Updated: Oct 19, 2022
By the time I started Tango, I had been playing classical violin for over 8 years, so by all appearances, I should have been primed to love Tango music. But It was not love at first listen. If fact, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Was it the quality of the recordings throwing me off? Or was it the fact that the vocalist all sang in spanish, and despite my surname, I do not speak spanish...
It took my first couple years to warm up to Tango music, but now, nothing sounds as beautiful. For one, I learned how to listen and dance to the music and learned how different the orchestras sound. And second, those songs now are tied to amazing memories of dancing and being among friends, and nostalgia is one of the strongest emotions.
Though there is no right way, this is what I did, and believe it is one of the quickest ways to bond with the music if you are having difficulties with Tango music. Each day, I would pick one orchestra and only listen to them. I would focus on what stood out with each one, and to start with, I would learn the last few notes, since each orquestra seemed to have their own signature ending. Since I wasn't picking up spanish as quickly as I was the music, I treated the vocals as any other instrument in the songs. After doing this for about a month, my then teacher would randomly pick a song, play it, and I would try and correctly identify who it was. It became a fun game, one still played among tango enthusiasts' and Dj's when they are having a brain freeze moment or are being thrown off by a popular song played by a not typical orchestra for that song.
Here is the shortest cheat sheet I can make for the Tango orchestras. First will be the Composer name, how we refer to the orchestra, then by the Instrument that the composer played themself, sometimes that helps when listening since that is the instrument usually being highlighted. Then an identifying fact that might help. If you are interested in learning more about the music, I recommend "Getting to know: Twenty Tango Orchestras" by David Thomas. It's easy to read and breaks down each orchestra into small chapters. Let's start with what is known as "The Big Four" D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo, and Pugliese.
1. D'Arienzo - Played Violin/Bandoneon. Staccato rhythms, playful violins. Known as the "King of the beat" Will be asked if you prefer singer Mauré or Echagüe.
2. Di Sarli - Played Piano. Elegant rhythms, embellished bass line, and beautiful piano bridges. Singer Podestá or Rufino?
3. Troilo - Played Bandoneon. Nickname "Pichuco" Syncopations, accent notes and slides known as "The Troilo Sound" Juxtaposed staccato and legato figures.
4. Pugliese - Played Piano. Dramatic arrangements, concert-style tango music. Switching between strong walking beat then dropping it.
5. Biagi - Played Piano. Played with D'Arienzo for three years. Signature sound accenting the up beats. Known as "Magic Hands"
6. Calo - Played Bandoneon/Violin. Played in Fresedo's orchestra. Beautiful songs, matched well with singers. Signature ending with piano notes.
7. Demare - Played Bandoneon/Piano. Formal and moody, was Canaro's protege.
8. De Angelis - Played Piano. Choose amazing singers that did duets with harmonious synchronised work.
9. D'Agostino - Played Piano. Clear and simple, easy to hear lyrics. Very nostalgic
10. Donato - Played Violin. Showcased the Bandoneon and accordion. Very merry and known little as a rebel to others. Had female singers.
11. Rodriguez - Played Bandoneon. Firm beat and cheerful. Signature ending withholding the last beat.
12. Canaro - Played Violin. Has largest Tango catalog, he took any job. Includes woodwind and brass.
13. Lomuto - Played Piano/Guitar. Apprentice to Canaro, also used woodwind and cymbals. Signature ending with a diminished seventh.
14. Lauenz - Played Bandoneon. Very stretchy, full and complex.
15. Fresedo - Played Bandoneon. Longest recording career 1925-1980. Sweet songs, using harp and vibraphone, discreet drum.
16. Tanturi - Played Violin/Piano. Strong beat and syncopations. Signature ending uses a pause in between the last two beats. Singer Castillo or Campos?
17. De Caro - Played Violin. Classically trained. Songs were for the "more sophisticatedly" trained ears.
18. OTV (Orchestra Typica Victor) - Played Bandoneon/Violin. Four leaders over time, whoever was available at time of recording played. Did not perform in public.
19. Firpo - Played Piano. One of the original tango orchestras, not played much today due to quality of sound.
20. Malerba - Played Bandoneon. Very small catalog.