Experiencing the bandoneón for the first time was a defining moment in my understanding of tango. Like many newcomers to Argentina and the tango scene, at first glance I recognized this contraption as an accordion. Yet there was something pressing the back of my mind: I had never been so captivated, so enchanted by an accordion before. In fact, there’s something about the accordion that tends to grate against my ears. But this was different. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the four men on stage who held on their knees and in their hands one of the most legendary pieces of tango history.
The bandoneón is not only an instrument. The bandoneón is the intangible, raw passion of tango encapsulated in an inanimate object. It’s the lungs that fill and empty in cadence with its dancers.
The bandoneón was invented in Germany around 1840, and later made its way to Argentina with the influx of German immigrants in the late 19th century. At first, local musicians attempted to integrate the instrument into the emerging style of music known as milonga, which was a fast-paced hum produced by flutes, guitars, and violins. When the slow and undulating pace of the bandoneón couldn’t keep up with the quick step of the milonga, the music slowed, and tango as we know it today was born.
So, how to do you distinguish a bandoneón from an accordion? Well, for starters, they are in two different families of instruments. Though both are free reed instruments, unlike the accordion, the bandoneón is a part of the concertina family. It also does not the have piano-like keys found on the accordion, but instead buttons on both sides of the instrument. Each button plays a different note depending on whether the bellows (the main folding section) is opened or closed. What’s more, the bandoneón is a two-voice instrument, meaning each note played also plays one octave higher at the same time, creating a much richer, more pleasant sound than the accordion. With over 70 buttons in total, the range of sounds that the bandoneón can produce is astonishing.
Throughout the last century, the bandoneón has kept its central role in the orchesta típica, the traditional tango orchestra. While some orchestras have only one or two bandoneónistas, some have up to four or five, which produces a sound so complex and powerful that it transforms the show into something spectacular.
Much like watching a great pair of tango dancers, to see a bandoneón player in action is to truly feel the emotion of tango music. You can often physically see the passion he feels for the music move through his body and the bandoneón in a rhythmic undulation. It’s as if a mini orchestra resides within the bellows of the bandoneón, and only with the help of a dedicated – and not to mention, incredibly talented! – musician can the notes be set free.
Am I sounding a bit too love struck? Maybe so, but I’ve found that this instrument is one of my favorite discoveries about Argentine tango. Whether you’re a music buff or a simple layperson who likes to hear a good tune every once in a while, I suggest you get to know the bandoneón. You may just fall in love, too. Just don’t count on taking one of these puppies home as a souvenir – they cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 and are quite difficult to find these days.
If you have the opportunity, I also highly recommend checking out the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro. This surprisingly young tango orchestra boasts several bandoneón players, and puts on an energetic, distinct show.
This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.