Tango DJing – An Introduction

Tango isn’t all about dancing, it’s also about the music.  So starting out as a Tango DJ, and when you start Tango DJing more often, there are a lot of things that can help you streamline your process. Sure you can grab playlists you find online, grab Youtube playlists and let them fly, but you will find a lot missing when you compare that to those who DJ around the world, at festivals, and especially in Buenos Aires. This is an introduction to Tango DJing, which should hopefully give you some insight and goals on how to improve. You’ll find a lot goes into a playlist, a good tanda, a good evening, all thanks to the time and effort you do as a Tango DJ.

Tango DJing – About Me

I love dancing Tango, which is why I decided to start on my own Tango Voyage, but as much as I love dancing to Tango, there has always been a passion for music. So when I began dancing Tango, I started noticing the same playlists being played at local Milongas frequently. That drove me to try to find my own music, my own style, and to share it and mix things up around my community. Where to start, how to get music, software, equipment, getting into venues, working a crowd, and many more questions came up. In the sections to follow, I’ll hopefully outline the places to start, important factors to consider, my thoughts and suggestions on a variety of topics which I hope will help those down a similar path. So here are some ways to help get you an introduction into the world of Tango DJing and working the music for your Tango Voyage!

The Community

Starting down the road to DJing seems simple, and at it’s core is just a matter on getting yourself out there, but that first step is the hardest.  Your local community is where to start and get your feet wet, if you can’t work around the people you dance with, getting to DJ without the support of friends and other dancers, you wont get far.  The start is always rough, with the support of those around you, getting approval of your peers, your first steps will open up. Once that door is open, the rest becoming easier and easier as your continue practicing and working on your DJing.

So what is the best way to get started as a Tango DJ?  Start dancing, go to everything, figure out who is doing what and where. Is there a Milonga that is the same or similar playlist every time, are there rotating local/travelling DJs, practicas that seem to lack flow, always the same DJ, or other factors?  Is there sound equipment on site, do people bring their own, are the DJs altering on the fly, or more set it and forget it? Finding out what is happening locally in your Tango crowd and then see where you can fit in with your style and energy is a great beginning. Next, approaching who organize the events or chatting with the DJs locally will give you insight on where you may fit in and what is available. Dancing and chatting with the organizers, volunteers, locals of all ages and skills to just start up conversation and be a community member yourself. You need to be a part of the community, you need to have that personality and credibility, especially when starting.  If no one knows you and there is no trust being built, getting a chance will be difficult. You don’t have to mention DJing, but getting and idea on types of music people like, if they want some change, what drives their passion to tango, and to just get the conversation started!

Becoming a part of your community takes time where ever you are, if you’re new, experienced, moved, been away, or just trying something new. From what you’ve been able to find out from everyone, let us say you’ve found a place you might be able to start.  This doesn’t mean you’ll be DJing complete practicas or Milongas, it means you’ve found a spot you might be able to fit in. Start by offering some of your own tandas or songs you’d like to dance to, volunteer to work the door, assist in the booths, setup equipment, or a multitude of other options.  The point is you’ve got a foot in the door, now it’s a matter on seeing if people will open the door further and let it be more frequent!  How do you get a more solid spot and get yourself deeper into DJing? Simple at this point, you ask if they ever want a week off, or if there is a time that you can give it a try.  You don’t get anywhere if you ask, the worst is they can say no or be unresponsive. If you’ve done everything before hand, chances are you will be given an opportunity, chances are it’ll start small, or be in co-operation with another person, but you’ll get your chance.

You can’t just play what you want, or keep things to your favorites, you’re playing for everyone who is dancing. Playing your favorite alternative, Pugliese, Piazzolla, recent pop radio songs, and what you really like, is an easy way to get the door shut on you (especially since you’ve worked so hard to get this far). There are times and places to fit in your personality, but you need to cater to those who dance around you, you want the dancers to enjoy themselves and ask for you back. Remember when you were talking to the organizers, fellow dancers, and while you were opening this door, they are your customer. They aren’t always right, you’ll have people who love you, people who hate you, but your job is to make people happy, and consistantly dancing!

You’ve now taken the first big step into starting down the road to being a Tango DJ! There’s so much more, but this first step is crucial.  Don’t forget the community is your gateway to bigger and better things!

Acquiring Music

You’ve got your foot in the door, or maybe you haven’t, but there is one big thing you need either way, and that is music!

Where can I find Tango music?

One great thing about tango music, is it’s not difficult to get your collection started.  Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, and a number of other services can get you going. Ordering CDs from many different resources are also available. Just a quick search for the different big names and you’ll find plenty of albums and top songs, great thing is you can preview much of the music as you wont know the names of the songs.  If you’re feeling adventerous, online auctions or suppliers for CDs or Vinyl can be a gamble, may be a good investment, or a complete rip off. Getting started is easy, getting to where you’re able to DJ a Milonga or Practica, or even offer a variety is a ways away.

Tango music is shared all over, I’ve been gifted proper CDs, collections of past Milongas, USB drives of music,  and more. Are there duplicates, bad quality copies, horribly named, incomplete, mislabeled, possibly illegal, and other undesired circumstance?  Yes indeed, getting around this is very difficult and can’t always be avoided.  The inability to purchase much of the music legally and through the proper channels is a big hurdle.  You could buy a rare CD, order through a service, and there is a chance that the music is a bootleg anyways going to the wrong pocket.  So what can you do?  Do you best, that is the advice I offer you, do you best to get the music any legal ways that are available to you.

