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Bellows of love's lament: long synonymous with the tango and Buenos Aires, the bandoneon is at the heart of new efforts to preserve and expand Argentina's signature music.

THE SULTRY ROMANCE BETWEEN Buenos Aires and the bandoneon is right out of a tango: a down-and-out immigrant from Saxony, a failure in his native land, washes up in a new town, wins the attentions of the coveted local belle, only to find her faithless. This being tango, he never ever gets over her. Thus was born the bandoneon's lament.

To be fair in this love story, she never forgets him either. Indeed, if it weren't for Buenos Aires, the bandoneon would have long ago been relegated to the pile of obscure musical inventions that failed: a complicated instrument to play with a strange sound, it likely would not have survived much beyond its birth in the 1840s if Buenos Aires and the new music being created there, tango, hadn't taken the instrument to their hearts. Like many immigrants who left old lives behind and started new ones in this faraway land, the bandoneon has fused so indelibly with the city that it is now impossible to conceive of the bandoneon without Buenos Aires--or Buenos Aires without her bandoneon.

The great caricaturist Hermenegildo Sabat writes, "The bandoneon continues to be the central element of tango, and the mystery of its sound has left behind its far Germanic origins to mimic the streets, the walls, and the hearts of Buenos Aires."

The bandoneon is so much at home in Buenos Aires that it doesn't even sound the same elsewhere. Walther Castro, one of the new generation of bandoneonists, swears that nowhere does his instrument play as well as it does in Buenos Aires. Perhaps it's the climate, Castro muses.

How is it that the bandoneon found refuge here, becoming eventually the preeminent symbol of the city and its music? Perhaps the immigrants who outnumbered the locals identified with the instrument's own wanderings; perhaps it was the bandoneon's ability to express their intense longings, hopes, fears, desperate loves, and loneliness; certainly, it had something to do with the bandoneon's mournful sound, which could give voile to the melancholy and nostalgia of a people who had left everything behind.

Lastima, bandoneon, mi corazon, runs the famous first lines of Catulo Castillo's "La ultima curda" [The Last Binge]: bandoneon, you wound my heart.

But, of course, this being a tango love story, it couldn't be ally other way.

The mystery of the bandoneon's lament begins, oddly enough, in China around 3,000 B.C., where the sheng, an instrument made with a gourd and bamboo pipes, was the first to employ the principle of the free reed. The idea is quite simple: Imagine a thin strip of metal placed over a slot of exactly the same dimensions (except that it is a tad shorter) cut into a thicker metal plate. At one end, the strip is riveted to the metal plate; at the other, it is left to move freely in and out of the slot below it. Blow air over the thin strip, or reed, and you get a note. Change the size of the reed (and the corresponding hole below it) and you get a different note.

When the free reed concept finally reached Germany in the late 1700s, it inspired inventors to look for ways to exploit its musical possibilities. The result was a time of wild experimentation that gave birth to many instruments, most of them absurd and three that have stood the test of time: the accordion, the harmonica and, of course, the bandoneon.

It was around 1840, in the town of Carlsfeld in Saxony that Carl Friedrich Zimmermann or Heinrich Band (historians disagree) invented the bandoneon. Band, a merchant, will go down in history for having fused his name with that of the accordion in order to differentiate his product's sound from that of his competitors. Zimmermann manufactured the instruments In his factory.

The bandoneon was not an instant success. All Band's considerable talents as a promoter were required to create a market for an instrument that was, to say the least, tricky to play. The complexity of the bandoneon derives directly from the ambitiousness of its inventors. Improbably, they wanted an instrument that could replace an organ in small, outlying churches. And they wanted it to be portable so that it could accompany processions through the streets of German villages.

Like the organ, the bandoneon was intended for polyphonic music rather than melodies. This meant that instead of arranging the notes on the keyboards in a linear fashion as on a piano, starting at A and climbing step by step through the twelve-tone scale, they were placed in a way to facilitate thee making of chords. Look at a diagram of the bandoneon keyboard and you will see a senseless jumble of notes.

