I remember the exact moment I "groked" tango, the moment I suddenly got it. It was on my second trip to Buenos Aires, a couple of years into learning tango. Stepping out the door of the famous Confiteria Ideal, the music from the class echoed down from the open windows of the dance hall. I'm sure it was Anibal Troilo, probably "Milongueando En El 40" or "P'a Que Bailen Los Muchachos". Between one step and the other, tango music sunk its fangs into my heart.
Most of us are unfamiliar with tango music, so we have the cultural problem of learning 50 or more years of musical history. Secondly, we have the problem of hearing tango music, then embodying, expressing, and communicating the music with movements... all the while, navigating or walking around the room backwards in high-heels.
Like Jazz, tango has a rich and varied history, so where do you start? In swing dancing, you want to choose jazz music that "SWINGS", so in a similar way we need to ask what tango music "TANGOS"? The swing metaphor gives us a clue, because the great dance orchestras of tango cover the 1930s and 1940s just like the great swing orchestras.
Like musicians, Tango dancers are actually PART of the orchestra
Like a musician, you can't play in the orchestra if you don't know the piece. Learning, i.e. "really learning", the music of tango music is the single thing that will most accelerate your tango dance process. I mean, you can walk around the room while music is playing, but merely stepping on the walking beat is not dancing.
On the other hand, you can dance a gorgeous tango with the minimum of steps or figures if musical expression is.
Here's the big question: can you hum along to the song, even if you don't know the lyrics?
Argentine Tango is danced to the great orchestras of Buenos Aires from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This was the "Golden Era" of tango. Modern tango music like Astor Piazzola is not used for tango dancing (except perhaps for performances). With the end of the dance generation in the mid-1950s much of the tango recording industry moved to "tango for export" (big lush orchestrations) or "nostalgic tango" (singers for concert halls), neither of which are very good for dancing. Osvaldo Pugliese, despite being one of the most complex, "big" and dramatic orchestras, is unusual for maintaining a tie to the dance rhythms even into the 1960s.
Short list of "Tom's essential Tango CDs"
Newcomers could start with the orchestras of Juan D'Arienzo and Carlos Di Sarli from the 1930s & 40s because the beat is solid and strong, and therefore easier to hear. Di Sarli is famous for emphasizing the steady, walking beat. D'Arienzo is called the "king of the beat" because of the rhythmic drive he emphasized. As a dancer you need to have command of the walk, as well as rhythmic drive.
Francisco Canaro was hugely popular over several decades. His older material is more rhythmic, while his later recordings have a more lyrical sensibility. I love Canaro's waltzes, but in general, I prefer Edgardo Donato as I feel he has a bit more punch than Canaro.
The intensely dramatic and passionate music of Osvaldo Pugliese is the peak experience for many tango dancers. It can be athletic or slow and deep. In Buenos Aires, when they put on a Pugliese set toward the end of the evening, they turn the lights down low while everybody looks around for their favorite partner.
The tango CDs listed below are selected from the Golden Era of tango dance orchestras, include many popular tangos that you would hear in a typical tango dance in Buenos Aires. I suggest choosing a few albums (D'Arienzo, Canaro, Di Sarli) from this list, and putting them on rotation while commuting, walking, or doing chores. Start with the more straightforward styles I've labeled rhythmic, walking or romantic rather than complex ones with lots of syncopation.
(The links take you to Spotify albums, which I use because I can create playlists and pay to get rid of ads)
- Adolfo Carabelli, "Volumen 1931-1933"
- Edgardo Donato, "A la Luz. Edgardo Donato y sus Muchachos"
- Edgardo Donato, "Inolvidable (1930 - 1942)"
- Francisco Canaro (Rhythmic) "Recordando a Francisco Canaro"
D'Arienzo and Biagi "King of the Beat" (Late 1930s)
Melodic and Lyrical (1940s)
- Miguel Calo "Al compas Del Corazon"
- Ricardo Tanturi/Campos "Ricardo Tanturi Canta Enrique Campos"
Syncopated and Complex (1940s)
- Anibal Troilo "Troilo en RCA Victor"
- Anibal Troilo "Instrumental 1941 - 1944"
Ethereal and Spacious (1940s)
- Angel D'Agostino/Vargas "RCA Victor 100 Anos"
The Steady Walking Beat(1940s - 50s)
- Carlos Di Sarli "RCA Victor 100 Anos"
Dramatic and Passionate (1950s - 1970s)
- Osvaldo Pugliese "Ausencia"
- Osvaldo Pugliese "A Los Amigos"
For more extensive tango CD listings, and discussions of different orchestras, see Stephen Brown's Guide to tango music for social dancing.