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Tango in Depth

A blog about classical tango music

Orlando Goñi and his Marcación Bordoneada

by Heikki 5. February 2021 12:36

”It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing” was the credo of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and that’s what we also could say about Orlando Goñi, one of the greatest tango pianists of all time whose influence on tango music has not been properly understood. Like Rodolfo Biagi on D’Arienzo and Osmar Maderna on Caló, Goñi made a permanent impact on Aníbal Troilo’s music. His swinging and groovy piano texture creates a resilient basis for bandoneons and violins giving them impetus to Troilo’s rhythmic extravaganza.

Let’s listen first how Goñi plays with Troilo in 1942. I would say that the recording where Goñi’s pianism shines at its best is the one of C.T.V. (aka Se te ve) recorded on January 8, 1942. The tango was composed by Agustín Bardi in the early 1930s.

Anibal Troilo - 1942 - C. T. V.

Here Goñi plays mainly three kinds on texture:

  1. the melody in octaves with violins and bandoneons, e.g. beginning to 0:03 and 0:07 to 0:10,
  2. marcato accompaniment, e.g. 0:10 to 0:21 and 0:33 to 0:36, and
  3. something very specific of Goñi in passages 0:03 to 0:07, 0:21 to 0:29, 0:47 to 0:51, 1:20 to 1:27, 1:46 to 1:51, and 2:01 to 2:04.

The third type of texture is called marcación bordoneada.

Man and His Career

Orlando Goñi (Orlando Cayetano Gogni, 1914-1-20 – 1945-2-5) was born in Buenos Aires, but little is known about his family background. He studied the piano with Vincenzo Scaramuzza, the maestro that also taught Osvaldo Pugliese, Lucio Demare, and Martha Argerich. His formal studies didn’t last very long because, at the age of 13, he preferred playing tango in Alfredo Calabró’s orchestra. Soon after, he formed a sexted with Alfredo Gobbi, his childhood friend with whom he shared a bohemian attitude towards life. The sextet probably didn’t make much of a success, and Goñi’s career went on in orchestras led by Miguel Caló, Manuel Buzón, Anselmo Aieta, and Juan Carlos Cobián.

Goñi got acquainted with Aníbal Troilo when they both played with Buzón and later with Cobián. They shared a view of the future of tango, and when Troilo formed his own orchestra in 1937, Goñi was the obvious choice for pianist. Some sources even say that it was Goñi who urged Troilo to put up an orchestra. Whatever the case, their cooperation lasted for more than six years, and during this time they recorded 71 tangos, valses, and milongas.

Goñi’s contribution to the orchestra was essential. Before 1942 there are just a few cases where the arranger of a recorded performance is known (namely Héctor María Artola), which suggests that most of the arrangements were created as a teamwork between the musicians, mainly Troilo and Goñi. Also C.T.V. from 1942 lacks information about the arranger, and I’m quite sure that Goñi was the key figure there.

Marcación bordoneada cannot be heard in the first two recordings Troilo and his band made in 1938. Goñi plays typical marcato en cuatro accompaniment in staccato, but some left-hand legato passages in Comme il faut suggest that something is already cooking. After this, Troilo didn’t have a chance to record until March 1941, and by then Goñi’s new style was fully developed. Listen to the passages at 0:32 to 0:34, 0:46 to 0:48, 1:44 to 1:46, and 2:13 to 2:15 in Yo soy el tango by Domingo Federico and Homero Expósito!

YouTube: Anibal Troilo - 1941 - Fiorentino - Yo soy el Tango

Goñi was known for his unorthodox playing position at the piano. He sat with his legs akimbo, which made it impossible for him to use the pedals. The sustain pedal (on the right) was used in tango (as well as in early jazz) to tie the bass note and the chord together within a bar, especially in marcato en dos, but Goñi didn’t play that way. His invention was to have separate articulations for both hands, which would have been spoiled by the use of the pedal.

Goñi stayed with Troilo till September 1943 when he wanted to start an orchestra of his own. Orquesta Típica Orlando Goñi debuted on December 1, 1943, at Café El Nacional and had massive success with thousands of listeners during the first two weeks. Goñi got a contract about appearances at Radio Belgrano in 1944, and live performances continued at larger venues.

However, a recording contract was something that Goñi wasn’t able to get in 1943 or 1944. Only four acetate records of poor quality were cut, and they alone are the audible heritage of Goñi’s own orchestra. Goñi’s interpretation of Chiqué (aka El elegante), by Ricardo Luis Brignolo from 1920, does not sound very different from Troilo. Macación bordoneada is also there.


The tragedy of Goñi was that his bohemian character could not bear the responsibilities of a bandleader. Uncontrolled use of drugs and alcohol destroyed his health, and he died a sick man on February 5, 1945, at the house of his musician friend in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Marcación Bordoneada, What Does It Mean?

Before we dive any deeper into Goñi’s unique piano technique, let’s check the two basic musical terms.

