A few years ago, when I was still living in Italy, I saw a video by M. Rodolfo Daluisio playing a bandoneón
built by Baltazar Estol. Until that moment I thought that brand new bandoneóns were prerogative of Europe.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires I often heard about Baltazar and his prodigious instruments,
and I finally got to know him personally.
So I asked him for an interview and he very kindly accepted: today we talk about bandoneón (new and vintage) with Baltazar Estol!
Picture by Diego Astarita
1) How did you start making bandoneóns?
The predisposition to manual work has been present in me since I was a child.
During my childhood I lived in an old house undergoing restoration.
The work had stopped due to various complications and for all that time
I had a lot of materials at my disposal with which to make different toys.
These are the first memories of my first "artisan" works.
Another influential factor was the presence of music in my family. My mother and father used to listen to a lot of music. Later new music came thanks to my sisters and my brother. We are numerous siblings, so the music was very varied. Until I was 24 I played the electric guitar and also the criolla one (traditional guitar of Argentine folklore). I had a very nice nylon string guitar, but the lacquer had already started to age and peel off.
A restoration was needed, so I decided to get in touch with the luthier who had made it. I then got in touch with a luthier who had the same surname written on the inside of the guitar, "Fernández", thinking he was the same person. On the phone he explained to me that he wasn't the maker of that guitar, but that if I wanted I could take lutherie lessons in his workshop. Automatically I said yes.
Daniel Fernández is an excellent luthier of electric and acoustic basses,
I was his student for almost 2 years between 2003 and 2005, until
I made my first complete electric guitar.
In the meantime, several of my friends had enrolled in an Argentine folk music school and I liked the idea of enrolling myself, it is the Escuela de Música Popular de Avellaneda (EMPA). Until that time, I had not formally studied music. Aware of my musical limitations, I prepared myself hard for the entrance exam. As a result, I had direct access to the third year of the initial course. The fourth year program included lessons with 3 distinct guitar teachers, one for each genre, Tango, Folklore and Jazz. At EMPA I came in contact with several musicians, including various bandoneonists.
Therefore I was completing my apprenticeship and at the same time exploring
the world of popular music. It was a matter of time before the idea of buying
a bandoneón and start playing it came into my head. Thus I discovered the existence
of few manufacturers in the world, its high cost and the amount of myths that
circulate around this instrument. Having experience as a luthier,
I thought it unacceptable that people kept saying that it was
not possible to build new bandoneons.
For several months I wondered a lot about how a bandoneón works: I made drawings of how I imagined the mechanisms, I thought about the materials... and all this without ever having seen one open. This imprecise idea of the instrument, however, did not last long because in that period (2006/2007) I was playing in a guitars tango quartet, and the brother of the "guitarrón" player was a bandoneónist.
One day, during a rehearsal at his home, I saw a bandoneón maquina placed on a shelf.
I went home with the máquina in a bag... I don't know why I took home only
the left maquina instead of asking him to lend me all the bandoneón ...
In short, that day I started drawing the first technical schemes and since
then I have never stopped dedicating myself to the construction of bandoneóns.
When I tell this story I am surprised at the amount of coincidences that have "aligned" to make things go this way. Another curious thing is that my lutherie teacher very rarely gave lessons.
2) What are the differences between new and vintage bandoneóns?
The new instruments with which I have come into contact so far reproduce, often faithfully, the traditional models, both in terms of mechanics and in terms of structure and dimensions. In some cases certain details can change and are perfected due to current technological processes. The materials used today are the same as traditional ones, or very similar. I'm talking about woods, leather, metals used.
In practice, it can be difficult to draw a clear dividing line between new and vintage instruments,
considering that there are bandoneons from different eras, with different sound timbres,
and we can often even find differences in models from the same manufacturer or from the same period of manufacture.
Another factor to consider is the age of a vintage instrument, which often approaches "90 years of life", and sometimes even of use. The advanced age of a bandoneón can be an advantage or a disadvantage. If the bandoneón has been treated with care and regular maintenance it can be a really great instrument. In fact it is certain that in an instrument kept in good conditions the sound tends to "season", to become rounded.
From this point of view the new models of the same production line tend to maintain a more uniform timbre. I suppose it is due to the technological development of the construction techniques that has reached an excellent series production with very stable results, especially as regards the plate/reed combination.
From a mechanical point of view, the new and old instruments are identical, perhaps with some difference in the valve, different springs or minor details.
If, on the other hand, we associate the age of a vintage instrument to its wear, then new instruments work better than most old ones. "Weathered" instruments are full of loose mechanical parts, less reactive springs, dry leather parts (especially the fret valves and gaskets), warped parts and so on... It is easy to see instruments, even of professional musicians, in poor mechanical or aesthetic conditions. However, a restoration work, carried out by a specialized luthier who replaces the obsolete parts, guarantees a functional result identical to a new bandoneón.
Nowadays bellows are not very different to the past ones. The current ones are made with excellent results,
and in any case the bellows have been replaced at least once for most of the vintage bandoneons.
