By Terence Clarke, author, journalist and Alma del Tango board member
These days, women who play the bandoneón abound in Buenos Aires and around the world. This was not so in the 1920s. But one who did so was Paquita Bernardo. By some accounts she was indeed the very first professional bandoneonista.
The daughter of Spanish immigrants to Argentina, she was famous for playing tango with verve and true porteño style while often wearing a man’s suit and tie.
In 1915, as a teenager, Paquita entered the music conservatory of a woman named Catalina Torres in Buenos Aires, as a pianist. There she met a young bandoneonista named José Servidio, who so impressed her with his ability and the instrument’s sonorous soulfulness, that she switched to the bandoneón. She never looked back. (Servidio, incidentally, went on to a distinguished career as a tango musician on the Buenos Aires scene.)
Problem – she was a girl
Initially the trouble for Paquita was that she was a girl, which could have made her professional advancement an impossibility. (For an interesting novel about just such a situation in turn-of-the-20th-century Buenos Aires, see The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis.)
At the time, women appearing on stage in tango boliches and clubs were thought to be of questionable morals. Playing bandoneón requires the instrumentalist to open and shut the legs, which was deemed entirely inappropriate for women. Paquita persisted, however, and persuaded her father to allow her to pursue her study of the instrument. He acceded to her request, and Paquita, whose talent was so obvious, went on to play with various bands on the Buenos Aires club scene throughout her teen-age years.
A meteoric rise…and fall
In 1921, Paquita founded her own band, Orquesta Paquita, with her brother Arturo on drums and a very young pianist named Osvaldo Pugliese. They got a steady gig at the Bar Dominguez on Corrientes Street, and soon the traffic on Corrientes had to be diverted because of the sizable crowd waiting outside the club to see Paquita and her mates. To be sure, it was not just the novelty of seeing a woman playing the bandoneón that brought them to the club. By now Paquita was a master on the instrument and a star. In 1923, she appeared at a Grand Fiesta of Tango in the Coliseo Theater, a major Buenos Aires venue. It was a monumental event in which hundreds of noted musicians played, and Paquita was the only woman on the bill.
Her fame rose meteorically. She played constantly through the next few years at most of the principal tango venues in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, clubs and ballrooms alike. She also became a regular in appearances on the newly established radio stations in both capitals.
Such constant appearances can take a toll on performers, and Paquita was no exception. In the fall of 1925, she contracted a difficult cold that turned quickly into pneumonia with other complications. It is thought that the treatment she received was not up to the seriousness of her affliction, and she died on April 14 of that year. She was just short of her twenty-fifth birthday.
Sadly, there are no recordings of Paquita’s playing. She also had talent, though, as a composer of tango, and none other than Carlos Gardel recorded two of her pieces: La enmascarada (“The Masked Woman”) and Soñando (“Dreaming”).
Terence Clarke’s novel about the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, was published in March.