The bandoneon was developed by Heinrich Band in the 1840’s. Although invented in Germany, it quickly made its way to Argentina and became synonymous with the Argentine tango. The first instruments were constantly being changed and most of the early versions of the instrument have a different number of buttons in different positions on the faceplates.
In 1924, the number and positions of the buttons were standardized to include 72 buttons that cover a five-octave range. Both the accordion and concertina were being developed around the same time as the bandoneon.
With the appearance of a square accordion, the bandoneon is actually closer to the concertina (using all buttons rather than a traditional piano keyboard as the mechanism to sound the notes). Each end of the bandoneon is a square wooden box containing a small reed organ operated by several rows of buttons. These boxes are connected by a folding bellows. Expanding and contracting the bellows provides air to the reed organs producing the sounds, and depressing the buttons directs air to the appropriate reed. The right side is a descant reed organ with 37 buttons for playing the melody notes. The left side is a bass reed organ with 35 buttons for playing bass notes.
Unlike the accordion, the bandoneon buttons are not arranged like a normal keyboard and the bass buttons do not sound full chords. Each button can sound up to two notes, one-note with the air flowing out (blowing as the bellows are compressed) and a second note with the air flowing in (sucking as the bellows are expanded). This means with 72 buttons there are 144 possible notes. This is arranged with 37 buttons (74 possible notes) on the descant side for the right hand and 35 buttons (70 possible notes) on the bass side for the left hand. The descant side also has a thumb lever that disengages the reed organ, so the bellows can expand or contract without sounding any notes.
Just when the first bandoneón arrived in the rapidly growing port city of Buenos Aires hasn’t been recorded. It simply showed up like all the other immigrants – alone, virtually unloved, practically unknown back in the land of its birth (where it was intended to play church music).
A new instrument in a new land, it played waltzes and polkas, but was soon to join in with the guitars, violins and flutes playing the hot new musical genre being created in Argentina – Milonga. But that music was fast – and nobody playing the bandoneón (they were all new to it) could keep-up with the other players.
The music had to slow down for bandoneón players to join in.
Tango Tango is born.
And almost before you can say “immigrant” … the Bandoneón becomes the very soul of tango.