Music 101 by Angel Montero

One of the most frequent questions asked by beginners and experienced dancers alike is: “What kind of music should we be listening to ?“ The answer is always: “it depends"¯.

It is important to point out that not all tango music is suitable for dancing. The best example is Carlos Gardel, undoubtedly the best tango singer ever but his recordings are never heard in the milongas. Similarly, the music of Astor Piazzola is best equated to modern jazz, a great auditory experience, but not a toe-tapper.

Tango is one of the richest genres in music history. The dance and music evolved from houses of dubious reputation at the end of the 19th century, to the high society salons in the 1940’s and concert halls in the 1970's.

In my opinion (and that of the best tango DJs), the best tango music for social dancing was recorded during the 30s and 40s, the so-called Golden Age of tango. Some even narrow it even more (1935-1944)

There was an abundance of great orchestras active during those days. It is impossible to named them all, but most people agree that the four pivotal orchestras are are Troilo, Pugliese, D'Arienzo and Di Sarli. They all have their own unique style and their influence on the dancers has been and continues to be remarkable. Other orchestras should be named, starting with Francisco Canaro and continuing with Miguel Caló, Lucio de Mare, Osvaldo Fresedo, Edgardo Donato, Enrique Rodriguez, Angel D'Agostino, Rodolfo Biagi, Ricardo Tanturi and Julio de Caro.

Some of these orchestras were accompanied by singers that sometimes became almost as famous as the orchestra itself. It is worth mentioning Roberto Rufino, Alberto Podestá, Raúl Berón, Alberto Marino, Francisco Fiorentino, Alberto Echagüe, Jorge Ortiz, Roberto Ray and Angel Vargas. Some of them recorded music with several orchestras, while some others stayed their whole careers with the same one.

Great tango music continues to be composed after the so-called Golden Age of Tango, but usually these new tangos are not intended for dancing. Astor Piazzolla, the composer that took tango to a new level, often mentioned that he did not like people dancing to his compositions. His music, not suitable for the social dance floor, is widely used in tango performance shows and even by ballet shows, such as those of noted Argentine ballet dancer Julio Boca.


The music in the milongas is structured in what are called “tandas"¯. A tanda is a set of three or four songs by the same orchestra, and usually from the same period (some orchestras were active over long periods of time, like Canaro). The tandas are separated by a “cortina" (literally curtain). The cortina gives dancers the opportunity to change partners and to dance each tanda with their favorite partner for that music. A dancer might like to dance D'arienzo with one partner, Caló with different partner, and so on.

Usually, the structure is two tandas of tango, followed by a tanda of vals, two more tandas of tango and finally a tanda of milonga before starting the cycle again; but of course there is no written rule and every DJ uses his or her own judgment.

When I am in charge of the music in a milonga, I try to play a wide variety of music from the Golden Age. I favor highly rhythmic music, like D'Arienzo, Donato, Biagi or Troilo, but I also like to play more lyrical tangos, like Caló³ or di Sarli. The main idea is to keep people wanting to dance every single set of music, always for a different reason, and giving them every option. When I think of valses my mind goes to Biagi, Troilo or De Angelis, but when I want milonga, I immediately think about Canaro or Donato.

In my case the dance floor dictates the music I play. I try to measure the energy of the dancers and their response to each tanda, and I use it to decide which music should follow, often making last minute changes. As a general rule, I avoid pre-recorded playlists.

I want to mention and thank some of the people that helped me with their advice since I decided to take on the task of DJing in a milonga. Not surprisingly, they are my favorite DJs working in the US: Robin Thomas from New York, Robert Hauk from Portland, Ramu Pyreddy from Ann Arbor and Dan Boccia from Anchorage. Lately, Shorey Myers, from San Francisco, has earned a spot in the list of my favorite DJs, really close to number one. It is a pleasure sitting by their side when they are working and I can say that I have learned a lot by just being at their milongas.

And finally, I want to stress that these are my personal opinions, and everybody is entitled to his or her own judgement. In our LINKS page you will find some places where to buy tango music. A very personal and very short list of recommended albums includes:

  • Miguel Caló: Al Compás del Corazón
  • Osvaldo Pugliese: Ausencia
  • Lucio de Mare: Tango Guapo
  • Juan D'arienzo: Echagüe, El Rey del Compás
  • Carlos di Sarli: 20 Temas Instrumentales, El Señor del Tango
  • Angel D'Agostino: Tangos de los Angeles (canta Angel Vargas)
  • Francisco Canaro: Ojos Negros
  • Aníbal Troilo: Del Tiempo Guapo (canta Francisco Fiorentino)
  • Rodolfo Biagi: Racing Club, Sus Exitos con Jorge Ortiz
  • Pedro Laurenz: Milonga de mis Amores
  • Osvaldo Fresedo: Tangos de Salón
  • Edgardo Donato: 1933-1941 (RCA - Colección 78 RPM)