Marcación and Marcato

Tango musicians use the word marcación when they speak about how strong beats are “marked” in musical texture, mainly in piano, bandoneon, and bass accompaniment. This involves emphasizing certain parts of the measure with marcato. The two main types of marcación are marcato en dos (aka dos por cuatro) and marcato en cuatro.

In marcato en dos, the first and third beats in a measure are emphasized, and bass notes are normally placed on these beats only. Both hands typically articulate in portato, and pedal is often used to tie the bass note and the following chord together. This makes a relaxed walking beat that was predominant in tango before 1935.

Invierno - Francisco Canaro

In marcato en cuatro, the four beats in a measure are equally emphasized, and staccato articulation is typically used. This creates an agitated mood and was the primary fuel in the beat revolution initiated by Juan D’Arienzo in 1935. During the following few years, all rhythmically oriented tango orchestras also adopted this marcación.


However, marcato en dos also prevailed and has been used interchangeably with cuatro to characterize different sections in a tango arrangement.

Other modelos de marcación include pesante, yumba, sincopa, and bordoneo, but we don’t go any deeper into them except the last one.


The general Italian music term bordone (Engl. drone) refers to a situation where a low note or a chord is sounded continuously throughout a passage or a whole piece. One can get the idea of the drone by thinking of the sound of a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy, both of which have a set of fixed drone reeds or strings. In Argentine music, however, bordoneo refers to a guitar texture that consists of long bass notes (plucked with the thumb) and broken chords in shorter note values above that. A typical bordoneo pattern looks like this:

Because the bass moves and is not stuck to one note, this is not a real drone, though.

Although this example was written in 2/4 time (one could also use 4/8 or 4/4 with double note values), the bordoneo pattern is not a simple divisive rhythm. If you look at the values of the bass notes, you might notice that bordoneo follows an additive metric pattern of 3+3+2. The broken chords on upper strings also follow this pattern.

The 3+3+2 pattern is called tresillo. Closely related to habanera, it is one of the cornerstones of Latin American music and part of its African roots. I plan to write an article on the rhythmic foundations of tango in the near future, so I won’t go into any more details now.

Bordoneo is the most important accompaniment pattern of milonga campera, the traditional countryside milonga sung by payadores. The following video contains more than half an hour of milonga campera with bordoneo.


C.T.V. in Close View

Now that we know the background, we can look at Goñi’s playing in more detail. I transcribed a marcación bordoneada passage in C.T.V. – the one that first comes at 0:21 and again at 1:20. It was quite exciting to know that nobody has ever done this before. I had to use some digital tricks (filtering, pitch shifts by octave etc.) to make all notes audible enough, but I’m pretty reliant that this is what Goñi actually played:

After having the notes in place, I added my suggestion for fingerings in order to show that it is humanly possible to play the passage. If you play the piano, try it yourself! It does not require any virtuoso skills because even I can play it. All notes are conveniently withing the compass of the hand, and only in the last two measures the right hand moves a bit.

The slur above the left-hand stave indicates that Goñi is playing legato, just like the guitar in bordoneo. His left hand moves mainly in the lowest whole octave of the piano keyboard, partly lower than the double bass. At the same time his right hand plays broken chords, not unlike those in bordoneo, and in typical guitar range. So there is similarity all right, but where’s the 3+3+2? It’s there, believe me, but first we should check what Goñi’s little fingers are doing.

These syncopated notes Goñi plays in both hands outline the whole texture. They stand out as melodic accents without being accented by force – partly because of their position on the edge of the texture, partly because they sound longer than the other notes (except in the last two measures). Let’s call them backbeat accents. The right-hand accents are reinforced by another simultaneous note, and the ones in the left hand by the fact that they are played on the lowest and second-to-lowest keys of the piano keyboard.

Look at the right hand now, how many semi-quavers (1/16 notes) are there in each measure before the backbeat accent? The answer is three. How many semi-quavers do the accented notes last in measures 12 and 13? The answer is three, again. How many semi-quavers are there between the accent and the bar line in measures 14 and 15? The answer is five. Now here we have the 3+3+2 pattern!

Now let’s have a look at the left hand! We notice that there is no 3+3+2, but there’s something else. Why is Goñi playing those grumbling low notes with his little finger? To make a backbeat, is the simple answer, just like in the right hand. The backbeat initiates a movement in each measure, and this movement continues between the hands. For each bass note on beat, there is an off-beat note either below or above (with just two exceptions). The texture kind of swings around the bass line.

So what is this groovy piano style with “walking” legato bass and backbeats between every bass note? It’s called boogie-woogie! Let’s listen to Earl Hines playing boogie-woogie in 1940.

1940 HITS ARCHIVE: Boogie Woogie On St. Louis Blues - Earl Hines

Count Basie recorded his Boogie Woogie in 1941.

Count Basie - Basie Boogie

Boogie-woogie became popular in blues music during the 1920s, and by 1940 it was widely known and played by several jazz pianists. We might think that at least one of them made a tour to Buenos Aires between 1938 and 1941 and happened to play at a club or café where Goñi was having his rum or champaign. And if not, gramophone records by Hines, Basie, and others must have been available for enthusiasts to buy.

