Tandas at the milonga

A tanda is a set of four dances followed by a change of music (called the “cortina”) for dancers to return to their tables. The deejay selects four pieces of music by the same orchestra with the same singer that were recorded around the same time in order to provide continuity in style and rhythm. The orchestras that played specifically for dancing recorded enough tangos for an entire night of tandas. Those who liked the recordings of Troilo would go to dance where the night was dedicated to his music. However, some orchestras have very few recordings of valses and milongas, so a deejay often has to blend different singers of the same orchestra to form a tanda.

The music of the milonga today is programmed differently from the way it was in the 1950s during the “golden age of the milongas,” (1948-1960) even though mostly the same recordings are used. The format of tandas was changed in the 1970s. Today, the common format is two tandas of tangos (alternating rhythmic and melodic), four valses, two tandas of tango, a tanda of milongas, etc., with only one tanda of latin (salsa, cumbia, merengue) and one tanda of jazz in the course of six hours. About three years ago, the city government restricted the milongas to playing only tango, vals, and milonga, but that law was changed to allow once again for other music to be played for dancing as it had been during the late 1940s and 1950s.

By questioning milongueros, I learned that there was a wide variety of dance music played in the milongas during the 1950s. The milongas of Buenos Aires originally included other dance music, including foxtrot, rumba, bolero, salsa, and jazz. In the 1940s, recordings were made on 78rpm vinyl discs that had to be carefully turned or changed for each dance. In the confiterias bailables, the deejay announced the orchestra, singer and titles for each tanda. For example, “vamos a bailar a Anibal Troilo con Francisco Fiorentino–Yo Soy El Tango, Toda Mi Vida, Cachirulo, Milongeando en El Cuarenta—two vocals with the same singer and then two instrumentals. The first three tangos I’ve mentioned were recorded on the same date—March 4, 1941—an example of how deejays carefully programmed a tanda for consistency of style and rhythm thereby providing a high quality of music for the discriminating tastes of the milongueros. They selected their partners according to the tanda.

Young milongueros went to the confiterias bailables in downtown where they could hear the recordings of their favorite orchestras. In the 1950s, there was competition among the milongas. The milongueros wanted to hear different music each night of the week. The deejay’s knowledge and music collection was key to a milonga’s success.

The cortina music was played very low while dancers were returning to their tables, and it continued for five minutes in order to allow dancers to rest, smoke, retire to the ladies’ or men’s rooms, or have a drink. The atmosphere of the milonga was certainly more relaxed than it is today. People dressed elegantly. Men always wore suits and ties, even in the summer months when there was no air-conditioning, so they needed time to rest. It’s common today for deejays to play 30-45 seconds of different music for each cortina at a high volume like nightclubs. There is no thought of resting after a tanda these days where the milonga is more like a gymnasium for a workout. Sweat on the brow and the perspiration-soaked clothing proves it.

There is tango for the milonga (i.e., Troilo), tango for dancing (i.e., Osvaldo Pugliese), and tango for listening (i.e., Carlos Gardel). A deejay has to know the difference in order to provide quality tandas for a milonga. The orchestras of the milongueros are Anibal Troilo, Ricardo Tanturi, Miguel Calo, Carlos Di Sarli, Angel D’Agostino, Pedro Laurenz and Enrique Francini/Armando Pontier. The orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese performed for large dances every Friday night at Salon La Argentina on Rodriguez Pena. The orchestras of Osvaldo Fresedo, Lucio Demare, and Julio De Caro performed regularly in the downtown cabarets where there were two orchestras alternating half hour sets between tango and jazz. The orchestras of Rodolfo Biaggi, Juan D’Arienzo, and Roberto Firpo were popular in the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Of course today, the music of these orchestras and others are included in tandas at the milonga.

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10 Responses to “Tandas at the milonga”

  1. Irene Says:

    Dear Janis,

    People profess love of tango music and love of tango (or even try to DJ tango music!) but only a very few bother to do the research, talk to the DJs and talk to the milongueros about how music is selected and played for the milonga. If people will do the legwork instead of “relying on their own intuitive genius” about the music or buying pre-set tandas from the Buenos Aires DJs with the biggest names (but not necessarily the best music) and playing them again and again ad nauseum (“It’s from Buenos Aires, it must be good!”), maybe the quality of the music in the milongas outside of Buenos Aires will improve. Perhaps people will also start dancing better when they learn to appreciate the better music – is it too much to hope?

    Thanks for all your advice about music and for posting this. Looking forward to reading more about music from you soon.


  2. jantango Says:

    The music in the milongas is often undanceable, but that doesn’t make any difference to those who consider it their workout. Deejays don’t have to play the best recordings in order to please the dancers. Anything will do. Foreigners go by what they hear or buy in Buenos Aires.

    This wasn’t the case about ten years ago in Buenos Aires. The deejay was the key to good dancers attending a milonga. Those who know the best recordings for dancing go where Daniel Borelli handles the music. In my opinion, he’s the best deejay in Buenos Aires.

  3. joe grohens Says:

    Hi Janis –

    Thank you for writing this informative article. You mention that there is “tango for the milonga, tango for dancing, […] and tango for listening.”

    Can you say more about the difference between tango for the milonga and tango for dancing?

    Best wishes,


  4. jantango Says:

    There were hundreds of orchestras and musical ensembles during the 1940s that played for dancing. There were very few that were favored by the best dancers–the milongueros. Other orchestras featured a singer in large venues where people went to listen and dance, but they weren’t as serious about dancing well as the milongueros. As in anything, there are very few at the top. The masses went to see the orchestras with singers; the milongueros danced to recordings they knew.

  5. La Morocha Says:

    “The deejay announced the orchestra, singer and titles for each tanda. For example, “vamos a bailar a Anibal Troilo con Francisco Fiorentino–Yo Soy El Tango, Toda Mi Vida, Cachirulo, Milongeando en El Cuarenta—two vocals with the same singer and then two instrumentals.”

    For my point of view, this custom was great. Do you think could work today?

    Thank you for sharing all this!

  6. jantango Says:

    Not only do I think announcing the tandas would work today, I know that it is being done in Buenos Aires and abroad. The tandas are announced on Thursdays and Sundays in Club Fulgor de Villa Crespo where Roberto Orlando has celebrated 16 years. I know of a milonga in Rome where they are announced by the organizer as well. It helps dancers know what orchestra and specific pieces they are dancing to. It can be done today as it was in the 1950s in the confiterias downtown.

  7. Stephanie Says:

    Thanks for this article. Great insight. Montreal has one famous DJ who announces all his tandas: Michel. I love this practice…. At least I know if I should get up to dance or stay seated.

  8. Del Says:

    Nice touch, nowadays its becoming ever so popular for DJ to project details of the next tanda on screen

  9. Ann geis Says:

    I like the idea of projecting the next tanda details on screen.

  10. Chris Says:

    Janis wrote: “It helps dancers know what orchestra and specific pieces they are dancing to.

    It helps dancers know merely the names of the orchestra and pieces they are dancing to. To know the orchestra and pieces themselves, one listens to the music – not to an announcer.

    I’m glad I’ve found only one milonga in Europe that interrupts proceedings with an announcement on every tanda.

    I know a couple of UK milongas that display the names on a screen. This is popular with dancers to whom the names mean more than the music. I’d like to see these milongas switch to putting the info instead on Twitter, so those who need it can read it in real-time on their phone screens, and everyone else can be spared the distracting electronic display overlooking the dancefloor!

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