"You have to learn to play as a child when you have nothing to worry about," says Pascual "Cholo" Mamone, eighty-two, a veteran bandoneonist. "If you are worried about how you'll manage to pay the electric bill, you'll never learn."

Not only that, but the two keyboards, one for the right hand and one for the left, are actually four different keyboards since any single button makes one note on opening the bellows and another on closing. Altogether there are seventy-one buttons and 142 possible notes.

Four distinct keyboards with the keys arranged willy-nilly mid out of sight of the performer; intended for use in processions, but anyone who planned to walk very far with one of these cumbersome instruments hanging from his neck had better have vertebrae of steel or a good chiropractor; the bandoneon was, without a doubt, doomed to irrelevance.

Or should have been but for one thing: someone had the bright idea to send some bandoneons off to Buenos Aires, where a new country and a new music were taking shape. And there the people fell in love with the sounds that came out of that strange box, no matter how misshapen in design or convoluted it was to play.

"The bandoneon was invented by a lunatic," says Mamone. "You have to learn four keyboards and on top of it, you'll never be able to see them! There's absolutely no rhyme or reason to the keyboard. But," be says laughing, "the lunatic created a sound that the people liked. All around the world people go crazy over the sound. That's where the lunatic made sense."

Even today, more than one hundred years since the bandoneon arrived on these shores, the sight of a musician walking down the street with the tell-tale rectangular case of a bandoneon sends a thrill through even the gruffest porteno. The instrument is still casting its spell.

That fortuitous meeting between the bandoneon and tango certainly changed the fortunes of the manufacturers in Carlsfeld who in good years exported as many as twenty-five thousand bandoneons to the Rio de la Plata region; it also changed the course of music history by taking the sprightly tango--played mostly with guitar--several fathoms deeper into the human spirit.

One imagines the upright choir boy from Carlsfeld, raised to perform in small churches and in processions through town on religious holidays, arriving in the bustling port city and seeing immigrants from all over the world--Spaniards, Italians, German and Russian Jews, Syrians, Ukrainians, Armenians--listening to the new music, tango, and rubbing up together breast to breast in the intricate dance that went with it. They gathered in tenement courtyards and the brothels where the lonely men of Buenos Aries--and there were a lot of lonely men in Buenos Aires in those days--went for a touch of love. This is where tango was born, on the raw underside of Buenos Aries. Soon the choir boy tore off his stiff collar and joined in the fray; and before long he was the center of attention with all his pent-up gusto and lust for life.

The bandoneon has never strayed far from these origins amid brothels and the dark corners of the human heart. Even today, when Argentina's bandoneonists are celebrated around the world, back home in Buenos Aires the bandoneon is not allowed to perform in a Catholic church.

Near the Constitucion train station, in a neighborhood with solid tango credentials, lives Rodolfo Mederos, a much-esteemed bandoneonist. He lives ht one of those old Buenos Aires row houses with ornate doors glistening proudly with marine varnish and a flight of marble stairs that one must climb once inside to reach the entry hall.

Mederos, with his wild mane of grey hair, is a meticulous man. On a table he has laid out a tray with cookies, sugar, and a small pitcher of milk. After inquiring whether I want tea or coffee, he disappears for a few minutes and comes back with one of those miniature stove-top Italian coffeemakers, which are thought by many in Buenos Aires to be the only way to brew a real cup of coffee.

"My native tongue is there," he says, pointing to the bandoneon on the floor a few yards from him. "I can play jazz, rock, Bach, contemporary music--one wants to explore these things, know what's going on in the world--it enriches you--but at the hour of my death, it's that." Again he looks over at the bandoneon on the floor.

"As a child," he says, "I exorcised all of my ghosts through the bandoneon."

He has six: Alpha, Panta (after Astor Pantaleon Piazzolla, who gave that one to him as a gift), Francesco, Timoteo, Telmo, Colora'o. He calls them his "gang." "Each one has its own temperature, smell feeling to the touch, response--bah, they're like people.

