Milonga! Milonga! Milonga!

Milonga! Milonga! Milonga!

If it were up to me, every other tanda would be a milonga tanda.

I love the small steps, the fast-paced flow, the compressed energy and its release.

Most dancers don't receive enough education in their early years to develop a taste for milonga. Some grow into it, others sit it out. According to my anecdotal non-evidence, more women are into it than men.

As a leader, I get a little more partner choice when the milonga tanda starts: I will look for feet tapping into the rhythm and catch the mirada. I do want the follower to be an enthusiast like myself: there are only few opportunities any given night.

And, I want the DJ to be milonga-friendly and aware that milonga crazies are hungry and won't settle for lukewarm sound-alikes or an outright fraud such as a foxtrot.

When DJing, I do not settle and I do not compromise. My tangos can be varied and multicolored. My milongas are black and white, sharpened and red-hot.

Below, I will outline what milongas I like to dance and play, what are the essential components of a good milonga, and how I mix milongas in tandas. (I discussed how I mix vals tandas a while ago.)

Reasons to love milongas

Ask a friend who dances salsa or swing how they see us tango people. Really, do it. I remember one time many years ago when we had a salsa/tango event with the floors and encouraging people to switch every once in a while. The contrast was stark. One comment I heard from a salsero was: you guys look like zombies!

To put it in less inflammatory words, tango can be quite serious. Tedious, even, when the DJ goes on a lyrical highway and does not take any exit. A milonga can then be a much needed pit-stop where fun and games can happen.

Milonga is fun.

It offers respite after forty minutes of soul-searching and reminiscing of loves long lost. It's a break from marching and trying to be creative in a ronda that never has enough space for the moves you would really want to make.

You can connect to your partner on a new level: instead of delving deep into your passions, stay up, joke around, take it easy.

I never see as many smiles on the dance floor as when a great milonga tanda is in progress. That's it: milonga is s a running joke you make with your feet and embrace.

My reasons to love milongas as therefore best expressed in terms of humor, party energy, and not taking this dancing business all that seriously. Chances are, yours will be similar. Be it as it may, please share yours in the comments section!

Elements of a great milonga

At its core, milonga is not just fun but also easy. It has a regular, lively tempo and the underlying rhythmical pattern that guides the couples:

It's really that simple.

You'll be intimately familiar with the beat even without ever having analyzed it. Just listen and instead of focusing on the melody, take note of what's going on in the deeper registers.

Some of the best milongas for dancing come from 1930s when this genre was "invented", including the arguably most loved one, Silueta porteña as recorded by Canaro canta Roberto Maida.

The signature beat here is unmistakable.

Interestingly, Silueta porteña is actually romantic, touching, and quite intense in its lyrical potential, and yet it still prompts you to dance milonga steps to it, guiding you ever so gently to keep moving.

What makes milonga is that the beat is there most of the time. Regularity, predictability of the underlying rhythmical structure is key. The melody can be playful and tricky; the beat cannot.

Another component is drive: a rhythmical drive that is relentless, never receding or pausing, always clear. Consider Mozo guapo as recorded by Tanturi c. Alberto Castillo:

A great milonga will grab you from the get-go and won't release its grip until it's over. No stops, no pausing for a lyrical intermission, just go, go, go and have fun!

Technically, the requirements for a popular milonga also limit the tempo. 100 BPM would be the ideal, with 80 BPM being the lower limit to use on beginners or early in the evening, and 115-120 BPM being the upper limit where it's getting too difficult for everybody but the most experienced milongueros.

The problem with milongas

Scarcity.

Take a look at most orchestras and the milongas are few and far between. Even fewer are the great ones. We're then being served a very limited and repeating selection of the best known pieces.

Given that there is one milonga tanda per hour in the traditional setting, each event will have anything between 2-5 tandas, and that puts some pressure on the DJ. A fallback to the tried-and-tested repertoire is often the solution.

In this area, I am one with the traditionalists. When dancing, I want to receive a great rhythmical tanda that will give me space to joke around with my partner on the beat that I know and love.

