The bandoneon is the key to the tango sound. Named after its inventor, Heinrich Band (1821–1860), the bandoneon is a large, rather complicated concertina originally developed in Germany for churches that could not afford organs. Around 1870, German and Italian emigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina, where it was adopted into the early genre of tango music. By 1910, bandoneons were being produced expressly for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, declining demand and the disruption of German manufacturing during World War II led to an end of bandoneon mass-production.
The bandoneon is a complex instrument because most of the buttons produce a different note when played pushing in rather than pulling them out. Also, since the bandoneon is asymmetrical, the right and left hand keyboards are different, it means that four different keyboard layouts must be learned. The bandoneon has become almost the symbol of tango. As the music developed it became less rigidly rhythmic, more harmonic, and melodic.
Aníbal Troilo was a leading 20th century proponent of the bandoneon and his playing is widely considered the best ever. Troilo's communication was crystal clear yet understated and his subtle interventions didn't call attention to themselves. His deep roots in Buenos Aires was sentimentally expressed in his musical phrasing.
Ástor Piazzolla was another notable performer on the bandoneon. Piazzolla played and arranged in Troilo's orquesta from 1939 to 1944. Later, he went on to combine a musical composition deriving from classical music with traditional instrumental tango, forming 'nuevo tango', his new interpretation of the genre. Piazzolla's compositions introduced the bandoneon to concert audiences.
More recently the sound of the bandoneon has become familiar to the public through the work of Gotan Project and other electro-tango ensembles.
The tango is in the midst of a resurgence across Argentina, Uruguay and the world, enjoying a popularity it hasn't seen in more than 50 years. But there's a problem. The instrument at the heart of tango music is in short supply, and prohibitively expensive.
The bandoneon was historically produced primarily in Germany, and was never produced in Argentina itself despite its popularity. As a result, by the 2000s, vintage bandoneons had become rare and expensive ($4,000), limiting prospective bandeonists.
In 2014, the National University of Lanus in Buenos Aires announced their development of an affordable Argentine-made bandoneon, which they hope to market for one-third to one-half of the cost of the vintage instrument. It is named after Troilo, using his nickname 'Pichuco'.
The Pichuco will be available at schools across Argentina. The hope is to inspire a new generation of 21st century musicians, so the instrument at the heart of tango can live on.