I am currently building my own website called TANGO NOTES, a resource about tango music. Feel free to visit here:

Selected Tango Immigrant posts will continue to be up for the foreseeable future.

21 November 2014

A box of chocolate

From time to time, I wonder whether my taste in music is sophisticated enough. Where others talk warmly about the complexity of the orchestras in the 40s, I might just as well be found dancing to Orquesta Típica Victor anno 1930.

But I’m thinking that a good milonga is like life.

Sometimes, it’s seriously dramatic and complex, like a Troilo-Marino tango. Sometimes, you just want to curl up on the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate with cream and Canaro-Maida. Sometimes, life is just pure fun and merry-go-rounds, like a D’Arienzo vals from 1939. Sometimes, it’s an elegant night at the ballet, like a Di Sarli 1950 instrumental. Sometimes, it’s Bingo night with De Angelis.

Well, maybe not Bingo night. But all the rest.

Happy weekend!

The music:

Milonga porqué llorás, Orquesta Típica Victor with Ernesto Famá 1930
Torrente, Aníbal Troilo with Alberto Marino 1944
Milagro, Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1937
Castigo, Juan D’Arienzo with Alberto Echagüe 1939
El abrojo, Carlos Di Sarli instrumental 1958

19 November 2014

What am I saying? The dilemma of the inner dancer

(young piano student plays piece without dynamic variation)

Me: “I guess you forgot about the dynamics this time."
Student: "I did SO not forget. I thought about it the WHOLE time!"

In my piano teacher's studio at the music conservatory, there was this picture: a portrait of a man leaning forward with one hand cupped behind his ear, like he was trying to hear something. The picture was placed on the wall vis-à-vis the person seated on the piano stool, so the man would always be in front of whoever was playing. "He's there to remind us to listen", my piano teacher explained, "Not to hear, but to listen to how we really are playing."

I think this is the most important thing I've learnt about performing: that the idea of what you want to say could get in the way of your ability to see whether you're really saying it. When I'm playing a piece, I might become so absorbed in the music and in my feelings for it that I forget to listen objectively. I might feel the dynamics very strongly inside - so strongly that I don't notice that my playing isn't dynamic.

It's every artist and performer's dilemma. And it’s also a dilemma for tango dancers.

"But I'm not an artist," you might argue. "I don't do performances. I just want to go to a milonga and be in the arms of a lovely person and move my body to the music."

The thing is: this dilemma does not only apply to performing as such. It applies to all kinds of communication. It's my dilemma as I'm writing this post, even. Every time I want to convey a message, the question arises: Am I capable of looking at my communication from outside my body and brain and heart? Am I expressing what I want to say in a functional way, with precise tools, so that there are chances of being understood correctly?

Am I expressing anything at all, or do I just feel?

This is where things could get impossibly philosophical. But I believe that this is just as much a technique question as a philosophical one. Let’s say that dancing is communication WITH my partner ABOUT the music (or maybe about how the music makes us feel - to me, this is basically the same thing). To do this, I need to learn to know the music, and I need to learn techniques for how to change the quality of my movements so it describes the different qualities in the music.

And then I need this thought with me: am I communicating?

There’s nothing wrong with just feeling, of course. But the moment we want to express ourselves, or express the music, this thought becomes one of our most important tools.

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.

15 September 2014

Image is everything: interpretation and identity in tango

Friend: “Did you dance with the guy who just walks all the time? I was like COME ON!!! DO something!”


As should probably be evident by now: I’m dancing tango because I love the music. So I’m thinking a lot about what we define as “musical dancing”, and lately also what we define as “dynamic dancing”. In classical music interpretation, a central part of what we call dynamics is volume levels and the variation of these. It’s immensely important. And it’s the changes and nuances that make it interesting.

