactionary or conservative. In fact it can be both: there will be some who will reject any change at all and others who would accept some additions to the canon so long as they don’t upset the milonga culture. Notice that the reactionary attitude does not necessiate cultural criticism because once the canon has been established it just needs to be replicated mechanically without any alternations being allow and so no need for critical analysis of proposed additions or changes. In that sense it is similar to the sort of progressivism that uncritically prefers novelty and transgression. Only conservatism requires informed criticism of proposed additions in terms of how they affect the culture and therefore whether they should be allowed into the established canon.

How then could we evaluate tango recordings in order to decide whether they belong to the canon, and on what grounds might we reject modern tango recordings from the canon of traditional tango? I would suggest some aspects of music recordings that are relevant to this issue. I base my insights here on my own analysis of recordings of orchestral and classical guitar music. A recording of a piece of music is literally a record of a performance of a composition at a particular point in time in a particular place using a particular sort of equipment. This recording will then be mastered in a particular sort of way and finally it will be reproduced from a particular sort of on particular audio equipment in a particular sort of space. All of these aspects determine the final experience. We can then only evaluate a given recording by way of comparison: comparing different performances, recording equipment, mastering process and reproduction equipment.

To say that a given recording is canonican is to say that it represents the benchmark against which other recordings are to be evaluated. This means that given all of the elements that comprise this recording as a cultural product it represents (or is recognised as representing) the highest achievement in the genre. That is, given appropriate reproduction of the recording it elicits the best possible experience in a properly informed listener. As with any form of art, musical appreciation does require prior training, and so the person experiencing the music must be familiar with the genre and understand its inherent values. A canonican recording will then be one that is representative of these aesthetic values and provide the maximal possible expression of these values.

The basic method in critical evaluation of a product of art is comparative, that is we take two examples that share the subject matter, and listen to them attentively in order to decide which one is better and then what renders one better then the other. This then provides us with some criteria for evaluating recordings more generally. One may take two or more recordings of Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater, or Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe, and isolate specific elements that render some better than the other. Given two or more recordings, ultimately one always tends to prefer one over the others and so one may legitimately ask why that is.

In classical or pre-contemporary music the goal of art is beauty, which means an aesthetic and emotional response, a feeling. Here it is generally recognised that some feelings are real or authentic, and others are fake or inauthentic. A work of art may aim to elicits certain authentic feelings and be more or less successful in doing so. Alternatively, it may actually be successful at eliciting feelings but do so in a shallow and inauthentic way. Kitsch art such as garden gnomes, Walt Disney characters, and even some works of high art which play on our emotions are considered inauthentic. They elicit a feeling or emotion without putting us in touch with a higher, universal or transcental reality that offers consolation and satisfaction, but offers only transient, consummable emotion. Thus, an authentic work of art is one where the artist has no only the skill to elicit an aesthetic response in the viewer or listener, but also aims to elicit an emotion, or image of beauty, which is authentic and transcendent.

Here we can see that both the intention and the skill of the artist—and in the case of recorded and reproduced music, also those in charge of recording, mastering and reproducing the music,—determines the success or failure of the work of art. An artist might seek to elicit authentic feelings and represent transcendent beauty and yet be limited in his skill to do so. A lot of medieval art sought to capture divinity but could do so only in limited ways that depended on the recipient to add the necessary ingredient of religious belief in order to project the transcendental value on the object. As artistic genius developed however great masters were able to achieve the skill to produce an aesthetic experience that communicated divinity. However, this meant also that some artists were able to use their skill and technique but without transcendental beauty in mind. The experience of beauty did not move one out of the realm of ordinary, profane reality and at least in that sense the feelings generated were not authentic, not a matter of higher transcendental truth that we seek in works of art.

So when we look at the canonical Golden Era tango recordings the idea is that these express the aesthetic values of milonga culture which are in some sense ultimate, authentic and permanent. They elicit aesthetic experiences that transcend the disposable and consummable emotions generated by mere kitsch art. Some say that such music is transformative in some fundamental ways. That means that these artists aimed to represent transdendental beauty in these compositions, and also were able the highest level of skill in achieving this aim. It also means that the latter recordings either do not aim to transcendental truth, or if they aim in that direction, they fail to achieve this effectively. They might speak to some who project those values on those works, but they lack the sort of universality capable of speaking to anyone.

Sound is a complex phenomenon and in evaluating recordings we need to attend to nuances of interpretation, instrumentation, orchestration and ambience. A recording done on different instruments, constructed in a different era, providing a different sort of tonality, performed in different sort of acoustic environment, and recorded on different sort of equipment will make for a radically different rendition of the same composition. I’m a learner of classical guitar and ambitiusly decided to learn Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe which is a classic compisition for the instrument. I listened to two recordings, one by a young Russian virtuoso who played the piece fast, slurring over many notes, and another by David Russell who played more slowly. Listening to the first recording I nearly gave up on the piece as it seemed flat and hollow, but then listening to Russell’s rendition I understood the emotional and aesthetic depth in the piece that was completely absent in the first version. The virtuoso guitarist was exhibiting great skill but was running through the piece without the sort of understanding of what it was about that Russell exhibits.

