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Tango to Tango I - Tango Orchestras

Page 1 - Tango Orchestras Page 2 - Other Music Page 3 - Postscript

An important part of musicality in tango is recognising the orchestra's style. In Buenos Aires, the tangos are grouped into "tandas" (sets) of about four tangos, all played by the same orchestra. Recognising the orchestra within the first few bars of the first tango means that, for example, those who love the romanticism of Miguel Caló's orchestra get up and dance when one of his tangos is played, because they know that the next fifteen minutes will be bliss. On the other hand, those who think Osvaldo Pugliese's arrangements are bossy know that when his tanda arrives, it's time to go for a cigarette.

What we'll do here is look at different tango orchestras, and get to understand their style and energy. I don't hope to present a history of the great tango orchestras - in fact the orchestras presented below aren't necessarily in chronological order - what's more important here is noticing the style of the orchestra in the recordings we hear in the milongas. I also don't pretend to provide an exhaustive list of orchestras; I have instead selected a mere few to whet the appetite.

Below is a list of tango orchestra leaders and a short sample of each playing a tango. When you're listening to each, try to decide what you think about the following things:

  • what instruments are playing?
  • is it fast or slow?
  • does the speed stay the same or change?
  • are there pauses in the beat or silences? when?
  • what happens between the phrases of the music?
  • what might you feel like doing while dancing to it?

I've tried to provide my answers to many of these questions, but you might disagree with my judgement - and that's the interesting part.

Di Sarli

Here is a short sample of Carlos Di Sarli's version of "La Cumparsita", which is probably the most famous tango in the world (it's also the tango which is played last at many milongas as the signal that's it's time to go home).

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[Carlos Di Sarli - La Cumparsita]

Di Sarli is very constant with the rhythm - it's slowish and doesn't change from the beginning to the end of the tango. He almost never 'drops' beats - there's always an instrument beating the time, and there are no pauses. The tangos they played were written in the 30s or before, and had a very predictable phrase structure.

The music is extremely reliable, which makes it less challenging for beginners. Often as dancers move on from being beginners, they leave Di Sarli behind, because he reminds them of their first tortuous steps in tango, which is a shame, because he has alot of elegance and complexity to offer between all his reliably-paced beats.


Here is a sample of the same tango, "La Cumparsita", this time played by Juan D'Arienzo's orchestra.

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[Juan D'Arienzo - La Cumparsita]

It doesn't take very long to notice the major difference between D'Arienzo's version and the Di Sarli one above - D'Arienzo is not embarrassed to have the entire orchestra completely stop playing for several beats. These 'pauses' are extremely marked in this famous version of La Cumparsita (and if you watch a dance-floor while this tango is playing, it's easy to spot who knows when the pauses are and who doesn't), but it's also an extreme case of a general stylistic component of D'Arienzo's other tangos: he's happy to drop marking the beat for a while. The rhythm keeps going on 'underneath' the silence, so if you keep dancing to the same rhythm, you'll be right on time when the orchestra comes back in. It works something like this:

Beats: 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 . . . . 2 3 4, ...
    normal rhythm... normal rhythm...   pause... orchestra starts up again...

Pauses aren't the only difference between Di Sarli and D'Arienzo. He tends to have a faster rhythm and charges the orchestra with more energy - the music is more 'dynamic': it becomes louder and softer in a more extreme way. It doesn't usually become faster or slower, though.

You can use these features to inspire you in the dance - for example pause during the pauses in the music, or take longer strides when it's louder, etc.


Here is Rodolfo Biagi's version of "La Cumparsita".

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[Rodolfo Biagi - La Cumparsita]

The rhythm is very strongly marked out in a way that's very characteristic of Biagi's orchestra, and relentlessly the same from beginning to end.

In this and other tangos, Biagi also plays with the emphasis of the beats in strange ways. In each four beats of a tango, one of the beats is played louder or emphasised in some way. Normally the 'big' beat is the first one of the four - something like:

Normal Emphasis:  1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4

But Biagi takes relish in breaking this 'rule' and doing things like:

Biagi's Emphasis: 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4

For some, this is perverse and makes the music sound uncomfortable. Others love it.

While D'Arienzo plays fairly fast, Biagi gives the impression of playing at even faster. This is actually an illusion, he plays at about the same speed as D'Arienzo, but where D'Arienzo gives some room to breathe with his pauses, Biagi never stops from beginning to end, leaving you breathless by the end of the tango.

If you take this relentlessness 'literally' in your dancing, and never pause for the entire tango, it can be either invigorating or monotonous, depending on your own tastes and the energy you put into it.  It can be fun to try to capture his oddly emphasised beats in your dancing somehow...

Julio De Caro

Moving away from "La Cumparsita" now, this is Julio De Caro's orchestra playing "Mala Junta":

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[Julio de Caro - Mala Junta]

...and also playing "Derecho Viejo".

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[Julio De Caro - Derecho Viejo]

The three previous orchestras were playing in the 1930's, but this recording of Julio De Caro's orchestra is from the 1920's. Next to De Caro, they seem very stade and conservative:

He likes to use unusual effects in the music, like the "wiki wiki" noise you can sometimes hear the violin making, and sometimes he has members of the orchestra laugh or whistle. He also sometimes uses a full orchestra that includes things like percussion, trumpet, bells, and harp, whereas with Di Sarli, D'Arienzo, and Biagi, you can hear only bass, piano, violin, and bandoneón. Many of De Caro's recordings (e.g. Mala Junta above) also feature his 'cornet-violin' - an experimental violin made by RCA which has a grammaphone-like horn attached to amplify the sound.

He plods along with a consistent rhythm, but often lets a single instrument carry the music alone for a whole phrase. Some people find that this early style is a bit too much like the music that accompanied early Mickey Mouse animations, and seems a bit twee.

