Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Empty Bandoneón Case

The Empty Bandoneón Case
by Mark Word

Strange as it may sound to non-musicians, the mystery of life dwells in musical instruments. 

I have heard of wonderful instruments which have been found or have had been in storage for years, but once found, they require a long time before they speak again.  It’s as if they feel neglected and will not sing with joy until they can trust that you will come back and play with them regularly.

So it was with my bandoneón.  My father bought it for me when I was 12 years old, and “she” was my best counselor, mentor, friend for many years.   As a teenager, I would have never told you these things, but now, I only hope to tell you what musicians know to be true with the relationship they have with their instruments.  I think it is a secret that instruments have their own life, but it shouldn’t be.

I called my bandoneón “Sara.”  She had a personality all of her own.  Her case’s handle looked like a smile, asking me to come play.  But of course I had to do my homework, and had to avoid looking at her smile.  If I took too long to get around to playing, she would be angry at me.  I knew that she was mad because her keys would stick.  I would have to take time to just take care of her.  My father also had bought a repair kit and showed me how to fix the sticking keys.  Sara needed care.  She wanted more than just to go out and play with me. 

Most often, though, she was not moody with me.  She would console me after a hard day.   Each instrument has its own feel, I suppose.  I played the trumpet too, and I learned to resuscitate life into the trumpet.  The eighty-eight keys of the piano too had their own appeal with its left-handed walking bass and the poetic right-brained melody.  The piano could twist my feelings from one chord to the next with her mysterious chords.  When no one was around, I would let the chords sustain until they died out, listening for the Gnostic wisdom they might tell me.  Of course, I did this only when I found myself from time to time alone at home. 

But compared to any other instrument I know, the bandoneón is truly like a person.  Her buttons are in illogical places, like the memories we store in the random recesses of our brain.  Like our words with our meanings, her buttons all have two separate notes.  Just like the dual personalities of private and public, the bandoneón has her left-side keyboard has for soft, intimate private tones. On the right she speaks up in a clear-voiced melody.  She has her manic side too, capable of talking as fast as anyone during the break-neck speed of the variación at the end of a tango.  The bandoneonista just needs to get out of the way and let her talk.  But the most human feature that she has is that she can breathe and sigh without making a note through her bellows.

Maybe I am mad, but I felt her presence most when I just would listen to her breathe.  I would open her smiling case and let her breathe in my embrace.  Her smell was the perfume of wood, enamel and a touch of oil, reinforced with years of having given me so much joy or having helped me during times of sadness.  She would smile with delight as I opened up her case and she would leap into my arms, ready to play a tango or vals.   If she and I really wanted to run and play, we indulged in a milonga.

Sara eventually looked forward to the times I had troubles with my romantic life.  That is when I made up new tangos and would play with her for hours.  This ritual started when my first girlfriend, Elena, had left Montevideo to live in Buenos Aires with her parents, I was sad, but when I pulled out my bandoneón, only then I realized how bad it hurt to have my first love move away.  My bandoneón was a channel to the emotions that I hid not only from the world but from myself.  I embraced Sara and she consoled me.  The day Elena left, I sat with my bandoneón on my lap, but I couldn’t play at first.  I was numb.  I just opened and closed her bellows and let her breathe with me.  I felt her empathy, her soul.  Tears fell on her shoulders, and I told her I was sorry that I had wept on her.  Eventually a vals came out as powerful as I ever had played – Desde el Alma.  This was tango.  Its essence.  My heart ached and now I could speak from my soul about this music that my parents so loved.  Now tango was truly my music, not just my parents’. 

When I came down from my upstairs room, everyone looked quizzically at me as they sat at the dinner table.  I thought that perhaps they all could see that I had been crying, and I felt this horrible shame of being the youngest and still just a baby.  Mother took away these wild imaginations:   “You have never played your bandoneón like that before,” she said.  Father didn’t say a thing.  I saw his powerfully tacit pride in his eyes.  He squeezed my shoulder as I sat down next to him at the table.  He said so much with his eyes that words were not necessary.  I knew what he was thinking:  Another generation would carry on his beloved tango, the pride of Montevideo.   I felt as if it were my mission now, like the keeper of the fire in ancient tribes.

How is it that we forget about important moments in our lives through the distractions of daily life?  When I turned seventeen, I was so busy with school and many friends that I slowly neglected my bandoneón until I nearly had forgotten her.   A few years later, I was struggling financially at the University, and a friend told me about some Japanese tourists who would give me a pile of money for my old bandoneón.  The only reason I resisted is that I was sure that the tourists were only going to display her on a table somewhere, and Sara would not be played.  I wrote off these sentimental anthropomorphic feelings because I so much needed the money.   I justified my cold calculation, telling myself that I probably would never play her again anyway.   At the last moment before I sold her, however, I decided that I would keep her smiling case.  I guess that was my way of keeping a part of her and get the money too.

I am telling you this story because later in life tango became something very important to me again.  I started dancing tango for the first time.  I felt as if everything I ever knew as a musician was still there:  My feet were like my fingers, playing a duet with my partner on the dance floor.  My lungs were the bellows that told my partner about the phrasing of the music we were playing together.   I felt just as alive when dancing as when I had played music in my youth.  I had new friends and a new passion in my life.  People at work noticed that I was a new person, with a new lease on life. 

I needed my community of friends-who-embrace when my parents died, the biggest loss of my life.  I didn’t deserve having such great parents, and now they were gone.  My two brothers and my sister were far away, but luckily I had friends – mostly from the tango world – who would embrace me and be present with me in my grief.  The solo task was left to me to go through all my parent’s belongings at their house.  Every little thing was full of memories, and it was an emotional roller coaster for me.

I found Sara’s case in the attic.  She was still smiling at me.  How stupid I was to open the case thinking she would still be there!  How stupid, my shock when I opened the case and she wasn’t.   She could no longer breathe in my arms.  I could not play a simple melody and harmony on her.  I could not console her and promise her never to neglect her again!  I was no longer in denial.  She was gone.  Just like a drunken fool, I sobbed onto her red-velvet bedding, which seemed to intensify the smell of her haunting enamel-wood-and-oil perfume.  It was a deep, pitiful sobbing at first without tears, but then all the tears of all my losses throughout my life seemed to let themselves pour out.  How long it had been that I had not wept!  The torrent, I guess, came from years of machismo-glue that had clogged up my tear ducts.

I cannot know where Sara is now.  I only hope some little Japanese kid learns how to play her, and that she will breathe for him, console him.  For now, I console myself by imagining that she sings to me whenever I hear the bandeón as I am dancing tango.  I console myself that my parents realize that their beloved tango lives on only when it is danced, and that I have continued in their hope.  I am carrying the tribe’s tango-fire.  With every tango, with every tanda, Sara’s voice seems to go more and more to the core of my soul – desde el alma.

Author’s Note:
This essay is fiction only in a few details:  I did not grow up in Uruguay, and I do not play the bandoneón (das Bandonion).  Everything else is true, just a different instrument.

Mark Word,

living near the birth of the bandoneón in Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

Photo credit:  The photos are from an instrument sale on Ebay.

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