Arts & Entertainment

Bandoneon, an instrument synonymous with Argentine tango, now in short supply

By Julieta Barrera

Buenos Aires, Jun 9 (EFE).- A concertina-like instrument invented in Germany around 1840, the bandoneon was brought by immigrants to the River Plate region in the second half of that century and a few decades later had already become the signature instrument of Argentine tango ensembles.

But in 2022, only a few people in that South American country and around the world make that hand-held instrument, with each typically only manufacturing a half-dozen per year.

Pablo Zapata, a bandoneon player and composer for nearly three decades, told Efe that an entire tradition surrounds the instrument.

“It has a tone of melancholy, of nostalgia, where even if you play (the Beatles song) ‘Yesterday’ it sounds like tango,” something … linked with the feeling of the immigrant waiting for his family, that thing that makes the same instrument sound different in Germany.”

Zapata, who also teaches the bandoneon, said an aspiring player must have a clear objective and enjoy the journey.

“It’s sitting down, having patience and playing. It’s a tough instrument,” said the recording artist, who released an album titled “Cuenta Historias” in 2018 and also worked on the music for a 2007 film directed by and starring Ricardo Darin, “La señal.”

“The important thing is to connect with the essence of the instrument: play any note and enjoy that color, managing the intensity, slowing it down, seeing the bandoneon come to life,” he said.

The musician said the first challenge is finding an instrument, since they are scarce and expensive. In terms of preference, he said he leans toward ones that are nearly a century old.

“That color that we tango lovers, we bandoneonists, love. You get that with those old recycled bandoneons that have been passed down” from one person to another.

Most of the instruments used today in Argentina belong to the golden age of tango, when thousands were imported from German factories – the Alfred Arnold (AA) and Ernst Louis Arnold (ELA) – that no longer exist.

In Buenos Aires, a workshop known as Fuelles del Sur is a go-to place for restoring those instruments, tuning them and manufacturing their bellows (main folding section).

“We’re caring for, pampering these 80-, 90-, 100-year-old instruments that continue to bring us joy, and hoping that the few new instruments that are being built will start taking their place,” Francisco Frulla, one of the workshop’s craftsmen and a lifelong student of the bandoneon, told Efe.

“There are so many bandoneons with a ton of problems and the musicians keep making magic with an instrument that’s extremely old. Let’s see what happens in a few years when they reach the end of the road, because they’re finite,” Frulla said.

The main problem, he said, are the free-moving metal plates, the reed tongues, that create the sound. “If you have to change one, that’s one thing, but if you have to change 40 reed tongues in one bandoneon, that’s something else.”

Julia Brusse, another bandoneon restorer at the workshop and also a devoted student of the instrument, said it would be good if accessible options were more available.

“Even if they don’t – and don’t try to – compare to what AA or ELA made back then, which we know to be the most prestigious. But at least there would be access, because there’s a hunger in people to play (the instrument). There’s a lot of strong development, musically speaking.”

Baltazar Estol is currently one of the few bandoneon manufacturers in Argentina and around the world. His production is small scale (six per year), like almost all other manufacturers of that instrument, and he has a backlog of orders until 2026.

“It’s an instrument that’s complicated to make … like partly hand-crafted, partly industrial,” Estol told Efe.

The bandoneon manufacturer has recently increased his capacity by moving from a 15-square-meter (161-square-foot) workshop into one measuring 120 square meters.

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