Looking at the repertoire available to me at the time of writing, I must ignore a lot of the already limited material. That is very annoying.

Some milongas that don't work so well

It might be useful to discuss a few examples of milongas that in my view do not serve the needs of the milongal afficionados so well. If you happen to love these, more power to you; I am merely expressing my personal judgement.

Consider Soy del noventa by Rodolfo Biagi c. Carlos Acuña from 1943:

Starting with the usual force and sharpest accents, the song loses steam quickly - I get the feeling that it's always slowing down. That's the last thing I want; as a dancer, I want to always be pushed forward and not hindered.

Even the otherwise lovable Flor de Montserrat does slow down after the introduction, but luckily remains stable after that.

Di Sarli milongas often give me pause when I consider them for the particular moment as the DJ. I sense that the orchestration lacks enough sharpness and that the underlying drive is less pronounced than you'd want. As a dancer I am tempted to indulge in movements that fit tango better than they do milonga. Consider Rosa Morena (c. Roberto Rufino) as case in point:

I usually save Di Sarli for a lyrical tango tanda and play something sharper instead.

Some D'Arienzo's milongas, while being great in character, are simply too fast for most audiences. Consider Carnavalera (c. Héctor Mauré):

Admittedly it's great despite being so fast... I want to dance this!

When I disqualify a milonga from my sets, it's usually for the reasons you can infer from above examples. Either the character is wrong (not sharp enough, not consistent in driving you across the ronda), not stylish (does not inspire classic milonga movements), or the tempos aren't right for my crowd.

Looking for the perfect milonga

You know them, having danced them all.

Hardly a night goes by without Silueta porteña or No hay tierra como la mía powering up the dancers' feet.

I will accept an overplayed hit gladly if the alternative were mediocre.

You could say this about the tangos and valses, too, except there are many more tangos available in stock even when the DJ is only dealing the best known hits. In constrast, there may be anywhere between 20-50 milongas in wider circulation.

Still, it's possible to find milongas from every era that fit the requirements and are not overplayed.

Unexplored milongas from the 1940s

The Golden age has all the hits you have danced to. I'll always play at least one milonga tanda from this epoch to satisfy the urges of my milongueros.

Instead of listing the obvious, I'll name a few songs that have a strong potential yet haven't made it into the mainstream.

Revered for his poignant tangos such as the immortal rendition of Remembranzas, Ricardo Malerba recorded a catchy midtempo milonga named Mariana (c. Orlando Medina) that is friendly to beginners and rewarding to all levels. Mixing is necessary as you won't be able to compose a sensible tanda using only this orchestra.

Antonio Rodio is a gem of a small orchestra that never made it the big stage. I have played his Cumparsita too many times to count. Paloma, Paloma is a playful, midtempo milonga  for an afternoon set. I have combined it with Malerba in the past. The 1940s Troilo could be another match although you can do a Troilo tanda without mixing, and so it's not that obvious.

Eduardo del Piano worked with D'Agostino and his Milonga para Gardel could be combined with his milongas if you wanted to mix, especially since Ángel Vargas is involved. The tempo is easy and the character is just right. I would cut-off the opening speech since the song is not strong enough to be an opener.

Speaking of Ángel D'Agostino.. this one isn't completely unknown, yet it's not often on the menu:

Driven and relentless, Todos te quieren is not for the non-initiated. It's a ball of compressed energy pulsating violently, always on the brink of becoming a supernova. Admittedly, it's not projecting fun; being entirely in the minor key, it can function as a surprise departure for dancers who want to expend some extra energy.

Demare's milongas have too many candombe elements within them for me to really enjoy them. Señores, yo soy del centro is different. It's a proper milonga. Being faster at around 115 BPM, the demands it puts on the leader are higher. I have combined it with Rodio and Malerba and used it as a closer.

Pugliese's Milonga de mi tierra (c. Jorge Rubino) has a phenomenal drive and is remarkably consistent; it never drops, never pauses, never takes a rubato. It's on the faster side of the spectrum at 114 BPM.

