Many people believe that tango music is just whatever falls under the genre Tango. As with Classical, Rock or Jazz, such a category is too general to be of much use. People decide that they like the sound of some random tango music and that they want to dance to it, assuming that tango dancing is just dancing to whatever tango music with whatever tango steps. As with the other genres, education in music requires breaking down the genre into historically meaningful sub-categories.
For our purposes we only need to know that at a traditional Buenos Aires milonga tango is only ever danced to music recorded during the Golden Era or Epoca de Oro, that is, music recorded by around 20 orchestras in the period 1930-1953. In order to learn traditional Tango Estilo Milonguero this is the only music you need to listen and dance to. To put this in some context it is useful to look at the history of tango in terms of rough periods of its development:
Prior to 1800
British country dance spreads throughout Europe to be known as contradanse and contradanza. In Cuba a swinging rhythm from African music is added to the contradanza and this augmented form returns to Europe now known as the Habanera (see also Musicality).
Contradanza/Habanera forms the basis of many folk dances including the milonga danced in the region Rio de la Plata between Montevideo and Buenos Ares. The main instruments used are guitar and flute. The bandoneon originally intended as a portable organ for small churches arrives from Germany around this time. Argentina invites a large influx of European migrant workers who comprise half of the population of Buenos Aires by the end of the century.
Tango is crystallizing as a new local creole form of music and dance. First ensembles devoted uniquely to tango emerge known as Orquesta Tipica Criolla. These early ensembles are quartets comprising guitar, flute, violin and bandoneon.
Tango gains acceptability with the upper classes and moves to cafes and salons in the city centre. The first recording studio is established in Buenos Aires. There is a tango craze in Europe and the US with tango orchestras led by Francisco Canaro touring France. Tango ensembles grow larger adding more bandoneons and violins. The guitar and flute are replaced by piano and double bass for a bigger sound.
Guardia Vieja or The Old Guard refers to the first large professional tango orchestras led by Canaro, Fresedo, Donato, De Caro, Lomuto, etc. that give us the first dancable recordings with a more traditional sound. These recordings are characterised by a slow steady beat. These recordings are usually played early at Buenos Aires milongas.
Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra with Rodolfo Biagi arranging and playing the piano revolutionise danceable tango, playing tunes with a strong driving beat. They produce the most important set of classic recordings. It marks the early phase of the Golden Era and an important turning point in the emergence of tango as a popular form. All traditional milongas play sets of tangos from these recordings.
The middle of the Golden Era with around 20 orchestras making hundreds of studio recordings that comprise the bulk of traditional milonga DJ-ing to this day. They are smooth, romantic and sophisticated. The main orchestras are led by Di Sarli, Troilo, D’Agostino, Tanturi, Calo, Laurenz and Pugliese. The singing style is strongly influenced by the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel.*
Later part of the Golden Era with tango becoming smoother, more intense and sophisticated with more complex arrangements. This music is more challenging to dance to but reaches new heights of emotional intensity. Because of the less pronounced beat and complex arrangement this style requires a smoother style of dancing and higher skill level. These tangos are played toward the end of the traditional milonga DJ set.
The end of the Golden Era as tango orchestras move from being medium size dance hall ensembles to large concert hall orchestras.** This music is for large concert hall audiences. The style of singing also changes moving away from the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel to a deeper style exemplified by the later recordings of Roberto Goyeneche. Also, many Golden Era recordings originally released on shellac records are remastered adding reverb and re-released on vinyl with the bigger sound imitating concert hall orchestras.
Astor Piazzolla who played bandoneon in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra trains in classical music composition in France and creates a new genre called Tango Nuevo which is a fusion of tango with jazz and classical. He leads classical orchestras as well as jazz ensembles featuring electric bass, electric guitar and the drum kit.
Tango stage musicals comprising larger orchestras fronted by acrobatic tango choreography tour the world starting a new tango craze. The big sounding orchestras and acrobatic choreography is now strongly associated with tango music and dancing outside of Argentina, but in Buenos Aires it is rejected as Tango por export.
Orchestral tango and stage choreography becomes formalised as a new globalised hybrid of Salon Style Tango. Meanwhile the new genre of electronic tango emerges building on the sound developed by Piazzolla or mixing tango samples with electronic beats. Gustavo Naveira formalises tango choreography in a way that is compatible with this new genre in what comes to be also called Tango Nuevo, which is popularised in the 1997 movie The Tango Lesson.
While traditional Buenos Aires milongas retain an established DJ repertoire comprising at least 70% Golden Era tango music, due to the influence on popular culture of tango musicals and Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo, non-traditional milongas outside of Buenos Aires play mostly a mixture of post-1950 music hall tango, Tango Nuevo, Electronic Tango, and contemporary tango recordings that suit the Salon Style Tango choreography. Tango classes almost never focus on tango music and its history.
Tango music at milongas today
Currently the vast majority of milongas outside of Buenos Aires are Salon Style Tango (see Styles) that play mostly non-traditional post-1950 tango music, or play a random mixture of traditional and non-traditional tunes. A select few tango events outside of Buenos Aires play traditional tango music and follow the traditional tango cultural norms (style of dancing and etiquette). So in most cases a milonga outside of Buenos Aires will be a Salon Style or Tango Nuevo event and therefore typically little or no Golden Era tango music will be played.
*Carlos Gardel was a singing idol and movie star in the 20s and early 30s. He tragically died in a plane crash over Colombia in 1935 sending Argentina into nationwide mourning.
**The only tangos recorded after 1950 that are played at traditional milongas and are counted as Golden Era tango are the early 1950s recordings by Carlos Di Sarli at Music Hall, and by Rodolfo Biagi y su Orquesta Tipica.