Any piece of great music has many layers that both the musician and the listener discovers over time and then projects on the musical moment. The piece must touch on certain feelings that provide for consolation, redemption or atonement by connecting us to universal truths or values. Those who listen to tango music and hear crackling noise and poor recording, but seek shiny new polished recordings by modern orchestras are not attuned to these sorts of values. They are aware neither of the emotions that the musicians seek with greater or lesser success to inject into the music, nor of the nuance and ambience created by the material reality of the space, the instruments and the recording equipment that are all aligned to create the recording and that are captured in it. These material aspects are the canvas and the paint that provide the texture of the recording that cannot be replicated in any other ways.

That does not mean that one cannot capture authentic aesthetic values with different instruments or using different recording equipment. The issue is the assumption that innovation is either always better, or if one is a relativist, its neither better or worse, just different. Take for example the emergence of classical guitar. Bach composed pieces for the lute which was the main instrument in his time. The guitar came into prominence at a latter date so that pieces composed for the lute had to be transcribe for the guitar. The lute pieces performed on a lute versus guitar sound quite different. Yet guitarists like John Williams seek to retain some of the ambience and texture when playing Bach’s lute pieces that is characteristic to the lute while also maximising the contribution that the guitar can make. There will be difference but also continuity in the relevant respects that render the guitar performance satisfying.

From this point of view it seems that the issue with contemporary, post-1950s performances and recordings of tango music is not that it couldn’t achieve the level of the canon, but rather that it does not even attempt to do so. This is for a number of the standard reasons. In some cases it simply moves on from the canon and seeks to innovate without continuity, as in the case of Piazzolla. Most tango orchestras ceased to play music for dancing and instead redirected their efforts toward listening audiences such that the music is no longer relevant to dancing at all. In many cases, the music was simply recorded for the purpose of producing a cleaner, more up-to-date sound using more modern recording studio equipment and clean sound without the noise and the scratches. What is also lacking, however, in such recordings is the ambience and texture which give canonical recordings a certain immediacy and warmth. We get a very sanitised and often compressed sound that is so characteristic of contemporary recordings in all genres. Finally, interpretation and feeling is replaced by mere technique and virtuosity that merely seeks to squeeze out emotional highs without really understanding the subtle aesthetic values in the music.


In order to develop critical appreciation of music we need to both know the history of art and view it as important and relevant today. Then through a method of comparing different works we can discern the extent to which they aim to achieve authentic, lasting, transcendent beauty, and also succeed in doing so. We can then try to identify the specific aspects of the art work that are operative in providing or failing to provide the experience beauty. Unfortunately, the contemporary discussions do not even attempt to do so, mainly because our schooling in art elevated modern and postmodern art which merely seeks to be ‘creative’, ‘original’, transgressive and interesting. This has resulted in the situation in which we have effectively lost the skills and the language that we need to critically assess the value of cultural products so that we can preserve what has value and improve on it without destroying it.


* This is a rough designation as there are some recordings up to 1953 by Biagi and Di Sarli that are included in the canon.

Beauty or kitsch: making aesthetic judgements about tango dancing



I was just admiring how its done to the highest level: nobody got hurt, everybody had space, nobody passed the couple in front, not one boleo, not one gancho, …. And yet – sooo beautiful!

Facebook user comment on a Youtube video of a tango competition

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It is common to find people make aesthetic judgements on social media about some people’s tango dancing. Such statements typically have the character of subjective affirmations. It’s difficult to argue with such statements as aesthetic judgements are notoriously difficult to render objective. Sometimes there are reasons given for preferring a particular style of dancing pointing to some objectively verifiable aspects such as absence boleos and ganchos. Then in response one can point out that in fact there are more than one boleo, and while there are no ganchos (which are not done in Salon Style Tango) most of the boleos are high:

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These couples have a good amount of space which cannot be taken for granted at a crowded milonga or small venue, so that the length of their steps is not viable. The men’s backward steps, the extending of the leg backwards for a period of time, or the wide low boleos, would all create high risk situations in a social dancing context. These factors would create a sense of risk and tension among the dancers, and therefore provide a poor model for social dancing, for example, for those reading the Facebook post who take it as an informed judgement by someone who is in position to make such judgements, and so use these dancers as a model of competent social dancing.