As a last aspect I can affirm that the substantial difference between new and vintage models is very evident in the tonal stability and dynamic control, both aspects in wich a modern instrument is better. The level of precision achieved in the production of plates and reeds allows lower dimensional tolerances, drastically reducing the air consumption in modern instruments. This factor, combined with good design and proper calibration, allows you to play "pianissimo" and "fortissimo" and alternate between these dynamics effortlessly and without consuming all the air in the bellows. From my point of view this is a key advantage because it makes a greater range of expressive possibilities available to the performer.
It is also interesting to note that the maximum possible sound volume for a modern instrument is usually greater than for most ancient instruments. Finally, musicians say they observe less tonal difference between the opening and closing.
Victor Lavallén playing a Baltazar Estol bandoneón.
3) How inspired are you by the glorious 20s and 30s models when you build a new instrument?
If we talk about inspiration, the question takes on an almost romantic tone :-) I was joking, now I answer you seriously. The bandoneón I make is morphologically very similar to the old ones: same functioning, same dimensions. My experience as a bandoneón maker was strongly formed by the study and analysis of ancient instruments and my projects largely start from there.
Aesthetically, my research has a somewhat different course. I prefer natural wood finish in combination with light and translucent colors. I don't particularly like mother-of-pearl decorations... I prefer instruments without too many decorations, or in any case with simple, linear or abstract decorative designs, even asymmetrical but with balance.
I was joking a bit about the inspiration because in general, outside of what was my training period, I haven't worked too much with old instruments and I'm quite reluctant to do so... sometimes it happens that someone asks me for emergency intervention on vintage bandoneóns (the only "restoration" works I can dedicate myself to) and I am struck by the amount of things to be fixed and the accumulated dirt. At that point I think it would be easier and faster to build a new one! Restoring old bandoneóns is a specialization, and I deeply admire those who dedicate to this specific task.
4) Is an "evolution" possible for the bandoneón? How could musicians influence this process?
I believe that there is always the possibility of evolution for all musical instruments,
as long as this development is in relation to the concrete needs of the musician,
or carried out by a luthier to correct a limitation or a design problem.
As regards the bandoneón specifically I can observe various advantages, it is a harmonic and portable instrument of 5 octaves, it allows the execution of 8 simultaneous sounds (divided between the two hands) with the possibility of full independence. It is an aerophone instrument, therefore it allows very long notes, crescendo and decrescendo, has an important maximum sound volume but at the same time allows you to play very delicate "pianissimo"; finally the keyboards, beyond the disordered arrangement of the keys, are very agile when you need to play fast.
Rodolfo Daluisio playing an Estol bandoneón.
Thanks to these characteristics the bandoneón is the versatile instrument that we all know.
It has good ergonomics, the instrument is supported comfortably and without effort on the legs,
it can be played while sitting and keeping the column straight, and it does not involve
a great imbalance of the arms from the center of the body as it happens in other instruments
(violin, flute, guitar or sometimes the piano). The action on the keyboards is
directed parallel to the movement of the instrument and this is a positive factor.
The only time when the instrument is ergonomically uncomfortable is when the bellows
are very open and the wrists greatly reduce their range of action and movement.
But even in this case, a lot depends on the health of the instrument, in fact in a modern bandoneón (or in an old one in excellent condition) the air consumption is lower and it is not necessary to open the bellows excessively.
The most requested modification by musicians usually has to do with the extension of the register, an idea often put into practice during the history of the bandoneón, which however has never been frequent enough to constitute a standard for development on the instrument.
I believe that to justify a significant change in the instrument, the musical needs justifying this change must be equally significant, because at the moment the potential of the instrument is more than sufficient for that main areas in which it is used.
5) How will new technologies or new materials improve the bandoneóns?
There are several possible innovations thanks to the current technological development.
Over the past 20 years, computer-aided manufacturing has undergone tremendous development and has become accessible to most entrepreneurs. Mechanized CNC and laser cutting are probably the two most significant examples: the price is relatively cheap in case you buy a machine for your workshop or if you trust in a specialized third party service.
"Professional" 3D printing(not for hobby use) seems to promise a completely new range of possibilities, but at the moment it is not yet an accessible technology, due to the high costs. From experience I can say that 3d printing for hobby use gives very unsatisfactory results, especially as regards mechanical properties and dimensional tolerances.
I hope that the new technologies will accelerate the traditional making of musical instruments, and I hope that they can offer us new possibilities in terms of design.
Inspite of the interesting technological advantages the development
is unfortunately slowed down by little demand for new instruments. Even though it is high in proportion
to the number of builders, it is still not high enough to justify significant investments.
I believe that the most relevant innovations will be those relating to the design of mechanical parts improved by the application of new technologies.
6) Is it true that a modern bandoneón will never sound like a vintage one?
According to a certain myth, bandoneons change their timbre after some years of use.
Actually, it is more than a myth, it is a half-truth, because the sound "rounds up"
and loses a bit of "brightness"... (when speaking about sound it's quite difficult
to find the right word). Time will give the definitive answer, since we do not
know how old instruments sounded when they were new and it is not possible
to predict how modern ones will evolve.