So Goñi combined two major African-American music cultures into a microcosm between his pinkies – the right hand picking the tresillo rhythm of the Pampa while the left swinging to the black beat of the cotton fields. The combination created a groove that was totally unique in tango. No other pianist was able to recreate it, neither before Goñi nor after him. What a genius he was!


After Goñi quit with Troilo and then passed away, many pianists tried to imitate his style. The first and foremost was Astor Piazzolla who had been playing in Troilo’s orchestra since 1939 and started writing arrangements for the band just a few months before Goñi left. In addition to the bandoneon, Piazzolla also played the piano and had to stand in for Goñi when he was too drunk to come to a gig. In 1944 Troilo recorded a tango by Gregorio Suriffi and Alberto Barbera named Bien porteño with José Basso on the piano. Piazzolla’s arrangement was found posthumously in Troilo’s cupboard, and it contains this passage that resembles Goñi’s style.

It does contain a legato bass line in quavers – I have marked it with a red line – but there is no broken-chord bordoneo in the right hand, just accented non-broken chords in 3+3+2 rhythm. The swinging movement between the thumb and the little finger is missing in both hands. It seems that Piazzolla had paid some attention to Goñi’s playing, but he didn’t know all the details.

You can find the legato bass passage at 0:30 in this video.

YouTube: Anibal Troilo - 1944 - Bien porteño

During the coming years, Troilo played several arrangements by Piazzolla and others where the heritage left by Goñi’s is limited to legato bass and “something” above it. With his own orchestra, Piazzolla concentrated on boogie-woogie placing the right-hand chords on backbeats. El rápido is an old tango by Roberto Firpo. The recording is from 1947 with Atilio Stampone at the piano. The boogie begins at 0:33.

Astor Piazzolla - El Rápido

But it was not only Troilo and Piazzolla who used legato bass. During the late 1940s and from the 1950s it was adopted by several orchestras, even by D’Arienzo, who once had been playing the sharpest staccato in marcato en cuatro. Here pianist Fulvio Salamanca plays legato bass with his left hand while his right hand ticks ordinary marcato with some sincopas.

Juan D'arienzo - 1951 - El simpatico

We don’t know for sure if legato bass really came from Orlando Goñi or if it was just something that came into fashion when the time was right. One thing we know is that now, during the 21st century, it is with us more than ever, thanks to many bands that use it in danceable tango – check YouTube for Sexteto Milonguero, for instance. The microcosm created by Orlando Goñi is not there, but whenever we hear a legato bass played, we can try to imagine how Goñi would have played that piece.

But legato bass was not the only thing Orlando Goñi left behind. One can ask what Aníbal Troilo’s music would have been like without Goñi, and I’m quite sure it would lack many features we now connect to Troilo. Of course, Goñi’s influence was evident during Troilo’s rhythmic and bright period when Goñi was playing with him, but it also carries on during his dark years in the 1950s. Goñi was one of the dear friends Troilo mourned during the 1950s, and he paid tribute to them by recording tangos like Responso or Discepolín. Troilo’s tribute to Goñi was the tango named Orlando Goñi by Alfredo Gobbi, a close friend of Goñi, which Troilo recorded twice in 1952 and 1965.

Anibal Troilo - 1952 - Orlando Goñi

While writing this, I found that there is much more to investigate regarding Goñi and his influence on Troilo’s style. For instance, comparing the two versions of Malena against the manuscript found in Troilo’s cupboard seems very compelling. And perhaps I’ll transcribe the whole piano part of C.T.V. when I have more time – we’ll see!


The Secret Weapon of Orquesta Típica Victor

by Heikki 20. January 2021 14:23

I have been wondering what makes the sound of Orquesta Típica Victor so special, especially in the early 1930s. We have tried to imitate it with Sexteto Viento and partially succeeded (according to feedback from our audience), but I have felt that something has been missing, something that makes OTV’s walking beat so unique, so groovy and irresistible. It’s fluffy and steady at the same time, and when you’re dancing to it, you won’t even notice when it lifts your foot off the floor and grounds it for a new step.

Meet the Arrastre

But before we continue with OTV, let’s talk a bit about arrastre (‘dragging’), which is one of the most fundamental phenomena in Argentine tango. To some extent, it has been present in all tango music from the early 1920s till the present. Jeremy Cohen demonstrates it on the violin.

Tango Techniques for Strings ARRASTRE

Arrastre is typically played by the double bass and bandoneons, and, depending on style, the violins or even the piano can take part in it. Bandoneons play the arrastre so that they start a chord before the designated beat and make an accent on the beat by hitting the bellows down against the knee. The double bass might play the arrastre with or without a slide. Lila Horovitz demonstrates the slided version.

Marcato. Double Bass Tango Technique

A strong arrastre reached its peak in 1928 with Osvaldo Fresedo. His bandoneons started the arrastre with low notes in the left hand making a growling ‘RUH’ effect. OTV’s arrastre is also strong but not as strong as Fresedo’s. This is how they played in November 1929. The tango is La rosarina by Ricardo González.

