Bandoneón players are rare, female bandoneónists even rarer, but that is Helena Ruegg. She visited Israel and Palestine in November 2010, meeting with Jewish and Arab musicians. The Workers Advice Center, WAC-MAAN, invited her to perform, and she responded with two unique shows, featuring tangos as well as revolutionary songs (some in Yiddish), at WAC’s new center in Haifa and at Beit ha-Am in Tel Aviv. After the last performance I interviewed her.
The bandoneón, says Helena, was invented by German miners in the beginning of the 19th century. A few years later it crossed the Atlantic with waves of European immigrants, who were lured by promises of land in Argentina. The promises proved false. Out of disappointment, bitterness and nostalgia for the life left behind, arose the tango. Its players adopted the bandoneón, a lung with a thousand nuances. It was considered a thing for men only, however, even macho. How then did Helena take on the bandoneón?
She was born to a bourgeois family in Zurich 51 years ago and received the education of her social class. This included piano lessons, which she abandoned for the cello at age 17. She studied acting at Munich and in 1980 joined that city’s Staatstheater. At 26 she was accepted into the theater of the famous Claus Peymann. After a time Helena felt she had fulfilled her ambitions, but she told me she had also discovered, little by little, that even this most leftist theater in Germany was ruled with a male-chauvinist fist. She left.
“After trying various things, I was at a transition point. I played music, I wrote, but I didn’t have a grip on anything. Also, my family was falling apart and my friendships seemed superficial. I decided to travel as far away as I could. In 1992 I reached Buenos Aires. Here, in Argentina, I discovered what togetherness means, the genuine interest that people can have for each other. When you have a problem, they don’t just send you to a therapist; they also sit with you and try to understand and help. For the first time I felt the value of true friendship and family. I also discovered the tango and the bandoneón, which is the tango’s heart. I always say that the bandoneón found me and saved my life. This instrument isn’t just a music box. It’s like a friend. It carries in itself the essence of what it means to suffer and endure.”
She expands on the history of the tango, beginning from 1880. Most of the European immigrants to Argentina were poor, illiterate farmers, who had sold what little they had in order to buy a ticket for the voyage and receive a parcel of land in this country of new possibilities. They did not know that the workable farm land was already taken. They ended up concentrating in the destitute neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, to which the poor of the world were thronging.
Their loss was double. Not only had they left their families and culture on the other side of the sea, but they also lost the country life they had known, exchanging it for the gray existence of urban day labor. This is the essence of the tango: a song of longing, loss and personal crisis, a beauty created out of poverty and disappointment. The bandoneón is perfectly adapted to such a life, a life of anarchy. Helena explains: unlike the piano or accordion—it is built anarchically: in its early years, the instrument was very small and the musicians added new sounds and buttons in no particular order. There is no logical connection between the sound of a given button when you expand the “lung” and the sound of the same button when you contract it. The musician must play on four different keyboards without having to think. When you think, says Helena, you lose it—and it’s hard to find your way back.
“In my first trip to Argentina I simply fell in love with the people and the place. As with every love affair, I didn’t think too much. I bought a bandoneón, because it symbolized for me the center of this culture. I practiced eight hours a day. I was already 33, but I wasn’t thinking much about the future. I studied with Rodolfo Mederos, who was in the orchestra of the legendary piano player and composer Osvaldo Pugliese. Pugliese, a communist, was imprisoned in the time of the dictatorship (1976-1983). He wasn’t murdered like so many others, only because of his celebrity and the love that the people had for him.
“In 1993 the first course for the bandoneón was opened at the conservatory in Rotterdam, in the department of World Music, and I was invited to join. I studied in Holland five years and was certified to teach the instrument. I continued to learn, and I played with the Argentinian orchestra of Juan Jose Mosalini, who lives in Paris and founded there a school and an orchestra for the tango.
