Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Three

An early 1900's picture of the band members of Orquest Tipica Julio De CaroIn the second part of this series we looked at which elements of a tango tune could be expressed in your dance, and in order to look at those elements in more detail we need to first have a quick look at the orchestra, the instruments and how they express different elements of the music before looking at tango tunes in detail.

The Structure of a Tango Orchestra

A tango orchestra rarely uses drums to identify the beat. The typical instruments used for tango are: violins, contrabass, bandoneon, and piano. A quartet will have one of each instrument. An ‘Orqesta Tipica’ is a usually a sextet or octet where the numbers of violins and bandoneons are increased. A large tango orchestra may have four or more violins and bandoneons to really boost that typical tango sound.

Some Golden Age orchestras also included clarinets, horns, guitars and other more orchestral instruments to fill out the sound and also to create their own unique identity, for example Jose Garcia introduced brass into some of his arrangements, Osvaldo Fresedo often used reverberating bell sounds, Enrique Rodriguez, Francisco Canaro and Francisco Lomuto used woodwind. With some orchestras the characteristic sound came from the singer, such as the partnership of the Lucio Demare orchestra with the singer Raul Beron. For others such as Juan D’Arienzo, the characteristic sound came just from having more! More bandoneons, more violins, and a distinctive way the musicians played them.

Which instrument carries the beat?

Well, all instruments may take part in expressing the beat, but not necessarily at the same time. The beat is often transferred from one instrument to another as a tune progresses, but even if it seems difficult to hear it, the beat is always there (even if only in the minds of the musicians, such as in Astor Piazollas ‘Oblivion’!).

If you listen to tunes arranged by Juan D’Arienzo (known as the King of the Beat) or Enrique Rodriguez, you will hear them use the violins and bandoneons to define the beat. It sounds choppy or zingy as they emphasise beat 1 of each bar.

Other orchestra leaders arranged for the bass register of the piano or bandoneon to carry the beat. In some orchestras such as Di Sarli where the arrangements are more lyrical and romantic, some sections of the music seem hardly to have any definite beat, but the music always comes back to a section in which the beat is obvious, helping dancers to ‘anchor’ themselves to the music.

So to give you a hints about listening and practices regimes, I repeat that beginners should concentrate on making sure they can hear and dance to the walking beat, and identify the repeating sections of a tune (more on that later in the series).

An improver/intermediate would do well not only to master the walking beat but to listen out for the intermediate beats and half beats, and to practise syncopation steps and decorations such as toe taps, piquets as well as rebote/traspie steps.

The more advanced dancers will want to listen not only to the melodic twiddly bits of a tune, but also to the emotional elements in the strings, the singers voice, the bandoneon and so on. Then try to interpret them with a change in the mood and speed of the dance to match the melody and emotion.

Each leader and follower will have to practice being receptive to what their partner is trying to interpret at any point in a tune. There is nothing more annoying for either dancer than to hear a way of expressing a tune which for example might require a slowing down of the dance, which the other party just wants to hustle through as quick as possible. For this higher level of musical interpretation, patience, sensitivity and the willingness to slow down are all important.

Tango is very rewarding when you can finally master (do we ever? 🙂 ) the intricacies of musicality.

In the next part of this series I will begin dissecting the structure of a typical tango tune so we can not only dance well to very familiar tunes but also dance reasonably well to tunes we’ve never heard before. It’s all about repetition and prediction…

Previous – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Two

Next – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Four

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