Enraptured listeners of Gerardo Perez’s music often ask questions about his accordion. Only it’s not an accordion – it’s a bandoneon, an instrument integral to the Tango, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find them.
“The bandoneon is like an animal in extinction,” said Perez, currently a resident of River Forest. “Nobody manufactures them anymore. They have tried in China, but they have not made them correctly. They are not making the same instrument.”
Perez, a nephrologist who grew up in Uruguay, was living in New Orleans in 2005 when he became one of many victims displaced by Hurricane Katrina. His instrument and possessions destroyed, he relocated to Chicago, one of his favorite cities from his time on tour. He met local Realtor Mary Jane Oliver, a fellow tango dancer, who offered him a place to live in River Forest.
Perez immediately began educating music fans in the Chicago area about tango music and sharing his passion for the art form.
The bandoneon is a challenging instrument that is an essential part of any tango ensemble. It is often compared to the accordion, though it has more in common with the concertina, a similar free-reed instrument. Unlike the accordion, it is played by pushing buttons rather than piano keys, and the notes are found on both ends of the bellows (the middle section, which features opening and closing flaps).
Each hand plays independently as with a piano, the right and left hands playing the high and low notes respectively. Unlike the piano, however, the finger patterns for playing scales changes, depending on whether the bellows is expanding or retracting. Perez demonstrates this by playing the same chord as the bellows expands and contracts. A pleasant sound is created while the instrument expands, but the sound turns awful as it contracts. The bandoneon player must switch his finger pattern every time the motion of the bellows changes.
Despite its accordion-like appearance, the bandoneon sounds more like a cross between a clarinet and an organ. According to Oliver, it is both a wind and percussion instrument.
The United States tends to identify tango with Argentina and its capital city, Buenos Aires, but it is another capital city – Montevideo, Uruguay – that is home to Candombe, a late 19th-century drum-based music style that is considered the grandfather of tango. It is the musical “mother” of Milonga, a style with a faster dance rhythm. Milonga directly evolved into the tango Perez shares with his listeners today.
Alma De Tango Quartet, Perez’s current project, is a perfect fit for an echoing concert hall or dance center. Unlike the tango most Americans are familiar with, Perez’s music spans a wider array of tempos, rhythms, and emotional ranges. The melodies evoke beauty and sadness, but are accompanied by percussive rhythms ideal for dancing. Milonga’s influence is evident in the faster tempos, and the slow ballads have a haunted quality that speaks directly to the soul.
For Perez, the Candombe brings back memories of home. It developed during a period in Uruguay’s history when drums were used to express how happy they were to be alive, despite prevailing problems.
That feeling of joy is what Perez seeks to recreate at his forthcoming concert on Thursday, Feb. 19 at the Morse Theatre, 1328 W. Morse Ave. in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
The Old Town School of Folk Music and the Macy’s flower show in downtown Chicago have already played host to Perez’s unique concerts. He also put together and performed a musical drama last July called “Tango is my Shadow,” a combination of narration, dance, and music, telling the story of a Russian sent to Buenos Aires to research the tango.
Although not yet a licensed nephrologist in the states, Perez has helped out at Rush Oak Park Hospital by performing his music for patients, proving that happiness is sometimes the greatest healer of all.
More than anything, Perez wants to offer area residents the chance to listen to the music he cares so dearly about. It’s his way of sharing something close to his heart with others.
“This music really speaks to the soul,” Perez said, “and I hope more people will become aware of the beauty of the music, the poetry of the music, and its ability to dig deep into the soul.”
Gerardo Perez will also play as the opening act for Bajo Fondo at the House of Blues on April 1.