Sunday, January 4, 2015

Bulletins From BA #39

Bulletins From BA #39
05 enero 2015

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

As I recall, beginning in 1954 (age 6) and continuing until 1965 (age 17), I was fortunate to have regular accordion lessons with three successive teachers in Louisville, KY: Miss Dennison, who became Mrs. Someone Else and quit teaching; William Harp, a conducting graduate from Indiana U., who emigrated to Germany; and the late Walter “Cot” Haynes, widely regarded as one of the best.

But for the past 50 years, although I’ve had excellent instructors in any number of esoteric disciplines including percussion, juggling, equilibristics, and Vaudeville, I have been on my own with the accordion.

When we were posted to Buenos Aires, I determined that I needed to up my game and, after a couple of false starts, succeeded in finding someone who would be willing to teach an old Gringo with decades of experience some new things. And thus did my brush with musical greatness come about.

Thanks to my dear friend Elise, whom I have known forever, I had the opportunity to play with Jeff, a cool guy and really good bassist. Jeff had come to Buenos Aires to study tango with Sergio Rivas, an outstanding musician and bassist for the great Rodolfo Mederos, the legendary bandoneonista.

[Musical Sidebar - The bandoneon is a member of the accordion family. A fiendishly difficult instrument to master, it is - this bears repeating - the undisputed heart and soul of the tango instrumental sound.]

Thanks to Jeff, I arrange to take a coffee with Sergio, who is muy amable (very nice). Despite my patético español and his nearly non-existent English, I manage to convey that I am looking for a teacher to help me better understand and communicate the feeling and sound of the bandoneon on my instrument; something that I have been trying, with very modest success, to do on my own for years. Sergio says, no problema. He will ask Mederos if he’s willing to interview me.

He is.

So now I’m going to meet Rodolfo Mederos, a musician who, in addition to leading his own trio and orquesta tipica, has toured the world, and collaborated with the likes of Osvaldo Pugliese, Astor Piazzolla, Mercedes Sosa, and Daniel Barenboim. Holy shit.

I take a cab to his home in barrio Constitución, one of the oldest and funkiest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Rodolfo is a very distinguished hombre, seven years older than I, and a porteño through and through. We spend an hour talking (with the aid of Señor Google) and occasionally playing. At the end of our first session, he allows that I am “a very good accordion player.” Also, that I need to start basically from nada with this tango business, but, sí, he will take me on as a student.

Ecstasy, tempered with no little trepidation.

We settle on a schedule of bi-monthly lessons, since I need time to practice and still work at the Embassy. In addition to being a virtuoso instrumentalist, Rodolfo is also a composer and skilled arranger, so the music he gives me consists of his own arrangements for bandoneon; arrangements we have to necessarily adapt to fit the piano accordion. It’s slow going at first, but Argentine Tango has many stylistic conventions, so once we’ve figured out how something may be acceptably modified, I readily incorporate these changes into my practicing.

I won’t bore you by getting too deep into the weeds here. Suffice to say, I am making considerable progress, both technically and artistically, especially when it comes to playing with más pasión. And, once in awhile, I am actually able to surprise the maestro, and he jokes that I am becoming a real tanguero. I live for these moments.

Regrettably, it has been some time since our last session, since Rodolfo has been recovering from surgery. The good news is that he is back in business, we are scheduled to begin again, and I plan to see him as often as possible before our departure from post in June. Having the opportunity to study with such a talented and passionate artist is a gift. Rodolfo has changed the way I approach not just tango, but the accordion as well. I am utterly humbled and grateful.

Gracias a usted, Maestro Mederos. La música es vida.