Making a tanda around it is a creative challenge. Tortazos is too intense, possibly beyond the boundaries of pleasure.  And, mixing Pugliese with any other orchestra is fraught with danger as his ensemble has a sound that is too unique and too familiar to allow for easy promiscuity. I'll be happy to hear from other DJs who managed to do this successfully.

Could I somehow sneak in Pugliese's Silueta porteña from 1956 into the tanda? I don't know yet. Speaking of 1950...

Great milongas from the 1950s

Troilo's Ni más ni menos comes from 1958 and has it all: the right tempo that's still within the acceptable limit (108 BPM), regularity - it's not totally robotic but keeps it going steady - and the signature rhythmical pattern.

(I did not choose the cover for this YouTube video. Before you say anything, yes I do know this is not a typical tango situation.)

Playful and swift, Salamanca's Milonga sentimental elaborates on the famous melody in the orchestra's unique fashion. At 113 BPM it's already quite demanding. The elements are all there, however: the pattern, the drive, the energy. Hats off to the signers Armando Guerrico and Mario Luna who never skip a beat and never force the orchestra to slow down.

A true gem of the 1950s, D'Arienzo's Baldosa floja is also a duet and Valdez with Bustos make a magificient appearance together. Be warned, though: the while the overall drive is regular, the rhythmical structure has many tricky sections. It's not straightforward. If it were produced by a lesser orchestra, it could become borderline or unusable, but D'Arienzo's genius makes it all work. At some cost to the leader, to be sure.

Other milongas from this period that I enjoy playing and dancing to: Porteña y nada más by Di Sarli c. Mario Pomar (quite lyrical and without the signature pattern but enough drive overall), Silueta porteña by Varela c. Argentino Ledesma (lovely rendition in all aspects), fun milongas by Canaro's Quinteto Pirincho such as Arrabalera. I could name a few others and we would be done pretty soon. Scarcity, again.

Great milongas from 1960s and 1970s

Just good mood and fun, Basso's El firulete is borderline kitschy in its instrumentation but who cares, it delivers. At 112 BPM it's pretty fast, and its relentless drive makes it sound faster than it is.

To my taste, there are too many unisons (that's when more instruments play the some melody or phrase).

At the same time, it puts a smile on my ugly face and makes my feet move. In other words, it works.

Con flauta y guitarra as recorded by Varela c. Fernando Soler and Jorge Falcón is also considerably fast at 112 BPM. Again, the singers are precisely on the beat, which is no small feat. The energy levels are so high I would be hesitant to put this anywhere other than as a closer, culminating a tanda that is not all this crazy.

I love other milongas by Varela from this period, namely Dame un besito mi amor and the cutesy Haceme cu-cu.

Upon closer look, they don't really have the required rhythmical pattern powering them and I suspect that the kinds of movements they inspire fall outside of the milonga genre. I say this tentatively and without any claim of authority; this is simply my gut feeling.

D'Arienzo's milonga from the early 60s are amazing. I've featured Prometedora in my yearly summary, and here I give you ABC del amor:

As is the rule with late D'Arienzo, the sound spectrum is fully utilized and the sheer force of the musical pulse requires that the leaders keep their emotional balance and don't succumb to it.

Promising contemporary milongas

The 2000s brought a world-wide revival of tango, and of milongas as well. Most albums have one or two, and so the repertoire is growing.

The bands tend to fall-back on hits, and so we're unfortunately gifted with too many covers of Silueta porteña that have a hard time competing with the classics. Here and there, the band will come with a remake of a song less known.

Consider De antaño by the Australian group Tángalo, a wonderful ensemble that plays little jokes on the revered classic.

Roulotte Tango released a fabulous rendition of Milonga del ochenta y tres | Milonga del 83 on their album El Siguiente in 2015. Unfortunately, I did not find a usable copy on YouTube - they are holding this gem close to their chest! Do it the old-fashioned way and get the CD instead.

Cuarteto Sol Tango remade La vida es una milonga and Carnavalito | Quebradeño on their album Sin Palabras, which I reviewed. Both are welcome revivals of tunes that do not have multiple canonical versions from the Golden age.

