The Tango Bandonéon: Where it Came From

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I have written earlier about the interestings origins of musical instruments. In one post I traced the evolution of the Brazilianberimbau from pygmy hunter’s bow in the African rainforest to Angola, then with slaves to Brazil. In a later post I talked about the Vatican and tango. The bandonéon, the lead instrument of tango, also has an interesting trajectory.

It evolved from the concertina accordion, and was developed by Heinrich Band (hence the “band” in bandoneon) in 1840 to be used in village churches that couldn’t afford the expense of a pipe organ. The Hohner company, the one that still makes electric pianos and harmonicas, patented it. It came in several sizes, and four of them could come close enough to the sound of a real organ. The bandonéon was fiendishly difficult to play: there was a myriad of buttons on both sides, and each button had two notes, one for pushing in and another sounding when the player pulled the bellows out.

It was conveniently small and light and German sailors brought it to Argentina, where it went straight into the brothels they frequented (the many poor Germans and Italians who emigrated to Buenos Aires left their women behind). Today, as in Nevada, prostitution is legal in Buenos Aires. So there you have it.  The bandonéon: from the church to the whorehouse. Who would have thought?