Sunday, 26 July 2009

Bandoneón - seen, spelled, pronounced, and played

Creative Commons 2.0A few weeks ago I was chatting to someone about my dancing flower and joking that I might make it a little bandoneón instead of the guitar; that being a characteristic instrument of tango. [Image: Wikimedia, attributed under Creative Commons 2.0]

During the conversation it appeared that although my friend had been dancing tango for some years, approaching it via other dances, he had never actually seen a bandoneón, and thought it was shaped like an accordion - or perhaps even that it was the same thing.

There are things that people who know them often suppose, without any justification, that everyone knows. In this case, what a bandoneón is, and such necessary trivialities as what you are meant to do with the little ´ above the ó. I don't remember how or when I learned what a bandoneón was, but I know it took a while. So this is a "things I wish I'd been told" post; and it's also a little bit for my Dad, who is doing a distance-learning course in advanced Spanish, and is encountering wild assertions about the history of tango in his course materials.

Tangos are sometimes played on accordions; for example this is what Mazaika do. But the sound and the possibilities are different.

The bandoneón is a bellows instrument, square in cross-section. It has two voices, a high one played by the right hand and a low one played by the left hand. There are keys in the form of buttons at each end, and each key produces a different note depending on whether the instrument is breathing in or out. So it has, in effect, four keyboards, laid out to facilitate the playing of chords rather than scales.

To me, it seems a bit like a pocket pipe organ, and just one can produce an amazing quantity and quality of sound. Here, Klaus Gutjahr plays a Prelude and Fugue in C Major by J. S. Bach. The silent guitarist is Jörg Utesch and together they are Duo Opal (website plays music). I linked to this video to make a point in a previous post, but I think it deserves embedding.

The sound is a bit unusual, to a tango dancer; it's a new instrument, I suppose, and it's in a church. But it illustrates one of the things it can do. I'll post a different one lower down.

I find it fascinating to watch, because of the way the instrument breathes. They were invented in Germany, and it seems that new ones are still made only or mainly there; Klaus Gutjahr also makes them. There is a potted history here and another here. Learning to play one, at least as an adult, is widely regarded as a job for loonspuds deluxe (Yahoo group). The Wikipedia article has some pictures of the inside and a brief technical description.

If you want to spell "bandoneón" correctly you'll usually find on Windows at least that CTRL+ALT+o does the trick. Of course some people don't write the ó in an English sentence, but it helps with the pronunciation so I prefer to leave it in.

As for pronunciation, bandoneón is the name it ended up with in Spanish, and it's useful to know that the pronunciation of Spanish is, as they say in my Spanish-English dictionary, "adequately represented by its spelling", so if you simply sound it out letter by letter, you'll be more or less in the right place. The e is like the e in egg. Spanish has fewer different vowel sounds than English, and e is always pretty much like the e in egg. And a is always like in and, and o is always like o in on. Then there's a stress-marker on the last o, ó, so that means you say band-on-e-ON, and not, for example, band-ON-eon or bando-NEon. Where you put the stress is quite important, just as it is in English. If you put it in the wrong place, people may not know what you're trying to say. [Edit: or you might make an informed decision to treat it as a German word, since they use the same one, and choose to pronounce it the German way, which is probably easier if your native language is English - see Comments. But in that case, you should write o and not ó.][And there's more: in response to Andreas's comment, Simba has done some research on the etym(yth)ology of the name; so far, the name seems to be original, and not derived from 'Band Union', but he would like your input if you have access to certain books. Isn't it good when the Comments get going?]

And here's a bandoneón playing tango. You'll notice a long passage of right-hand only. Roberto Álvarez and Color Tango. This instrument is unlikely to be new.


Captain Jep said...

Fascinating! Ive never heard the bandoneón (heh) played as a classical instrument. In fact, the only non tango stuff I know is the occasional jazzy piece by Piazzolla.

Watching the two vids, it seems that playing for tango is easier than I thought. Well, easy compared to the work required for the Bach piece. I wonder whether this is generally the case?

msHedgehog said...

I doubt it's generally the case, and I doubt that passage is typical, but from what Color Tango said in their lecture, I'm sure there are important differences in technique for all the instruments between classical and tango playing. I've heard from various sources that classical musicians often have difficulty adapting, having to re-learn a lot of things; and tango played by top-class classically-trained musicians is often not all that successful, though I s'pose you'd expect it to work better for Piazzolla.

cindy said...

donato sometimes has accordion ! :)
hello msH, thanks for another nice post. best wishes!

Simba said...

Thanks Ms H, that's a good account of the bandoneón.

Although they make new bandoneóns, there seems to be general agreement that the best are the double A/AA-s, i.e. the instruments made by Alfred Arnold. Which explains the somewhat cryptic Piazzolla title 'Tristeza de un double A'.

Getting the right quality of material for the zink plates became impossible after some time in the 40s, I think, so almost all the bandoneón players (bandoneonistas) use old instruments.

They are getting increasingly hard to get, and many blame foreign collectors for buying instruments and taking them out of active play, which is sad. One can understand the collectors, though, as they are usually beautifully crafted instruments with decorations in mother of pearl, ivory and various wooden insets.

Also, I would like to make a request for a post dedicated to the most outrageous assertions about the history of tango with Ms H's commentary loaded with British sarcasm. What do you think?

Henry ( said...

Wonderfully informative post. Thank you for putting that together

Simba said...

Some more bandoneón trivia (sorry about that, couldn't resist):

The name in Spanish comes from the I think original makers of the instrument in Germany: 'Band Union', which in Spanish turns into bandoneón. Or so they say.

And from what I've heard, it was designed to be used as a portable (or affordable) organ, so the church/Bach use is somehow very appropriate.

Won't bother you more now, promise :-)

Andreas said...

Well, according to German wikipedia, Heinrich Band originally modified concertinas and called them "Bandonion". The German wiki more or less dismisses the "Band Union" theory. "Bandonion" is also in line with the naming convention behind the "Akkordion", later "Akkordeon".
The Upside is this: it's a German instrument, I am German, so I can bloody well pronounce it the German way: BanDONion. There.

msHedgehog said...

@Andreas; good point, worth an update - an English speaker might well make the choice to follow your example. But in that case, they should leave out the accent on the ó. The word hasn't been definitively borrowed yet, so English has no dog in this fight. The English default might be bando-NEon, but that sounds like lighting.

I don't really buy the "Union" story either; I've heard it everywhere, and I think it's in both the potted histories I linked to, but no-one has ever mentioned a source; without more, I'm inclined to treat it as etymythology.

ghost said...

Hoi, the English have a long and glorious tradition of ruthlessly corrupting the pronounciations of foreign words!

The one I hear the most is "Ban-something"

Simba said...

Andreas' comment triggered my curiosity, and I did a little research on the 'Band Union' story.

Julian R said...

The video of Klaus Gutjahr shows him playing in the German style, with the instrument balanced on its corners. This is quite painful when I've tried it. The Color Tango vid shows Alvarez playing the variacion in Quejas de Bandoneon, which is one of the most difficult variacions (a variacion is a virtuoso fast passage that normally happens at the end of a tango), so in response to Captain Jep I would say it is as difficult as playing Bach, but it's a different sort of difficult.

msHedgehog said...

@JulianR - thanks, that's interesting - I hadn't noticed the difference in the way they held it. It does look pointy, maybe he just has iron knees. I only remember seeing tango musicians play them held flat, resting on the lap, often with a cloth underneath; or once or twice suspended from a strap around the neck.