Mi vieja linda by Sexteto Cristal is fresh and sweet and brings this wonderful tune from the scratch-and-squeak mortuary to the present day. I reviewed their first and second album. They are one of very few new bands that have recorded enough milongas such that I don't have to mix their music in a tanda with other bands'.

Ella es así by Orquesta Típica Andariega must be its most original remake, and if you listen closely, it still has the right elements that make a milonga great: the constant drive, sharp accents, the underlying rhythmical pattern. I reviewed them here.

I have a soft spot for the tango projects of Alex Krebs. His album Stumptandas features lovely covers that are both respectful and innovative. Consider Largá las penas, whose canonical version by Canaro came out in 1935, and see how it measures.

The Alex Krebs Tango Sextet, Largá las penas

This was again a small sample and is meant to showcase my taste. I will feature contemporary milongas in my "Tanda of the week" series as they happen to catch my fancy.

Beyond the tradition and into the wild

As a DJ, I draw the line simply. The new music I play arises from the organic tango tradition, which means that it's acoustic and uses at least some of the traditional instruments like the bandoneón. Most importantly, it must inspire the dancer to move along using tango (and milonga, vals) steps. If I feel like I would rather move differently (for instance, up-and-down like in blues), I don't play it.

That said, I am sometimes inspired by cross-over projects that step over this line. Consider this version of Baldosa floja by Tangorra Orquesta Atipica. It is borderline... and it might still work. The tempo is slower but within range, and the signature beat is there as well.

I believe that I caught this first from a post by Thomas Kröter on Facebook. He is a prolific source of inspiring tango posts and videos and a frequent commenter on various aspects of tango as practiced in Berlin.

Otros Aires has typically too much electronics and drums inside that prevents me from including their music. On a particularly wild night, though, I can imagine throwing in Milonga sentimental or El porteñito. I feel like it prompts me still take milonga steps and its good mood is irresistible.

This is the farthest I would go as DJ these days.

How I mix milonga tandas

At this point you'll have formed an idea about what I am looking for in a good milonga.

A typical weekly milonga gives me two-to-three chances to please my milonga fans. Given this restraint, I will play a "familiar" tanda first (proven hits) followed by a more playful, adventurous tanda at the close of the second hour.

The caveat here is that I sometimes use 21th century versions of the "familiar" tunes for the first tanda. A tanda built around Alex Krebs' Largá las penas would be a good example of this - I used it twelve times between 2018-2019 in various configurations such as:

  • Largá las penas
  • Negrito
  • Ella es así (feat. Enrique "El Peru" Chavez)

I love to do this when appropriate. The sound of Krebs' ensembles is clear, faithful, and non-compromising in terms of the musical essence. All that is perfectly walkable medium tempos suitable for all levels.

A quick look at my 2019 sets revealed that I typically compose Golden age milonga tandas conservatively, preferring to use the same orchestra, while mixing liberally milongas from 2000s.

A pattern that I see being applied consistently in my sets is that I prefer to gradually speed up, upping the notch a little with each song. I would consider the opposite direction (slowing down) to be anticlimactic.

This goes back to the pre-requisite of a consistent forward drive within a milonga tune. That applies to the tanda as well. I will only relax the last song to correct for my own mistake if I overdrive my dancers with the 2nd song.

Other than that, I don't have any deeper "philosophical" designs for my milonga tandas. All songs should be catchy, driven, and fun. Unlike with tangos, I'm not specifically looking to create any contrast.

It's only three songs, and only once an hour. The milonga crazies who've been waiting for so long to get their fix should better walk out sweating and smiling when it's over!

Loving the milonga

As I wrote at the beginning of this monster post, it's too bad there is only one milonga tanda per hour. No matter the reasons for the TTVTTM pattern, I wish there were more milongas at a milonga.

The problem is compounded by the lack of education that yields few milonga lovers in each new generation of dancers.

On top of that, DJs often consider the milonga as an after-thought, especially those that don't love to dance it themselves.

It's time to correct for this historing wrong. Milonga is alive, as is tango. Milonga is forever!


cover image © Allan Beaufour, https://flickr.com/photos/beaufour/5090797015/.