Arguments about etiquette and the safe way to dance are kind of boring and so not all that effective in getting people to have second thoughts about dancing this way at milongas. What is more difficult but perhaps more interesting are judgements about what is beautiful. This is probably more effective in convincing people to go one way or the other. Yet the aesthetic response is viewed as essentially subjective and personal: we generally assume the truth of de gustibus non est disputandum, that there is no accounting for taste, that beauty is the eye of the beholder. How can I argue with the sentiment expressed in “And yet – sooo beautiful”. That’s a gut feeling of this person who affirms this dancing as of “the highest level”.

Perhaps at some time I would have shared this sentiment, or perhaps my response would be undecided, of the sort “It looks pretty, but does that represent what tango is really about?” We do not always automatically assume that our immediate emotional or aesthetic responses are always to be trusted,  that they might not dupe us into following something false, insincere, or fake. Just because something tastes good does not mean that it is good for us. So in situations in which we do not trust our own judgement we judiciously fall on the verdict of informed authorities or critics. The problem is that in the arena of culture and art the critics have eschewed beauty as mere kitsch, as inauthentic clichés, and have instead opted for abstraction and originality. So for many people, aesthetic judgements have come to mean uninformed gut responses and the rule of the majority of the consumers on the market place, as in the case of Pop music.

And yet we do know that people who have some basic knowledge of music, that is, how music is constructed or composed, it’s grammar so to speak, the basics of harmony, rhythm, interpretation, do not automatically share the positive evaluation of the products of the music industry. They see through the tricks and hooks that are used to get the masses addicted to the likes of Lady Gaga, and recognise that contemporary music appeals to our lower instincts, is dumbed down, and makes us correspondingly dumber. Knowledge of music makes them more informed judges of its quality and value. While institutional music critics have come to reject tonal music in favour of abstract atonality, unlike in the art world, their influence is more limited due to the fact that most people could not sit through more than 20 minutes of such a performance.

The embrace

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The ‘wristaround’ and the ‘fingertip’ embrace accommodate the figures

So how can we go about evaluating the aesthetic value, the beauty, of tango dancing? I believe that anyone with sufficient experience of dancing tango will come to the view that the beauty of tango dancing resides significantly in the embrace understood as the couple being open to, rather than from, the other and fully embracing each other. It does not reside in the sort of mechanical frame in which the couple merely touches each other at the fingertips, as a mere support for the execution of choreography where the man is a mobile wall for her ochos and decorations whereas the woman a mobile chair for his sacadas.


This embrace is not ‘flexible’

If we just bother to look we can easily see whether a couple is focused on the embrace and moving in the embrace or whether they are focused on executing their routine and using the embrace as a supporting frame. This is not to say that there is not a technique aspect to the embrace but rather that this aspect must open the way into active engagement with the partner without which the dance is really nothing more than the execution of choreography. If the goal is the execution of set patterns, then that technique is always compromised in order to facilitate the footwork, and so there is a constant tendency in the direction of the fingertip embrace or worse, opening up completely and even going so far as doing a Salsa turn in order to dissipate the tension building up in the arms.

The music

Second, the beauty of tango dancing resides in an immediate response to the music. Tango music, in particular the Golden Era recordings that are used at traditional milongas, is an aesthetic achievement and our dancing is both an aesthetic response and a creation. So we have to understand tango dancing as comprising an element of listening  and responding to music. Again, we can see immediately if we bother to look what the couple hears or fails to hear in the music.

There are two ways to experience music. Nowadays the predominant manner of experiencing music is in the form of background noise or musac: in the supermarket, the elevator, or blaring into our earphones while we are busily distracted with things like shopping or eating. We rarely actually attend to the music and its various elements. Prior to the age of musical reproduction and ubiquitous audio devices people rarely heard music and when they did it was probably by sitting and listening to it, giving it a significant amount of their attention. In the era of ubiquitous music we have learned not to attend to music but simply to consider it as background noise. When we watch a tango performance we are mesmerised by the visual image of dancers in making loud moves and wearing equally loud costumes.

As neuroscience tells us, human cognition is characterised by a limited processing capacity at any given moment, and also the predominance of vision. Since the brain cannot process more than one thing at a time there is little mental space left to actually process the sound. We see the lovely shoes, dresses and tuxedos, and the whole thing roughly coheres with the background sound blaring out of the speakers, and we emit the gut response that it’s all “so beautiful”. The question is whether this is not equivalent of the sort of uninformed gut-level response one might have to Lady Gaga.

So what happens if we self-consciously ignore the tango dresses, expensive shoes, tuxedos, and workshop moves, and instead focus attention on the music itself, and then use that to evaluate the dancing as a response to the music? This cognitive technique changes the ‘framing’ of our perception and so will likely offer an alternative Gestalt. The  frame of reference will no longer the superficial and less significant aspects of dancing such as dress and show moves, but more essential elements such as the music and movement as a response to the music.