In tango, I don’t necessarily see this so much. Yes, musicality is becoming a popular topic, but it feels like it’s intertwined with something else: personality - not only who we are, but also who we’d like to be. I think many of us try to identify with something, like a technique or interpretation style, or a professional we admire. Sometimes, we’ll even identify with a lifestyle, an image - for instance the milonguero, representing the history and the códigos and the floorcraft; or the marathoner, young and vital and in opposition to rules.

One variation of this could be trying to be something by not being something else:

“That guy who stands still all the time, trying to be interesting? Pffft, his dancing looks really boring! I don’t want to be boring, so I’ll just do lots of big stuff all the time.” “That guy who does all that big stuff all the time, trying to be cool? He looks really violent and dangerous on the pista… I don’t want to be violent, so I’ll just walk. But only with small steps. Or even better, just stand still.”

Do we actually use musical interpretation to define our tango identity? And if so, what happens to the dynamic opportunities that lie in the music itself? Do we choose the dance dynamics we think look best, but forgetting the musical dynamics?

We’re dancing in a goody bag of musical possibilities: from the lightest, most delicate Fresedo to the most solid, reliably grounded Canaro, from the sweepingly romantic Caló to the energetically playful D’Arienzo. The fast dryness of Di Sarli anno 1929 is totally different from the broad royalty of Di Sarli anno 1958. So why not explore a bigger range of dynamic qualities to interpret the different orchestras and their periods more differently?

In my opinion, minimalist shouldn’t mean absence of energy or lack of expression. And, oppositely: fast and big doesn’t equal dynamic. To be truly dynamic dancers, we need to use more than one gear on our tango car.

4 September 2014

Champagne tango!

“How long have you been dancing?”
“Um… a few years.”


At one point, somebody told me that one shouldn’t ask people how long they’ve been dancing tango. I thought this made sense: number of years wasn’t a very good way of measuring and comparing one’s talents, since we don’t all have the same options when it comes to classes and practice opportunities. In the beginning, being asked was fun, though. I’d answer “six months” and people would be like “wow, then you’re really talented”. But then I realised that years were passing and even my base technique STILL wasn’t good enough and I was in fact probably a FANTASTICALLY SLOW learner. And so I became reluctant to answer this simple question - even if the asker was a beginner who would most likely be wildly impressed anyway.

Jekteviken in 2014.

Today is September 4th, and it’s my tango birthday. In fact, it’s a proper anniversary: ten years ago, I made my way to Jekteviken in Bergen to attend my first tango course. As I wrote in the first post on this blog, tango turned out to become the first and only enterprise that I've insisted on sticking to even if it's making me feel more useless than successful.

And I think this is how one should reply to this question: not how many years one has been dancing tango, but how many years one has stuck to dancing tango; how many years one has refused to give up something that turned out to be really, really difficult in many different respects. For me, this question is about our will to take on challenges, and this will is something I think we all should allow ourselves to be proud of. 

Let's drink to tango stubbornness!

Champagne tango: Carlos Di Sarli instrumental 1958 - listen to it here on YouTube.

18 August 2014

Anything goes: asking in the cortina

Him: “Would you like to dance afterwards?”
Me: “Let’s see what the music is first.”
Him: “Oh that’s right, you listen to the music!”


When asking for dances during the cortina, several outcomes are possible: 1) you get to dance with someone who wants to dance with you. 2) you get to dance with someone who doesn’t want to dance with you, but couldn’t say no. 3) you don’t get to dance at all. Instead, you get rejected. A rejection of a verbal invitation is a true win-win situation: you’ll both feel awkward *and* make people annoyed at the same time. Remember that it’s actually uncomfortable to say no. If people feel forced to say no directly, they will feel a bit bad about themselves, and to get rid of these negative feelings, they’ll seek to blame someone else: you, because you were the one who initiated the discomfort. It may not be logical, but it’s how people work.