La rosarina Orquesta Típica Victor 1929-11-20

Arrastre and Walking Beat

You may have noticed that arrastre is not played on every beat. Traditionally, tango is written in 2/4 time with four quavers (1/8 notes) per measure, and these four quavers mark the basic beat of tango, marcato, as tango musicians call it. However, up to the mid-1930s, beats were not created equal. In every bar, the first and third beats are called strong beats, the first being the strongest one. This beat structure is called marcato en dos or dos por cuatro. What marks the strong beats is the arrastre, not just the obvious fact that notes on strong beats might often be played a bit louder.

Most dance music genres use percussion instruments (drum set, claves, maracas, etc.) to mark a beat structure, i.e. to create a characteristic rhythmic pattern. Thanks to the arrastre, tango neither needs these instruments nor a rhythmic pattern. In fact, in a tango orchestra, any instrument can take the responsibility of keeping the beat while others are playing the melody.

The term ‘walking beat’ comes from the fact that you can comfortably walk on strong beats that follow each other in a pace of 60 per minute in typical tango tempo. Dancers often elaborate the beat structure by tapping the floor with their shoe tips on weak beats.

Enter the Secret Weapon

Now let’s skip to 23 April, 1930 when OTV recorded the tango ¿Dónde estás corazón? by Luis Martínez Serrano and Augusto Berto.

Orquesta Típica Victor - Dónde estas corazón - Letra/Lyrics

Something has happened since November – the arrastre is deep and resonant, as is the whole bass line. You might have spotted the secret weapon already, but let’s take another example from the same studio day, Osvaldo Pugliese’s early masterpiece Recuerdo. For comparison, you might also want to listen the first recording of Recuerdo by Julio De Caro from 1926. It’s quite different, but we don’t go any deeper into that now.


Orquesta típica Víctor Y Roberto Diaz Recuerdo 1930

Can you hear it now? Listen carefully to the two cadential bass notes at 1:02 or the long notes at 1:40! What is this instrument that’s playing in unison with the double bass? The answer is: It’s a tuba!

The tuba is the lowest-pitched brass instrument, the big brother of the cornet or the euphonium. It plays the bass part in practically all kinds of brass and wind bands as well as in New Orleans style jazz. In early 20th century Argentina, using a tuba was commonplace in jazz bands playing foxtrot or Latin style music such as pasodoble. Before the advent of electric recording technique in 1926, the tuba was the only bass instrument loud enough for the acousto-mechanic engraving process.

So how did Orquesta Típica Victor adopt the tuba? The most obvious answer is that because RCA Victor published foxtrots, pasodobles, rancheras etc. all the time, they probably had a regularly paid tuba player at their studio in Buenos Aires. Even the OTV leader Adolfo Carabelli, when he recorded non-tango with his own jazz band, used the tuba on a regular basis. One example would be Carabelli’s own composition, Amapola por favor, which is something between a foxtrot and a pasodoble.


Then, one day, Carabelli or the producer at Victor had the idea of using the tuba in tango to complement the double bass. The final incentive might have come through the fact that OTV also recorded rancheras and pasodobles, and just before ¿Dónde estás corazón? and Recuerdo they had recorded a pasodoble named Toro bravo. This recording is not preserved, but we can listen the famous pasodoble El relicario by the Spanish composer José Padilla. It was recorded by OTV on November 27 the same year.

El Relicario

Now we have answered the questions “what” and “how”, but the question “why” is still to be answered. Why did OTV choose to use a tuba when they already had the double bass? If you didn’t skip my introductory comments a few paragraphs back, you might guess that the answer is arrastre. Being such a large instrument, the tuba has a soft attack, which means that a tone doesn’t reach its full volume until after a few milliseconds. This means that a tuba player has to start every note slightly in advance, and that’s just what arrastre is all about. Furthermore, the player can prolong and emphasize the attack with his embouchure, thus making a strong arrastre resembling a slide on the double bass. When carefully balanced, the tone color of the tuba mixes well with double bass making a sonorous bass part rich in overtones.

Why We Haven’t Seen It?

Now you ask why there are no pictures of tango orchestras with a tuba, and the answer is simple: Because it was a secret, and Victor wanted to keep it as a secret. Think of Coca Cola™: They never published their recipe, and neither did Victor tell all the details about what happened in the studio. Occasionally OTV might also incorporate other instruments like a vibraphone or a guitar, which all went under the Orquesta Típica Victor brand. And, of course, we must bear in mind that OTV never played in public, just in the studio. 

Any Others?

So far, I haven’t heard a tuba in recordings by other orchestras – except one: Julio Pollero, who also recorded for Victor. The tuba is not very easy to spot in his work because the audio quality of the preserved recordings is not as good as those by OTV, but in Tristeza nocturna by Antonio Buglione, already from 1927, the presence of the tuba is apparent; just listen the cadence at 0:33. It’s needless to say that there is no picture of Pollero posing with a tuba, either. This brass instrument was associated with other music genres and didn’t fit in the public image of a tango orchestra.

