First rule they taught me as a pro: "If in doubt - bail out."
Radio, music, programming, record production; could never find any borders between them. Many years of programming music for radio stations at the top level had a lot to do with making me a different kind of Tango dj.
I've always been a student of what music people like and why they like it, for good programming is the ability to put your finger on the right choices to get the most amount of people to simultaneously agree that this is really good - I'll keep paying attention. This decision comes up every 2 minutes as you work. And you have to keep listeners for as long as possible. It's an art - expressed 24 times an hour (with cortinas).
One paints with energy levels, emotions, variations of mood to keep it interesting.
We study what music means to people over time for today's favourite song might soon be yesterday's song (e.g. Poema). As times change, so do we all. I actually used to think "tango-por-export" was good for dancing! Well, when I started the 50's music was played because the sound quality was so much better. Live and learn. It does take time to get to be the best one can.
How I first leaned about tango music, by Copes giving me 2 90-minute cassettes - with NO LABELS of what the orquestas and songs were - is a story for another time. Needless to say, it took time and effort in the days before the internet to get my bearings in this fascinating new tango world I had fallen into. I was every bit as obsessed to learn about the music as I was to learn the dance.
In broadcasting, you have to know when to get ON songs and when to get OFF them. Or not, if they remain favourites forever because they really mean something to lots of people. Even so, you may not always want or need to hear your favourites every week for years. There's a "burn-out factor;" songs that are really hot and then they go totally cold. Sometimes alarmingly quickly. The habit of always playing the same songs is weak because there is so much great music people never hear.
But there's only so-much time ... whether you have 2 hours or 6 hours. People are deciding every few minutes if they are still happy. Every choice is crucial.
I was privileged to captain the DJs for 10 years at the old Miami Tango Fantasy, the biggest Tango festival in the US for many years. As time went by, Lydia just dropped every other guest dj and had me work 10 nights in a row. A handful of DJ's with different knowledge and skill levels can (not necessarily) introduce disconcerting inconsistency at such an event. They usually don't know what they others have been playing, but of course the dancers do. Things can get grumbly with the patrons. Experience from broadcasting where I would program radio stations 24 hours a day was invaluable. Keeping things familiar but fresh is in my bones because that's just what a Music Director does.
It must be familiar - but it also must be fresh.
All my professional life in programming music I have been contemplating the importance of the phrase PAY ATTENTION. It says we actually all agree deep down that attention is worth paying something for. I submit it's one of the more important phrases in culture. If I want someone to reach into their pocket and give me their time, I'd better have something of value for them every minute.
I have a very large library, but no matter how large yours is, it is crucial to really know it, work it, not fall into habits and repetition. One must have a full library of the great golden hits; but this is where many people get into trouble without knowing it. It's all relative: a small library can still have clunkers in it, of course. The bigger collection contains risk - but so does the small one.
And we all know that what is nice at 9 PM can be out of place 4 hours later and vice-versa.
The new dj often plays something because they have it. This is the #1 death trap, so one of the major topics in my dj workshops. We spend time discussing how-to-make-choices. Don't know what could possibly be more important, or more glossed-over. I learned as soon as I got into tango that people will just play anything they've got without really thinking about it. It's a well-known tango orquesta - so it must be good. Umm ... no. And - each song must fit in a smooth way with the song before and lead-into the song after, just as each tanda must complement the before and after. Being a great dj can only happen with a lot of preparation and a finely-tuned sense of nuances, or one can never be in-tune with the dancers.
There are very good reasons why I have named every file in my remasters catalogue alphabetically and chronologically. Does this ever eliminate the chance of mistakes as well as save time. It groups the artists sound as they went through their career without one having to worry about it on-the-fly or when assembling tandas at home. Consistency of sound tonality is essential in programming for that sense-and-ensnarement-by-dj.
It's possible a dj can only be as good as their library is well-organized. My system is unique, so I know some people will resist change. But it immediately makes you feel you've got a fantastic finger on your music pulse as soon as you get used to it (5 minutes). Alphabetical and chronological by recording date - with the singer's name in the title - is magical. Fast and sure selection is the name of the game.
Next big problem: not knowing how to work to attendee's preferences. This is the dj's number one job, no?
Personally, I watch the door all night long looking for who is coming in; who leaves and when, of course. All us dancers do this naturally looking for partners. If we don't know them, we watch how they walk. The dj has to have an eye for what tandas to roll out next.
I personally work the room and tell everyone, remember: I always take requests! I HAVE to know not only what people want to hear, but what they know about the music. I don't play their request if it's inappropriate, but now I know the kind of thing they like. I can help them along by feeding their desire with something better than they currently know about. A good dj is an educator as well, surely?
