Are Dancers Attitudes to Traditional Music Limiting Tango?

Published July 21st 2016
Author: Chris

I have a number of problems with “traditional” or “golden-age” music. The first issue I have is the terminology used, the second is the way people talk about and try to justify the music and the third is I think it puts off younger generations sticking with tango. I should point out that this blog has very little to do with the music itself but more towards the general attitude to “traditional” music.

Let’s start with why I don’t like the terms “traditional” or “golden-age”. The word “traditional” always seems to ring with the idea that the old days were better in every way and therefore anything from that time is good. However, leeches are classed as traditional medicine. Yes I know they are still used today to seal surgical wounds but they are not used to draw poison from the body stream as they were over one hundred years ago. I also have the problem that Tango has changed over time; therefore what do you class as tradition, and where is the cut off? Since Tango developed from African dances shouldn’t traditional tango music be of African origin? I have similar thoughts on the term “golden-age”. First, I do not believe there ever has been or ever will be a golden age of tango. Secondly this term implies that there was a period where tango was at its pinnacle and everything was perfect. It also implies that no other period will ever be able to match it. This means the term “golden-age” acts a shield and elevates the music to an untouchable status that it does not deserve.

I also do not like the way people talk about “traditional” music. I quite often ask people these questions: what is good about or why do they like “traditional” music. Every answer I have had back is along the lines of how intricate the music is. This answer has always worried me, since it seems to be a stock answer that people just repeat as if they have been taught it. I generally say a piece of music is good if I enjoy listening to it, and I class a good dance tune as one that makes me want to dance. These simple measures seem to be missing from people minds when talking about “traditional” tango music. I have to admit I do not like “traditional” tango music, I do not enjoy listening to it and it does not make me what to dance, so it fails against both my measures. I can then break it down into why I do not enjoy listening to it. I find it very formulaic and often the quality of the recording/ performance disagrees with my perception of sound.

Tango music used to be composed by very few people then played by a few orchestras. This meant that the separate pieces of music would be played in similar styles by the same orchestra with the same decorations or motifs appearing frequently. Also the composition style of the music is similar in many songs by the same composer. This has results, it least to me, that traditional tango music all sounds the same. It normally starts with a broken chord being played on a piano merging into some sweeping strings, the next phrase is normally some pizzicato. This phrase is answered by a richer sound sweep from the string then the vocals would come in. This brings me onto the performance/ recording; quite often the piano sounds out of tune with at least a couple of the strings missing, the strings are pushed sharp and the singer sounds like he has a very bad head cold. All this makes for unpleasant listening.

I also have the problem that I cannot relate to the lyrics since I do not understand them. I, like most tango dancers in Britain cannot speak Spanish and therefore have no idea what is being sung. This makes it also impossible to relate fully to the music. I once asked the girl I was dancing with to give a general translation of what the song was about. Her response was “the moon, girl leaving, loneliness and heartbreak” which are fairly negative thoughts and not something I really want to thinking about when I dance for enjoyment. This seems to be trend for all “traditional” tango music.

This brings me to my final problem that “traditional” music puts off the younger generation. At the time of writing this, I am 28, and am often one of the youngest at a milonga. When I taught ballroom, mainly to university students, I found the music had a massive effect on their dancing. At the end of the class, music would be put on so people could dance/practice what they had learnt. I observed, especially amongst the beginners, that when we put on old quickstep songs, there would be very few who would get up to dance and often they would mess up, however, if we put on modern song that you could quickstep to, then a lot more would take to the floor and the quality of dancing would improve massively. So from this evidence you would expect to see more people dancing at a milonga when a modern chart song is played. However, this is not the case, often I’m the only one dancing when this music is played and often get looks as if the devil had entered the building. I can only assume that people’s attitude is that only “traditional” tango music should be played. This is odd, as I have recently found out that Milongas in the 1940’s were 50% tango music and 50% whatever was popular at the time.

So my final thought on this subject is that the language used to describe tango music has a massive influence on the attitude of people who dance tango. However, this attitude needs to be challenged if younger generation is to be encouraged to take the dance on and produce a real “golden-age”.

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