Today's Tango Is... Julio Pollero - Tristeza Nocturna 05-12-1927

The End of an Era

OTV used the tuba in virtually all their recordings for a couple of years, including this vals A la mar se fue by Armando Acquarone, recorded on December 28, 1932.

Orquesta tipica Victor Y Luis Díaz, Carlos Lafuente A la mar se fue VALS 1932

The next tango OTV recorded a month later, January 31, 1933, was Adiós by an unknown composer. It was dramatically different.


Then, after two rancheras, they made this beloved recording of Ventarrón by Pedro Maffia.

Ventarrón - Orquesta Típica Victor con Elvino Vardaro (1933)

Now, what has happened? The tuba is gone, as is the walking beat. Was Adiós a goodbye to more than just one instrument? Yes, it was a goodbye to an era that started when guardia nueva was born in the early 1920s and Orquesta Típica Victor was set up in 1925. It was a goodbye to the relaxed marcato en dos that had to give way to the agitated marcato en cuatro. Thus, OTV was a vanguard in the beat revolution that made Juan D’Arienzo famous two years later and affected all tango music to come. The tuba or even the arrastre were no more needed because all the beats were now equal.

Should We Hire a Tuba Player Now?

Now that I have found the secret of OTV, I face the question of whether we should hire a tuba player in Sexteto Viento to be authentic when playing in OTV style. Well, I think it won’t be a good idea because we wouldn’t be a sextet after that. But, to be serious, there is no sense having another bass instrument in such a small ensemble. Luckily, the next OTV style piece we are going to play in May, vals Amor cobarde, was recorded by OTV when the tuba had left the scene.

However, I would like to recommend trying a tuba in an orquesta típica if the aim is to play in true OTV style. While digesting this idea, we could listen to Tubatango, a band that is guaranteed to be double bass free.

La Tubatango / Zorro Gris - Zorro gris


What's the difference with Finnish tango?

by Heikki 12. June 2014 23:36

If you are a Finn involved in Argentine tango, you’d better be used to questions about differences between Argentine and Finnish tango. Or maybe you’re a visitor familiar with Argentine tango and having heard that there’s a peculiar species of tango also in Finland. Either way, I hope this post will give you some idea how two nations in the hot south and in the cool north developed dance and music styles that served their emotional and social needs.

As you might guess, my involvement with tango began with the Finnish one. I wasn’t much of a dancer, but as music was my stuff, I wanted to explore the wistful atmosphere of Finnish tango through pen and music paper. Having composed a few Finnish tangos (under a pseudonym) I felt a need to go further and check out the very origins of tango. When Spotify opened the cornucopia of Argentine tango before my ears, there was no return.

Today, as I have learned more and more about the history of tango, it seems quite obvious that the main source of differences is the fact that Argentine tango is an urban phenomenon whereas its Finnish counterpart is a rural one. We’ll return to that point later in this post, but let’s see first how tango came to Finland and how it established its position.

The decades of tango in Finland

Born in the unpaved and unlit streets of the outskirts of Buenos Aires, tango was a wild sensation when introduced in Europe. First tango performances were seen in Paris around 1910, but World War soon hampered inter-Atlantic connections. After the war, however, tango took Europe by storm. By the 1930’s tango was one of the most fashionable dances in Europe along with fox trot.

European song makers soon began writing their own tangos. Their idea of tango was based on the idioms they absorbed during the period around World War. Thus, the development Argentine tango went through during the 1920’s was not reflected in European tango. The most distinctive feature resulting from this is the habanera rhythm that practically disappeared from Argentine tango during the 1920’s but was retained in Europe. As a social dance, European dance teachers wanted to standardize tango steps, and so ballroom tango was born.

In Finland the very first performance was seen in 1913. Tango aroused some interest but did not gain much popularity – as a fad it had to compete with fox trot, and it lost. Besides, the majority of Finnish population lived in the countryside where traditional dances such as waltz, polka and schottische (jenkka) reigned. People who wanted to dance tango tried to imitate the steps they saw at tango shows, and the dance style originating from this is known as Old Finnish Tango, which has received growing interest and attempts of revival during the recent years. Some trendy townspeople also took classes in ballroom tango.

Things changed in the 1930’s when a Finnish dance teacher developed a kind of simplified tango based on fox trot steps. As in fox trot, the basic step pattern slow-slow-quick-quick is repeated all over the dance, and no side steps are taken. Contrasting fox trot, there is no bounce in the steps thus making a smooth movement with slightly bent knees. Feet are interleaved, not to-to-toe like in Argentine tango, and the embrace has a low contact point at the pelvis.

Due to the wider acceptance as a social dance, Finnish tango music also emerged. The first recordings to be considered as dance music were made in mid-30’s, and during World War II tango was the music genre to provide an escape from the harsh reality, but it wasn’t until after the war when the popularity of tango really exploded. Why this happened is to be found in the post-war society.