It happens I have a poor memory for names at times; but not for faces - and I never forget what people ask for. It's one of the best tricks in my bag, I'm sure. So even 2 years later, when someone walks in I know how to get them up dancing.
In this regard, I don't understand why some dj's don't cater to the better dancers. I mean, that is so basic, don't you agree? The better dancers know more. Please them, the people who are new will learn quickly about the best music.
A teacher or professional dancers arrive? Please them right away. If they aren't dancing within a few minutes after saying hello, you can be sure you're not doing very well if they have put their shoes on. Change. Grab Laurez, Canaro, D'Arienzo with Biagi, Donato. Fast vals. Slow milonga. These are the engines that drive the machine.
Another page from the radio programmer's book: often we go in with a plan for something special and think it should happen later in the night. Danger. You might have lost the opportunity by the time you remember to get there. And if it really is a great idea, using it early will get both you and your crowd excited. Never "save it for later," (more than an hour) it's a rooky mistake, if I may say. Now - this half-hour - is what really matters.
We all suffer from not knowing if we are annoying or disappointing dancers. We have to be aware of things people don't which they are unable to articulate. They aren't going to complain to you directly because your sound levels are ridiculously uneven; you play awful 50's or later music; you stay too long in the same mood; your cortinas have no form; you seem to be in your own world and they don't want to be in it. They just will not show up very often.
If we aren't self-critical and have really sensitive antenae ...
The high-profile identifier of a dj's style, they are and should be highly personal. I almost think it isn't good form to discuss them. How important are they in my book? Totally.
Because it is fun for me the music editor, I love spending time on them. I've actually made over 400, including my Xmas cortinas. For Sunday afternoons I have some nice Mozart cortinas. When I work in Manhattan, I whip out my Harlem jazz cortinas. I like matching 30s and 40s music to tango greats for obvious sonic and atmospheric reasons. I use cortinas to stamp the night with a feeling of the moment and having variety to be able to press special buttons in dancers. Primarily, I use them to help me keep the energy flow smooth. The actual concept is so brilliant I think it is a shame most djs I've heard don't show more interest in having better ones.
I adjust their length just as I do tandas length depending on how many dancers are in the room. It can be wise and sensitive to go with 3-song tandas if there aren't many people or if the male-female balance it out of whack. Here I will often play shorter cortinas as well - but they still tell a complete musical story: start-middle-end. Same reason - careful to not let the energy flag.
The inverse is true as well. 300 people in a big ballroom and if the crowd is in your hand with a Pugliese or Di Sarli trance, 5 songs can actually blow people's minds. Unexpected delight / nobody's counting and they want the moment to last. With that many people and ambient noise, I'll use a 47 second cortina because it's good for flow and matching the mood.
The number of people in the room determines what everyone's sense of "time" is. It "expands" and "contracts" in proportion to crowd size.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought about cortina content. One style wants to clear the floor because they think they are what? Trying to stop fights of old in BA over mujers between men full of rage? Boring cortinas are used by these folks. The idea is to make sure people don't have too much fun. They never play anything with a dance beat. The Church would be pleased.
Trying to keep everyone engaged and happy, my philosophy and direction is very different. I love it when people stay on the floor eagerly waiting for the next tanda. If they want to have some fun by dancing to my cortina, they can feel safe because they will hear the end coming at around 30 seconds. The day I let something weird play for 127 seconds and slowly fade it out when I wake-up is the day they will carry me off to never be seen again.
Modulating energy in a sublime way is the name of the game. Intensity - release - build it up again. Underneath all must be a base where nerves are comfortable. In the gut. Moving up, some passion to make the heart beat a little faster. Further up, enough intellectual stimulation to excite the mind with possibilities.
Every new sound coming out, whether a song or a cortina or a voice, has a potential to disturb the current harmonium; so what comes should next should ride on top of the last and not cause uncertainty. I take great care that when my song ends it is very clean and has the exact right amount of space before the next item starts. Timing of silence between songs makes a great difference. Then the next audio must be in the same dynamic level range.
Change and interest-holding is all accounted for in the very clever tandas system. They thought of everything.
Last thing: A messy dj (inconsistent sound levels, failed song choices, choppy timing) makes for a messy floor with lots of bumping and grumbling. Any time you see things going that way is the time to reach for 50s Di Sarli. Works like a charm every time to put things back in order.
In my 20s I started producing records because there's no better place for a lover of sound than in high-end recording studios. After so many years of making choices about what got on the radio, I had a perspective about guiding production. Great musicians creating great music really turns my crank. My job of course was to inspire, select, edit, get the most out of both the people and the technology.
