Smithsonian Institution
Fall 2011: Dispatches from Latin America



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

“Los Gauchos de Roldán”
Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay

By José Curbelo

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“We were just a few that kept up the struggle for people not to forget that the two-row button accordion is part of our roots. That the majority of our grandparents and their relatives met at dances where the two-row button accordion was played, there they fell in love, and got married. That’s the way it was, and we keep up the fight,” reflected Walter Roldán, button accordion master from Tacuarembó, Uruguay, who is featured in the latest Smithsonian Folkways release, Los Gauchos de Roldán: Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay. I was first introduced to Walter in 2001 by Uruguayan singer and guitarist Héctor Numa Moraes, as I began delving into the rural Uruguayan accordion and bandoneón tradition, and learning to play the two-row button accordion myself.

The South American country of Uruguay was recently thrown into the world spotlight by its stellar upset performance in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Numa Moraes observed, “We were known for the World Cup, and soccer.... Just now Uruguay is being mentioned in another light, from a musical point of view, and it will be very important...important that the world get to know the music of this small piece of the Americas.”

Though more media attention has been devoted to the urban musical genres of the capital, Montevideo—tango, candombe, and murga—rural northern Uruguay is home to a rich and unique style of traditional accordion dance music that is a reflection of the cultural composition of its people, the “intenso mestizaje del área campesina” (intense cultural mixture of the rural areas) mentioned by Reyes Abadie, Bruschera, and Melogno in their classic historical text La Banda Oriental: Pradera, Frontera, Puerto. Afro-Uruguayans, European immigrants, descendants of indigenous peoples, Brazilians, and Spanish creoles form the elements of the uniquely American cultural mixture of this grassland region, traditionally devoted primarily to ranching but also agriculture. It is a region “where the accordion and the guitar are essential, and the music brought by black people. With the great amount of immigration that came to this area from Europe came the two-row button accordion, and with the accordion many rhythms and musical forms that became what we call our folklore.... The guitar was the other fundamental instrument that took root,” explained Moraes, who was born in the small rural Tacuarembó town of Curtina.

The rhythms—polca, vals, chotis, mazurca, and habanera—were popularized through urban dance salons and musical theater in the 19th century and “brought by immigrants, and reshaped in the form and style of the Uruguayan rural people,” explained Roldán. Also incorporated into the northern Uruguayan accordion dance repertoire were maxixa, a musical and dance style combining European and Afro-Brazilian elements that developed in the late 19th century in Rio de Janeiro, and milonga, a style also of late 19th-century Afro-Creole origin from the port cities of Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

I began conducting interviews and field recordings of northern Uruguayan accordionists and bandoneonists in 2002. Before beginning my work I scoured the sound archives of pioneering Uruguayan ethnomusicologist Lauro Ayestarán who, among his extensive fieldwork of various Uruguayan traditional musical genres, had recorded popular accordionists, primarily in southern Uruguay, beginning in the 1940s. He also gathered material from accordionists in northern departments such as Salto and Paysandú, and was able to record legendary button accordionists such as Aquilino Pío and Chico Soares de Lima. One of the crucial northern button accordionists Ayestarán’s microphone missed, though, was Otilio Roldán, father of Walter Roldán.

Walter Roldán is the most respected traditional button accordionist in Uruguay. Born in 1943 on the outskirts of the northern Uruguayan city of Tacuarembó, a hotbed of Uruguayan traditional music, Roldán is a member of a musical clan of eight siblings.

Their father Otilio “worked out in the country, he was a musician, and he had a horse-drawn cart and sold general merchandise on the ranches,” Walter recounted. “My father, who learned many songs with my grandmother, preserved the tradition, it was part of his livelihood: playing accordion at rural parties, weddings, and that kind of thing, and he raised us with that.”

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“Los Gauchos de Roldán” Share Down-Home Dance Music Tradition from Uruguay
Uruguayan accordion master Walter Roldán, from the northern city of Tacuarembó, assembled an all-star group to record the rural dance music that has enlivened the social life of cattle-herding gaucho families since the mid 1800s.

Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay
by Los Gauchos de Roldán

recording details

Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay

Como mi suegra
(Like My Mother-in-Law) - milonga