The social function of tango

The main function of tango has always been to seek contact with the opposite sex. In Buenos Aires the main challenge was that the sexes were not in proportion. Single men were pouring in as immigrants, and women were something to compete for. Were this done with knives or guns, the society would have fallen into pieces. Lucky for us and them, a cultural skill was chosen as a means to compete. Proficiency in tango also served as way for hard-working men to gain appreciation among their peers.

Given this it is no surprise that there is a lot of machismo in Argentine tango. In the original context of tango, a man has to conquer the woman, and he does this by displaying his virility through his tango skills. The woman, however, is not just a passive object. She uses adornments to tease the man and to show her interest whenever she chooses.

In Finland after WW II the situation was quite opposite. During the war 10 percent of male population had lost their lives or were permanently injured, so there was a lack of men, not women. In addition, hundreds of thousands of young men had spent their best years at the front, many of them emotionally hurt by the horrors of war. Now they had to join the peace-time society and raise a family. Almost half a million people from Karelia, most of them farmers, had lost their homes, and more than a hundred thousand new family farms had to be formed and cultivated. You cannot build a family farm if you haven’t got a family, and this is where tango came to help.

During the post-war period every village had at least one community house plus a summer dance pavilion, typically by a lake. These were the very nests of Finnish tango. For a midsummer feast, tango was as essential as the traditional bonfire, and the luminous nights of June were reflected by birth rates in March.

Kisapurren tanssilava, Lievestuore

One could say that Finnish tango is not about conquering a woman but finding a mutual partnership. How did tango help in this task? We have gathered a bunch of ingredients for the Finnish encounter with tango: a dance pavilion with a lake view, a shy young man, a simple dance that does not require highly developed skills or a macho attitude, a mood full of longing, and a girl that also wants to find a partner for her life. What is missing, what is the thing that should weld the hearts of these two people together in a shared experience? It’s music, of course!

So what about the music?

The development of Argentine tango during the 1930’s and 40’s emphasized the need to include different musical characters or moods in one piece in order to let the dancers demonstrate their skills, grace and imagination. Finnish tango, however, didn’t have to fulfill this need, and each piece is thus in one mood only, just like the vast majority of popular music in the world.

Practically all Finnish tangos are songs, most of them highly melodic, and popular songs seldom contain contrasting segments the way Golden Era Argentine tangos do. This also means that there is little incentive to vary your dancing during a piece, which parallels the idea of simplified step patterns. So is a Finnish tango just three minutes of dull or primitive walking void of any rhythmic experience? Not at all, and that’s due to a clever system that produces rhythmic variation like a kaleidoscope.

As we learned earlier, European tango retained the habanera rhythm, and this also more or less applies to the majority of Finnish tangos. In addition to that, there is another rhythmic feature that is unique to Finnish tango: a backbeat at the end of a measure. This means that the last weak beat in a bar is accented, a 1/16 note in 2/4 or 4/8 time or a 1/8 note in 4/4 time – not in every measure but every now and then, often irregularly. These rhythmic levels, absent from Argentine tango, produce ever-changing rhythms when combined with the slow-slow-quick-quick step pattern.

It is a funny thing to note that this idea of layered rhythms is the propelling power of Afro-Latin music. When we add the fact that also beguine rhythms are often heard in Finnish tangos, it seems that Finnish tango musicians have kind of reinvented Latin music in a way that suits the Finnish temper. Adding a beautiful melody and longing lyrics, the dancing couple will be able to feel they are carried away into another world where the worries of tomorrow will fade into oblivion, like the words of a well-known Finnish tango put it.

Listen to it!

To get an idea of the style features of Finnish tango, it might be a good idea to listen to an Argentine tango arranged and performed in Finnish style. I have chosen no less than the most famous tango in the world, La Cumparsita, with an Argentine performance for comparison:

La Cumparsita, Olavi Virta & Metro-Tytöt 1953

La Cumparsita, Juan D’Arienzo 1951

My absolute favorite among Finnish tango composers is Toivo Kärki, the master par excellence of post-war popular music in Finland. An infallible sense of harmony and melodic curve is his trademark, and although his compositions in other genres prove that he could master any mood, all his tangos reflect the wistfulness repeatedly mentioned in this post. As an example of his work I have chosen here three of his early tangos from 1944 to 1950. Two of these videos are from Finnish music films built around those songs.

Siks’ oon mä suruinen

Laulava sydän

Köyhä laulaja

After the era of Toivo Kärki, one of the most beloved Finnish tangos has been Soi maininki hiljainen by Fridrich Bruk. Interestingly, the composer was born in Ukraine and received his training in Russia, but spent most of his professional career in Finland. It’s quite a slow tango with a distinctive habanera rhythm. No decent version is available on YouTube, but I hope you have got Spotify. Please enjoy!

