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Argentine Tango School

Bandoneon. Learn Argentine Tango at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires with Marcelo Solis

History of Tango – Part 5: The appearance of the bandoneon in Tango


During the 1870s arrives to Buenos Aires a very particular immigrant: the bandoneon.

Bandoneon reedsTango was in its infancy, as well as this new instrument, which was recently invented in 1846 in Germany by Heinrich Band, according to some versions, or Carl F. Zimmerman, according to others. None had patented it. The bandoneon is a musical instrument that resulted from the evolution on the concertina, invented in 1839, inspired in the accordion, and conceived as a portable version of the harmonium. It is of the hand-held bellows-driven free-reed category, sometimes called squeezeboxes. The sound is produced as air flows past the vibrating reeds mounted in a frame. 

ChengThe oldest known musical instrument that uses this method is the Cheng, a “mouth organ”, already used in China on 700 AC, made of several bamboo canes (13 to 36) which had inside the vibrating membranes and a gourd as resonance box. The air flow was produced by blowing on it, like a flute.

During the 1800s this principle of production of sound was known in Europe, from which derived many diverse instruments, some in use still today, like the harmonica, the harmonium, the accordions, and the concertinas, which is considered the immediate ancestor of the bandoneon.

Carl Friedrich Uhlig (1789-1874) created the concertina in 1839, inspired in the accordion of the Viennese Cyrill Demian (1772-1847), as an improvement of it.

The first concertina of Uhlig had 5 buttons on each side, for higher pitch notes destined to the melody on the right, and for lower pitch or basses on the left. This concertina produced 2 different notes per button, one opening, and a different one closing the instrument, obtaining in this way 20 different tones. This instrument already had the seeds of what would become one day the bandoneon of Tango. Concertina Uhlig The goal of Uhlig was to attain an instrument that, eliminating the difficulties of transportation of the harmonium, had a similar sonority that perfectly amalgamates with the string instruments, allowing its integration into the chamber music ensembles and not constraining it to the interpretation of popular music. That is why he continues improving it.

In 1854 Uhlig presented his creation at the Industrial Exposition of Munich, receiving a medal of Honor.

These instruments were highly popular, although they did not have the destiny desired Carl Friedrich Uhligby its creator, as they were mostly adopted by farmers and workers who began to execute it by ear or with a notation system using the small numbers written on each button. Later, other luthiers continued adding buttons, until it reached 62. In 1844, scientist and luthier Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), patented the English concertina.

This instrument has hexagonal resonance boxes, while in the Uhlig invention, called also German concertina, they are squared. The bandoneon derives from the German concertina. According to some versions, Carl F. Zimmerman modified Uhlig’s concertina, adding buttons and rearranging its disposition, creating what became known as “Carlsfelder concertina” (derived from the German city Carlsfeld, where Zimmerman lived and created his concertina), in opposition to “Chemnitzer concertina” (derived from the German city Chemnitz, where Uhlig lived and created his concertina).

Zimmerman later emigrated to the USA, selling his factory to Ernst Louis Arnold, another instrument maker that will be connected to the origins of the bandoneon. In 1840, Heinrich Band, a musician from Carlsfeld, gets to know Uhlig’s concertina in a visit to Chemnitz.

He really likes the instrument but fell compelled to improve it. In 1843 he opens a musical instrument shop in Carlsfeld, and in 1846 starts selling his improved version of Uhlig’s concertina with 28 buttons that play two different tones each, and a different arrangement in the disposition of the buttons. This is the instrument that began to be referred to as bandoneon, although Heinrich Band considered it a concertina, and never patented it. He later yet improved it up to produce models of 65 buttons with two different sounds each.

He also contributed to the diffusion of the instrument with several transcriptions of piano works into bandoneon and composed waltzes and polkas to be played with bandoneon, although this information contradicts another version, which states that Heinrich Band conceived his instrument to play sacred music.

Heinrich Band dies 39. His widow, Johana Sieburg, partnered with Jaques Dupon in 1860 to continue the production of bandoneons.

Heinrich Band did not make the bandoneon himself. He designed it and ordered its production from Carl F. Zimmerman.

Alfred Band, the first son of Heinrich and Johana, wrote one of the first books related to the bandoneon, with all the major and minor scales. Ernst Louis Arnold, who bought Zimmerman’s factory, will become the most prominent bandoneon producer.

His son, Alfred Arnold, who worked in the factory from his childhood, will eventually devise a bandoneon of 71 buttons of two notes each. His version, called “AA”, will become the preferred one by the Argentine Tango musicians.

There are many different versions of the concertina and the bandoneon.

There are different button arrangements, as we saw with the Carlsfelder and Chemnitzer concertinas, and in some models each buttons plays only one note.

These could become confusing, so in 1921, Emil Schimild of Leipzig proposed the unification of all the buttons’ arrangements of concertinas and bandoneons in one instrument.

