Today has been designated the day of the bandoneon in Argentina by official law of Congress. This date was chosen because it is the birthday of (1914) Aníbal Carmelo Troilo, much loved and revered bandoneon player, composer, and orchestra leader in the 1930s and 1940s in the heyday of tango in Buenos Aires. The bandoneon is the quintessential tango instrument even though it was invented in Germany and produced there exclusively until the 1940s. Subsequently classic bandoneons became rarer and rarer in Argentina and helped contribute to the slow death of traditional tango. Here’s a link to a documentary that, in my opinion, is the best single review of the history and current status of the bandoneon in Argentina. It follows the fortunes of a young woman who is attempting to join an orquesta tipica (tango band) and learn from one of the masters. It also talks about the slow demise of the bandoneon in Buenos Aires and has interviews with famous older players (as well as many full-length performances and discussions of playing style). It is around 90 minutes long, so I have not embedded it here for the sake of conserving disc space. It is in Argentine Spanish with English subtitles and is well worth your time if you want a really comprehensive understanding of the instrument:
Here is Troilo playing his own composition“Sur” in rare live footage:
The bandoneon is named for its inventor, Heinrich Band (1821–1860), and was originally intended as an instrument for religious and popular music of the day, in contrast to its free reed predecessors the concertina and the button accordion which were largely used for folk music. Around 1870, German and Italian emigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina, where it was adopted into the nascent genre of tango music which was slowly emerging as a distinct musical and dance form at the time, particularly (but not exclusively) in the docklands of my old barrio, san Telmo.
By 1910 bandoneons were being produced expressly for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, declining popularity and the disruption of German manufacturing in World War II led to an end of bandoneon mass-production. Bandoneons were never produced in Argentina itself despite their popularity. As a result, by the 2000s, vintage bandoneons had become rare and expensive limiting prospective bandeonistas. In 2014, the National University of Lanús announced their development of an affordable Argentine-made bandoneon, which they hope to market for one-third to one-half of the cost of vintage instruments.
The bandoneon is like a concertina in that it has buttons on the left and right hand, but it has many more than a typical concertina so that it can play completely chromatically over a number of octaves. Typically bandoneons are bisonic, meaning that each button produces one note when the bellows are pushed, and a different note when they are pulled. Here’s a fairly standard layout (click to enlarge):
The bandoneon is not an enormously difficult instrument to play if all you want to do is bang out a simple tune with a few chords. That was its original intention. But to master the instrument for tango is a lifetime’s occupation, and very few people succeed. You really have to start at 5 or 6 years old, and even then, with constant practice, you are not ready to join an orquesta until your 20s at the earliest. The bandoneon in this respect is like any classical orchestral instruments. It’s not just a matter of playing the notes, but of understanding the subtleties of rhythm and intonation that are unique to the instrument and to tango itself.
As Argentina modernizes, classic tango and bandoneon playing are seen as old fashioned, and, consequently, are dying as younger people embrace pop, rock, and hip-hop. To my mind, and to the minds of many Argentinos, this state of affairs is a tragedy because tango is truly Argentine grown. It has some roots in European musical style, to be sure, but what it evolved into is uniquely Argentino. Even attempts to modernize it by the likes of Ástor Piazzolla, (who played with Troilo before branching out), weaken the spirit of tango, in my oh-so-humble opinion, by introducing elements of blues, jazz, etc. which are not Argentine products at all. For me, nuevo tango is simply not tango. Most foreigners don’t get it because they don’t know real tango to begin with. If you go to plaza Dorrego in san Telmo on a Sunday afternoon, chances are you’ll run into one of my favorite tango orquestas, playing down a side street opposite iglesia san Pedro. They are young enthusiasts keeping the tradition alive.
Over 4 years of posting I’ve pretty much covered the waterfront when it comes to Buenos Aires cooking. There’s not a whole lot to it to begin with. Some regional recipes find their way into Capital’s kitchens, however. Here’s a recipe for Patagonian Carbonada Criolla which I’ve had once or twice made by local cooks. Its origins in European stews are obvious but the ingredients are a little different – especially the dried apricots. Argentine beef is best of course. Even stewing beef is a lot tenderer there. You may have to adjust cooking times if you use your local beef.
⅓ cup olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ lbs stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 white potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbspn sugar(optional)
1 large winter squash, peeled and cubed
7 oz dried apricots, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
2 ears sweetcorn, sliced in 1” rounds
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté the peppers and onions until they are lightly golden.
Add the beef and brown on all sides.
Add the stewed tomatoes, beef broth, potatoes, sugar (if used), squash and apricots plus salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook for an hour. Check periodically to make sure the stew is not too dry. If so add a little more beef broth. Simmer longer is the beef is not tender.
Add the corn and cook for 15 minutes longer.
Serve hot in soup dishes.