From my point of view the timbre will not change that much. The question, as stated, seems to assume that "old" instruments have a "better sound" than new ones. This is a generally uniformly accepted statement by bandoneonists based on aesthetic preferences. On the other hand, among the old instruments we find such a tonal variety that each instrument could result more attractive for a certain bandoneón player and less for another. It is therefore not possible to uniquely define the new instruments from the point of view of timbre quality since it is a feature strongly related to perception and personal musical research.
It's common that at a first "listen" the musicians hear a lot of tonal difference
between a new instrument and their ideal sound, inevitably associated with that of vintage instruments.
This is common because the new always clashes with what is already known.
My personal experience, based on the comparison with my clients and their observations, is however very positive. The immediate reaction always becomes less relevant when the musician realizes the advantages offered by new instruments.
7) Any possible interaction between bandoneón and electronics?
It is not such an abstruse idea, in fact there are several
prototypes of midi controllers and hybrid instruments.
Some of these projects are over 10 years old.
In 2016 I started the plans of a midi controller prototype which is currently under development. The project was originally created to give musicians the opportunity to experiment with digital technologies. During the years I have come to the conclusion that it could be more useful as a pedagogical alternative for those who cannot afford an acoustic instrument. The complexities that arise during development to get a midi controller as close as possible to a real acoustic instrument, added to the chronic lack of time, are some of the reasons that have so far delayed the presentation of a marketable prototype.
In other words, the challenge is to find a balance between functionality, quality and simplicity.
The interaction between music and electronics opens up many experimental possibilities, not only to introduce the bandoneon in other genres, but also because the bandoneonists themselves would be encouraged to explore other genres.
From the pedagogical point of view, an electronic and/or software controller would represent a didactic tool; moreover, an electronic bandoneón would perhaps be more accessible for those who want to start studying this instrument but are unable to buy a traditional one.
8) Do you think it's good for the bandoneón to remain an "elite" instrument in terms of production as well?
Several times I heard this but I believe it is fundamentally wrong.
This sentence, said without a context, could be interpreted thinking that there is a group of people who struggle against people's desire to buy a bandoneón or to learn to play it. In fact, in recent years the number of bandoneonists has multiplied, as has the number of teachers; many orquestas escuelas were born and numerous bandoneón courses were inaugurated in different institutions.
Julio Pane playing a bandoneón built by Baltazar Estol.
Regarding the construction of bandoneón, there has never been as much information available as now.
The workshops of manufacturers, restorers, tuners have multiplied.
There are also many ateliers and courses to approach the craft.
Most of the bandoneón makers I know put a lot of effort into trying to meet the needs of the musicians.
I'm aware of the fact that various musicians and teachers who lend their instruments to their students to allow them to continue studying.
All these findings show that this claim is false. And if it were true, it would be a wrong point of view.
It is true that bandoneons have a high manufacturing cost and this makes them "elitist" instruments. This is a fact, and it is difficult for it to be different for the time being, despite the commitment of us bandoneón manufacturers to change this condition.
I believe that in the future we bandoneón makers will be able to offer a more accessible option. Our profession is now in a moment of strong growth.
9) Do you see a possible leading role for Argentina in the production of bandoneón, given the presence of so many bandoneónists?
If we consider that 90% of bandoneon makers are located in Argentina and Germany, it makes little sense to ask which nation holds the guinness. In Argentina there are excellent luthiers and manufacturers of musical instruments. Speaking more specifically of bandoneón, the argentinian production is top class. I can't be sure, but it is possible that Europe produces more bandoneons per year. By the way, locally produced ones are more common in Argentina, and German ones in Europe.
10) How long does it take you to build a new instrument?
It has always been difficult for me to measure the time it takes to build my bandoneons. There are several processes involved in making a bandoneón, and I don't always follow the same strategy. The serial repetition of the same type of work, multiplied by all the instruments they commission me, is tiring because repetition can be alienating. When many instruments are produced in parallel, the quality tends to decline due to the mental fatigue generated by repetition: for this reason I always try to maintain a certain variation in the work practice.
For example, I usually do all the materials preparation work and the production of
some components over the span of one or two years. Then I start the instruments
programmed for the current year, putting them "paused" several times during the
course of processing and resuming them in several phases.
When I resume work on a single instrument I can devote myself 100% to it,
and if there are processes with a waiting time (such as painting or tuning)
I can in the meantime resume the other work put on hold.
Following this method, I usually finish 5 bandoneons per year.
11) How are bandoneon makers around the world connected? Are there workshops meetings, or discussion groups?
We bandoneón builders are not in contact through specific channels.
In my specific case, I personally communicate with my colleagues as anyone else could.
In some cases with a more direct professional exchange, in other cases less.
Some informal meetings have taken place, especially between restorers, but not so much for professional purposes, more as friends.
Speaking of discussion groups, I only know one active on Facebook, "Bandoneón Técnico", managed by a dear friend of mine, Jean Pierre Bianchi. As it is not aimed exclusively at makers, it is frequented by various restorers or various colleagues with different experiences in bandoneón making. There you will always find very interesting information about our work.
12) How to get in touch with you and find out more about your bandoneons
If you want to have a look at my bandoneóns you can visit my website, or contact me at .
To read the original spanish interview click here.
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