Never a Last Tango

Loyal to this music of memories, traditionalists keep the faith at Gaucho's Cafe

The origins of the bandoneon are cloaked in some of the same obscurity as tango itself, lending the instrument a mysterious air. Its invention is generally credited to Heinrich Band, from Krefeld, Germany, who around 1860 gave it its name, which he spelled bandonion (probably a combination of Band and the German word Akkordion). But some Argentine historians contend that Band had a predecessor, Herman Ulgh, who constructed a similar instrument in 1835. In any case, the instrument that in the whorehouses of Buenos Aires came to be called the bandoneon was conceived for use in religious processions and services in organless churches.

The bandoneon was brought to Buenos Aires in the 1880s by a sailor -- again, theories on this man's origins differ. Many accounts name one Thomas Moore, a British maritime officer, as the culprit. Whatever. The accordionlike instrument, also known by musicians as the "asthmatic worm," joined the existing tango ensembles of violin, guitar, and flute, defining the sound of tango from then on.

"The bandoneon is the obligatory instrument, the symbol of tango," says Barrios. "Since the turn of the century, when you say tango you want to see a bandoneon."

It is not an easy instrument to play. Each of the more than seventy buttons on the sides of the box produce one note when the bellows is compressed, and another when it is expanded.

"I think if you don't learn as a child, you can't learn at all," says Barrios, who compares its degree of difficulty to that of playing classical music on the violin.

The bandoneon can sound like an organ, a cello, a clarinet, or a flute. Its dense resonance brought a slower, heavier feeling to the tango, which had previously been characterized by light, merry rhythms. The bandoneon's melancholy tone provided the perfect accompaniment to the immigrants' hard-luck stories. The portenos (literally, "port workers," the colloquial term for people from Buenos Aires) began to write words to what had previously been instrumental tunes. Spoken more than sung, the lyrics written by tango poets swung easily in with the rhythm of the bandoneon. The exaggerated, Italian-influenced musical accent of Argentine Spanish found its match in the instrument's dissonant notes.

"The tango has the spirit of the people of Buenos Aires," says Barrios. "We're melancholy, sometimes we cry, we're fun, sometimes we fight. And that way of being is what the tango has."

Barrios began performing professionally at age seventeen, playing gigs with several tango orchestras in Buenos Aires. In 1967, when he was 29, he came to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. He formed a trio that became a fixture at Norah's Place, an Argentine restaurant in North Hollywood, where tango lover Robert Duvall was among his fans. He has performed steadily over the years, and once appeared in a movie, the failed Cindy Lauper vehicle Vibes. But there's not a lot of money to be had in bandoneon playing, so he has another career as an interior decorator. Six years ago, Barrios moved to Miami with his family, where he performs occasionally at private parties. Six months ago he began moonlighting at Gaucho's Cafe on a weekly basis.

The songs that Barrios and Stefano play with considerable art are tango classics: "El Dia Que Me Quieras" ("The Day that You Love Me"), "Volver" ("Return"), "Cambalache" ("The Junkshop"). Although Barrios is a lifelong traditionalist, he respects Astor Piazzolla, the renowned tango modernist who brought the bandoneon to a more erudite audience and won international recognition for tango as a musical form. Under Piazzolla's hand, tango became concert music. His experimental instrumental compositions turned tango inside out, shifting the melody and introducing dissonant chords, building on the basic tango rhythm. Piazzolla also combined tango with classical music, and composed for the avant-garde string ensemble Kronos Quartet. But the songs that Barrios and his cohorts thrive on are tangos that follow the traditional musical format, whose lyrics are melodramatic tales of turbulent love affairs or odes to Buenos Aires.

"The tango is what it was, and what it is, for its simplicity," Barrios asserts, absently stroking the bandoneon in his lap. "In my modest opinion, there's only one tango."

Sitting with his back to the glowing golden arches of a drive-in McDonald's across the street, Quiroga sucks on a silver straw stuck in a polished black gourd filled with mate, the stimulating herbal infusion that in Argentina is as common as coffee. A tango tape is playing on a cassette deck near the stage. On a television in the back corner of the restaurant, a waiter is watching soccer.

Gaucho's Cafe was once a shrine to that other typical Argentine pastime. The restaurant used to be called Mundial '78, after Argentina won its first World Cup soccer championship. Quiroga, who opened the restaurant in 1988, sold it to some Colombians in 1990, then bought it back in 1992 and rechristened it Gaucho's Cafe. Quiroga is from Mendoza, the Argentine wine country on the Chilean border. He moved to Miami in 1984, and has since had a string of Argentine restaurants with snappy names: Casona de Carlitos on Miami Beach, then Che Bandoneon on Flagler, Dolce Vita on Collins (now Porcel), and Lito's Place.

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