Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I am still on my tango kick, so to speak.

The bandoneón is central instrument for tango ensembles, which can also have a piano, often a violin, a guitar maybe or a bass, but ALWAYS a bandoneón. Until I started researching this next book, I knew the sound of the instrument, but not it's name and certainly not its origin. Now that I do, I want to share it with you.

The bandoneón makes that wonderful almost-human breathing, gasping, and sighing sound that gives passion to tango music. We associate its voice with the hot, Latin romance of Argentina's premier art form, but this concertina-like instrument is actually a German, and a religious one at that.

Called bandonion by its inventor Heinrich Band (1821-1860), this wonderful music maker was intended to take the place of an organ in poor churches that could not afford the real article. There isn't any easy-to-find documentation about the bandoneón's eventual use in religious establishments. What we do know is that German sailors and Italian seasonal workers and immigrants brought the first ones to Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, just as the working class newcomers in the bars on the waterfront were evolving a fabulous new music and dance art: the tango. The new arrival that most influenced how that new music would sound was the bandoneón.

It seems as if it must be a tricky instrument to play. It is played by pulling the bellows apart and squeezing them together. The buttons on the ends change the notes, and here's what knocks me out – the buttons play different notes depending on whether the player is pulling the bandoneon apart or pushing it closed. If you ask me, the musical geniuses who master the bandoneón must each have two or three brains.

The most famous recent maestro was also the great composer, Astor Piazzolla. Here is a lovely little film of one of his compositions in a performance that brings the bandoneón back to its intended locale – a church. The elegance of the scene rivals recent weddings of European royalty. The name of the piece is "Adios Nonino," which given the Italianized Spanish of Buenos Aires, I make out to mean, "Goodbye, Little Grandfather." That may account for the beautiful bride's emotional reaction. Then again, the plaintive voice of the bandoneón could easily have moved her to those tears.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Most intriguing. Sounds a lot like an old organ I played somewhere where you had to pump your feet to get sound. Good research! Thelma

  2. My friend Drew Brady, who plays an excellent accordion and owns many free reed instruments, may have one of those.