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Keeping the bandoneons weeping
Damián Guttlein tunes and manufactures what is the most quintessential instrument associated with the sound of Buenos Aires.

A grain of sand

They say a bandoneon doesn’t play; it sobs. It weeps. The sound of this complex concertina instrument has a plaintive emotional depth that entered perfectly into Buenos Aires’ most famous musical creation, the often nostalgic and melancholic tango. But despite their importance in local music, bandoneons have only recently been manufactured in Argentina. The most sought-after examples were manufactured in Germany before World War II. Damián Guttlerin is one of the luthiers working to keep the surviving examples alive and making new ones in Argentina itself.

“It’s a small grain of sand,” he says modestly, speaking on Argentina’s National Bandoneón Day on July 11. “There are few of us that make bandoneons; maybe 10 in the world, and I think we all began because of how hard it is to find an instrument that is a good enough condition to be played at a professional level. The majority of these instruments were made in the 1920s and 1930s. Restoring them and keeping them alive is more and more difficult because they have more and more paws on them. Our motivation is that there should be more instruments to play.”

 
 

Learning by ear

Before setting out to make new bandoneons, for two decades Damián has tuned and repaired old models for musicians and collectors. Bandoneons are tuned by hand – each of the 276 reeds needs to be individually tuned using fine files, a process that can only be achieved with an expert ear. Maintaining a level sounds in old instruments that have had pieces repaired or replaced is a particular challenge.

“It’s something that’s very difficult to transmit because what happens to me when I hear certain notes is something totally personal. It’s a vibration in my ear, and in head. A sensation. How to translate it into words and how to know whether the other person hears the same thing as you is almost impossible. One can learn the technique but after that you have to forge the profession yourself through a lot of trial and error, and a great deal of patience.”

The making of a bandoneon

Realising that something needed to ensure musicians continued to have access to these instruments, Damián is one of a clutch of luthiers to begin producing the instrument in Argentina itself, a Herculean task. “The first difficulty was achieving a sound,” Damián says. “Musicians transmit their personality through the instrument and there was this myth that it was never going to be possible to achieve a sound like the old bandoneons, so we started with a challenge from the outset. It took many years of development and hundreds of trials with different woods and metals.”

Damián’s bandoneons have a different internal mechanism and a different keyboard layout to the classic tango bandoneon, adding even more notes to the instrument. Now it is sobbing on stages throughout the world. “No instrument is the same as another. Each one comes from a different tree and has its own personality,” he says. “They’re tiny details but they affect the musician. It’s something completely personal and that’s the sound of Buenos Aires.”

 

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