The Bandoneon – Part I

Talk A Tango. By Eduardo Lazarowski

Talk A Tango – The Bandoneon – Part I,

“Each 11 of July is celebrated as the National Day of the Bandoneón As homage to the birthday of anÍbal Troilo” …

Thus read a headline on a major Argentine newspaper last week. Neither Troilo’s name nor the instrument that contributed to his rising as one of the greatest tango personalities are foreign words to tango dancers around the world.  But not many tango lovers know the history of the “tango wind box”. So, let’s take advantage of the summer hiatus of our classic TALK A TANGO column to examine the major technical and historic features of the instrument considered the “soul” of tango music.

The bandoneón was invented to substitute the otherwise expensive and not always available church organs in rural communities of north Germany around 1835.  Technically, the bandoneón is a portable wind instrument that belongs to the subgroup of “aero-phones” together with the accordion and the concertina, and it is played by depressing a series of buttons (keys) capriciously distributed on the surface of its two side panels. Opening and closing the blower produce the vibration of metal wedges. Professional tango musicians use the so-called achromatic bandoneón, which produce different notes (by the same key) during the opening and closing of the instrument.  A standard modern bandoneón has 71 keys (38 and 33 on the right and left panels, respectively), generating 142 voices.

The bandoneón owes its name to its inventor, Heinrich Band and the cooperative (Union) created to financially support its manufacturing. Thus, when the instrument arrived to Buenos Aires, it was phonetically called by its trade-mark label “Band-Union” and the voice soon mutated from bandunión to bandoneón.  How the first bandoneón made its way to Buenos Aires is not known with certainty, but one credible hypothesis is that it was introduced to the Argentine main port by German sailors around 1860.

A relatively well-accepted story tells us that José Santa Cruz, a slave descendant and skilled accordion player, acquired a primitive 32-key bandoneón, the first to arrive to Buenos Aires, from a sailor. Soon after, Cruz was drafted by the army and sent to the front line during the ill-fated war against Paraguay (1865-70). José survived those years playing polkas, mazurkas, habaneras, and marching tunes on his bandoneón, entertaining the demoralized Argentine troops. Against the odds, he was one of the few black soldiers that made it back to Buenos Aires as war ended. His son Domingo was born in 1884 and learned to play the bandoneón at an early age. Later, Domingo paired with his younger brother Juan Carlos, a pianist, to play together the new music of the street, the nascent tango. By the end of the XIX Century Domingo Santa Cruz was a recognized bandoneonist, who had even opened an academy to teach the technique of playing the bandoneón. The Santa Cruz brothers teamed up with other young musicians to form trios and quartets that spread the tango in bars and cafes of poor suburban neighborhoods (the arrabales), and later in salons and theaters of the city.

Domingo Santa Cruz is also remembered for his tango “Union Cívica”, composed in 1905 and dedicated to a local leader of the disarraying old Union Cívica Nacional party.  In 1916, when the newly named Union Cívica Radical party led by Hypólito Yrigoyen won the presidential election, Yrigoyen supporters adopted the tango “Union Cívica” as party anthem. “Union Cívica” became a popular tango at the dance floor thanks to the version recorded by Rodolfo Biagi in 1939.

In spite of Domingo Santa Cruz efforts, the secrets of the fine execution of the bandoneón remained largely unveiled for other 10-15 years, until Pedro Maffia  …, but this is another story.

To be continued …