"Technically, the bandoneon is an instrument with immense possibilities of expression," says Mederos. "It's like eight violins, four in each hand. No--even more, look how curious: four violins, a viola, a cello, and a standing bass. I have a chamber octet here on my lap!" He pats his lap, as if to emphasize how empty it is now and how full of possibility it is when there is a bandoneon resting there.

"I can play like a violin, legatissimo; I can play like a flute, staccatissimo; I can play pianissimo to the point where it is barely a sensation. Or I can play so hard that it hurts," he says triumphantly.

Turning to a family tree of classical music composers that hangs on the wall behind him, he says, "I am convinced that if tango and the bandoneon had existed back here [pointing to the part, of the trunk that corresponds to the 1600s], Bach and all the rest would have composed tangos. Without a doubt, they would have played the bandoneon ... Unfortunately, Bach missed out."

He pauses to sip from his gourd of mate, then says, "This is our classical music. We shouldn't go to the Colon Theater to play Beethoven--well, of course we should go play him the same way we listen to music from all over. But this is our sacred music; this is our classical music."

"I think that the only good thing that we Argentines have been able to do is tango."

Only a short taxi ride away from Mederos's place near the Constitucion train station with its street walkers, clamoring crowds, and dancing joints, but definitively on the OTHER side of town, lives Maria Susana Azzi. With her careful manners, stylish clothes, and golf trophies, Azzi seems the epitome of those good citizens who long ago fled the southern neighborhoods of the city with their teeming immigrants and raucous tangos to take refuge in Barrio Norte, yet this anthropologist has dedicated much of her career to the study of tango.

Asked about female bandoneonists, Azzi replies, "It is a masculine instrument. When people see a woman playing the bandoneon, with its association with brothels, they say, 'How can she play the bandoneon, play such an impure instrument between her knees?'"

Carla Algeri, however, dares to. When I reel her at her studio, she was wearing the same tailored suit with the fur-muff collar that I saw her perform in several nights before, but in the afternoon light I can see now that her pants are worn ragged across the thighs, a tell-tale sign of a bandoneonist. (It comes from the constant rasping of the bandoneon back and Forth across the lap.)

Asked about her relation with the instrument she plays, Algeri says, "If I were a man I would say that it is like a woman ..." But then she stops and changes the sexual orientation of her metaphor, as if all the effort she has made to break into the secret men's club of the bandoneon had required so much effort that even the metaphors come out as a man would have and it. She says, "Or I could say, it's like a man. They're all marvelous, but there's one who makes the note sound just the way one likes it."

The late Astor Piazzolla (1921-92) looms like a giant over every bandoneonist's shoulder. By force of iris larger-than-life personality and his music, Piazzolla's legacy commands awe: a pioneer who transformed a little-known instrument into a vehicle for his musical genius; one of the world's most prolific composers (along with Mozart); and an inveterate prankster who was forever setting off smoke bombs in rehearsals, removing the screws from colleagues' bandoneons (so they would fall apart in their hands on stage), mid countless other high jinks. Once, after a long night in Paris, he strolled into Notre Dame, sat down at the organ and played on through the early morning mass, improvising a mix of religious music and his own compositions.

"To innovate after Piazzolla is very difficult," says Azzi, who co authored Piazzolla's biography (Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, 2000).

It's not easy. Piazolla matured at a time when tango was languishing after the golden years of the 1930s and 1940s, took up the broken pieces, and remade it in his own image. For many years, the battle was between Piazzollistas and anti-Piazzollistas. Today, now that his music has achieved such wide acceptance, you will often hear his more famous creations played as Muzak in Buenos Aires elevators. The problem is, even for those who frankly admire him, how do you break out of the box that Piazzolla built?

I met Walther Castro at La Giralda, a cafe across from the city-run San Martin arts complex, a beehive of theaters, art-film screenings, photo galleries, classes, and dance rehearsals that is the epicenter of the Buenos Aires arts explosion that runs in exact counterpoint to the country's economic crisis.

