Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Bouncy music, and the art of the DJ

'If this DJ has played any music that isn't bouncy, it must have been before I arrived' said a partner whose insights I value. She'd been there most of the evening, so it was a serious criticism -- and a disappointment.Sadly, the art of putting together an evening of tango music for dancing is a mystery to me. Of course I know what I like and don't like, and I write to explore that. Writing is a way of looking for answers.

Just ten years ago tango wasn't easy to find. If record shops had tango sections, they were for Piazzola, with maybe some Pugliese. Tango wasn't that easily available online, either. But it seems that about ten years ago record companies discovered a new product they could market. It's not a kind of dance music most of us grew up with, and it's amazing how fast it has become familiar to dancers here. 

By about five or six years ago the quality of an evening's music had become a regular topic for conversation during milongas. The DJ is a frequent reason people go to a particular milonga here these days: I came because so-and-so is playing, and I like her/his music. It's also a reason I've heard for not going to other milongas. Since a few years ago, a vast range of excellent tango has become easily available, and hard drives have become huge, so music doesn't have to be compressed. I think there's an audible difference: 78s may sound a bit scratchy, but the sound quality of the music is often quite good. Heavy compression makes music dull. You might not notice it at first, but compressed music sounds dreary after a few hours. DJs put in a lot of work collecting different versions, new high-quality transfers, and the days when they played evenings with a limited range of low-quality recordings from five or ten CDs are gone.

How visiting Buenos Aires DJs organise an evening that draws you into a marvelously satisfying musical space is a mystery. It's an art that some European DJs have mastered too, but I guess that long practice and life-long familiarity with the music are a big part of it. I asked Silvia Ceriani last summer when she was in London if she had a system of tagging the music on her laptop. She laughed. 'No! I know my music!' Thousands of tracks, and she can pick out tracks to make coherent tandas, and fit them with each other. 

(I include the UK in Europe. Make of that what you will.)

So why the evening of bouncy music? It's a paradox that just when a huge range of music is available, it seems that there are DJs who play long sequences of similar music. Yes, there is bouncy tango, but to play it all evening is exhausting for many dancers, and it's a style of DJ practice that looks more to the 100 Club than to the milonga. I'm sure it's well-meant – keep it lively, keep people on their feet. I've heard it's the expected DJ style at some events. I get the impression that there's a move in Europe in general to play a much simpler range of music, whole evenings when the tempo and emotional range of the music are simplified, avoiding in particular the slower, more emotional music. It's easier to keep moving to a regular rhythm and to straightforward music, so no Di Sarli! No D'Agostino! No Fresedo! Probably no Troilo! Much too difficult! But if this is a temptation, I think it should be avoided. Perhaps you can live on beans on toast, but it would be a pity to miss out on a very much wider range of food and flavours that nourish you in many different ways. 

There's an amazing range in the music, from the bouncy to the sublime, the sophisticated to the simple, the energetic to the laid back. There's emotional music, there's lively music, there's beat music, there's melodic music. & some music – Troilo in particular – often combines many ranges. An evening of one kind of music or one tempo gets tedious. Each kind of music provides a setting for another kind, a contrast. The real genius of the DJ is in knowing how to assemble a sequence of music that keeps the ear (and the rest of the body) happy for hours, and it takes DJs with a wide and intimate knowledge of the music to make each tanda exciting, so your eyes eagerly search out a partner. DJs like that are very much welcomed by dancers!