March 18, 2014
Argentina's JP Jofre Merges Tango with Symphony
Growing up in San Juan, Argentina, JP Jofre played drums in a heavy metal band. But the instrument he went on to master was worlds away from metal: the bandoneon.
It looks something like an accordion and produces a yearning sound that's been described as the heart of tango. It became Jofre's addiction when he was 17, after an uncle played him an album by nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla, himself a bandoneonista. Inspired by Piazzolla's fusion of traditional tango with jazz and classical music, Jofre, who is 30 and now based in New York, is a hot commodity, pursuing his own tango hybrid and touring internationally with his quintet.
Also a composer, Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion (his full name) will visit San Jose this weekend for the American premiere of his own Bandoneon Concerto, performed by Symphony Silicon Valley with Jofre as soloist. I phoned him to talk about the new piece and more, including the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" (which he has recorded) and a chance meeting with Liza Minnelli.
Q Tell me about the bandoneon and why it attracted you.
A It's the voice of tango music. It's an instrument that people stopped playing years ago, but now it's starting to become popular again, thanks to Astor Piazzolla's music. And its sound is very particular, something like an organ; it's actually a portable harmonium (a pump organ). It's a super-expressive instrument, and you can create your own vibrato, and it has a big range. So it sounds like something very organic and very romantic, and also it has a very elegant sound.
Q I've read that it's difficult to play, that the fingering is extremely complicated.
A That's true. The bandoneon is not logical. A lot of people get scared when they're first learning it. They're used to a piano, where you move your finger to the next note and you've moved a half step. The bandoneon is not like that.
Q You have two keyboards, one for each hand, as I understand it. And the fingering changes when you open the bellows and when you close the bellows, correct?
A Yes, it's like you have to use four keyboards -- two keyboards opening, and two keyboards closing. It took me one week to take notes, just figuring out where the notes were. I didn't have any method book. I didn't even have a computer.
Q What sorts of music did you hear as a boy?
A I have memories of just sitting in front of the stereo speakers listening to music, just being super-concentrated. And my mom and my dad -- they are not professional musicians, but they would sit and listen to music very carefully; I think that was something inspirational to me. I started appreciating music, and also my grandfather used to play the accordion. And he admired the bandoneon very much; he was a tango fanatic. He knew all the songs, he knew everything about tango. But he was always scared of learning the bandoneon. He used to mention that it was a diabolical instrument!
So I grew up in that atmosphere of having my parents listen to a lot of good music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and also classical music. My mom had a collection of classical music that I discovered when I was 14 or 15. Before that, I appreciated music. But I was only involved in playing heavy metal. I had a drum set, and I played drums in a heavy metal group for four years, when I was a teenager.
Q You also studied a lot of other instruments at the conservatory in San Juan, your hometown in Argentina: piano, bassoon, vibraphone, upright bass.
A It doesn't mean I played them well. I practiced for one year or a few months, and then I changed. Because I was really looking for my instrument.
Q So what happened when you finally heard Piazzolla's music, when you were 17?
A I grew up for a big part of my life with my grandmother. She used to listen to tango from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., every day. It was all tango in my grandmother's house. And I remember that one of my uncles told me, "Why don't you become more focused in the music of your country?"
I told him, "Oh I don't know. It's boring, it's old." But then he played one of Piazzolla's records for me, with the bandoneon and with the drums, and it was like super-cool. It was classical music, but it had the energy of heavy metal. You hear Piazzolla, and you think, "Wow, it's the music of Argentina, my country."
Q Wouldn't you have heard Piazzolla at some point at your grandmother's house?
A I probably heard him without knowing it. Piazzolla is not the music of the older generation. Traditional tango is pretty different. Maybe one of the 200 songs she played per day was by Piazzolla, arranged for a traditional orchestra.
Q You recorded "I Am the Walrus" on "Hard Tango," your album from 2012. How come?
A My mom bought our Beatles collection, and, with my sister, I was super into the Beatles for many years. I like the harmonies to "I Am the Walrus." The arrangement is super-crazy; whoa, these guys were ahead of their times, really ahead! Also the lyrics! I remember my sister used to translate some of them with the dictionary. I was like, "What is this? I am the egg man?" It was super crazy. What is he trying to say?
