11 November 2014

The beat: prison or guide?

“This music is just bam-bam-bam.”
“The traditional music is only about walking on the beat.”
“It’s like a march.”


From time to time, people tell me that they don’t like the traditional / Golden Age music. Recurring arguments are that it’s too rhythmical, and that newer tango music is much more interesting because the tempo changes throughout each piece. People want to “play with the rhythm” (i.e. tempo changes), describing the beat as some kind of prison that prevents them from being creative, from expressing themselves through the dance.

And so people get stuck with this idea of the beat being something boring and monotonous. They focus so intently on what they are missing in the music that they don’t notice the things that actually are there to play with.

The most important thing to remember is that we don’t have to step on every beat. As a matter of fact, on behalf of followers worldwide: leaders, please don’t step on every beat. It can’t be said often enough. “Walking in tango” doesn’t mean "walking on everything". Instead, think of the beats you don’t walk on as guidelines for your next step, like light posts in the street at night. This way, you’ll be able to keep track of time and pinpoint the timing of your next step.

I'd like to describe tango music as a weave of instrumental voices, like a carpet. Each tango is a unique carpet with different colours and textures, with its own pattern where some colours and textures are dominant and others less dominant or even absent. The beat is just the warp that is the base for this carpet; the strings we need to weave all the different-coloured threads around. It’s what keeps the piece together. If we listen actively, we might discover that not all instruments are playing new tones on every beat. We’ll always find pauses, and tones that stretch past the next beat and maybe even the next one, giving us the opportunity to break our own movement patterns.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to step on a whole series of beats, if the music inspires us to do so! The key word is, like with so many good things in life, variation.

Good examples for beginner listeners: Poema and Invierno - there's a steady beat, but if we rest throughout the long tones in the melody theme, we’ll get a much more varied dance.

Poema - Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1935
Invierno - Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1937

Also:  a post I wrote about this last year, with examples from Noelia and Carlitos.