It began at the Theatre Festival in Sitges, Catalunya, Spain in 1989. A troupe from Buenos Aires were presenting a play about Argentine writers. I admired the musician playing the huge snake-like diatonic accordian. "Bandoneón," my friends corrected me. I sighed; shame at my ignorance, lust for the sensuous beast I had just heard. Ignorance and shame. So Catholic, so Irish.
I started to search. Piazzola came first to hand, then the Sexteto Mayor. They were my first schooling. Instruments were scarce in Barcelona. One vastly overpriced in a Catalan music emporium (about $5000) although it was an Alfred Arnold. The other, falling to pieces, on display in a cabinet of antiquities.
I resigned myself to listening. In 1992 I was passing through Bristol in England, staying at the house of my sister on the way back to Dublin, when fate delivered me into the hands of a divine, neglected 1944 Alfred Arnold Einheits instrument. Covered in brownish-red smoky celluloid rather than the ebony I had seen on previous instruments, it was also slightly larger and more cumbersome. It had taken up temporary lodging in her living room, having been rescued from a rubbish skip by a musician friend of hers. I soon declared my love to the musician friend and her instrument, and found the instrument had adopted me. The musician friend, being already married to a Dutchman, was amazed to discover somebody who knew what the instrument was, and delighted to pass it on to an aficionado. Carefully removing its side covers, I discovered by the left hand reed blocks the reference number B (Actually a Beta S) 118944, and the date 25.4.44, with what looks like the initials of the fabricator beside it.
I dressed my love in new clothes. At least, I replaced the rotten leather handstraps and reconstructed approximations to the beautiful bone and nacre buttons that had gone missing. Then I started to dance with her. So clumsily, it broke my heart. Living in Dublin now, I could find nobody who even knew what a bandoneon was, let alone what to do with it.
I recalled an article in the English magazine FOLK ROOTS which had mentioned a bandoneon player resident in London. I found his name, TEDDY PEIRO, looked him up in the London telephone directory and wrote him a letter.
Carisimo hombre, he is a bandoneón player of great stature who is a personal friend of Sr. Luis Stazo of the Sexteto Mayor. Sr. Peiro did me the supreme pleasure of introducing me to Sr. Stazo when he, his wife and the sexteto were over in Dublin in 1997. His wife, Gillian, is a great singer who has formidably translated many classic tango songs into English. He replied very promptly to my letter and put me in touch with an ancient wise man to whom I will now introduce you.
SENOR PAT ROBSON
Borges would have loved Pat Robson. He is a collector, an apasionado, an engineer in the machinery of the senses. He replied to my brief enquiry with a six page close-typed encyclopaedia-entry about my newly acquired instrument. He wrapped it around with photocopied musical arrangements, scored by himself, of popular folk songs and habaneras, as an easy introduction to the complexities of the instrument. Among the sheafs of paper he sent me were keyboard diagrams for my instrument, with descriptions of what button plays what note, and suggested methods of study, scales and arpeggios, as well as sage words of warning about attempting to emulate the Guardia Vieja too soon.
Pat once built his own bandoneón from scratch, having had practice repairing church organs. He recommends learning to play Bach fugues on the bandoneon as a good practice for playing the tango. His vast collection of 78 records has provided material for several unparalleled C.D.s. My two personal favourites are INSTRUMENTAL TANGOS OF THE GOLDEN AGE (Harlequin HQ CD 45) and TANGO LADIES (Harlequin HQ CD 34).
I have lost touch with Pat in recent years, but my small library of his letters, and not so small collection of music he sent me, still provide the basis for my studies. More so than a hideously expensive and rather dry German publication for the Einheitsbandoneón by Peter Fries called Bandonion-Schule, which I ordered from the German publishing house Apollo-Verlag Paul Lincke on Pat's advice. Please bear in mind that my background is traditional Irish music, an aurally transmitted form, and my understanding of the complexities of musical notation is strictly limited. This undoubtedly goes a long way to explaining my peculiarly personal attitude towards Herr Fries' book.
I regret to say I am seduced by many musical instruments, and am most attracted to the hardest mistresses. The fiddle has beguiled me for many years, and takes my attention away from the bandoneón for long periods. As a result our affairs are usually intense, two or three month long flings centred on one song or melody.
I began learning a habanera called 'La Paloma'. It was in amongst the oompah English folk tunes and German waltzes Pat had sent me. It felt like a tango, and had the button numbers and pull/push symbols written above the notes. I learned phrase by phrase, first the right hand then the left hand accompaniment. At the same time I learned the scale of G, middle octave, first right hand opening and closing, then left hand.
Then I went back to the fiddle.
A year later, I pulled '9 de Julio' almost at random out of the pile of scores Pat had sent me and started working on it, again phrase by phrase, writing the button numbers in pencil above the notes on the score. Painstaking, but what a sense of achievement as the melody stared to appear out from under my frenzied finger searchings. Even better when I had the right hand fluent enough to add the stabbing chords and soulful counter melody written down for the left hand. Today it is the piece I can put most feeling into, although the third part is still a bit hesitant.
Then of course I went back to the fiddle. And occasionally the button accordian and tenor banjo.
You see the pattern?
At the moment I have 'Don Juan', 'El Choclo' and a German waltz called 'Melodia' in various stages of construction. When I get tired of practising them I go back to playing 'La Paloma' and '9 de Julio' to remind myself that it is possible to learn to play a tune that sounds like it could be danced to. That, after all, is the purpose of the tango, is it not?
The bandoneón: an instrument designed to play sacred music in German churches, which found its spiritual and physical home in the brothels of the big cities along the Rio de Plata. I'm sure the Argentine maestros would tut and shake their heads at my stumbling attempts, but I like to think my fellow Dubliner James Joyce would understand the connection. The sin of pride is merely venal, whereas the sin of timidity is mortal. Once you have made love to your mistress with your whole body and soul, you can never believe in the virtue of chastity again.
I thought you might like to read the latest news from Mark in Dublin:
You will be pleased, I am sure, to hear that your website was instrumental in hooking me up with a group of people who are after starting up a Dublin Argentine Tango Society. They had been taking mixed Salsa and Tango classes in a ballroom dancing school here in Dublin, but wanted to do more than the ten minutes of Tango a week they were getting there. So they started a society, found a teacher (an American dancer who is married to a good Cuban friend of mine, as it happens,) and organised a launch with the Argentine ambassador. The inauguration was last Thursday, and they are holding classes every Tuesday evening, and an open session every Sunday in a delightfully authentic deco-style bar called The Turk's Head, in Parliament Street. Last Tuesday's classes were packed - about twenty couples in the beginners and improvers classes. I have finally taken the plunge and started to learn dancing.
It was all down to a German tango-dancing doctor on placement here in Dublin, Pascal Keilmann, who e-mailed me about the Society having read my article on your website. He is a very good dancer himself, and gave a special worshop this Sunday explaining the intricacies of stance, leading and following.
Unfortunately I did not take part in the workshop because I was PLAYING THE BANDONEÓN! Pascal also hooked me up with a French friend of his who is resident here in Dublin, a wonderful Double Bass player called Martin Gruet, and the two of us started working on a few tunes together which we premiered at the end of Pascal's workshop. Playing for dancers is definitely where it's at. We will be expanding the line-up to include piano and violin after Easter, and are also working on a Spanish Guitar to have a fully fledged Quinteto Tipico.
These are indeed exciting times.