Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Last Dance

Photo by Pavel Krok
Whenever I hear tango music I conjure up visions of dapper men in sharp suits, hats tilted to the side, wooing women in fishnet stockings and low-cut dresses clinging to sensuous curves. The couple sway to the rhythm of the music, a soulful bandoneón dictating their every move. Most onlookers focus on the dancers, barely giving the orchestra a second glance. But if you can take your eyes off the Tango dancers for long enough and concentrate on a bandoneón player, you’ll notice the passion that pours from his soul and into the instrument. There is an undying love and obvious connection between the player and his bandoneón, not unlike Tango dancers and their partners. Unfortunately, the bandoneón is under threat of extinction and without it, Tango music as we know it will change forever.

Today there are only two bandoneón repair shops in the world, both in Buenos Aires. Originally made in Germany in the 1800’s, the bandonion (as it was called in Germany) was used for religious music in German churches. In the 1850’s the German and Italian sailors and emigrants brought the instrument to the shores of Argentina. They incorporated the bandoneón into a new music and dance that started in the brothels of Buenos Aires—the Tango.

Thousands of the instruments were sent to Argentina from Germany, but production stopped when the manufacturer closed down during World War II. These days only a handful of the original instruments remain, there are no spare parts and their legacy relies heavily on the craftspeople continuing a century old tradition.

Even though the bandoneón may look like it’s related to an accordion to the untrained eye, they come from completely different families. The bandoneón is part of the concertina family and doesn’t have the piano-like keys found on an accordion. Instead, a bandoneón has buttons on both sides of the instrument and has two-voice notes--when a note is pressed, another one plays at the same time. There are over 70 buttons on the bandoneón, giving the instrument a diverse range and adds a richness and depth to the music that is recognised worldwide as an integral part of the Tango. 

With the resurgence of Tango over the last decade, Tango musicians and collectors bought up the bandoneón’s and would pay up to U.S.$7,000 per piece. But the Argentine government recently passed a law that prohibits anyone other than an Argentina musician on tour, from taking an original bandoneón out of the country.

Argentina has produced new versions of bandoneón’s, but according to Tango aficionados, the sound is less authentic and doesn’t have the soul of the originals. One of the reasons it is lacking the original sound is because the German-made bandoneón’s had their wood aged for ten to fifteen years before being hand-made into an instrument.

With the originals dying out, the sound of Tango will change. The love and care this instrument has received over the years is not enough to keep them alive forever. Even with the proper care, it is expected the originals may only last for another fifty years. Let’s hope someone can find an answer to this problem and save the world from the loss of something that is as Argentine as the Tango.

And of course, I need to share some music with you by one of Tango’s greatest, Astor Piazzolla:

Next week I’ll be covering some interesting developments in the world of Tango and UNESCO.


  1. What a fascinating history you've described for this musical instrument, Alli! And such a pity that the original ones are disappearing. It's always heart-wrenching to see a fine tradition like this disappear.

  2. How interesting! I remember seeing a guy on Househunters who moved from Chicago (I think) to South America just to be in the company of the Tango. :)

  3. Yes, I wish there was a way to avoid it, Heidi. Who knows, maybe technology could find a way to recreate the original. Let's hope so.

    Kathy, I can totally understand why that guy wanted to do that. Many people have!

  4. Wow, I'm impressed - the wood had to age for ten years to produce the right kind of sound! And I thought it was just an ordinary harmonica when I first looked at the picture! Who would have thought a musical instrument could go extinct? Let's hope there is a solution...

  5. Lina, I guess it goes to show people the love and patience used to make these amazing instruments. And yes, let's hope the solution is found quickly.

  6. Hi Alli. Thanks for the article, little is written in English about the bandoneon. Don't want to spoil the story, here are some other bits. The version prevalent in Uruguay Argentina and Brazil has the older Rheinische Lage button layout. Maria Dunkel is a great resource, she did her post doctorate work on the tradition of bandonion and konzertina making.

    I will never really understand the fascination about Tango originating in the brothels. Yes that was one place. It also was danced outdoors in patios, and by men with men in the streets. Basically, everybody danced tango. It was a dance of the common people. It was not exclusive to the brothel. One of the earliest existing recordings is by the Municipal Band in 1911. That would have required one very large Municipal Brothel!!! Myth is alluring but mixing it up with factual info is confusing. It also promotes stereotypes.

    Personally I doubt that German or Italian sailors were the source of the bandoneon. It is a large unwieldy instrument, prone to damage by humidity or extreme temperature changes. Not the ideal conditions for sharing a bunk with a sailor. Sailors in that time worked very hard days. The bandoneon is hard to learn. It was also a very expensive instrument (the equivalent of three month's salary for a Guilded worker - see Maria Dunkel) and not something someone would want to risk storing in a damp boat.

    I think it was more likely brought by the German families that came as immigrants to the area from Joinville in Brazil in the North, to Buenos Aires, when they came over in 1870s.

    There are many bandoneon repair people in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Netherlands, USA, Brasil and Germany

    There are efforts in Germany as well in attempts to re-create the bandoneon.