From my point of view, there are two reasons to keep the cortinas free from direct invitations. One reason is the music. If you ask for dances in the cortina, it could be because you 1) love all tango music and will therefore dance to any music at any given time, or 2) couldn’t care less about tango music and will therefore dance to any music at any given time. Either way,  it somehow conveys a message that you don't think the selection of music is important, and that you don't realise that it could be important to others. Waiting until the tanda starts shows respect for the music itself, for the DJ’s work, and for the fact that people have musical preferences.

Then there’s respect for the community. Asking for dances in the cortina is a bit like jump-starting in a race. Better dive in to get the ladies before anyone else takes them. Never mind that they haven’t had a chance to rest or drink or savour their previous tanda. Never mind that they haven’t had a chance to look around and make an independent decision about their next partner. Never mind the guys who don't ask in the cortina. It's their problem that they don't want to compete with you.

And to all the well-behaved ladies out there: Is it possible that you miss out on dances you really want because “someone else asked first”? Well, you’re not a fruit, so don’t just let people pick you when you have other plans or hopes.

Personally, I’m not sure that everything we do in modern society needs to be super informal. We are so worried about losing our individuality and personal freedom that we don’t notice the collective clutter we create. Maybe a bit of old-fashioned etiquette can actually be nice: a clutter-free zone in our stressful lives.

(Yes, I know that girls hog, too. But there are more guys that hog, so forgive today's generalisation.)

12 August 2014

Troilo for beginners

Some time ago, I decided to try liking Troilo. Ok, so I already liked his earlier tangos a lot, like Te aconsejo que me olvides from 1941 with Fiorentino as the singer, or the instrumental C.T.V. from 1942. But I simply could not move on to appreciating the change that happened in Troilo’s music towards the middle of the 1940s. It felt like all the fun was gone and was replaced with this weird mix of introvert and dramatic - a frustrating combination for any girl who enjoys the (maybe simpler) musical pleasures of the 1930s.

For me, tango music had always been an acquired taste, though. In the beginning, I didn’t like the traditional tango music at all, but as I heard it being played in the milongas, I slowly started discovering orchestra after delightful orchestra. Yet my relationship with Troilo remained firmly distant. It seemed that an affinity for his music wouldn’t just come with time, the way it had happened with the other orchestras.

Then I started DJing. I knew that Troilo was considered one of the most important orchestra leaders and that people I respected liked his music. I realised that the time had come for a bit of self-education.

So I sat myself down to make tandas. I picked a couple of tangos I already thought were quite nice - like Gricel with Fiorentino 1942 and Alhucema with Marino 1944 - and tried to find good matches for them. The tandas turned out quite nicely, so I played them at milongas. And since I had become more familiar with these tangos, I found myself wanting to dance to them as well. And that’s more or less it. Not only have I started liking these tangos a lot better than before. I’m even finding a few of them desperately, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Cotorrita de la suerte. Torrente. Cristal.

Not all music is “catchy”. Not all music will float painlessly through your ear canals and magically turn into favourites. You might need to make an effort to understand it, because understanding something is often the key to liking it. And the effort you're putting in will in some cases make you like the challenging music more than the easy stuff. Try it!

The music on YouTube:

Te aconsejo que me olvides (1941 - singer: Francisco Fiorentino)

C.T.V.  (1942 - instrumental)

Gricel (1942 - singer: Francisco Fiorentino)

Alhucema (1944 - singer: Alberto Marino)

Torrente (1944 - singer: Alberto Marino)

Cristal (1944 - singer: Alberto Marino)

Cotorrita de la suerte (1945 - singer: Alberto Marino)

3 June 2014

Perfume de mujer?

Sometimes, it's just too much. I'm sure that everybody, both girls and guys, thinks so occasionally, so I hope you'll forgive me for venturing into the finger-pointing and toe-stepping zone today. Here goes:

- Don't put perfumed stuff on body parts that's going to touch your dance partner. It will rub off, and it feels really weird to smell of somebody else's perfumes (especially the opposite sex').

- Remember that your brain is used to your own perfume and has stopped reacting to it, so most of us are using too much, even if we just put it behind the ear.