So it's not my radio background that fuels my enthusiasm for tango musicians; it's the ears of a record producer knowing how great their fingers and control were. I came from a world of being able to record/edit until every note of every player was perfect. Over my first years I can't tell you how many inexperienced and not-very-good musicians I had to made sound like they were quite competent. Excellent training - excellent way to go prematurely grey. All the Argentine musicians didn't need that ... they just walked in and recorded two perfect sides within 15 minutes. Not a note out of place. Awe-inspiring when you know how difficult that was/is. To paraphrase the late, great Lord Buckley, "they laid it down and it STAYED there!" You just never get tired of hearing the tango greats.
OK Restoration Keith: you've inspected deeper than we'll ever care to - how many bad notes have you ever heard on these live tango recordings?
That's a good question, because I have an answer. I have heard 3 records on which there is possibly a case for calling a mistake. Possibly, because mistake, I think, is inaccurate. Flub I could maybe buy, but even at that, I am quite sure that leader would have insisted they do it again if he felt it was too much. No, I think they weren't worried about a "mistake" because this was the Rodriquez orquesta playing foxtrot. His pianist is actually the loosest tango musician I can name. But they were having a good time and we feel it. Its real music in the way that you're really not going to criticize Louis Armstrong for a trumpet break over a note. There was also one questionable note on the organ in one of Canaro's 3,000 records. Seriously. 1 note among 9 thousand hours - when everything was "live."
I f anyone could burn-out on it, it should be me. I doubt few people listen as intently listen to Tango as I do because of my detailed work on it.
When restoring, I hear the same song for hours, taking out the cracks and unwanted noises by repairing the waveforms by hand; then put it through remastering and listen to it lots more. And keep coming back to it after working on other songs. I've done thousands of tracks like this. But the ones that really mean something ... you give them lots of time and never feel you've lost a second. The ability of these tango musicians to hold my attention over decades now under such scrutiny I find astonishing, really.
I try to help it sound better but not leave a mark on it as if I was ever there. What the musicians originally did was perfect and shouldn't be touched. It's only the record companies' later mistakes I'm trying to get rid of. I'm not looking for cleanliness perfection, but musical truth, as it were. Some people hope St. Peter welcomes them at the Golden Gates. Not me; I want the tango gods to say, not bad, kid; at least somebody cared enough to try.
Now. Having said all that -
Of course I'm doing certain things to enhance it or it wouldn't be improved to what is possible.
After I clean it with my fingers and ears, not doing too much. In the remastering, I use fabulous pro recording devices to do things you "can't hear" ... but you sure would if I didn't use them. Comparison with-and-without makes the lights go on. Does that make sense? My remasters sound big for reasons. It is the way of the sound world and always has been. There's pro audio and there's ... everything else. (Free remasters here).
The "old" tango artists (of course they were young then) I never tire of listening to. There's something magical about their command. Spiritual. For a pretty song can be like a pretty face; you can tire of it if what's underneath gets thin after a while. But the tango musicians had great taste. I get their reasoning for recording the oldest songs again and agin over the years - those songs have deep meaning.
In this regard, perhaps it is understandable why I have major problems with tango por export. Pretty face - nothing going on inside. Glib and clichéd arrangements. What's inside this package is in fact sinister in its historical context. It definitely makes me want to sit down; leave the milonga if it goes on for more than a tanda. I lament how many djs play it over and over. What ever happened to discernment?
Regarding my restorations: I loved the music so much that, even though sound was my life, I never considered doing anything about it technically through 10 years of tango life. But after moving to Montreál and re-inventing myself as a social dancer, I became frustrated that I was asked more than once, why do you like that old music? After one particularly lovely partner posed that question, I was annoyed as I left the milonga. OK - sez I, they only think that because the sound is so bad. Can I do anything about that? I've got all this sound-enhancing technology and know-how - surely I can do something. Nobody else seems to care enough ...
The support of the project I've greatfully received from the world tango community has kept it going.
A tango dancer friend who fell ill and lost his mobility said to me, you know - I can't dance any more, but I've still got the music and in my soul ... I'll always be dancing.
This is the fabulous gift to us from those great tango musicians and composers.
Many thanks to John Lowry (Aus), Vernon Willis, Sandra Thibaudeau (CA) , Victor Crichton and Francis Pionati (US) for looking over this text and offering helpful suggestions before publication. Francis also created the poster below when he hosted me in Pittsburgh. Dozens of people signed a mounted blow-up of it, now proudly on my studio wall