How to Play Tango Music for Dancers

Bob Barnes, May 29, 2007,

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My name is Bob Barnes and I'm the accordionist/bandoneonist/bandleader/arranger for Mandrágora Tango in Minneapolis ( We've been playing a weekly Milonga every Sunday night for over 5 years. We've learned through experience what works for dance and what doesn't. Here are some lessons that our band has learned over the years.

1) If you want to be a Piazzolla cover band, a milonga is not the place to do it. I founded Mandragora and learned Bandoneon to play like Piazzolla. All the folks in the band came to tango through Piazzolla. We all fell in love with classic tango by following Piazzolla's roots. If you look down your nose at D'Arienzo and DiSarli for being too "simple", you probabbly should stick to playing Piazzolla at jazz clubs and coffee houses.

2) Tango is classical music you can dance to: you need good arrangments. The arranger is, by far, the most important member of a tango band. Every note in a tango band is written down. It is possible to buy existing arrangments for Orquesta Tipica (4 bandos, 4 violins, piano & bass), Sextetto (2 bandos, 2 violins, piano and bass) or "Piazzolla Quintet" (Bando, Violin, Bass, Guitar and PIano). If you have a different combo, you are out of luck. It takes me about 16 hours of work to arrange one 3-minute tango. As you can see, the barrier to entry is really high.

3) You can only go so far "a la parilla". Music can often be distilled to a melody line and chords. Jazz players call these "leadsheets" and play off of them all the time. When tango players do the same thing, it's called "a la parilla" (on the grill). If you a duo or trio, you can play this way and make up arrangements ahead of time (i.e. "Violin starts, then the bando comes in, then the violin takes over....). The more people you have, the more impractical this gets. Plus, you will never capture the subtleties of a good arrangement. For the first 3 years of my band, we played "a la parilla" and it just wasn't tango enough.

4) Some people just prefer live music. Play for them. There are lots of "dance gypsies" in our town who can go and hear a live band every night: Salsa, Cajun, Blues, Swing, various ethnic music, etc... They may not devote themselves entirely to tango, but they do devote themselves to live music. Feed off their energy.

5) You can never satisfy hard-core tango geeks, so don't even try. We have all met folks that believe that there has been no real tango since 1945 or who can debate at length why Tanturi is better than Biagi (or is it the other way around?) Mandragora can not compete with the greats of the golden era. We are all non-Argentine Hispanic-Americans who have lived most of our adult lives in Minnesota. We didn't grow up in tango culture. At best, it is a "second language" to us. We could devote our lives to reproducing every nuance of a DiSarli arrangement, but it would just be much easier for you to dance to the real thing on a CD. All we can do is be respectful of the tradition. We try to make sure that the percent of dancers who love what we do is much, much higher than the percentage of purists who say it's not real. (When I started Mandrágora Tango, 2 DJs tried to explain to me that what I was doing could never be tango and that I was wasting my time. Luckily for us the dancers though otherwise.)

6) Different DJs specialize in different sounds. Why not bands?: Some DJs play electrotango, some are heavy on Guardia Vieja. Some even play Piazzolla (gasp!). Why don't you look at a live tango band as a different breed of DJ (albeit one with a much, much smaller repertory).

7) Keep the tempo steady and you'll always have them dancing. Know the differences in playing for concert and for dance. Keep a strong 2 or 4 beat and resist the urge to make dramatic pauses and tempo changes. The main problems with Piazzolla for dance is that the tempi change abruptly and the beat is seldom 2x4. Many of our tunes can work for both concert and dance. In concert, we make dramatic pauses and play with the tempo. For dancing, we keep the tempo much steadier and emphasize the strong beats much more.

8) Live music attracts new dancers. We play a lot of "evangelizing" gigs: we'll play at some street fair, jazz club or music festival and bring a few dancers. Civilians see the dancers and decide to take lessons. It's hard to get non-dancers to stop by a dance studio to see a demo.

9) When a band plays in BA, the first 2 or 3 songs are for listening. If you absolutely have to play undancable stuff, play it first and call it a concert. (Your mileage may vary on this one)

10) This may sound weird and touchy-feely, but if you want to connect to the dancers while playing, focus on just one couple and try to play what they are feeling.

A band can't be all things to all dancers, but it can try to be many things to a lot of them.

[ Gary asked: ]
> First, do you think there is anything that evangelising tango dancers
> (like myself) can do (or not do) to encourage musicians to follow the
> roots, or to help them find the joy of playing for dancing? Or is it
> just luck?

To get a band going, you really need musicians who are devoted to the style. A Bandoneon is the heart of a tango band, but they are few and far between in the US. In my opinion, accordion is good enough. (Purists may disagree with me, but I am an accordionist and there's nothing they can do about it).

Even though my band has been together for 5 years, it pretty much sucked for the first 3 or so. I started it with jazz and folk players who were more intersted in having fun (and a weekly paycheck) than the music. They didn't have the tango passion I had, and it was quite frustrating. One by one, I met players who were interested specifically in tango, and now we have a quartet of folks who are passionate about it. Working with the best freee-lancers in town gave me a great sound, but it wasn't truly tango. We need players who are passionate about the music! (BTW- we have an open spot for a dedicated, professional level pianist who wants to move to Minneapolis)

I also found that the bass is almost as important as the bando, especially when you don't have a piano. Tango bass technique is different than straight classical and has almost nothing to do with jazz or folk bass (i.e. it's all bow). The guy I'm playing with now (Rahn Yanes) is a classically-trained player, but needed about a year to become "fluent" in the tango idiom. It's kinda like how you can teach a professional dancer all the steps, but it'll take them a long time before they look fluid and unforced. It's the same way with learning tango music.

But when it comes right down to it, if the band is having fun and is willing to learn from the masters, you will have a good dance band.

If you want to encourage a tango band to become a dance band, here are a few things:

1) Give them recordings of what you like to dance to. The stuff that is availble in record stores in the states is all for listening. Is it any wonder that no one plays for dancing? If they never hear DiSarli, how can they play like him?

2) Find or buy arrangments. A much trickier prospect. Get dance arrangments, not concert ones. has a good selection (stick with the Arg. ones, though). Julian Hasse sells some arragements at (If you want to use the "Tango in a Box" series, just try one first and see if it works for you.) Norberto Vogel makes custom arrangments: You can also buy some at

3) Underwrite gigs! To get professional musicians hooked on tango, they need to play it, and to play it, they need some money. I was blessed with a regular Sunday evening resturant gig where my guys get a pretty good paycheck to play on a traditionally slow night for musicians. If a band is playing for "percent of the door" at a dance studio, they may walk home with $15 each, which may not encourage them to come back for more. Also, when a promotor is looking at paying a single DJ $50 or a band $200, what are they going to do?

4) Offer to DJ between their sets or create DJ CDs so a promotor doesn't have to hire both a band and a DJ.

>Second, in developing your skill in arranging, was listening to old
>recordings important?

Yes! About half of my arrangments are straight transcriptions of the masters: mostly D'Arienzo, Canaros DiSarli and Troilo. The other half are "original" arrangments (if there can be such a thing) where I arrange a standard to my liking. The act of listening and transcribing each note is the best way to learn the internal logic of a tango.

I've heard it said that the best way to learn a Bach fugue is to write it out in longhand. Transcribing a classic tango serves a double purpose for me: I learn an arranging style from an old master and my band gets 3 more minutes of danceable music!

-Bob Barnes  

Published with permission by Igor Polk

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