Julio Nudler

What do you hear when you hear me?

he introduction of the electric microphone, in the -mid 20s, was gradually putting an end to a strange profession, as necessary as deceptive: that of musician-figurant.

It was the job of enlarging a group, pretending to play an instrument, that in fact he did not know or very scarcely knew. A kind of mime that held a violin, whose strings he played with a bow with horsehairs without pitch so as not to produce sound at all. If it was a bandoneon, in order to avoid the emission of sound notes the screws of the harmonic boxes were removed. So the bellows only made us hear a fatigued difficult breathing produced by the air coming in and getting out when the instrument was opening or closing, a breathing silenced by the noise of the ones really playing.

The eagerness to increase the supposed number of players was necessary, especially, at the carnival season, when at the ballrooms the quantity of musicians in action was a decisive argument to appeal audiences.

The orchestral mass was so much important because, before the microphone was invented either there was no amplification at all, or the latter was so poor and somehow music had to avoid getting drowned by the hubbub of the masqueraders. It seemed, then, to be more relevant the number of musicians up on the stage than their quality. To say «20 bandoneons on stage!» sounded very striking, even though later it turned out that most them only pretended to play, like what they were, mere costumed group members.

This simulation was helped by the distance existing between musicians and dancers at the overcrowded dancing sessions held at the big theaters of the period, including the Colón, with the orchestra placed on the stage and the dancing partners on the far distant floor, and on the large tracks of some clubs. It was, in reality, a question of budget: no matter how little he was paid, a musician always turned out more expensive than a pretender.

Some figurants played that role occasionally. They were like cinema stunts. But others were true aspirants to become musicians. In many cases they were already studying an instrument, but they were not yet qualified to play decently. The stint allowed them to start to get some money while they finished their instruction, because hunger did not wait. The latter were the only ones that, after becoming permanent musicians, were no longer anonymous.

Oscar Zucchi, the top researcher of bandoneon, brings as example the name of Juan Pecci, a violinist that joined the orchestra of the, as well, violinist Eduardo Bianco, so well-known in Berlin in the 30s. Bianco took him to Europe, making him appear also as bandoneon player, even though he wasn’t. Only several years later Pecci would take some lessons by the refined Héctor María Artola, also a remarkable arranger. Meanwhile he had been a mere bandoneon player-figurant.

Another figurant, of whom there is no record, was Luis Zinkes, born in the neighborhood of Almagro in 1907. Although he first studied violin, later he switched to bandoneon. And in the role of apparent bandoneonist in 1928 he joined the Francisco Lomuto orchestra, who would be the great challenger, in popularity, to Francisco Canaro. Zinkes took a seat as best as he could in the line of bandoneons that were led by Daniel Álvarez —Sardina—, and that completed Américo Figola —Figazza— and Jorge Argentino Fernández —Uvita—.

Luis, who was given the nickname Cuchara (Spoon) because of his meddlesomeness, was at the beginning just a figurant, or little more, but time later he became a respectable bandoneonist. Zinkes worked as well as refrain singer in that orchestra, even recording two numbers duetting with Jorge Omar, the ranchera “Argentina [b]” and the conga “Para Vigo me voy” (Say Si Si).

To be a member in a section of bandoneons, even though it were feignedly, speeds up the training of the aspirant, that was able to memorize the musical numbers and spy on the fingerings of the true musicians.

Francisco Lauro, known as El Tano, led his own orchestra, called Los Mendocinos, while playing the bandoneon. But, as Zucchi says, his gifts as player were so scarce that, at the time of a solo, he pretended to play it, while another musician was, in fact, the one who performed it.

They say that one day his musicians made a heavy joke on him: they suddenly stopped playing their instruments at the time Lauro pretended to play a solo. All what was possible to be heard was a kind of fart, coming from the bellows of the leader. With that orchestra Astor Piazzolla made his early stints, before joining Aníbal Troilo.

Some musicians with outstanding success, like the violinists Francisco Canaro —Pirincho— and Juan D'Arienzo —El rey del compás—, even though they started poorly playing their instrument, soon gave it up to conduct their own orchestras. They became then, in a way, conductor-figurants because they pretended to conduct. With them or without them, conducting, the boys were able to play exactly the same.

In 1925, according to Germán de la O, a self-taught bandoneonist from La Plata, he played with the violinist Pedro Lopérfido, who led a mixed orchestra. De la O, who was called El Tuerto, said that he was the only bandoneon player of the group, since the girl that accompanied him with another bandoneon was a simple «figurante». They played at the bar La Marina, on Merced Street, at Ensenada.

A very peculiar case is the one of the Japanese Yoshinori Yoneyama, a fervent tango lover, born in Tokio in 1955. In 1972 he managed to get a bandoneon, but to find in his fatherland an instructor for that instrument was even more difficult. But two years later the orchestra of the pianist Carlos García arrived in Japan and, with it, Julio Ahumada, one of the greatest virtuosi of the bandoneon of all times.

Ahumada promised to teach Yoshinori if he came to Buenos Aires, and so he became his teacher here, giving him free lessons.

But even though Yoneyama would turn out time later a good player, member of the Leopoldo Federico orchestra, during an early stage he appeared as a mere figurant by Ahumada's side. So he unearthed, in the 70s, a job that seemed to have disappeared.