A Birthday Present – Isaac Junior

“I want to buy a bandoneon as your birthday present. What do you think?”

“Ah?”

“I think it’s a very nice tango gift. And since we’re in Buenos Aires, it’s the best opportunity to buy one. You don’t like it?”

“I like it, but I think it’s very expensive. I have been very curious about this instrument, but I never thought I would play it one day. If you expect me to play it seriously, then just forget about this idea. Looking at my abandoned piano and cello at home, I don’t think a bandoneon can be an exception.”

“But I can learn it together with you! Anyway, let’s go and have a look first, then we decide it after.”

Here started our bandoneon-hunting journey, which lasted for 2 weeks, not very long. The first thing we did was to check the price. I sent an email to ask Daniel (Taiwan) about the price of the bandoneon and where to buy. At the same time, we walked along Calle Sarmiento to check out the music stores one by one. After having an idea about how much a bandoneon would cost, we searched on internet how to choose a bandoneon. We read some advices and saw some photos. These helped to give us an idea of how to choose a bandoneon, but only when we tried to play and check the bandoneon with our hands, we start to understand what those advices really mean.

With our limited budget, we decided not to go for a Doble-A bandoneon. If one day we would play very well, then we will get a Doble-A. To start with, we just want a bandoneon in good shape, because we want to avoid the trouble of repairing as much as possible. We went through some 7 to 8 bandoneons in 2 stores and inspected them one by one – Played them to listen to the sound, checked the bellow to see if there was leaking air, opened it and see if the keyboard, the buttons, the wood and the reeds are in a good condition etc. It was very time consuming, but it is worth to do all these checking. Because an old instrument like bandoneon always have problems here and there. When we were in the stores, we must have looked quite funny – two absolute beginners tried to inspect the bandoneons as if they were experts. To get an old instrument in good shape, either you spend money, or you have to sacrifice or lower your criteria. In our case, we sacrifice the sound quality. Just by listening and comparing bandoneons of different brands, we could already tell the differences with our non-professional ears. An ELA or Germania has a rather soft and kind of “warm” sound; while Doble-A has a brighter, somehow louder sound, but at the same time the sound is much more profound than the other brands. We wanted to get an ELA or a Germania, but we couldn’t find one we like among the available ones. So finally we got “Isaac Junior”.

Isaac Junior is a simple bandoneon without any decoration. He belongs to the Arno Arnold family, and was born after the Second World War (Arno Arnold is a post-war mark). There’s a chop inside the bandoneon dated 1958, but we are not sure it is a chop of the manufacturer or the repairman. For sure Isaac has at least 50 years old. For a bandoneon, he’s young. From what we found on internet, the Arno Arnold’s bandoneons are just average, and they don’t have a bandoneon sound because the reeds are different. We didn’t notice that when we tried this bandoneon for the first time. But when we tried it again another day and made a direct comparison with other bandoneons, we could hear the sound difference. Isaac does have a kind of “harmonica-like” sound. Just that without a professional ear and a direct comparison, we could hardly hear the difference. Besides the sound issue, Isaac seems to be in very good shape, and we hope he will be trouble-free at least for the coming 1 to 2 years. ;-)

16 Responses to “A Birthday Present – Isaac Junior”

  1. Louis Says:

    Haha. Looks professional enough from here! Can we expect anything from you by June?? :-)

  2. Royce Says:

    If we manage to play something in two months time, that is miracle!

  3. Kit Says:

    Hi Royce,

    I am Kit from Hong Kong. I have been addicited to Tango music for many years and I wanted to buy one bandoneon a few years ago.

    Now I make up my mind to buy one and have been do a lot of research to distinguish different specification of the bandoneon. I am looking for a 142 tones, argentine layout, pre-war, plate made of zinc. May I know the price of bandoneon you found in the shop of Buenos Aires? Right now, I am checking the price from different seller in Internet, the range is USD $ 1000 to USD $ 13000. And I guess I will buy one cost around USD $ 2000. Could you share with me your experienc of finding bandoneon?

    Thanks a lot.
    Regards,
    Kit

  4. Royce Says:

    Hi Kit,

    What I’m going to tell you might be outdated already, as the price of bandoneon changes (goes up) every year. At least I can give you an idea of what you would find in the shops in BA. A real expert you can ask for advice is Alvin from Taiwan (the bandoneonist of iTango orchestra), I think he’s the one who know the most about bandoneon in South Asia.