“The typical tango orchestra (Orquesta Tipica) included, from 1917 on, two bandoneóns, two string instruments, a bass and a piano. In the forties, though, the tango’s golden years, huge dance halls opened up, and given the lack of microphones, many more instruments were needed in order that the music should be heard. The orchestra expanded to include four or five bandoneóns and four string instruments, plus bass and piano. In certain ways the tango orchestra resembles a jazz ensemble. There’s a “democratic” atmosphere, because an Orquesta Tipica doesn’t need a conductor; it includes improvisation and solo interpretation.
There are very few professional bandoneónists today, and the audience that knows the instrument is tiny. What’s the future for the bandoneón?
“The future of the bandoneón is bound up with that of the tango, which lost some of its prestige after the Americanization of Argentinian youth. Luckily, the tango is today becoming popular again. There’s tremendous interest in learning the dance and the music. Experimenters like the ‘Gotan Project’ are introducing new styles.”
Helena has played in dozens of ensembles on stages throughout the world. In 1999, with Arne Birkenstock, she published Tango: Geschichte und Geschichten, a book on the tango’s history which has had a great success. Because it is hard to make a living from playing, she combined her musical career with journalism. This led her back to the Jewish-Yiddish chapter of her life. She likes to tell the story of her Jewish grandmother, who was born in a small Hungarian village.
“I had a Jewish grandma (from my father’s side) named Margrit, who was an exemplary liberated woman at the start of the 20th century. At 23 she left her family and journeyed to Switzerland. When she was asked, Why Switzerland?, she would answer that her brother had died there of tuberculosis. A year later, in a dream, she saw him and asked, “Why did you go to die in Switzerland?” He answered, “So that you would follow.” In Switzerland she started learning French, and she befriended a younger man. They fell in love and wanted to marry, but his parents were opposed because of his youth. She returned to Hungary, and after a time, she got a letter from him. He begged her to come to Italy and marry him. It took her two years before she was able to get there because of the beginning of World War I, but then they ran into a bureaucratic tangle, because neither was a citizen of Italy. Finally they decided to try America. When they reached the “new world,” the authorities asked them why they had come. “To get married,” they said. They were married on the spot.
“In 1916 the young couple returned to Switzerland, my grandma became a Christian, and her Jewish origin was taboo to speak of. Most of her family was murdered in the Holocaust, and though she never talked about it, I think she always felt guilty that she hadn’t been able to save them. Out of my whole family I always felt closest to her. For years her children didn’t know about her Jewish background. The secret came out almost by accident: in 1934 my father wanted to go into politics, and my grandfather said to him, ‘You can’t go into politics. This is not a real profession, and besides, you’re Jewish!’ I always knew this story, even though nobody in the family wanted to speak about it. I felt that I too was Jewish in a part of me, and I wanted to learn about the Yiddish culture that my grandma had grown up in.
“Later the world of Yiddish opened up to me for other reasons, beginning with a non-Jew. My work in journalism led me to the legendary anthropologist and freedom fighter Germaine Tillion, then 96. Germaine had been a commander in the French Resistance. She was betrayed and sent with her mother, also a resistante, to the Ravensbrück concentration camp beside Berlin. Her mother was murdered, but Germaine survived the camp. On one visit to her house, I played and sang a composition I had written to the words of the Yiddish song, Oyf’n Weg steht a Boim, “A tree stands on the road.” It reminded her of the Jewish friends she helped to survive by her activities in the Resistance, and she asked me to come again and bring more songs. This was the encounter that opened the world of singing in Yiddish to me. And so, five years ago, I began studying with Yitzhok Niborski, who has been the director of the big Yiddish library Medem Bibliothèque in Paris, founded by members of the Bund [a secular Jewish socialist party – RBE]. From him I learned how the early Zionists hated Yiddish, and how they tried to get rid of it, describing it as a culture of weakness and surrender.
“I’m still learning Yiddish. It’s a cosmopolitan, humanistic culture that speaks of longing and the human power of love. I guess I had to go as far as Argentina to discover my roots, somewhere between the bandoneón, the tango and Yiddish.”