Di Sarli vs. Pugliese: Contrasting Views on Beat and Tempo

by Heikki 5. June 2014 01:14

Differences Exposed - in the Light of an Oil Lamp

Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese belong to the big names of the Golden Era of tango. Both acting on the melodic side of the style spectrum – as opposed to D’Arienzo, Troilo or Tanturi (et al.) on the rhythmic side – they developed their distinctive styles that differ from each other in many respects, not least in articulation and accentuation. This time, however, I will concentrate on the temporal aspect of music, i.e. tempo and handling of beat. Dance music is almost invariably based on recurring beat, and so is also danceable tango.

One thing that indicates that Di Sarli and Pugliese might have different stylistic approaches is that their repertoires don’t overlap for more than just a few tangos. However, I wanted to compare two performances of a single piece so that the differences would come from the interpretations, not the music itself, and was lucky to find an extremely dramatic tango that ideally suits our theme. It is A la luz del candil (In the Light of an Oil Lamp), composed by Carlos V. G. Flores in 1927. The lyrics by Julio Navarrine tell a grim story: A gaucho confesses a double homicide to a police officer. I suggest you listen now the recordings by Carlos Di Sarli & Jorge Durán (1956) and Osvaldo Pugliese & Miguel Montero (1954). Don’t believe the titling of the Di Sarli video – the singer is Jorge Durán, a baritone, not Mario Pomar, a tenor.

Tempo Made Visual

By tempo we mean the speed or pace of music in beats per unit of time. We can determine the average tempo of a piece simply by taking a stopwatch and counting the beats during one minute (bpm). When tango is concerned, we are counting the basic beat, i.e. quarter notes, like this:

But tempo might not be constant throughout a performance. In classical music and in many styles of popular song, variations in tempo are used as a means of expression. We speak of tempo rubato when the performer “steals time” to or from a note or a passage. To determine the beat-by-beat tempo, we should measure the time between two beats and take the inverse.

I recorded MIDI sequences by tapping the keyboard while listening to these two performances of A la luz del candil. In some cases I had to align the MIDI note events manually with the perceived beat in music taking advance of the wave graph of the audio recording. Then I computed a series of beat-by-beat tempos from the MIDI timings and made a tempo graph from both of the performances.

Let’s first have a look at the graph of Di Sarli’s performance:

The average tempo is about 56 bpm, and there is not much variation in tempo before the final ritardando. The slight fluctuation might be due to errors in determining the beats, or they might reflect an actual musical phenomenon – this question definitely deserves further investigation some other time. Anyhow, the perceived beat, when listening to the music, is constant and accurate, ticking like a clockwork or metronome. There is, however, some tempo rubato, but it always happens in the melody (voice or violins) against and not affecting the beat.

Pugliese’s graph looks quite different:

Tempo changes are outstanding, and from time to time there is no tempo at all! The gaps in the graph were caused by the fact that at certain passages I could not find any kind of beat – the notes just followed each other in a free flow like in traditional chanting or opera recitative, and when there is no beat, there is no tempo. Given the premise that tempo rubato is a means of expression, it is easy to agree that there is a whole lot of expression in Pugliese’s playing.

Although Pugliese’s treatment of tempo is more dramatic, Di Sarli’s performance is by no means void of drama, either. He has the full scale of dynamics at his disposal, which he also uses, and the dramatic baritone voice of Jorge Durán paints the gloomy story in rich colors.

Di Sarli and Pugliese on the Dance Floor

It is a well-known fact that there hardly is a tango class where Di Sarli won’t be played, but Pugliese is seldom heard, at least at elementary to intermediate level classes. In milongas one might hear several tandas of Di Sarli one evening, but Pugliese has always been something you only should play well after midnight when less experienced dancers have already withdrawn from the battle field.

Considering our findings about tempo, it is quite clear why dancers find it easy and safe to dance to Di Sarli, thanks to the regular beat that never pulls the rug from under your feet. With Pugliese, you will really have to listen to the music and find the beat when there is one. When there is no beat, you should calm down, take a closer embrace with your partner and concentrate on small and slow movements or adornments. When the beat is back again and gets passionate, you would express it with powerful walking, whooshing sacadas or whatever rhythmic you might find appropriate. That’s art!

On the average one could characterize Di Sarli’s music as cool and Pugliese’s as passionate knowing that this is not the whole truth. Another point of view we might find interesting is that history records tell us how Pugliese mainly played at places favored by the working class where boleos, ganchos and other daring figures were often seen, whereas Di Sarli’s audience was more high society dancing in a more restrained manner.

Anyway, both Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese have a permanent place in our hearts as tango lovers. Although a bit different, their music represents the very core of Golden Age tango and the melodic tendency within it.

Tiempos viejos y nuevos: A Short History of Tempo

by Heikki 23. December 2012 00:32

Dancers often speak of “high energy” and “low energy” tangos, but what do they mean by energy? Is it something proportionate to the amount of sweat they perspire during dancing or is it something mystic, kind of an astral body of music? My approach here is neither that physical nor that spiritual. Instead, I’ll concentrate on a measurable, perceptional phenomenon that highly contributes to one’s experience of the energy of music.

