Helena Ruegg, bandonéonista extraordinaire and a Swiss musician who resides in Cologne, Germany, is seated in the center of this tiny stage on the lower level of Péniche Anako, the barge docked in the Bassin de la Villette, Quai de la Seine. The Péniche is named after the late Anako, one of the last survivors of the Amazonian tribes, who resisted conversion to Christianity. The Péniche is in the words of its website, peniche.anako.com, “une invitation au voyage et à la rencontre de l’autre au fil des chemins non balisés.”
Tonight, the program is devoted to the history and histories of the tango as performed through the bandonéon—its travels across oceans, its re-configuration in Argentina and Uruguay to an instrument of the immigrant song and dance, its marriage with the tango and its appearance in the songs of Carlos Gardel and other expats, and its elevation to classical status by the likes of Astor Piazzola. (There’s a wonderful little film, Tango Bar, with Raul Julia, which traces the evolution of the tango from its working class, immigrant routes, to the brothels of Buenos Aires, to the dance floors of France and later the studios of Hollywood [!], and its eventual return to its adopted homeland.)
For Helena, the bandonéon is a solo instrument, a small rectangular box which can emit a spectrum of sounds and evoke a range of emotions. In her hands and at her knees, this little box turns into dynamite. And she supplements the playing with explanations of the instrument’s moods, transformations, and its great practitioners.
With great concentration, she steadies the bandonéon in her lap, and with one swift movement, she pulls the two ends open, revealing the full spectrum of the instrument’s creases; she spreads out her legs which work in coordination with her arms, trying to tame—no, to work with–this wild instrument of many folds and buttons.
The image of wildness is not that far-fetched, really. “The bandonéon is the most anarchic instrument,” says Helena, its defiance of logic having come about through an improbable journey from Germany, its birthplace, to Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century. There the respectable instrument of German band music undergoes some pretty radical passages, into the lower depths of immigrant culture, and emerges as an instrument of deep emotional expressivity—particularly, the longing of the immigrant. Its transitions are many, its lives fractured but also sustained by passage, and its lesson (can one use such a word for this mercurial instrument? I will) singular: The bandonéon never utters the final word. The end of its melodies is always suspended, somehow irresolute, as though waiting for the next stage or unwilling to make a final, triumphant statement though its sound can be loud and full of attitude.
On the Quai de Seine, on a stunningly beautiful night, the boardwalks on both sides of the Canal crowded with people, our tiny Péniche Anako is a temporary home, an anchor—for the bandonéon, for its many lives and disguises, and for us–its listeners on the water.