Q Let's talk about your concerto. How did it come about?
A In Argentina, in 2001, we had a huge economic crisis. The government took over the people's investments, their savings. A lot of people lost their jobs. There were strikes.
My younger brother ... was born deaf. So my mom decided, "OK, the situation here is crazy," because she lost her job, and we were dealing with my brother's education and health. So my mom said, "I heard that in New York City there is a very good school for deaf kids." So my mom came to New York with my brother in 2002 or 2003, and that was something very difficult for me. My mom leaves, and that day I started to question myself: "OK, what am I going to do with my life?"
Around that time is when I decided to exchange the drums for the bandoneon. And when I sat down on the couch and I realized my mom's not here and I don't know when I'm going to see her, and I've got this box, this instrument, in my hands: It was a very inspiring night, and I wrote the two main themes of that concerto.
I was only 19 or 20. So I wrote it down, and then I did an arrangement for cello and bandoneon, a short version. I started to write the form of the concerto, and when I came to the U.S. -- after five years of studying the bandoneon in Buenos Aires, as well as composition and arranging -- I started to write this concerto in other versions, trying to figure out the form.
It took me about three years to finish the whole thing, getting the balance with the orchestration. Because first of all, there are no bandoneon concertos composed for symphony orchestra. Piazzolla wrote them for string orchestra.
For symphony orchestra, it's a totally different thing. It took me many years. I was lucky I could try it once a year in Argentina, three times with symphony orchestras. The last time was with the symphony in Mendoza, one of the best in the country.
And that last time, the concerto was almost finished. I was able to get the balance I was looking for. And in San Jose, this is the first time the concerto is going to be played in its finished form -- and this is the last version I'm doing.
Q How have you constructed it?
A It has three movements and many transitions; the first movement itself has three smaller movements inside it. And then there's the Adagio, which starts with a cadenza, a solo for the bandoneon. And then the cello joins me, and then the violin and the harp join me, playing the main theme of the Adagio until the full orchestra starts playing that theme. It's super-interesting that way.
After that second movement, there's another bandoneon cadenza. I told you that it sounds like an organ. The instrument was originally made in Germany to play religious music, because they didn't always have an organ in the churches. So I was inspired by that idea. You will hear in the cadenza some sort of religious music, and modern music. But the bandoneon is never playing in the tango way; it's mostly like an organ sound.
And then we have the finale. It's an Allegro, and it's a milonga, very lively. Milonga is one of the main sources of tango; it has a lot of African influence, and it's a very rhythmical movement.
Q Do you consider yourself a classical musician?
A I am between both worlds, because the music I compose is written down, but it has it's own vocabulary. I wouldn't say it's improvisation, but it has a vocabulary that is not classical music. So I don't like to brand it. I consider myself a composer. And folk music and pop music and classical music -- we can see the bridge (linking) them. The bridge between classical and popular music is now super small.
Q Is your entire family now in New York?
A No, everybody lives in Argentina. Everybody went back.
Q And you live in Harlem. What's it like, being a musician in New York? It's gotten insanely expensive.
A It is a very expensive rent. But on the other hand, the music scene here is so big. It's very tricky. New York is a city that nobody really understands. Most of the musicians -- they live in New York, but they're not working in New York. But you live here, and you meet all these great musicians, and the level is so high that you start getting work all over the world. You're struggling in New York, but you get work in Japan.
Q I read that you were on "Rosie Live" a few years ago, the TV show with Rosie O'Donnell.
A That was one of my first gigs in New York. It was a super shock. It was like five years ago. I was super-new in town. I didn't speak English very well. And I saw Liza Minnelli and Alanis Morissette, and I'm like, "Wow, now I'm next to these guys performing?" It was super-strange and wonderful.
I actually went backstage, and Liza Minnelli was smoking, and saying, "Yeah, I totally love tango." She's talking to me and smoking a cigarette, and I'm like, "What the hell, is this really happening?" But those sorts of things happen in New York.