- Other people may have a better sense of smell than you do.

- Most importantly: allergies are becoming a huge problem, so let's make life for our allergic tango friends easier.

Musical inspiration for the header: Perfume de mujer ("Scent of a woman") was composed in 1927 by Juan José Martín Guichandut, with lyrics by Armando Tagini. It was recorded by Carlos Gardel the same year, and also by several orchestras: Francisco Canaro, Francisco Lomuto, Juan Maglio, Osvaldo Fresedo, and Roberto Firpo. Here's Canaro's version with Agustín Irusta:

23 April 2014

Female tango composers: Azucena Maizani

Azucena Maizani (November 17, 1902 - January 15, 1970) was born in Buenos Aires to poor parents, and she worked as a seamstress before her musical career took off. Since she was a female singer in the early 20th century, she is considered one of the pioneers amongst female tango artists. Maizani recorded more than 270 tracks, she toured in Europe in the early 1930s, and she appeared in several movies as a singer. She also was a composer and a lyricist.

I'm concentrating on female composers of music we dance to, and Maizani deserves to be mentioned because of what probably is her most known tango: Pero yo sé. She composed this tango in 1928, and it was recorded by (amongst others) Francisco Canaro with Charlo and Osvaldo Fresedo with Ernesto Famá. The most known version - still played at milongas today - must be the one recorded by Ángel D'Agostino with Ángel Vargas in 1942. You can listen to it here on YouTube. Translation here.

According to the pages on Todotango and Wikipedia, Azucena Maizani's life seems to have been dramatic. She married, but the couple lost their child and later got divorced. She never married again. Even though she had been a highly popular artist, her career declined during the 1940s, although she continued to work as an artist.

Image credit: Geraldo Bustos Used with permission. 


My articles about female composers in tango

Music and sources for this article:

OverJazz playlist of Azucena Maizani's music on YouTube
Biography at
Biography at Wikipedia (Spanish)
Overview of career on

26 February 2014

Tango music: syncopation for beginners

Clip from El chamuyo - Orquesta Típica Victor 1930

Whole tango on YouTube here

Clip from El once - Carlos Di Sarli 1954

Whole tango on YouTube here

(Update: music players don't work on your device or your browser? Try viewing the post in Safari, or reloading the page if you're using Chrome - or click to listen to clips here: El chamuyo - El once)

I hope this will help you understanding syncopation a little better! If you have any questions at all, feel free to ask.

10 February 2014

How music looks: Ojos negros que fascinan

A while ago, I made a post about "Yo no sé por que te quiero", to illustrate how a tango can be made up from a couple of very simple rhythm patterns. "Ojos negros que fascinan", recorded 1935 by Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida, is another nice example of this.

The rhythm is very simple, especially when introduced in the instrumental A and B section - Maida tweaks the rhythm a bit, as tango vocalists do. There are two rhythm patterns that are used extensively throughout this tango: one very short for the A section, and one longer for the B section. This time, I've added colours - one for each tone in the chromatic scale - so it should be possible to play the piece. If you tried, let me know if it worked!

As usual, this is not meant as a detailed analysis. I still find that a simplified version can be very useful, also for hearing elements that are not included in the illustration. An example from the first A section: the main theme is introduced. We can see it in the illustration. But there's another important thing going on in this part… Do you hear it?

Link to the music: Ojos negros que fascinan - Francisco Canaro canta Roberto Maida 1935

The use of recurring rhythm patterns is a common trick in composing, not only in tango. Fun fact: The A section of "Ojos negros que fascinan" is actually a Russian melody, arranged as a tango by Manuel Salina (Manuel G. Salinger) with lyrics by Florián Rey (Antonio Martínez del Castillo). It seems likely that Salina composed the B section.

There are many versions of the Russian song on YouTube - here's one recorded in Paris in 1927:
Feodor Chaliapin with the Aristoff Choir and Balalaika Orchestra.