Tango haven Argentina laments accordion shortage

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The bandoneon, a type of concertina and symbol of tango's nostalgic soul, is vanishing from Argentina, as foreign tourists with bulging wallets buy up the instruments as coveted collectibles.

"In a few years, there will be no more bandoneons in our country," said Oscar Fischer, who heads La Casa del Bandoneon. A specialist in these accordion-like instruments, he keeps a workshop in Buenos Aires's old quarter of San Telmo.

The instrument that is part of Argentina's cultural pedigree is made in Europe and is growing rarer and rarer, to the detriment of Argentine players, as it becomes too expensive to import into the country.

Horacio Ferrer, president of Argentina's National Tango Academy, complained that the foreigners who buy bandoneons here do not actually play the instruments.

"I've known people who have 10 or 12 bandoneons, but don't play them," he said. "In Norway, a doctor showed me a collection of 35 instruments, including many from Argentina."

Foreign musicians are also attracted by the beauty of the sound that can be coaxed from the instrument's bellows.

And thanks to the good exchange rates, they can find antique instruments in Buenos Aires at a cheaper price than in Europe and Japan.

This wind and keyboard instrument, a portable organ of sorts, originally came to the country from Germany. Inspired by the concertina, it was imported to Argentina at the end of the 19th century by sailors and immigrants.

Some of the most exquisite instruments were created between the two world wars, with European workshops in full swing as they exported their products en masse to Argentina.

"When the Second World War began, we had 60,000 bandoneons in Argentina. But there are now only 20,000 of them left," Fischer told AFP. "Among those, only 2,000 remain in very good shape and with their original pieces."

In the 1980s and 90s, the path to glory of virtuoso bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla breathed new life into the instrument, as he revolutionzed the tango by incorporating elements of jazz and classical music in his playing.

"The lack of bandoneons became obvious in 2000 with the arrival of a new generation and new orchestras," said Fischer.

The devastating 2001 economic crisis that saw the peso collapse only accelerated the phenomenon.

"Tourists began buying up old bandoneons as souvenirs," according to Fischer.

Argentine musicians themselves took advantage of foreign tours to get involved in the profitable bandoneon trade.

"They would take several bandoneons when they went to Europe or Japan to sell them or make a juicy profit," said Fischer.

Congresswoman Alicia Comelli introduced a law protecting the bandoneon as part of the nation's cultural heritage that was adopted in 2009 and is awaiting a decree to go into effect.

"The bandoneon is part of Argentina's culture. We must protect this heritage," she said.

Under the bandoneon law, the government would be able to seize an instrument subject to a sale if it ever belonged to a well-known musician or if it is more than 40 years old. A national register of bandoneons would also be created and the instruments would be barred from leaving the country.

As the instrument has become such a rare commodity, the cost of buying a bandoneon has also grown prohibitive for many young Argentines. A new instrument from Germany, Belgium or Italy costs 7,000 euros (over $10,000).

While a used bandoneon can fetch 2,800 euros (over $4,000), with another 400 euros ($570) needed to restore and tune it.

But young people are beginning to see some hope, as the National University of Lanus, in a southern suburb of the capital, is proposing to make bandoneons at an affordable price.

"We are preparing a bandoneon prototype that we will soon test with an orchestra," said Heraldo Roberto De Rose, design chief at the university.

The production will not seek to make a profit and the instrument will be nicknamed Pichuco in honor of Anibal Troilo, one of Argentina's greatest bandoneonists.