Guest Author - Karin Norgard
The music of Argentine tango is deep and varied, connoting joy as well as sorrow with a combination of rich instrumentation and soulful lyrics. The richness and complexity of the music has inspired a dance with similar depth and intricacy. The allure of the tango reaches worldwide and makes it a fascinating subject of study. At the heart of the mystique is its rich music, including the instrument that has become tango’s symbol: the bandoneón.
The orquesta típica that plays Argentina tango typically includes a string section, bandoneón section and rhythmic section. The string section consists of violins, viola and cello, while the rhythmic section includes the piano and the doublebass. The bandoneón section typically would include three bandoneóns or more. This full arrangement of instruments is an expanded version of the traditional tango orchestra called the sexteto típico, an ensemble consisting of six instruments: two violins, piano, doublebass and two bandoneóns.
Despite the variety of instruments used in the orchestras that play Argentine tango, none is as closely associated with the music genre as the bandoneón. The bandoneón is a free-reed aerophone considered essential in Argentine tango’s orquesta típica. Invented around 1850 by a German inventor named Heinrich Band, the instrument was originally used for popular and religious music. German emigrants brought the bandoneón to Argentina in the early 20th century, where its distinctive sound would become identified with the tango.
The bandoneón is a type of concertina that is also related to the accordion. It has a square wooden box on each end containing a small reed organ that is controlled by rows of buttons. Connecting the boxes is a folding bellow that, when pushed or pulled between the boxes, produces different sounds by changing the openings on the instrument and thereby altering the airflow and therefore the pitches.
There are 72 buttons on the bandoneón: 37 on the box controlled by the right hand and 35 on the box controlled by the left hand. Because each button can play two different notes, depending on whether the bellows is held open or closed, the bandoneón can play up to 144 different notes. Due to the fact that the buttons played by each hand have both a closing note and an opening note, there are four different keyboard layouts that the bandoneón player must memorize. This makes the bandoneón a notoriously difficult instrument to learn.
The bandoneón is known for creating the distinctive sound of the Argentine tango and is featured in virtually all traditional Argentine tango music. The most well-known musicians in Argentine tango's history - Juan D'Arienzo, Carlos Di Sarli, Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla - are great places to start for traditional Argentine tango music featuring the bandoneón.