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The Tango innovator and the refined master of the Bandoneón

Pedro Maffia was unquestionably one of the fathers of tango played with bandoneón. Still relatively little known to the Italian public, Maffia was the one who facilitated the transition from the tango of the so-called Guardia Vieja to the more serious and mature language of the following decades.

The Youth

Maffia from a very young age showed the high musical and artistic spirit that animated him, as well as the strong, charismatic and restless character. He was born on August 28, 1899 in Buenos Aires in the Balvanera neighborhood in a family of Italian origin (the surname is actually read Maffía, with the accent on the i, but for porteños it became Maffia with accent on the first a). He got close to music at the age of eight playing the accordion. Then, he studied bandoneón with José Piazza but soon surpassed his master. He then began to make up for the lack of teaching material by adapting methods and works for the piano. Family domestic violence forced him to run away from home several times, to wander, with the bandoneón "under his arm", in the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and in the vastness of the homonymous Argentine province playing a la gorra (or as a street musician) in the most disparate places, from bars to brothels. In one of his various wanderings he was approached by José Ricardo, guitarist of the duo Carlos Gardel – Razzano, who recognized in him an extraordinary talent and introduced him to Roberto Firpo, pianist and director of an important orchestra. Maffia played with Firpo for a few years but that way of playing orchestras of the time not suited him. The young Pedro was already about to import into the tango the staggered accents, the phrasing, the stolen time.

The ‘20s

That of the twenties was the golden age of tango sextetos and Maffia in 1922 joined the sexteto Orquesta de las Estrellas formed (among others) by Pedro Laurenz and the brothers Julio and Francisco De Caro. The sextets in general and this sextet in particular marked a real turning point in tango giving rise to the so-called época decareana (from the surname of the two brothers already mentioned).

Maffia made a leap in style in tango and bandoneón by making the arrastres their own style and embellishing the melodies with embellishments. Technically, he used the bandoneón in a more advanced form, with richer chords harmonically and making use of the chords faced. He was among the first to master the technique of the bandoneón to put it at the service of melodic discourse.

In 1926 he founded his sextet, characterized by particular sounds, muffled, refined, never effective and predictable. Those who attended a performance of that sextet were impressed by their style, perhaps a little austere: rigorous postures, impeccable clothes, solemn attitudes. Maffia barely moved, did not lean over the instrument. His manner was gentle, quiet. His gesture was barely mentioned.

He was one of the first to perform bandoneón solos and to inaugurate bandoneón duets in historical pairs such as those with Luis Petrucelli, Laurenz, Alfredo De Franco and Gabriel Clausi. His variations have become famous, such as the one that Aníbal Troilo plays in La Maleva.

The ‘30s

In 1935 he was part of the group Los Cinco Ases Pebeco along with other prominent figures, and the following year he was part of a quintet called Los Virtuosos, whose members were chosen through a wide vote by the readers of Sintonía magazine. Nowadays that quintet would be considered a super-group!

Los Cinco Ases Pebeco - left-to-right Sebastián Piana, Ciriaco Ortiz, Pedro Maffia, Carlos Marcucci and Pedro Laurenz.

The thirties in Argentina were marked by massification in the most varied contexts: mass tourism, mass industrialization, mass politics, mass catering, mass entertainment. The music halls gave way to the great dance halls the Orchestras had to focus on sound volume and effects to fill the spaces of the large ballrooms. This "enhancement" in volume took place by increasing the number of musicians and favoring musical effects of great impact on the public. The price to pay, however, was the renunciation of a certain musical finesse.

Maffia, who loved that refined sound and that delicate complexity in the arrangements, decided not to be part of that way of playing the tango and drastically reduced his presence on the scenes. For the rest of his life he devoted himself mainly to buying and selling gold and jewelry. He passed away in 1967, when tango was already experiencing a very strong decline.

Maffia as composer

As composer wrote great tangos, as Pelele, Diablito, Triste (with Francisco De Caro), Tiny (with Julio De Caro), Amurado (with Laurenz), Taconeando, Ventarrón, Abandono, No aflojés, Arco iris (with Sebastián Piana), La mariposa, Se muere de amor, Cuándo volverás, Te aconsejo que me olvides, Heliotropo and Pura maña.

Influences on other bandoneonists

Maffia's influence on contemporary and later bandoneonists was enormous. For example, Aníbal Troilo, who collaborated for a period with Maffià, had dedicated the tango A Pedro Maffia to him. Also important was the poem Pedro y Pedro by Astor Piazzolla, dedicated to the two "Pedro" of the bandoneón, Maffia and Laurenz.

In 1966, Maffia was portrayed in the video documentary Fuelle querido by Mauricio Berú. This is, at the moment, his only video recording available. The performance of Maffia lasts a few minutes but they are enough to observe how his execution technique is focused on melodic discourse purposes: the handling of the bellows, the perfect domination of the instrument both in opening and closing, the incredible balance of the sound volumes of both keyboards.

Teaching and pedagogical continuity

Pedro Maffia was a great expert of music and an esteemed bandoneón teacher. In 1954 the composer and pianist Cátulo Castillo was director of the Manuel de Falla Conservatory in Buenos Aires and established the first chair of bandoneón. He decided to summon Pedro Maffia as his first teacher, who taught until 1956.

Cátulo Castillo, Buenos Aires Conservatory Director in the 50s

Castillo and Maffia pledged to justify the reasons for the presence of the bandoneón in the Conservatory, the instrument was in fact opposed by academics because it was too close to the disreputable environments of brothels, cabarets, nightclubs and slums. Their task was to ennoble the bandoneón by exploiting its potential and for this reason they were inspired by the history of the piano. And the bandoneón, a complex and versatile instrument, lent itself well to this "ennobling".

The two musicians were already sure about the nature and horizon of the bandoneón: a complete instrument, soloist par excellence, pedagogical and worthy of occupying a place of respect in the academic and concert field. To achieve these goals, the aspiring bandoneonist had to be musically trained, they had to know the history and styles of music (including tango), deepen the musical language and how to apply it with discernment to the fueye (as the bandoneón is affectionately called). This vision of the instrument flowed directly into study path of the bandoneón in the Conservatory.

This program and this vision remain almost unchanged to this days. In fact, the first graduate in bandoneón by the Conservatory "Manuel de Falla" was the master Rodolfo Daluisio (in 1975) who, once he become a teacher, immediately understood the didactic line suggested by Castillo and Maffia and in forty years of teaching enriched it with his studies, experiences and knowledge, transmitting this program and this vision to his students who are currently responsible for teaching the bandoneón in the Conservatory.

Omar Caccia

Reference Bibliography

  • E. Cadícamo - L. A. Sierra, La Historia del Tango, vol. 5-7 – Editor Corregidor;

  • J. Gobello, Crónica General del Tango, Editorial Fraterna;

  • H. Benedetti, Nueva Historia del Tango, Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

About me

My name is Omar Caccia, I like to study and write about the history of bandoneón. I have lived in Buenos Aires since 2018 to examine in depth this instrument at the Conservatory "Manuel De Falla". I write on blogs my thoughts on music and this incredible instrument.



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