Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Cuba’s Charanga Flute StyleAugust 25th, 2009

Melquiades Fundora flute player and founder of Orquesta Sublime

Melquiades Fundora flute player and founder of Orquesta Sublime

The following article was written for the British Flute Society Magazine – PAN: March 2003.

Some people confuse the Cuban style of music with Jazz. In fact, the Charanga is quite different. Sue Miller examines the Charanga flute styles of Richard Egües, Eduardo Rubio (both from Orquesta Aragón) and Melquiades Fundora (from Orquesta Sublime). You will find unfamiliar terms in the GLOSSARY.

The Cuban Charanga developed in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, replacing the brass-led Orquesta Típicas, which played habaneras, danzonetes and danzones. The Charanga line-up consists of a flute (originally a 5-key wooden flute, but the Boehm system is also used), violins, piano, bass, timbales, güiro, congas and vocals. The Charanga has at its heart the warm sound of the acoustic violins, over which the flute improvises in the high register and above the range to E.

Most Charanga compositions are in the keys of D, G, C, A and E (majors and minors) and occasionally F. These are the keys that suit the strings best; salsa arrangements tend to use flat keys as they are more suitable for Bb and Eb instruments.

Many characteristics of the flute style derive from the ornamentation used on the 5-key wooden flute – these turns and mordents have in turn been incorporated into the modern Charanga flute vocabulary on the Boehm flute. The Cuban flute style developed from improvisation within the danzón and the chachachá and is diatonic and classical in nature. Compared to jazz, Cuban flute improvisation entails more arpeggiated figures and is less chromatic in nature. It is virtuosic in a different way. The rhythmic nature of Cuban music requires phrasing to be well placed – in fact, the Cuban solo style could be described as ‘dancing with the rhythm’. The flute sound is clear, high and assertively articulated. The notes in general are short and tongued.

Well-known exponents of the Cuban flute style are Richard Egües, Eduardo Rubio (‘Chen’), Melquiades Fundora, Joaquín Oliveros (Orquesta Rubalcaba, Frank Emilio Flynn, Oliveros y su All Stars), Polo Tamayo (Cachaito), Manuel Wanbrug (Orquesta América) and Maraca Valle (his styles ranging from charanga to jazz to rumba).

The article after this is an interview with Melquiades Fundora, 5-key wooden flute player from Orquesta Sublime, and I have also included transcriptions of solos by Melquiades, Richard Egües and Eduardo Rubio. By examining their solos, I hope to demonstrate the characteristics of the Cuban flute style. In fact, you may like to have a go at playing them yourselves, remembering of course that they are all played an octave up, with notes reaching up to top E above the range.

Of the above list of names, Melquiades, Joaquín, Polo and Wanbrug play the 5-key wooden flute exclusively. Richard Egües, the virtuosic flute player and composer (who with bandleader Rafael Lay made the group Orquesta Aragón famous in the 1950s [see article]), learnt on the Boehm flute, transferred to the 5-key flute and finally returned to the Boehm flute. Whichever flute he uses, however, he has his own distinctive sound and soloing style. If you look at the transcription of a short solo of Richard’s in the danzón ‘La Reina Isabel’ over the chord progression I, V7 in D minor you can see that he uses the note common to both chords, the A, as an axis for his phrases. The rising motif at bars 80 and 81 is typical of Richard’s style – a motif developed from the outset in this compact little solo.

Eduardo Rubio, as Richard’s successor in Aragón, has assimilated Richard’s style while maintaining his own sound. In his solo on Yaye Boy over the chord progression I, V, V, I in A minor he transposes the main motif at bar 82 in various places (with subtle variations) and again uses rising motifs to build his solo. While diatonic in nature, Chen’s solos tend to use more chromatic motifs than Richard’s (e.g. bars 149 and 150). Phrases typical of the Cuban flute style in general occur in bars 108 to 109, and 161 to 163 in this solo.

Octave leap motifs on the dominant are very common – see the flute solo by Melquiades on Sabroso como el Guarapo (composer: Marcos Perdomo). This solo is a pretty busy one, heavily articulated and in the top register. Melquiades is still playing away in the top register like this today at the age of 76 so all that diaphragm work must be good for you! However, constant exposure to these high frequencies can be pretty damaging to one’s hearing so short notes rather than sustained long ones at the top are to be recommended.

If you would like to know more about Cuban music and play it yourself I run Cuban music workshops in the form of a Cuban Music Big Band at Yorkshire College of Music in Headingley, Leeds. Masterclasses by visiting Cuban musicians and salsa specialists are held once a term. More information is available on the website.

© Sue Miller, Leeds, March 2003