Anyone who wants to see bandoneon player Carel Kraayenhof at work with his full sextet will have to hurry up. Because when the anniversary tour of almost thirty performances across The Netherlands in November is over, it will also be the last curtain call for the Carel Kraayenhof Ensemble after thirty years of existence. Too little work and too high costs have forced Kraayenhof to make the decision of continuing without his reliable group.
by Ton Maas
30 years Carel Kraayenhof Ensemble
But first of all the reason for this conversation, because there is much to celebrate. After all, a career of thirty years is an unique feat for an ensemble in this sector and that is also celebrated in a proper way with a new CD – 30! Passionate Tango Years – and a jubilee theatre tour that will soon be seen all over the country. Thirza Lourens: ‘It is also a great way for us to say thank you to the many loyal fans who have supported us all those years.’ Carel: ‘And to the thirty musicians who have played in my ensemble since 1988.’ Thirza continues: ‘And because of this jubilee there is also a lot of interest from the media. For example, Carel and his ensemble will be on four NPO radio stations: 1, 2, 4 and 5. They will be guests at Podium Witteman and get a feature in KLM’s in-flight magazine. It is of course a little ironic, now that we have had to decide to stop with the ensemble.’ Carel: ‘But we stop at a high point!’
Carel and his wife Thirza, who is for twenty-two years the business leader of the ensemble, are bluntly realistic about it. Thirza: ‘It just did not work anymore. For thirty years we have pushed and invested much of Carel’s own activities’ finances into the sextet, but the relationship between costs and benefits only got worse. It hurts a lot, but we have to let go of the ensemble’.
Carel continues: ‘In the end it’s all about my big dream, which has everything to do with the two most fantastic people I’ve been fortunate to work with: Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Pugliese. Thanks to this ensemble I have both the richness of tones of Piazzolla and the power of Pugliese. That gives me the feeling that I continue their work. Because that is, and remains, my mission. You can safely say that I am addicted to the sound of my sextet. Especially now that there is a cello next to the two violins, which gives the strings an orchestral dimension. And then there is Juan Pablo Dobal, the brilliant Argentinian pianist who, besides his own part, also manages to play the part of a second bandoneon from his piano. It is not an orquesta típica, but it is very close to it and I am very proud of that.’
Are the musicians exclusive to the Carel Kraayenhof Ensemble? Thirza: ‘No, but it has been their priority to play with us all these years. Thanks to their incredible loyalty it was possible to rehearse weekly – an absolute requirement for the dynamic of the ensemble – and that was always done for no financial compensation. What has made the situation even more difficult is that a growing number of theatres now paw lower guarantees. It can happen that you play for two hundred people, but ultimately only have a thousand euros after all the cost deductions; which then has to be shared by nine people (the musicians plus sound engineer, tour manager and business manager). That is no longer in proportion to the commitment we ask from everyone.’
Carel: ‘That legendary TV moment with Máxima’s tear, while listening to Adiós Nonino in the Nieuwe Kerk, has of course given my career a great boost. But the accompanying status of BN’er(public figure), to which I was subsequently (unsolicited) bombed with, reveals a fake picture of success and wealth. Many people think that I am constantly traveling the world and have earned a fortune with my music. The reality, however, is very different: I travel with my music in a cultural segment – the world music – that is dying. At least in the Netherlands. The financial cultural cutbacks of the last ten years have led to a downright defeat in world music, which affects everyone in the sector. Only most colleagues do not hold a permanent ensemble of this size. And furthermore, almost all of my musicians now have a family to maintain and a mortgage to pay.’
Carel: ‘Of course it is sad, but my accountant is cheering. For years, he has seen with a level of distress that thousands of euros were being invested in the ensemble. In addition, support from the media for our sextet continues to decrease.’ Thirza adds: ‘Moreover, we must have realized that the interest is mainly in Carel and not in the sextet. By insisting on promoting the sextet and not Carel as a soloist, we also contributed to Carel being less seen on TV.’
Thirza: ‘For quite some time we have drawn hope from the fact that even the big names of the tango were at times not able to play for years, or only as a soloist or as a duo, but the cultural poverty in the Netherlands is now so worrying that even something as essential as music education is pretty much gone, cut away.’ Carel: ‘And where else should the new generation of musicians come from? In our neighbourhood the music school in Purmerend recently had a new qualification to be able to provide music education in secondary schools. But just two weeks after they obtained it, the director was informed that the subsidy for the current year had been halved and would be completely cancelled for next year. Her team serves more than a thousand secondary school students and they will no longer receive music lessons. And that while in recent years it has been scientifically proven that music (like Bach’s) stimulates the development of the children’s brain in a very positive way. Apparently, the importance of this does not get enough attention.’
That then brings the conversation to the importance of making music together, in the intimate setting with family and friends. Carel: ‘In many other countries you see that this practice is still alive and kicking. With us it only gets less and less, partly due to the lack of music schooling. I cannot escape that either: most people still know me exclusively as the man who played at their wedding and made Máxima shed a tear.’ Thirza adds: ‘For Carel, the tango is something much bigger: a living tradition that should not only be retained but also further developed. This ambition is very alive and appreciated not only in Argentina, but also in countries such as Germany and Japan.’
Carel: ‘Gustavo Beytelmann, artistic director of the Department of Argentine Tango of Codarts in Rotterdam, once asked our students a very interesting question: “Do you think the tango is there for you, or are you there for the tango?” Gustavo says that every music genre that is capable of surviving for a hundred years without any support from government or industry, simply because it is in the people, is an authentic force that deserves to be respected. That is why we are there to serve the tango. For me that meant: immersing myself in Buenos Aires, in the tango, and analysing the work of the masters by transcribing it minutely – for thousands of hours. I have spent a month working on sixteen bars of Pugliese: What does he exactly play? What does the double bass do, what does the second bandoneon do? That is how I learned to arrange, only to then start composing myself. And I have always sought the connection with my own background in Celtic and classical music.’
Carel: ‘There have been times when I doubted whether I still wanted to continue now that music – at least my kind of music – is being removed, more and more each time, from our cultural circle. But then I think of the young musicians who I will undoubtedly meet and who will inspire me again. I can even imagine that in a few years I might set up a new ensemble; but not with me as a main player, because I never really aspired to that role, it just came about’.
‘I look forward to meeting new people and to develop things together. Just by hanging out together, to work together for some time on ideas and compositions. I will definitely look for that in the coming period. I still dream of a “band of composers”. In that sense, I also see this moment as an opportunity to tackle my dreams differently than before. And I don’t mean it only business like, but also on the artistic process.’
‘At a certain moment you notice that you are drifting away from reality as a person. I realize that I have become a sort of “professional idiot” who is only occupied with his work. On the one hand I find it terrible that this happens to us now, but on the other hand, I also see that it is an opportunity. It gives space to do other things: act as a soloist or as a duo, not only playing in large halls but also in small circles. Take for example playing during a wedding. How special is it to be able to be part of one of the most important moments of someone’s life with your music! Fantastic! How do I see the future? I feel like taking on new challenges and I still absolutely adore to make music.’