I want to point to certain aspects of tango music that it shares with most tonal music that would be apparent to anyone who has some knowledge of musical composition, and that should influence how we respond to it in our dancing. In most Western music—pop, rock, hip hop, blues, as well as tango—there will be some parts of the overall sound which are low middle or high. Different instruments occupy different range on the scale from low to high. Monophonic instruments such as the double bass or the cello will play the low-end, violin or flute will be at the top-end. Polyphonic instruments such as piano, guitar or bandoneon can play over the whole range.

The different part of the tonal spectrum is associated with different musical functions. In many types of music such as rock, pop also tango the low-end and mid-range section keeps the rhythm, that is plays in such a way that supports the melodic playing of the high-end.  So the rhythm section (usually the double bass, piano and bandoneon) and will usually play more staccato, that is, the rhythm will be tight and the notes will be short and separated. Also, the low end notes provide more of the feel of the music and often drive our movement more as can be seen from the fact that a lot of dance music comprises of a heavy bass. At the same time, these notes are more felt than heard, that is, you have to attend to them to consciously hear them.

A rhythm section (also called a backup band) is a group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmicand harmonic reference and “beat” for the rest of the band. (Wikipedia)

The piano, bass, and drums comprise the rhythm section; their primary role is to accompany and provide support for the horn players as well as each other; they may also improvise solos. The pianist’s primary job is to play chords (the music that accompanies the melodies) in a lively, rhythmic fashion. (

Instruments such as violins, trumpets and also the high-range of polyphonic instruments (piano, bandoneon, guitar) play the melodic parts and will often play more legato, ie., the notes are long and connected, and also they will often play tempo rubato, ie., the notes will stretch time rather than keeping a strict rhythm.

We are more consciously aware of the high-end melodic section because it pops out whereas low-end is more felt than heard. But because its various characteristics, the high-end section is not typically ideal for constructing a dance because they will usually play more notes, giving the impression that the beat it faster than it actually is, and also because they do not usually keep a strict time. Lets say the rhythmic instruments (double bass, left hand of the piano and low end of the bandoneon) are playing a strict rhythm of four quarter notes per bar, whereas the high end (violins, high end of bandoneon, etc.) is playing high 16th notes interspersed with ample amounts of legato interpretations. Well, if you want to impress the onlookers who are consciously aware of the high-end you would probably follow that and pull out fast moves and smooth turns to squeeze out every ounce of passionate energy out of the melody line.

However, the rhythm section is not there merely as a sort of background that can be dispensed with. It is in fact the grounding that holds everything together, supporting the melody and allowing it to reach those highs. Connecting your dancing in the rhythmic low-end provides your dance with stability and grounding that helps to establish the connection to your partner and gives you control on the dancefloor.

Of course, the different aspects will be emphasised to different degrees. In tango, a composition will leave it open to interpretation of the particular orchestra to play the composition more stoccato or legato, and it is the balance between the two polarities that provides for much of the feel, tone or character of the particular recording.

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Grounded in the low-end or flying on the high-end?

When we become aware that the music has this structure and these elements, we can discern whether a couple is responding to the staccato, legato or rubato aspects of the music. Are they listening to the singer or the violins stretching out the notes with smooth turns or pauses, or are they responding to the bass and piano with their stoccato knocking out the rhythm. The music will differ in terms of the openness of different interpretations. If you are dancing to Biagi most of that will be stoccato so that dancing smoothly and pausing will feel strange. It would be equally strange to dance staccato to Di Sarli’s Dancehall Instrumentals. If you’re dancing to D’Agostino there will be more room for alternative interpretations and more variety.

From this point of view, tango dancing must consist of the ability to respond to the music, to be open to the music and what the music makes available. Instead, what we get in these tango competitions is a repetitive, smooth running through the walks and turns. When the dancers depart from smooth dancing, it seems to be mostly at those high points when the bandoneon plays a dense set of high 16th notes and the dancers do a set of fast stepping turns. Uninformed audiences see this as an exhibition of great skill, and in a sense it is that. The problem is that it is a skill at show dancing which is essentially inauthentic and, I would argue, therefore kitsch. As such it does not express any ideals that we ought to aspire to.

The social aspect

milonga5Finally, the beauty of tango resides in the social aspect. When we dance socially we do not dance as a lone couple but with other couples. In these competitions there are several couples on the dance floor,but the manner of their dancing is as if they were there alone, dancing independently of the others. They do not cohere as a group of dancers moving independently but in an emergent manner also in sync with each other, but instead are literally in competition with each other. The purpose of social dancing, and therefore the beauty ideally inherent in it, is the convivial atmosphere that is created by the people who know, trust and harmonise with each other. When that is lacking, what is left is the abstract beauty of the steps and figures that elicit an inauthentic emotion in the audience which, I would suggest, is the definition not of beauty but of kitsch.