With Iris blond curls and gold earring, Castro is clearly not one of your traditional bandoneonists. He has traveled the world performing the music of Buenos Aires, often in the company of Pablo Ziegler, a member of Piazzolla's glorious second quintet.

"We are afraid of the shadow of Piazolla," says Castro, "I think I'm losing it little by little."

"I am against continuing to play traditional tango," he says. "Something else is going on." He confesses that he is perturbed by the penchant of many new bandoneonists to play music exactly the way they did in the 1940s. "It leaves me a little bit afraid for the music."

But for Castro, there's no going back. "It's not that I'm saying that I don't want to play tango so I'm going to play jazz; I want to play tango but new tango ... I think the music of Buenos Aires has what it takes."

It's gotten to the point that Castro refuses to wear the traditional uniform of a tango musician: black pants, black shirt. At a recent show he took a lot of ribbing from his band mates for wearing a pink shirt.

"I just can't bear to perform in black clothes any more," he says.

But while a new generation searches lot what form the music of the bandoneon will take after Piazzolla's triumphant revindication of the instrument, there is one small problem: the instrument.

The last bmldone6n worthy of the name was built before World War II, when the Alfred Arnold factory, successor to the original Zimmermann operation and the gold standard in bandoneons, was obliged to contribute more than music to Hitler's war effort. After the war, Carlsfeld languished behind the Iron Curtain and the knowledge of its expert craftsmen was slowly lost.

Today, in a well-guarded workshop where the succession of metal gates suggests that more is being guarded here than personal possessions, the father son team of Hugo and Gustavo Recupero are trying to recover the lost sound of the Alfred Arnold bandoneon.

"They died with their secret," says Hugo Recupero, whose tough face belies a big heart and a nature that's easily moved to tears, especially by music. "We have to discover that secret."

Recupero, whose last name, in an odd coincidence, means "I recover" in Spanish, is full of admiration for those who built this deceptively simple instrument. Like many others, he attributes the sound of the bandoneon to either the insanity of its inventor or powers beyond this world: "The bandoneon--whoever invented it was an extraterrestrial," he says half-seriously.

The bane of all those who have tried and failed--to build a bandoneon is the sound: all attempts so far have come out sounding like an accordion, according to Recupero and other musicians. Though the accordion and the bandoneon both use a bellows and the free reed principle, Alfred Arnold did something to the reeds that no one has yet been able to discover.

One word of advice: don't ever mention accordion and bandoneon in the same breath in the presence of a bandoneonist. Bandoneonists, I have found, have a visceral disgust for the sound of the accordion, which they consider grating and unsophisticated.

A Japanese firm, Recupero says, announced several years ago that they would build one million bandoneons. "They gave up when they found out how hard it was," he says with barely concealed glee.

For years Recupero has tried to discover the elusive secret of the sound of the bandoneon. Many times he swore he would give up, and several times he did, but an old man would visit him in his dreams with a bandoneon in his bands and hold it out to him. "He wouldn't let me quit," he says.

For the time being, Recupero dedicates himself to repairing and tuning old instruments, mostly the Alfred Arnold-made instruments (affectionately called "Double As") preferred by professional musicians.

With 142 notes, "tuning a bandoneon is very stressing," he says. "It's enough to drive you crazy." A complete overhaul takes the Recuperos one-and-a-half months.

"We get inside the bandoneons," says Gustavo.

When a performer brings in the beat up bandoneon he has been playing for decades and Recupero gives him back a fully restored beauty, the effect can sometimes be overwhelming. "They cry when they hear it sound the way it used to. I cry too," he says.

But repairing old bandoneons is not enough for Recupero. He wants to build his own.

"I know we're ready to do it," he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Tango with a jewish partner.

"Una noche que hard historia--a night that will make history" was how its promoters breathlessly advertised the April 30, 2003, world debut of Inspiracion, Argentina's first Jewish tango orchestra.