Some Tango music may be considered in the Public Domain!

Equipment

Just starting out, you don’t need much, but exactly what you need definitely depends on the venues you may be DJing for. Many place I’ve frequented already have their own sound system setup, so all we’d need is a device to play a playlist on which is easy to edit said playlist. If you prepare things ahead of time, sometimes you may not need to touch your playlist, and I’ve been to places that just have an mp3 player going.

So the minimum you’ll need of course is a music player.  Either just a mp3 player with properly organized music, a smart phone, CD player, tablet, or I’d suggest a laptop. Whether you’re a Mac, Windows, or Linux person the choice is yours and there are software options for each. That is the minimum you need, but you’ll want to check out whatever venue first. I’d always suggest having your own audio cords for your device, and adapters for changing between cable types.

Older the venue, the bigger the audio connector is, in my experience.  Most will provide a basic cable for audio connection, but I’ve found having some 1/4 or 1/8 inch adapters are a godsend.  And carry multiple!  I’ve had some work fine on one system, but another system didn’t like the connection as much. Bringing a stereo splitter is also suggested, going from your laptop to the red/white audio connectors and having those cables is advised. Maybe even a splitter for those cables in case you need to connect that way to another set of speakers.

Now we’re getting more complicated, but all depends on your venue. I’ve had small spaces work fine with just my phone speakers properly propped on a wall/corner and give off enough to fill a room for about two dozen dancers. Buying some cheaper computer speakers (go for something closer to the $60 price point) can also work great! I’ve had some high tech speakers in my vehicle, power strips, laptop, couple hundred feet of cable, tables, and sometimes more depending on where I’ve setup. You’ll usually find if you’re missing something, someone else in the community is happy to help or may have the equipment that will offer to bring it, for free!

Do you need a turntable, amps, full speakers and cabling for a giant ballroom? You’ll have to plan accordingly to your community and audience. Great thing is, many places offer rental for the bigger setups, and if you’re doing something that requires that, I’m sure you’re getting paid or you should make sure the organizer has what you need and they take care of it. If you’re at this point, I’m sure you’ve got everything figured out for yourself.

Get Started!

You’ve gotten yourself a collection of music, you have a music player, cables, possibly speakers, and a venue to try out some DJing! Wonderful, time to get started! You’ve most likely put countless hours into getting all the above prepared, but that is usually the easy part.  Easy?  Yes, because once you have those items, it’s minor tweaking on your setup.  The initial investment of the above are static and don’t require as much time past said investment.  Now arranging the music, this is where things become difficult…

Just because you have music, doesn’t mean you can just put it on shuffle or play it one after another. You may have acquired playlists from other people, but those aren’t yours, they may help, but you want to bring your own personality into DJing, so playing someone elses playlist is out of the question. Otherwise why DJ if you aren’t bring out yourself?

Time to start building your own tandas, finding or making your own cortinas, making the dance flow smoothly… or at least attempting to. When starting out, you’ll find yourself sending more and more time building a tanda, hopefully it’ll be good. For every hour of music you’re arranging, expect it to take about 3 hours of your time to make.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  All depends on the software and your ears.  I’ve found I spend about 2 hours per 1 hour of music arrangement on average.  Depends on the venue and the community and what type of music people wish to be played.

Tandas are your bread and butter of your music. I have a much more in depth write-up about tanda building, but the basics are you want your tanda to be a collection of similar composition.  Usually the same orchestra and composer, so if you’re playing an instrumental De Sarli, make sure the rest in the tanda is also instrumental De Sarli, of similar quality and orchestra.  If you have a singer, make sure the other songs have the same singer and they are of the same quality. There are more best practices, but that is the basics.

Cortinas are a bigger upfront effort, but are much easier to deal with and use afterwards. Some software will give you the option to set a fade in and out to a song with a length before moving to the next song.  Personally, I find music, add my own fades and length, and re-save them. Makes it easier to drag and drop, or offer them to others.  Cortinas are usually different style of music, something that is more difficult to dance to, or more humorous I’ve found to work well.  I have cut down different gaming music or pop-music into cortinas.  Cortinas and type are just as important as the tandas themselves.  Having a heavy metal cortina after a vals will really throw off the mood on a dance floor So plan accordingly.

So you have some ideas on the above… now it’s time to start building a playlist for your own Milonga or Practica. Your job as a DJ is to keep people dancing, keep the flow and energy of the room moving. Playing 2 hours straight of high energy Milongas from D’Arienzo is not a way to go. Playlists has a flow, at least the good ones do. Do you start off a night with something simple and easy going, do you bring more energy at first, do you just build up, how do you bring things down…

Building a Playlist is difficult, and you’ll find yourself spending multiple hours working on just a single hour worth of music. A good playlist is like the ocean, there are waves of energy, some getting more intense, some slowing down, then there’s a big climax like in a movie, a twist possibly, things dying down towards the end as people get tired, etc. When it comes to making a playlist, there is a usual standard format of Tanda order, usually TTVTTM (2xTango-1xVals-2xTango-1xMilonga), in 3-4 songs Tandas for Tangos, and usually always just 3 for the Milongas or Vals Tandas. Your cortintas also need to follow the flow, so you don’t break the energy completely.  This is where experience and knowing your community comes into play.  You wont get it right all the time, but over time you should start to get a feeling of it all.

For good measure, announcing Last Tanda and having La Cumparsita as the last song is a nice touch, sometime a requirement (depends on the community).