    I visited 5 shops when I was in BA looking for a bandoneon. There’re more than that, and for sure I missed few specialist bandoneon shops. If you will have time, do go and check out all of them and try out what they have in the store. Only by comparison you will have a better idea of the instrument.

    Price wise, the cheapest bandoneon you can get in a shop in BA is around US1000, which is the case of my bandoneon Isaac Junior. It’s cheap mainly because of the plate issue. A post-war bandoneon doesn’t have the same plate as the pre-war one, so the sound is different. Besides that, after more than 1 year moving it from places to places, our bandoneon functions perfectly. No button falls out, no crack, pitch of every button sounds normal, the belly works perfect. As I said in my post, we sacrifice the sound quality for a good mechanic instrument. Because there’s one thing you have to bare in mind – outside BA (maybe except in Japan, Germany, France and US), no one can repair and tune a bandoneon professionally. If one day your bandoneon has problem, either you fix it yourself by having a risk that you’re going to damage it further, or you have to make it fly to BA.

    By looking at what you’re asking for, USD 2000 doesn’t sound enough for me. Or you might get one with this budget, but in a bad condition that you will need to spend equal amount of money to repair and tune it. There’re many pre-war bandoneon around, but to have a zinc plate almost means that you have to go for a Doble-A, as most of the Germania and ELA bandoneon has aluminum plate. Just to give you an idea, in 2008, in an instrument shop in BA (not the most expensive nor the cheapest), a poor to ok-condition ELA or Germania costs 5000-7000 pesos (US 1300-1800); while the AA costs from 9000 to 13000 pesos (US 2400-3500). With these price, the instrument you get is playable, but you definitely need to do some repair work and tune it, that would cost you another 1000 plus pesos depends on how much work need to be done on your bandoneon and how you would want to tune the instrument. And tuning and repair work takes time, you need minimum 1 week if not longer for the work. We have another bandoneon, the repair work and the tuning took us 2 to 3 months.

    The most expensive shop I saw for selling bandoneon, the starting price for an ELA bandoneon was US 2500. This shop is pretty famous and the quality of the bandoneon is not good in my opinion, but they always have more than 10 bandoneons in store to choose. I don’t even think about how much they would sell for their AA bandoneon.

    If you need some address and my personal comments on particular shops, let me know and I will email you separately.

    Hope you’ll find this information useful.

    cheers,
    Royce

  5. Allen Chang Says:

    Hi Royce,

    Great column! They say that the first 10 years of learning are the worst. How’s your first year been? I am planning a trip to BA in August and was wondering if you had any idea where I’d be able to find a bandoneon for purchase.

    Thanks a lot!
    -Allen

  6. Royce Says:

    Hi Allen,

    My first year of learning was a total failure, my personal excuse is I was traveling non-stop for the past 1 & a half year and only until recently I settled down in Mumbai, same for our bandoneon Issac Junior. At the moment, I’m back to the very beginning, just playing scales. However, I have no hurry as I know it’s going to a life time hobby. The feeling of playing a bandoneon is special, I played 2 instruments before but I never felt an instrument can be so close and connected to oneself just right from the first time you try playing it, as if it is part of your body.

    As for the addresses, I prefer not to list them out here, and just a little research on few famous tango magazines in Bs. As. you can get some of them. A big musical instrument store on Florida, and 2 stores on Samiento (close to the side of Callao) are quite well-known. and there’re few bandoneon specialists workshops/shops where you can buy and get your bandoneon repair. If you do a search on internet, you can find even more addresses. Before going to these kind of workshops, better give a call and make an appointment, while the musical stores you can just walk-in at any time.

    Royce

  7. Ted Nicholson Says:

    Hi Royce,

    Thanks very much for your contributions!

    I have a small business here in the USA buying and selling and trading Argentine-style bandoneons. I have sold nine or ten bandoneons, and currently have nine in my inventory, but a couple of my instruments have tuning problems and are not ready to sell.

    Your comments are very much in line with my experience. Repair and tuning are a HUGE PROBLEM that I have not been able to overcome. I’m able to make some small repairs myself and do some minor tuning, but I’d be afraid to work on someone else’s beloved bandoneon!