History was indeed made that night, as 850 people packed the elegant Teatro Nacional Cervantes in downtown Buenos Aires, paying the equivalent of $12 each to see and hear Inspiracion perform for the first time in public.

The show, cosponsored by B'nai B'rith Argentina and the local Fundacion Memoria del Holocausto, featured nine Jewish musicians under the direction of twenty-eight-year-old pianist and composer Andres Linetzky.

The orchestra was formed last January by local concert promoter Segismundo Holzman. His goal: to capitalize on tango's little-known Jewish elements while raising money for Argentina's 200,000-member Jewish community, which has been ravaged by economic chaos in recent years.

"Since childhood, I have been passionate about tango, and I have always been involved with Jewish organizations," says Holzman. "I put two and two together, and understood that the moment had finally come to form an orchestra."

Holzman, sixty-nine, was born and raised in Zarate--a town in Buenos Aires province that gave birth to "various extraordinary poets" like Virgilio Exposito, Raul Beron, Armando Pontier, and Hector Insua. Holzman now lives and works out of a cluttered apartment on Calle Parana, only ten blocks from where his hero, the legendary tanguero Carlos Gardel, grew up.

"Gardel had nothing to do with the Jews, but the Jewish community had something to do with him," says the promoter. "In 1917, Gardel recorded the first tango sung in history on the Odeon label thanks to Max Glucksmann," a Jewish immigrant who had emigrated from Rumania in 1915.

Gardel wasn't Jewish, but that's OK because Guillermo Galve is.

Galve, also known as Marcos G. Piker, is the grandson of Russian immigrants. He grew up in the picturesque Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca and began singing tango professionally when he was fourteen.

Today, Galve is inspiracion's lead singer. Other members of the orchestra include violinists Adolfo Halsband and Alejandro Schaikis; bandoneonists Ruben Slonimsky and Luciano Jungman; cellist Daniela Schuster; double bassist Ignacio Varchausky; and singer Mimi Kozlowski.

"For the past eighty-five years, the Jews have participated in the story of tango," says Holzman. "So many Jews were associated with tango that at some point, it was inevitable that these musicians would get together."

In fact, two scholarly books have been written on the subject: El Tango: Una historia con judios, by Jose Judkovski, and Tango judio: Del ghetto a la milonga, by Julio Nudler.

By the 1960s the tango was quickly losing out to the Beatles and other up-and-coming rock groups and came to be seen as the music of older people. Yet since around 1990, tango has enjoyed a comeback among Argentine youth, including, Jewish youth.

For Linetzky, Inspiracion holds special meaning: a month after his grandfather, eighty-seven-year-old violinist Jose Linetzky, arrived in Argentina from Eastern Europe in the 1920s, he found work in a traditional tango orchestra.

"Musicians used to playing klezmer music adapted fast to tango," Andres Linetzky says. "This project is to honor those people and to give hack to Argentina what the country gave to its immigrants."

Not everyone is inspired by Inspiracion, however. One Jewish grandmother of sixty-three says that sire sees nothing inherently Jewish about the group, except for one instrumental song called "Zeide."

"This is purely commercial and discriminatory," she says. "They perform tango; the show has nothing related to Judaism. It's like creating a group of Jewish dentists."

Holzman retorts that "it's not really Jewish tango, but tango played by Jewish musicians"--even though the dancers who perform with them are not. "Our songs are traditional tango songs, though many of them were composed by Jews. For example, the song "Inspiracion" is a tango composed by Luis Rubenstein."

He also says Inspiracion will soon release its first CD, which includes a few songs in Yiddish, the colloquial language of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. The money those sales generate--long with planned concerts in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Miami, Tel Aviv, and other cities with large Jewish populations--will be used to finance relief efforts for poor Argentine Jews.

For more information on Inspiracion, visit the group's website:

--Larry Luxner

Kevin Footer is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires and a previous contributor to Americas.
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Author:Footer, Kevin Carrel
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Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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