A small circle of people are gathered at a desk towards one end of the large, long main room. They are speaking in earnest, taking notes, and making plans. Across from them are tall shelves lined with instruments and boxes of various unknown supplies. Along the wall and in the middle of the room are workstations, each with a smattering of different tools. There are files, hammers, screwdrivers, vises, glues, brushes, and other things I don’t know how to name. The Klingenthal Bandoneon & Concertina Factory is a highly specialized operation. A group of three artisans do most of their work in this room, creating beautiful new bandoneons for an international market.
Bandoneons, concertinas, and accordions all share a similar construction. Inside the instrument are wooden boxes with rows of steel reeds, each suspended over an airway in the box. These boxes are like harmonicas essentially. To play a harmonica, you put it to your mouth and blow air, which makes the reeds vibrate, producing a sound. With bandoneons and similar “free reed” instruments (as they are called) it is a push of the bellows that moves the air. The keyboards then activate levers that control which reeds make a sound and which reeds are silent. Essentially that’s how they work.
I settle in at the other end of the room with some German and French musicians. We watch and listen as Yvonne Hahn tries out different bandoneons. Yvonne is originally from East Berlin in the former DDR. She relocated to France after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has been based in Avignon now for some years. She is a classical pianist and a piano teacher. Having also played accordion when she was younger, Yvonne took up the bandoneon several years ago. Now she performs chamber music on bandoneon in a trio with oboe and accordion. Seated at a stool now here in the factory, she plays a little tango riff, some scales, a few brief classical passages. There are comments about the various keyboard layout options, the action of the keys, and the bellows.
To my ear, bandoneons are surprisingly loud and strident for their size, and they have a distinct metallic sound that is both clear and warm. You can hear the body parts in the sound. You can hear the machinery of the buttons and the levers. You can hear the resonance of the paper, the leather, and the wood. All around the musical notes there is a breath-like sound from the air flowing in and out. In the periphery you can even hear the clacking of the air release button and little muffled thumps from the bellows. I suppose one could literally call the bandoneon a machine. It is striking to me how all these little machine-like “noises” are precisely what makes the bandoneon sound so warm. It’s not the tune so much really. Rather, it’s the way a player seems to make the bandoneon “breathe” and “sing” the tune that sounds so expressive. The mechanical parts of this lovely little wood and metal machine are what make the tune “breathe” and “sing.” It is a machine made warm by human hands. I find that idea fascinating.
Today in the factory most of the conversation is happening in a mix of German and French. I follow the French to a certain point, but as usual I am lost with the German. Yvonne proves herself indispensable by alternating fluently between the two languages and answering lots of questions from others. She also occasionally turns to me to offer a little English to help me catch up. She had asked if I wanted to tag along with her for a visit to this local bandoneon factory. I had said “Way!” which coincidentally in French sounds a lot like “Yeah!” and so I am here. And I am stoked.
Looking down near Yvonne’s chair, I notice the brand insignia on the side of an instrument. “Alfred Arnold, Carlsfeld,” it reads. Tango musician Alex Nikolic had said this name to me just the previous day in the concert tent when we spoke about bandoneons. Suddenly feeling like Columbo, I tug at my (imaginary) 1970s trenchcoat and grab my (real) 21st century camera to take a photo. “This is a vintage one…one of the old ones?” I ask Yvonne, gesturing at the bandoneon on the floor between us. “Yes, this one is 1930 and the other is 1937,” she answers. I cock my eye in my best Peter Falk homage and snap the photo. It is a pretty thing and it sounds gorgeous. Alex had said that many players prefer the sound of the vintage Alfred Arnold bandoneons. They are highly desired and not too easy to find, he had said, the ones built from the 1920s through the 1940s. Probably more people want them than the number that actually exists. Eventually players will need to embrace the new ones, Alex had said.
“You must meet Anja,” Yvonne says to me. “She started all of this.” Anja Rockstroh grew up in Klingenthal. She is blonde and friendly with a bright, warm, and infectious smile. Though she clearly does not look old enough, she tells me that she is a veteran police officer of twenty years. On my heels a little from this, I secretly take half a moment to size her up. Gulping, I accept the new knowledge that she could kick the tar out of me if she wants. My interest in her story is stronger than my fear. So I very politely ask her to please tell me more. Before WWII, her family was in the concertina building business. They had a factory right here in Klingenthal, she tells me. During the socialist era the business was nationalized and her family connection to it was lost. With German reunification, Anja wanted to return to her familial roots in musical instrument making. Ten years ago, while still working her regular job on the law enforcement beat, Anja started the Bandonion & Concertinafabrik Klingenthal.
Removing my (imaginary) 1970s fedora, I bring my (real) hand to my forehead to think. Alex had told me a similar story about the history of the Alfred Arnold factory. Most of the world’s bandoneons were, and are still, made in Germany, he had said. One of the best known and largest factories before World War II was Alfred Arnold in Carlsfeld, which is not far from Klingenthal. “Unfortunately, and I don’t know the exact history, but sometime during the war…(the factory) was ruined. Totally demolished. And also, all of the tools for making bandoneons. So production of bandoneons stopped during the second World War.” The Alfred Arnold brand apparently continued to exist for some time past the war. But much was lost. Eventually the Carlsfeld business met the same fate as Anja’s family’s business in the DDR. From what I gather talking to these folks, bandoneon production seems to have stopped for a time, possibly a good twenty or thirty years. Then upon the heels of the tango nuevo resurgence in the 1980s, a handful of companies began to revive bandoneon production in the 1990s.
Today Bandonion & Concertinafabrik Klingenthal is the owner and caretaker of the legendary Alfred Arnold trademark. Anja very smartly set a concrete goal for her workshop from the outset: to study the vintage Alfred Arnold bandoneons, to learn to replicate the building methods, and to learn to build new instruments that have the same high quality in both physical performance and timbre as the vintage ones. It was in this workshop right here, somewhere about four or five years into it, that Anja and her expert builders first felt strongly that they had hit a stride. They grew in confidence. And the business also has been growing steadily each year. Ten years into the enterprise, the Klingenthal brand has an excellent reputation for such a young company. Anja gestures to her promotional poster on the wall. “In Tradition von Alfred Arnold,” it reads. We are the makers of these instruments now, she says, but the Alfred Arnold tradition is what we do.
Thanking Anja for the chance to visit, I say goodbye to her builder and the other folks. It has been a busy day at the factory as a lot of people are in town for the festival. A German couple has finalized a purchase. Yvonne orders a new instrument for herself. There are a few people like me who are there just to observe and learn. Before I leave, I meet Victor Hugo Villena, a bandoneonist from Argentina who is the headliner in tonight’s gala concert for the Klingenthal festival. He lives in France now where he is a real force in the creation and performance of new music for the bandoneon. I tell him “Good luck,” or “Go get ‘em,” or some such thing.
Later that night I bump into literally all of these people again at Victor’s concert. He plays a solo program featuring new concert music from his latest recording, “Bandoneon Eclectico.” It is so good, really, that I am a complete sucker for whatever encore he has planned. Surprisingly he brings out that old tango warhorse, “La Cumparsita,” and plays it fresher and newer than I can remember hearing from anyone. It is ridiculous how well he slays that tune! The effect is clever and lots of fun.
I just love live music moments like that! Right now, I am crazy about bandoneons, too. Bandoneon players. Bandoneon builders. They create beautiful stuff with their hands.