Of tango DJs, tandas and cortinas

A friend of mine, milonguera from San Francisco, likes to repeat – if you have a tango-related question, you will undoubtedly find an answer in the universe of tango lyrics. While this statement is mostly related to “profound questions”, about relations in and out of milongas, interpretations of codigos, etc. there are two trivia questions, often asked in the DJ forums – “when the first tango DJs emerged?” and “when the custom to play tandas separated by cortinas appeared?” that also have unambiguous answers in the tangos themselves.

1. When the first tango DJs emerged?

In January 1931 Mercedes Simone, and, later in the same year, Orquesta Tipica Victor with Vicente Crisera recorded a delightful tango “La Victrolera”, with lyrics of Melecio Peres to the music of Pascual Clausi: https://youtu.be/BEnhPM1T7mM

Victrolera, noviecita de mi vida,
por qué te fuiste un día
y huiste con otro amor.
si yo tanto te quería
que eras alma y vida mía,
volvé, volvé victrolera
que me mata el dolor…

Victrolera, girlfriend of my life,
Why did you leave one day
And run away with another love?
I loved you so much
That you were my life and soul,
Come back, come back victrolera
And put an end to my pain…


Victrola logo with the famous “His master voice” reproduction from the early 30s.

Who was this mysterious victrolera? “Victrola” was the trademark for the Victor Talking Machines  gramophones that soon became a generic name for any gramophone of that era. And victrolera was the name for the girl in charge of changing the disks on the Victrola, or a DJ as we call them now. And so we can conclude that by 1930, victrolera was already an established job with a name, pretty much like pulpera from the famous vals “La pulpera de Santa Lucia”, and that this job was given predominantly to girls.


Gramophone advertisement in 1905 (Scan by M. Mateo)

Can we move back in time a bit more, and find out when the first victrolera emerged? Actually, we can, by reconstructing some of the events in the recording industry and tango history. The initial, acoustic recordings appeared as far back as in XIX century, and it was indeed promoted for the dance parties, as we can see from the 1905 advertisement, but the sound lacked both the quality and the loudness required for using gramophone records for any reasonably sized milonga. However, the things changed dramatically with the introduction of electric recording and new players – so called Orthophonic Victrolas. One of those (the big cabinet without even a hint of a familiar horn) is shown in the 1949 movie, “Alma de bohemio”, where la victrolera saves the night of Alberto Castillo: https://youtu.be/0VIxM3LmGeE .

The electric recording was introduced to Buenos Aires in 1926, and so, pushed to higher artistic standards by Julio De Caro, accepted into the higher society and propelled by the technology, new tango sextetos started appearing almost daily. But their life was quite short. Less than three years later, the crisis of 1929, together with the introduction of sound motion pictures put an end to their blissful existence. (See M. Lavocah “Tango Stories: Musical secrets“, ch. 19).

With the swing of a pendulum from “a lot” in 1926 to “a few” in 1929, the increased demand for tango music could easily become higher than the supply, and the job of victroleras, which had been technically feasible since 1926, became a demanded occupation in 1929. Tango “La victrolera” was recorded only a year later. And so, we can firmly place the emergence and the proliferation of victroleras in Argentina into a single year period between 1929 and 1930, as the following angry letter, published in a local Santa Fe newspaper attests: “Those darn Victrolas!..

However, as Matt Mateo pointed out in an online discussion, we cannot yet say for sure, whether these victroleras were indeed playing music for dancers in the clubs, akin modern musicalizadors or DJs, or served more like long-legged “local attractions” for the patrons of cafes, as the heroine a Fellini-like story “La Vitrolera“.

2. When the custom to play tandas separated by cortinas appeared?

Firstly there exists a well-thought answer that initially appeared in Tango-L mail list, and can be found in its entirety here: http://totango.net/tandaspiece.html . However, the brothel origin of tango, and the very existence of tango “academias” is more of a legend than a historical  fact, and also, this answer was met with lots of criticism on the ground that “live orquestas do not play music in tandas”. Well, modern tango orquestas, as a rule, do not play any danceable music at all, and those few that do, actually use tandas format, in one or another form. But what about the orquestas of the Golden Age? And what about the early DJs?


Alfredo De Angelis playing in 15 minutes sets starting at 11:00 in the morning on Radio El Mundo. (Scan by M. Krugman).

In the Golden Age a contract on the radio was a prestigious and a lucrative source of income for any orquesta tipica. The standard radio format was to let an orquesta tipica to play a live quarter-hour set, change the type of programming for the next quarter-hour, then let it play another quarter-hour set, and so on. Of course, any orquesta worth of its name, would not just randomy chose pieces from its repertoire, but rather build this 15 minutes set into a certain story, with a beginning, culmination and conclusion. That is to say that, at least for the radio performances, an orquesta tipica would use a format, both by its length and its design similar, although not identical to a modern tanda.