This proposition did not prosper, but in 1924, it was agreed to the unification for the button’s arrangement for the bandoneon, with a model of 72 buttons producing 2 notes each (144 tones), although the model adopted by Argentine Tango musicians is one of 71 buttons (142 notes), and Alfred Arnold continued its production exclusively for them. Alfred Arnold would take orders from Argentine Tango players that asked for the inclusion of more tones, and customize them.

After the Second World War, Alfred Arnold’s factory, which was located in what became Eastern Germany, was expropriated and ended the production of bandoneons to become a diesel engine’s parts factory. Arno Arnold, Alfred’s nephew, was able to escape from Eastern Germany and opened a bandoneon production factory in Western Germany in 1950, with the aid of Alfred’s former technician, Mr. Muller.

This factory closed after Arno’s death, in 1971. Klaus Gutjahr, a bandoneon player who graduated from the Bandoneon School of Berlin University, started to build handcraft bandoneons in 1970. At the end of the 1990s, he partnered with Paul Fischer in the Paul Fischer KG Company, a musical instrument manufacturer, set about reviving the manufacture of bandoneons in conjunction with the Eibenstock municipal authorities.  

The Paul Fischer KG Company, together with the Institute for the Manufacture of Musical Instruments of Zwota, developed a 142 tone bandoneon in 2001. The Bandonion and Concertina Factory Klingenthal is continuing the tradition of the legendary “AA”  instruments and thereby the construction of bandoneons at Carlfeld.  

The materials and construction used correspond to the legendary “AA” instruments.  Using historic instruments, experiments are being carried out to test the acoustic, material, and mechanical parameters in conjunction with the Institute for the Manufacture of Musical Instruments of Zwota.  

The manufacturing process has been set up using these parameters and this can be demonstrated by means of measurements.

Because the bandoneon was not patented, there is no information ever recorded about the material used for its construction, like the precise alloys of the metallic vibrating reeds, different for every note.

In Argentina, bandoneons were hand made by Humberto Bruñini, resident of Bahía Blanca. After he passed away, his daughter Olga continued with the tradition until she passed away in 2005.

The first bandoneon player ever mentioned in Buenos Aires was Tomas Moore, “el inglés” (the English man), although some said he was Irish, who brought this instrument to Argentina in 1870.

A Brazilian man called Bartolo is also mentioned as the first to bring this instrument to Buenos Aires. Ruperto “el Ciego” (the blind man) is mentioned as the first one to play tangos with his bandoneon.

He played in the proximity of the market on Moreno street for alms. Pedro Ávila and Domingo Santa Cruz (author of the famous tango “Unión Cívica”) played the concertina until Tomas Moore presented them his bandoneon.

José Santa Cruz, Domingo’s father, also switched from concertina to bandoneon. He is regarded as playing military calls with a bandoneon during Paraguay’s war, but it is most probable that at that time he played the concertina. Pablo Romero, “el pardo” o “el negro” is regarded as one of the first to play tangos with bandoneon, in the area of Palermo.

Contradictory versions mention him as either playing before or being a student of “el pardo” Sebastián Ramos Mejía.

These bandoneons were a primitive version of 32 tones. After 1880, when Tango began to develop its definitive form, the most recognized bandoneon players were: Antonio Francisco Chiappe

Antonio Francisco Chiappe, born in Montevideo in 1867.

His family moved to Buenos Aires in 1870 to the neighborhood of Barracas, where he later had a butcher shop. He also was a professional cart driver, who became the president of the Association of Professional Cart Drivers.

He was a magnificent bandoneon player, who would brag of his talent posting advertisements in the newspaper, challenging to whoever wanted to bet money to who played better Waldteufel’s waltzes, although he never made his living out of playing music.

He never played in other locations than family home parties. He played with “El Pardo” Sebastián Ramos Mejía a primitive tango, or “proto-tango”, “El Queco”, very popular in his time.

He also conducted several musical formations, from which it is important to highlight one that foretells the “orquesta típica criolla” of Vicente Greco. In this orchestra, he counted with bandoneon, violin, flute, clarinet, harmonium, two guitars and bass.

According to Enrique Cadícamo, in his poem “Poema al primer bandoneonista”, the first bandoneon player of Tango is “El Pardo” Sebastián Ramos Mejía, but today is agreed the affirmation of the historian of Tango Roberto Selles that it was Antonio Chiappe.

