Revisit: Segundo Bercetche and Tomi Lebrero

The Bandoneon Returns

Argentinian musicians Segundo Bercetche and Tomi Lebrero participated in Forecast 5, in 2020, as nominees in the mentorship field Future Traditions in Music under composer and performer Du Yun. Their project evolved around the layered history of the bandoneon, a German instrument which found its way to Argentina in the nineteenth century, where it became the instrument of choice for folk musicians playing in cabarets and brothels. In the fall of 2022, two years after they conceived the project idea for Forecast, Bercetche and Lebrero released a record and traveled to the German region from which the bandoneon had originated to find out more about its history.

The duo’s initial project, Eternal Procession, sought to give new life to the traditional instrument brought to Argentina by German sailors. At the 2020 digital Forecast Forum, they premiered a film documenting their 2,000-Kilometer horseback journey through rural Argentina, in which they played with local musicians and gauchos, documenting some of the stories and myths that surround the bandoneon through songs and images. This past August, their recordings from that journey were released as an album on the label Panoptia Music.

Now, with the help of the International Coproduction Fund of the Goethe-Institut, Bercetche and Lebrero traveled to Saxony and Krefeld, where they researched the instrument’s local history and origin during a month-long stay. Their research will culminate in a series of performances in Germany, Austria, and Slovakia using bandoneon, synthesizers, and various electronics, pointing toward the instrument’s possible musical futures.

Segundo Bercetche and Tomi Lebrero, still from Eternal Procession 2020.

We caught up with the two during their time in Germany to find out what direction their project could take following their research there.

You’re in Karlsruhe at the moment. What have you discovered during this new phase of research on the bandoneon?

There are so many things we have discovered since we started this research within the framework of Forecast. We must admit that we started off with a rather vague idea about the bandoneon’s origin. Now we realize that our first steps towards this project were based on an Argentinean myth surrounding the instrument’s religious origin. Here, we’ve learned that the bandoneon’s beginning was related to the rise of a new bourgeoisie in the Rhineland and to workers’ clubs, where people began to play the instrument. Also, the exchange between Germany and Argentina in relation to this instrument was and will remain full of mysteries. In these past two years since our participation in Forecast, unintentionally and with the help of German musicologist Janine Krüger, we have almost become experts on the subject. However, coming to Germany and speaking directly with the people involved in the history of this instrument, as well as with local musicians and collectors, has opened up myriad discoveries.

Now the challenge for us is to find a way and a tone with which to retell this story. We will probably do this with one foot rooted in academic approach and the other steeped in myths—we consider both equally appealing.

Segundo Bercetche and Tomi Lebrero in Krefeld, 2022.
Segundo Bercetche and Tomi Lebrero, Stills from Eternal Procession 2020.

You’re performing a work in progress in the context of Eternal Procession in Europe. How important is it for you to bring bandoneon music there?

Because of the importance of the bandoneon within Argentine culture, we assume that it is interesting to portray this instrument’s journey from its beginnings to the present and also its parallel development on two continents and in two countries that are so different from each other. And perhaps through those relations, we are able to reflect on and rethink our identities; using the bandoneon as a bridge, a mirror, or a bag full of mysteries.

We know that this is an ambitious goal, but we are having fun figuring it out. Surely we will have to face challenges, such as finding ways to condense, through an artistic approach, so much information while avoiding making a purely didactic documentary about the instrument – one which, for various reasons, is historically and culturally relevant for both countries. Another challenge is to rethink cultural identities, even regional ones, without falling into traps such as stereotypical thinking, nationalism, or provincialism.

Looking back at the mentorship program, how has participating at Forecast influenced your career?

Participating in the Forecast program in 2020 was important for us because it was the starting point for this research-based artistic work; it took it from just a crazy idea to an incredible project. Above all, it was important to start to think about this topic with the mentorship of Chinese-American composer Du Yun. Her concept surrounding Future Traditions in Music is a sort of underlying formula for our performance. Is really incredible how Forecast impacted this work.