The Bandoneon: Iconic and Extraordinary
The bandoneon is, without a doubt, the instrument that we identify with tango. It’s melancholic and haunting sound combined with it’s intriguing construction leave us feeling overwhelmed with curiosity and pleasure. I’ve always found it in one word: mysterious.
Bandoneons are a dynamic instrument in the sense that they actively play both melody and rhythm (mainly rhythm). There are techniques for making the sound more intense/harsh creating a ‘boom’ on the downbeat as there are techniques for stretching one note for what seems like forever. Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino stretches and builds intensity; whereas, Canaro en Paris and Variaciones of David Alsina and Flight of the Bumblebee will blow you away with other-worldly speed. We rarely see such incredible acts of artistry in the music we use to dance due to the fact that it would make it too difficult for dancing. That doesn’t meant that a Tango musician was any less talented or dedicated in his art than his brothers who were playing Bach!
The first Bandoneon was introduced into a tango in 1899. The first tango bandoneon is widely considered Juan Maglio “Pacho” and his friend, a guitarist, Luciano Rios. They played together for decades later forming ‘La Orquesta del Primero’ in 1912 adding a violin for a trio! History completed, back to brilliant musicians. After the early 1900’s musicians were either conservatory trained, or prodigies who wanted to make a living playing in the bands. Singers (like Fama, Vargas, Podesta, and Rufino) were treated like pop stars and the tango life was that of the bohemian nightlife. Tango culture in the 1940’s was something that attracted musicians from all schools.
There is one great problem that modern tango orchestras and arrangers face when creating new music with a ‘vintage sound’ or replicating the iconic scores of the 20th century. The first is that it is too difficult to have an entire Bandoneon section. This is a result of several facts, mainly, there isn’t enough money. Modern dance halls don’t generally have the support of 200 people per night to pay a band with a pianist, 3 bandoneons, 2 violins, bass, and singer … This completely ignores how difficult the Bandoneon is to learn! It plays a different note going in versus out and the buttons on the left and right side don’t match. It seems to me quite simply, a nightmare!
That doesn’t mean that modern music isn’t inspiring. It’s a completely different sound that is generally clean, crisp, and refined. It’s difficult have a band with the energy of D’arienzo with zero or one Bandoneon. Just look at this video and imagine what one player would have to do to create that kind of energy! Or the amount of money you would need to hire a band like that?! They would have to be making money off radio contracts and record labels, and gigs … This is a lost art and something that we probably won’t ever see again in modern music. What you can do is appreciate the live music we do have and thank the band leaders and arrangers. The hours and money they put into arranging music that originally had multiple bandoneon parts and solos, violin parts and solos, bass, and vocals with each section playing counter-melodies … uffa!
The work they do to create modern tango is simply INCOMPREHENSIBLE to those of us who just love the energy and of a great live band. It requires true passion, drive, and love of the music.
Does this mean that ‘Traditional Tango Music’ doesn’t exist anywhere? NO! It just means that the sounds and energy of a traditional band that we hear from the 1940’s will rarely be encountered. When it is, treasure it. One of my favorite bands in Argentina is Orquesta Tipica El Afronte(sorry for the video. They converted me from an alternative/ Nuevo snob to a traditional acolyte. I’m sure it had a LOT to do with the time, place, and energy of “Maldita Milonga”. That being said, the energy of the four Bandoneons stomping on the stage, the violin bows shooting in the air, and the singer with a voice 20 years too old (thank you Marlboro) … It was an unforgettable and transformative experience that would have less power than superior musicians with smaller numbers. The best part about Argentina … is you get to see all of it. Julio Pane, Federico Leopoldo, and a thousand unknown musicans will play live music with trios and sextets that will blow you away. My most magical moment in Buenos Aires was when I was dancing on the rooftop of ‘Zonatango’ and a trio of guitars came out and started singing tangos from 1920. The reality is: the soul of tango doesn’t belong to any one instrument. Travel and see live music of all kinds. The energy of four bandoneons is undeniable … as is the duet of Julio Pane and Juanjo Dominguez!
A list of some incredible Bandoneon players you can here on youtube include Anibal Troilo, Ciriaco Ortiz, Pedro Laurenz (widely considered the three best ever), Julio Pane, Ruben Juarez, Piazzolla, and David Alsina.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think! Sorry for any grammar and spelling errors. My teachers in school always told me “great idea, poor execution”. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had writing it!