“Vientos de principios de siglo que hicieron girar las veletas y silbaron en los pararrayos de las residencias señoriales de San Telmo, Flores y Belgrano. Entonces el Pardo Sebastián Ramos Mejía era primer bandoneón ciudadano y cochero de tranvía de la Compañía Buenos Aires y Belgrano. El pardo Sebastián inauguró un siglo con su bandoneón cuando estaba en embrión la ciudad feérica y la calle Pueyrredón era Centro América. Primer fueye que encendió la luz del Tango, en las esquinas. A su influjo don Antonio Chiappe, también bandoneonista, se dió el lujo de desafiar por medio de los diarios al que mejor ejecutara los valses de Waldteufeld, extraordinarios… El Pardo Sebastián contagió su fervor a los hermanos Santa Cruz que actuaban en el cafe Atenas de Canning y Santa Fe donde se aplaudían los tangos de Villoldo -El choclo y Yunta brava- que tanto apasionaban a Aparicio, el caudillo, y al chino Andrés. Sebastián Ramos Mejía, decano de la facultad de bandoneón, inauguraste un siglo cuando estaba en embrión la ciudad feérica y la calle Pueyrredón era Centro América.” “Poema al primer bandoneonista”, Enrique Cadícamo.

“El Pardo” Sebastián Ramos Mejía was descendent of African slaves and was “mayoral” (driver) of the tramways puled by horses, on the line Buenos Aires-Belgrano.

He played in the Cafe Atenas of Ministro inglés (today Scalabrini Ortiz) and Santa Fe. His bandoneon had 53 tones.

He is regarded as giving some bandoneon lessons to Vicente Greco.

The bandoneon was not immediately accepted by Argentine Tango musicians and dancers.

The original formations of flute, violin, and guitar played a staccato, bright and fast rhythm. The bandoneon, with its “legato”, with its low keynotes, which were favorited by its players, who would constantly insist to its German producers to add more low keynotes, seemed not belonging to Tango. But in fact, it gave Tango what Tango was missing until the integration of bandoneon, and the bandoneon found the music it seemed to be created for.

The bandoneon, contrary to other instruments of Tango, like the violin, the flute, the guitar, the harp, or later, the piano, had no traditions to refer to.

It was a blank piece of paper in which anything could be written yet. Neither it was maestros nor methods for it. Everything had to be created from scratch. Perhaps the similarities between its sound and the sound of the organitos that disseminated Tango all over helped to its acceptance (see more at Part 2).

Juan Maglio PachoJuan Maglio “Pacho” was essential to the acceptance of the bandoneon as a musical instrument of Tango.

Born in 1881, he started to learn to play bandoneon by watching his father play it every day after work.

He would pay attention to the finger positions and then practice them secretly on his home’s roof.

He went to school until the age of 12, when he started to work, first in a mechanic workshop, then as a laborer in different activities, and then in a brickyard.

At the age of 18, he decided to fully head into his vocation: music.

During the years of hard work, he kept practicing, in order to stay in shape for when the opportunity knocks.

But still, he had technical issues to resolve, like developing greater independence between right and left hands, and he went in search of instruction to the more experienced Domingo Santa Cruz.

He improved notoriously, and from his bandoneon of 35 buttons, moved successively to instruments of 45, 52, 65, 71 and at last, a customized bandoneon of 75 buttons.

His father called him “pazzo” (the Italian word for crazy) in his childhood, due to his restless character.

His friends could not pronounce this word, and called him “Pacho”.

He loved to make jokes.

If you were in the area of Maldonado creek in 1918 and saw a ghost, it was Pacho, who wandered around every night with a white bed sheet to have fun scaring the people that passed by.

He dressed with sobriety and distinction, and he insisted to his musicians to do the same.

He started playing as a professional at the beginning of the 1900s, first in brothels and then in Cafés, until, due to his rising prestige, he was convened to play at the very famous Café La Paloma, in Palermo, in 1910.

It is important to clarify that the Palermo of that time was not the same upper-class neighborhood we know today.

In those years it was an area of “compadritos”. Lots of people came to listen to Pacho there. The special rhythm of Pacho’s interpretations of tangos brought many of the best dancers of the time, like El Cachafáz, to listen, because it was not place to dance. Cuarteto Maglio

One night, a group of the audience from the neighborhood of Once, more upper class than Palermo, took him in litters and carry him to Café Garibotto, in San Luis and Pueyrredón.

There he later presented a quartet of the bandoneon, flute, violin, and a 7 stringed guitar. Around those years Pacho started to present his compositions: “Armenonville”, “Un copetín” and “Quasi nada”.

He attracted so many people to his concerts, that the police began to suspect that it was not only music that the Café offered to its clientele, and one night they entered abruptly and arrested everybody, clients, waiters, musicians, the owner and the cat… But they found nothing.

In response, Pacho wrote his tango”Qué papelón!”.

In 1912 he started to record for Columbia. His success was so great that the word “Pacho” became a synonym of “recordings”.

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Marcelo Solis

I was born in Argentina. Through my family and the community that saw my upbringing, I have been intimately involved with the culture of Tango all my life, and have been an Argentine Tango dance performer, choreographer and instructor for over 30 years. I profoundly love Tango dancing, music, and culture, particularly that of the Golden Era. I am a milonguero.

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