    Regards,

    Ted Nicholson

  8. Roger Fry Says:

    I live in the UK and recently started learning the Bandoneon. After 1.5 years I am still struggling with learning the keyboards, but what a joy it is. I am interested in this thread because as I get better I realise my ELA needs some tuning and there seems to be no-one in the UK at all who works on Bandoneons. Any ideas?
    Roger

  9. Royce Says:

    Hi Ted,

    I’m new in bandoneon and I don’t dare to repair or tune my bandoneon even I saw some programme on youtube showing how to repair or tune bandoneon yourself. At the moment, the best place I know to get a bandoneon repair and tune is still Argentina, though in France and Germany there’re workshops doing that as well. But without recommendation from bandoneonists, I hesitate to try. One thing I do know or experience, after owning 2 bandoneons for more than a year, is that if the repair work is properly carried out, the bandoneon is hassle free. The 2 bandoneons have been traveling with me for the past half year and they are always in good condition. I’m very happy with the repair work done by Ana Maria Weckesser.

    Royce

  10. Royce Says:

    Hi Roger,

    As far as I know, the best place to get your bandoneon repaired is still in Argentina. But there’s also some workshops in France and Germany which repair, tune and even manufacture bandoneon. I got to know about it while I was searching on internet, but sorry I can’t give you further information as I didn’t keep any links with me. In Germany there seems to be a lot of bandoneon workshops (I’m not surprised as it is the birth place of the instrument), even Double A set up new workshops again in Germany. So maybe you can find someone tune your bandoneon there.

    Hope it helps.
    Royce

  11. Kit Says:

    Hi Royce,

    Thanks for your reply and sorry I didn’t keep checking the post here. Anyway, I bought a bandoneon in Jun/2009. It costs only USD $ 1800. The response of mine is not good but at least all button in both direction make sound.

    It is just a greeting to you who is the only Hong Kong citizen playing bandoneon, though you are now in Bs As. How is your progress? I managed to memorize the button location of all notes in both open and close bellow. And now start to sight-reading the piano sheet to play music. But there is still a long way to run.

    Another good news is that Mr. Juan Jose Mosalini was in Hong Kong for the performance “Cafe de los Maestros”. I was lucky that he is willing to check my bandoneon and teach me how to fix it when the toolkit is available. So the response of my bandoneon is improved a bit.

    Are you having bandoneon lesson regularly in Bs As now?

    Would you mind sharing with me how the teacher teach you?

    Thank you for your sharing.

    Kit

  12. Alex Says:

    Hi Royce,
    i’m planning to visit BA somewhere in next year and i’m really keen on getting my self a bandoneon. Could you share with me on where i should get them ? I’d really appreciate that. Thanks.
    Alex

  13. Royce Says:

    Hi Alex,

    Please read my replies on other people’s comments. Some of them asked this question already.

    Royce

  14. Royce Says:

    Hi Kit,

    I left B.A. after I wrote this article. Now I’m living in Mumbai, there’s no tango, and of course no one here can teach me bandoneon. I met a bandoneonist in Dubai few months back, unfortunately she went back to Uruguay already, no chance to take classes with her.

    You got Mr. Juan Jose Mosalini checked your bandoneon and taught you? I’m happy for you! Recently, few tango friends in HK went to B.A. to dance, take bandoneon classes and they even brought back 1 or 2 bandoneons. So, including you (not counting me as I’m not in HK), there’re at least 3 bandoneons in town!! Lately they are discussing the possibility of organizing bandoneon workshop with my teacher. If that comes true, I think you should go and get some lessons.

    Royce

  15. Enzo Del Toro Says:

    Hey i was wondering, where exactly do you live becuse there was a law passed in argentina which doesnt allow for bandoneones to leave the country. Also, how much was the one you purchased and is possible for you to send some of the links or websites that you looked at to get familiar and be able to inspect a bandoneon properly?

  16. Royce Says:

    Dear Enzo,

    I have been living in different places for the past years. I bought my bandoneon before the law passed. As for the price of bandoneon, please check the comments in this post. I didn’t keep any links that I looked at before I bought this bandoneon (it was in 2008), but if you go on youtube and search with keyword bandoneon repair, you can find some interesting videos. Also I think this is one of the articles I read before I bought mine – http://www.inorg.chem.ethz.ch/tango/band/band_node22.html
    Definitely you can find more on internet.

    Royce

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