The life in the bandonion – the Bandonion Freunde Essen

16. 7. 2007 | Rubriky: Články,Lives,Multilingual

[by Ken Hunt, London] The merest mention of the bandoneon conjures images of Argentina, a sub-culture of disadvantage and disaffection, and people expressing themselves through a once sleazy dance called tango. For decades the bandoneon and tango combined to figure as the lingua franca for Carlos Gardel, were refashioned as the nuevo tango (new tango) of Astor Piazzolla and lurked in the automatic writing of Jorge Luis Borges. In Argentina the bandoneon and tango have became expressways to the nation’s soul, shorthand for longing and loss, passion and pain. The bandoneon’s tones evoke a muscular sort of heartache. Such musing may prompt memories of the composer of Astor Piazzolla’s remark that it was an instrument born in a church in Germany moved to the prostibulos – brothels – of Argentina. But let’s forgo sleaze, forget the instrument’s impact on Uruguayan, Finnish, Brazilian and even West African highlife music, and look at the least documented plot in the bandoneon story. Or bandonion as it will be introduced.

Irrespective of spelling, the instrument’s name derives from Heinrich Band. Band was a son of Krefeld, a town some 20 km northeast of Mönchengladbach in North Rhineland-Westphalia. Band constructed his first model in the 1840s and by the mid 1850s an advancement on the original design arrived at in collaboration with a harmonica maker called Carl Zimmermann was in production. The probably apocryphal but eminently repeatable story goes that it was an overspent English sailor who brought this square-built, jumbo button accordion of an instrument to Buenos Aires around 1900. Our ingenious English hero achieved this by settling a brothel bill with the instrument. In Argentina the instrument’s name underwent a Spanishification to emerge as bandoneon, the now usual spelling. Yet on the other hand, in several senses, the bandonion never left its place of birth. In Germany Herr Band’s invention acted a midwife to a very different tradition of music-making.

The bandonion’s sound suited German ears while its size and price made it attractive to working-class Germans for whom the piano was not only too large and too bulky to be portable but also represented middle-class untouchability. Speaking of the bandonion’s appeal to working-class people employed in Germany’s heavily industrialised region known as the Ruhrgebiet, Barbara Klotzek of Germany’s last bandonion orchestra remarks, “Around these parts it counted as the little man’s ‘piano’, meaning it was affordable for those of small means and it found a place in the tiny, tiny flats of those days.”

In contrast to its masculine or macho image in South America, in Germany both sexes took to the instrument, playing it in a variety of social situations or after the day’s work was done for the amusement and entertainment of friends and neighbours on the housing estates. Accounts differ as to the precise numbers involved but by 1928 it is said that there were upwards to 14,000 bandonion players in Germany alone. And where there are players there are bands and gatherings. The years between the wars witnessed the growth and heyday of this mainly working-class movement, with the formation of uncounted Bandonionvereine or bandonion associations. Certainly hundreds of bandonion bands were formed and especially in their Ruhrgebiet stronghold, a region synonymous with German heavy industry, many bands thrived. Few towns did not boast their very own ensemble. A larger city might have dozens of them, often co-existing or vying with choral societies for the ears and maybe even the Reichsmarks of the local population. These Bandonionvereine paralleled other musical movements, functioning similarly to mandolin orchestras in the United States and Britain, brass and silver bands in Britain or bandura orchestras in the Ukraine. These bandonion associations’ repertoires were kerndeutsch – literally kernel German, figuratively, ‘typically German’. Dances, marches, light classics and arrangements of popular tunes all featured. Naturally, as happened elsewhere, for example, with balalaika orchestras in Russia such as Andreyev’s Balalaika Orchestra, a body of original compositions came about.

The Ruhrgebiet’s largest and Germany’s fifth largest city is the sprawling steeltown of Essen and there, alongside football, allotment keeping and pigeon-fancying, the Bergmannsklavier (‘miner’s piano’) became an essential component of working-class culture and life. Mining and foundry work has steadily declined over the last fifty years and this may well have contributed to the decline of the bandonion orchestras as much as the usual ‘culprit reasons’ customarily put in the cultural dock. Another factor was the bandonion getting superseded by the piano-accordion from the 1930s onwards.

Nowadays only one bandonion orchestra remains, the Bandonion Freunde Essen – ‘Essen’s Friends of the Bandonion’. As the group’s Barbara Klotzek explains, the bandonion was formerly loved and widely distributed in the Ruhrgebiet. They represent a late flowering of the instrument, albeit in a now unfamiliar context, a non-Astor Piazzolla context, if you will. They were founded in June 1991 under the baton of Ferdinand Kisovar who doubles as composer for the ensemble. Part-revivalist, part-traditionalist, the current ensemble, Klotzek explained, when we talked in October 1999, consisted of “ten bandonion players, four violinists an electric guitar player and an electric bassist. The oldest band member – a violinist – is 87, the youngest – the electric guitarist is 22. The youngest bandonion player is 46 and the oldest 77 years old. Practice sessions take place every Tuesday in the Dechenschänke in the Altendorf part of Essen.”

Since their inception, the Friends have made only two albums – Tango del Gruga on the Satiricon label – was the first. (Gruga has lent its name to the Grugahalle, one of the Ruhrgebiet’s largest music venues, while Satiricon doubles as the name of a local theatre in Essen). Yet since they embody a cultural heritage which has virtually died out, their music has made them an obvious subject for television, radio and film documentary. Their music is a celebration of a bygone working-class cultural tradition. It is vehemently unreconstructed. Their current repertoire of over fifty pieces abounds with titles such as Spanischer Marsch (‘Spanish March’), Zauber der Berge (‘Magic of the Mountains’), Am Lagerfeuer (‘At The Campfire’), Nussknacker-Parade (‘Nutcracker Parade’), Schneewalzer (‘Snow Waltz’), Sonnige Tage (‘Sunny Days’), the well-known Spanish Eyes (rechristened Spanish Ice by Flaco Jimenez) and Unter Hamburger Flagge (‘Under Hamburg’s Flag’). These melodies recall an era of tango, waltz, slow foxtrot, march and Rheinländer (a Rhinish dance). But while those names may signal gloom to the terminally hip, the instrumental swell that the Bandonion Freunde Essen create is something else, a massed bandonion band sound that deserves the attention of anyone remotely interested in squeezebox music, tango or working-class music traditions. When they appeared at Tanz&FolkFest Rudolstadt in 1998 they clearly meant far more than something with a fin-de-sičcle flavour to them.

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