For this and other orchestras, it can be interesting to change your dancing style depending on the instruments playing - e.g. if the full orchestra is playing lots of strong beats and harmonies, you can step every beat and use lots of double time, but when it's a single-instrument solo, take fewer steps, use more turning and pivoting, etc.

Los Reyes del Tango

Here is the same tango, "Derecho Viejo", played by the orchestra Los Reyes del Tango.

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[Los Reyes del Tango - Derecho Viejo]

They play fast and furious, and often slightly out of tune. This may sound like old music, but this is an orchestra that currently plays in Buenos Aires. They actually play in the style of D'Arienzo's orchestra, and have the same kind of dynamic.


This is Tubatango's version of "Zorro Gris".

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[Los Tubatango - Zorro Gris]

This is very jaunty music that people often associate with an early style of tango they call Canyengue. However, like Los Reyes del Tango, this orchestra is not as old as it seems, and can also be heard today in Buenos Aires.

It has a very characteristic lineup of musical instruments - unlike the previous orchestras there are no pianos, double-bases, or violins in sight. The bandoneón is instead accompanied by flute, and the tuba carries the baseline. This leaves them sounding a little like a breakaway from a Salvation Army band, and for many it's little more than a novelty act, but for others they have a light-hearted, infectious energy that's an irresistable antidote to other, more nostalgic or tragic styles.

Osvaldo Pugliese

Here is the same tango, "Zorro Gris", played by Osvaldo Pugliese's orchestra.

[Osvaldo Pugliese - Zorro Gris]

I hope you agree with me that it's almost unrecognizable as the same tango that Tubatango play above. Pugliese's style is much more serious and dramatic. We're back to 'serious' instruments - piano, bass, violin, and bandoneon. Like D'Arienzo, Pugliese is very dynamic - the music gets louder and softer - and has similar dramatic breaks.

However, where the previous orchestras play the same speed from beginning to end, Pugliese changes speed. The orchestra gets to the end of a melody, have a drawn out pause, and then when they start the next melody, the tempo can be faster or slower than before. Sometimes the rhythm is driving and relentless, like an angry dog barking, and other times it's slow and smooth and languid.

This works something like this:


Beats: ... 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 . . . 1 2 3 4, ...
    driving rhythm... pause stretching the beats... now the tempo is slower...

The cumulative effect is a sound that's far more dramatic - it's like some kind of epic love affair the wallows in drama for a while, then races ahead, has a moment of ecstacy where everything stops, then start back again.

For Pugliese fans, the drama and ecstacy feeds directly into their dancing - when the rhythm is driving, they stride across the floor in long steps, and when it hovers between one melody and the next, the dance is suspended with it, the couple simply enjoying the moment - they're literally not moving. For others, Pugliese's music is unreliable for dancing, or overly bossy - they feel like there's little choice or interpretation involved, you just have to let it sweep you along to wherever it ends up.

Juanjo Domínguez

This is "Zorro Gris" again, this time played by contemporary guitarist Juanjo Domínguez.

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[Juanjo Dominguez - Zorro Gris]

This for me is another totally different take on a lovely tango. Like Tubatango and Los Reyes del Tango, this is someone you can hear playing in Buenos Aires today. Unlike them, however, you won't hear him in a milonga. While for me this is a perfectly danceable tango, for most Argentines this would count as "tango for listening, not dancing".

Miguel Caló

This is "Margarita Gauthier" as played by Miguel Caló's orchestra.

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[Miguel Caló con Raul Berón - Margarita Gauthier]

As you'll notice in listening to this example, we've added an instrument to the orchestra that we haven't yet heard: voice. Throughout its history, tango has been a song with lyrics. However, with many of the classic recordings played in milongas for dancing, the singer is absent. For some, if there's a singer, then the tango should be 'listened to' rather than 'danced to' - for example it's almost impossible to hear recordings of Carlos Gardel singing in a milonga in Buenos Aires, even though he was the most famous tango singer of all time.

I hope that this example demonstrates the opposite - Raul Berón is singing with Caló's orchestra here, and this is the kind of recording that you'd hear in many a milonga. Caló's orchestra plays a very reliable, danceable rhythm, and Raul Berón is simply another member of the orchestra.

Berón is my personal favourite among tango singers. His voice sounds like honey, and contributes to the 'romantic' sound of the Caló's orchestra.

Horacio Salgán

This is Horacio Salgán's orchestra playing "Margarita Gauthier".

[Horacio Salgan con Roberto Goyeneche - Margarita Gauthier]

Again, there is a singer, although this time it's Roberto Goyeneche, who was an extremely famous tango singer in Argentina. Here you can hear the change from singer-as-member-of-orchestra to singer-as-star-backed-up-by-orchestra. Goyeneche's phrasing in the song dominates the timing of the tango. This can make it unpredictable and challenging to dance to.

Salgán's orchestra is similar to Pugliese's in that the speed can change from one section to another, there are dramatic pauses, and the piano is quite dominant. There are whole phrases where the violins sweep along with no beats being marked out by other instruments, which can be a good moment to stop 'walking' in the dance and do some kind of flourish, or just pause.

Color Tango

This is an example of Color Tango playing "Gallo Ciego".

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[Color Tango - Gallo Ciego]

Color Tango is another contemporary orchestra you can hear playing tango in Buenos Aires and around the world. There style sounds a lot like Pugliese, with lots of dynamics in the volume and pace, and in fact their arrangements are often identical to those of Pugliese - here's Pugliese's version of the same tango:

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[Osvaldo Pugliese - Gallo Ciego]

Next Page - Other Music


 text: robert©fromont.net.nz August 2008

What was once a devilish orgy is now a way of walking.

Jorge Luis Borges