The musical key to keeping Argentina dancing the tango

  • Published
The pichuco bandoneon
Image caption,
The first ever bandoneon made in Argentina has been produced by a university in Buenos Aires

Argentina may be the nation that gave tango to the world but the dance has been at risk of a quiet future in its homeland.

The threat has come not due to any decline in interest among Argentines, because - by contrast - the popularity of dancing the tango is now at its highest level in the country since its so-called golden age in the 1940s and 1950s.

Instead, the problem has been caused by a growing shortage of the musical instrument that provides the key soundtrack to any serious tango performance - the bandoneon, a large type of concertina.

Despite being an essential part of the tango scene, the bandoneon was never made in Argentina. Instead it is a German instrument that was brought to the country in the 19th Century by European immigrants.

As production of bandoneons came to an end in Germany after World War Two due to limited domestic demand, the instrument quickly became a collectors' item in Argentina.

As a result, few vintage bandoneons ever come up for sale, and those that do cost more than 40,000 pesos ($4,700; £3,000) - unaffordable for most Argentines.

Thankfully, efforts are now continuing to solve the shortage by producing the first ever Argentine-made bandoneon, and at a much cheaper price.

'The Stradivarius of bandoneons'

The instrument is being developed by staff and students at the department of industrial design at the National University of Lanus in Buenos Aires.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Argentines take their tango very seriously

With a test production run due to start before the end of this year, the aim is to spin out the project as a commercial small business, selling the bandoneon for between one-third and half the price of vintage models.

The project is now more than two years old, and as a typical bandoneon contains more than 2,300 parts, it hasn't been an easy one.

To help design and build the new instrument, the 14 members of the project team got their hands on one of the most celebrated bandoneons, one made by German craftsman Alfred Arnold, considered to be the Stradivarius of bandoneons.

Image caption,
Andres Ruscitti (centre) and his colleagues hope to start selling the instrument next year

They then took it apart to work out how they could simplify and industrialise the manufacturing process.

"Our idea was to respect the sound of the original instrument as much as possible," says Andres Ruscitti, a member of the project's research and development team.

Image caption,
The new bandoneon has been named after one of Argentina's most famous players

"To [fully] achieve this we would need to use raw materials and technologies of the early 20th Century, and play the instrument for 50 years to produce an aged sound."

As such an approach would obviously be impractical, and somewhat time-consuming, the team instead developed a new bandoneon that kept some wooden and cardboard parts, but also added new plastic components.

They have called it the "pichuco", which in English means "cry baby", and was the nickname of Anibal Troilo, Argentina's most famous bandoneon player.

To ensure the pichuco sounds as good as possible, several bandoneon players were brought in to help, and to test the prototypes.

Following test production this year, full output is due to start next year. However, as the project leaders say they don't yet know how long it will ultimately take them to make each instrument, nor how many they aim to produce, rather a lot of work still remains to be done.

Mr Ruscitti, 46, adds that once the business is spun out from the university it will take care of the assembly and tuning of the product, while other Argentine firms will provide the materials.

Bandoneon facts

Image caption,
The insides of a pichuco bandoneon
  • The bandoneon was invented by German instrument-maker Heinrich Band in the 1850s
  • Its name is a composite of Mr Band's surname and the German word for accordion
  • The player holds the instrument between both hands, and then uses pushing and pulling motions to force air through its bellows
  • Notes and chords are chosen by pressing 71 buttons - 38 with the right hand, and 33 with the left
  • It is considered to be one of the hardest instruments to master

He and his colleagues are confident their bandoneon will be a success, initially in Argentina, and then with exports to follow.

And while new German-made bandoneons have been available again since the 1990s, they cost more than $6,000 - even more than vintage models. So the pichuco should have a significant price advantage.

Tango salvation

The continuing popularity of tango in Argentina may be encouraging university staff and students to think of business opportunities, but it is also helping some of the country's established small and medium-sized firms.

Image caption,
Tango helped Cesar Crocitta rebuild his finances

For third-generation shoemaker Cesar Crocitta, the dance has been his salvation.

By the mid-1990s Mr Crocitta, 67, had grown the family business, Darcos Shoes, into a thriving consortium that owned eight shoe factories across Argentina, and offices in Buenos Aires and New York, selling all different types of shoes.

Then in 1998 Argentina was hit by a financial and economic crisis, at the same time as shoe imports from China soared.

Mr Crocitta says: "I went bankrupt. I swore I would never again manufacture anything."

However, not long after he walked past a milonga - a place where people gather to dance the tango.

He was inspired to start making handmade male and female tango shoes.

A company in the Netherlands was impressed enough by a sample to start placing orders, and soon Darcos Shoes was born again, only this time solely making tango shoes.

Today the firm sells 200 handmade pairs per day, across more than 40 countries. They sell for between $95 and $190 per pair.

Image caption,
Darcos now only makes and sells tango shoes

"I sell directly to clients, not to stores, and my clients are spread around the globe," says Mr Crocitta. "National borders only exist in people's minds."

And while rival tango shoes are produced in Europe and Asia, Mr Crocitta adds that his are very popular, both because of their quality, and the fact that they are made in Argentina.

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