Now let us consider the cabeceo. When did the peculiar custom for the men to gather in the middle of the dance floor and to cabeceo the ladies sitting at the tables emerged? “Muchachos, comienza la ronda”, the tango by Leopoldo Diaz Velez to the music of Luis Porcellano, that directly alludes to this custom was recorded by both Osvaldo Pugliese and Ricardo Tanturi in August of 1943, which means that this custom indeed existed in the peak of the Golden Age:

Muchachos, comienza la ronda
que el tango invita a formar
¿Quién, al oir el arranque
de un son tan brillante,
no sale a bailar?

Guys, the round is starting
That the tango invites us to form.
Who, hearing this starter
which is so brilliant
would not go dancing?

But in order for men to gather in the middle of the floor, or, for that matter, to use across-the-floor cabeceo, the floor itself must have been cleared of all dancing couples, and the only way to achieve that for the live orquesta was to stop playing the music. But when they used to stop? How long was a tanda of the Golden Age?


Original Azucena Maizani recording of “Danza maligna”, released in 1929.

As it turns out we have precise answers to those questions. Listen to a wonderful tango “Danza maligna”, with its anthem-like lyrics by Claudio Frollo to the music of Fernando Randle. It was first recorded by Azucena Maizani in 1929, then by Imperio Argentina (real name Magdalena Neale del Río), Carmelita Aubert, and Francisco Lomuto in 1932, and by Enrique Rodriguez with Armando Moreno in 1940:

This tango contains by far most favorite quote of mine:

Te invito a penetrar en este templo
donde todo el amor lo purifica.
¡Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna!

I invite you to enter this temple
where everything is purified by love.
Together we’ll live through the quarter hour
of a nostalgic and evil dance!


Orquesta Tipica Enrique Lomuto shares the stage with Jazz Orquesta Rene Varela (top right corner) and Orquesta Tipica Anibal Troilo playing together with Orquesta Oscar Aleman (Scan by M. Krugman)

And this very quote gives us both the timing of the historical tanda, and the proof that the custom of dancing with the same partner for quarter hour existed as far back as in 1929, when this tango was first recorded. And it does not look like a coincidence at all that this timing is exactly the same as the timing of an orquesta tipica set on the radio – the same magical quarter hour.

That is, a live orquesta of the 30s would play five to seven songs in one non-interrupted set (given a standard length of a song between two and three minutes), which would include predominantly tangos, but possibly an occasional vals, polca or fox-trot, and in later years – a milonga as well, and then go silent for a while, allowing to clear the floor and change partners.

October 2015: In his new article, Michael Krugman shows that if the length of commercials is taken into account the original radio-tandas contained not five to seven, but precisely four tunes: “The Genesis of the Tanda”

February 2020: In his interview, Mario Orlando states that in the seventies, when he began DJing, tandas indeed consisted of five tangos: “Musicalizando con el Capo“.

While the word “tanda” itself is of dubious origin, the etymology of “cortina” (a curtain) now becomes obvious – the stage curtain would be closed when the orquesta was not playing. But also, we can easily imagine that in a big venue, cortinas might have been spiced up by a solo number of an aspiring talent of any kind. The most prestigious venues and carnival organizers might have hired more than one orquesta on the same date, and alternate them after each tanda, or, maybe, only a few times in the course of the night.

An additional proof comes from the interview with Felix Picherna, probably the oldest living DJ, who started his career in 1958. There, he answers that the habit of playing four tangos, four valses, etc. e.g. the modern tanda format, surfaced only in the 60s, while “the cortinas existed forever”: https://youtu.be/ZXlAziV8yFo?t=5m25s

3. Conclusions

Without either disputing the “academia” origin of tandas circa the turn of the XX century,  or arguing about modern orquestas habits, or relying on eye-witness accounts, we have established that the custom to play music in quarter-hour tandas separated by cortinas (e.g. closed curtains) was firmly planted with the live orquestas by the year 1929.

Coincidentally, or not so, it is the same year when the job of a victrolera was established. To me, the account of events of 1929 is sufficient to believe that at least some of the victroleras were indeed playing in smaller milongas for the dancers, pretty much like the modern DJs, yet, I cheerfully admit that I lack another tango letras to prove this claim. But whenever it happened, be it right in the 30s or later, the early DJs had no choice but to follow established by 1929 pattern of the live orquestas to play the music in tandas with either silent or musical cortinas.



Two advertisements for milonga “Surcos del Disco” (The disk grooves) in 1945. A lot can be deduced from them about tanda and milonga structure in 1945… except for the DJ name (Scan by M. Krugman)

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