There are many factors that affect your sensation of music. The basic thing that dictates the feeling of liveliness vs. calmness or lightness vs. heaviness more than anything else is, of course, tempo, i.e. the simple beats-per-minute rate of the musical pulse. Because tango, like many other genres of dance music, has a regular beat and because the rate of this beat does not vary much during one performance, average tempo can be conveniently expressed by just a single number.

It’s quite obvious that tangos that are considered “high energy” (like those played by D’Arienzo) often have higher tempo rates than tangos on the average, but I’m not interested in classifying tango performances according to energy level. What really interests me is treating tempo as a stylistic feature that varies in time and in relation to the performer. One might think that for a given musical composition, there is an optimal tempo in which it should be performed, but that’s not the case.  One of the characteristics of a live music culture is that well-known themes, forms or standards are re-interpreted over and over again. In this post I’m going to follow the footprints of two tango standards.

I have chosen two Guardia Vieja tangos: Rodríguez Peña by Vicente Greco, composed in 1911, and La Cumparsita, the paragon of tango all over the world, composed by Gerardo Matos Rodríguez and augmented by Roberto Firpo in 1916. My material is not very extensive, but I think it shapes a good outline.

So I measured the average tempo of a number of recordings and placed the results on an x-y graph. The x axis represents the year of recording and the y axis the average tempo in beats per minute for a quarter note.


What do we see here? For starters, the oldest performances by Juan Maglio and Roberto Firpo are very fast – in fact so fast that they can be danced as a milonga. In addition, if you listen to Rodríguez Peña, you will hear a clear Habanera rhythm, which is considered typical of the milonga but also prevalent with tangos of the period. This is because tango and milonga were not musically differentiated at that time.

After the first two performances there is a large gap before the next ones in the late 1920’s. I’m not sure why recordings from this period are not available – maybe because nobody was interested in republishing mechanical recordings from the early 20’s when electric recordings from the late 20’s sounded much better. Anyway, when we listen to the first electric recordings by Orquesta Típica Victor, we immediately hear that something dramatic has happened: The tempos have dropped by 20 to 25 per cent, and the Habanera rhythm is totally gone. Also the bands have been reorganized: flute and guitar have been dropped while piano and bandoneon have stabilized their position. All in all, the gap marks the end of Guardia Vieja (ca. 1880 to 1920), and Tango, as we know it, has been born!

The late 1920’s and early 1930’s are a period of relatively slow tempos, but around 1935 something happens again. D’Arienzo starts his “energetic” revolution, and even Canaro goes with him, at least in tempo. Donato has always played in lively tempos, and his Cumparsita is no exception. Tanturi makes it even better, but Firpo, in his splendid isolation, goes back to Guardia Vieja tempos or even beyond. His Rodríguez Peña (1937, 82 bpm) is no tango anymore. It exceeds the average tempo of new milongas of the period, and even the Habanera rhythm is there, again.

From 1935 on a stylistic differentiation takes place and three separate lines in regard to tempo begin to emerge:

1. Lively tempos: D’Arienzo, Canaro
2. Moderate tempos: Troilo and many others
3. Slow tempos: Di Sarli, Pugliese

So we have seen that from 1912 to 1935 the changes in tempo are regulated by general development in tango music style, but from 1935 on the artistic choices of the band leaders split this uniformity and create the diversity and richness of tango music styles that dancers can enjoy even today. Knowing this it seems no coincidence that the period from 1935 to 1944 is called the Golden Decade of Tango. Thanks to this decade, JD’s and dancers will be able to choose between “high energy” and “low energy” tangos, whatever they feel appropriate.

A Spotify playlist containing all the recordings mentioned in this post is available at A Short History of Tempo.


Welcome to Tango in Depth

by Heikki 14. December 2012 00:40



“It takes two to tango” goes the common saying. I would rather say it takes three: The leader, the follower and, last but not least, music. There is no tango without these three.

Since Argentine tango is an improvisational dance, there needs to be clear communication between the leader and the follower. But if the improvisation is not related to anything, it would be meaningless. Music is the basis that inspires the dancers to improvise their figures, and how music communicates its suggestions to the dancers is the subject of this blog.

You might think that communication between music and the dancing couple is a one-way channel, but it isn’t. Best tango musicians have always been very responsive to the feedback they have received from the dancers – often visually and in real time when watching the dance floor. During the Golden Age of tango, danceability was one of the key things to the success of a band, and even today the same criteria are decisive when DJ’s select tangos to be played in milongas.

Argentine tango is a manifold of musical styles, but in this blog I will concentrate on styles that were dominant during the Golden Age of tango, i.e. 1935 to 1952 or so. The roots of tango from the very beginning might also be covered.

As a tango DJ and an arranger I often bump into puzzling questions about the essence of tango and how it works in relation to the dancers. Through this blog I would like to share my observations and findings with you, dear tango lover, and also invite you to discuss about them. My direction of approach might me quite analytic sometimes, but I promise I’ll try to convey the big picture how the things I have found affect your dancing or music appreciation. Be welcome!


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