Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

The Cuban CharangaAugust 20th, 2009

guiro (Jose) (Small)

The Cuban Charanga

by Sue Miller

Written for the British Flute Society Journal PAN December 2000 edition

The sweetest and most elegant of all Cuban dance music is made by groups called Charangas. The Charanga orchestra is made up of a flute (traditionally one made of wood with five keys, but the Boehm system flute is also used), violins, piano, double bass, timbales and güiro. The Charanga can also include singers and congas. The Charangas are indigenous to Cuba. Traditional Charangas mainly play the styles of danzón, chachachá and mambo.

In the Charanga the violins play riffs (or tumbaos) that lock into the rhythm section and give the music a real driving nature; in fact all the instruments have their own typical patterns based around the two bar clave pattern which all lock in to form one big melodic rhythm section and above which the flute improvises. Most of the improvised solos are taken by the flute and the piano. Charanga has its roots in European art house music, Spanish vernacular musics and African musics. The danzón, for example, has elements of operatic music and Cuban Son. It is derived from the Habanera and the English Country Dance (the Contradanza, a precursor to the Habanera and danzón, is so called because of a ‘mis-pronunciation’ of country dance).

Structurally similar to the Habaneras of European composers such as Albeniz, Ravel and Bizet, the danzón also incorporates the African Call and Response elements from the Cuban Son genre. In fact the roots of “Salsa” are to be found in the danzón and the Son forms of Cuban music. In the 1950s a new section was added to the danzón, giving rise to the styles of Mambo (a hard-driving fast section based over a dominant seventh figure) and the Chachachá.

Charanga music is composed and carefully arranged music with a strong rhythmic emphasis (the African and Spanish influence) which also incorporates improvisation within its structure; it is thus both a highly structured and spontaneous music form.

The flute plays in the upper register, often playing above the range up to E. It has set composed sections and rhythmic breaks to play but in the main the flute’s function is to improvise. The improvisation is very diatonic and much sparser than most jazz improvisations. Richard Egües is one of the founding fathers of the Cuban Charanga vocabulary which subsequent Cuban flautists have taken as the basis for their improvisations.

In 1998 I went to a Festival of Charanga in Palma Soriano, near the city of Santiago de Cuba where the Charanga groups Las Maravillas de Florida, La Charanga de Guantanamo and Las Estrellas de la Charanga amongst other groups were playing. In April 2000 I returned to Cuba to study charanga flute with the Cuban flute legend, Richard Egües, flautist with Orquesta Aragón from 1953 to 1984. I am totally in love with Cuban Charanga and above all with the music of Orquesta Aragón. After hearing Richard Egües improvising on an old Aragón record Danzónes de Ayer y de Hoy I was inspired to set up my own Charanga in England: Charanga del Norte. In this article I hope to explain what charanga music is, describe its distinctive musical styles (danzón, chachacha, mambo etc.) and introduce you to the most famous charanga orquestas and musicians of today and yesteryear.

Cuba has many musical genres and styles such as rumba (guaguanco, yambu, columbia), charanga (danzón, chachacha, mambo, pachanga), son, trova, nueva trova, feeling, changui, timba, bolero, amongst others and following the success of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians, the European public is beginning to  get to hear the variety of Cuban music not hitherto explored here.

Firstly one must define Charanga as being a specific line-up, led by the flute and violins which evolved at the beginning of the last century. The original charangas played danzas and danzones and the first danzón Las Alturas de Simpson was performed in 1879 by an Orquesta Típica, the precursor to the Charanga. Orquesta Típicas featured brass rather than violins and flute but the Charangas took over in popularity early on in the 20th Century.

The golden age of Cuban Charanga was in the 30s, 40s and early 50s when there were three famous Orquestas: Arcaño y sus Maravillas, Orquesta America and Orquesta Aragón (America and Aragón are still going today). Orestes Lopez, cellist with Arcaño y sus Maravillas contributed greatly to the development of the danzón by adding a new section to it influenced by musical elements from the Cuban Son called ‘el section del nuevo ritmo’ and in 1938 composed the first mambo, featured on his brother Israel Lopez Cachao’s CD Master Sessions Vol 1. Orestes Lopez was the father of the mambo, the danzón with nuevo ritmo. At the same time the violinist with Orquesta América, Enrique Jorrin created the new dance form chachachá, which was also part of the danzón belonging to the Nuevo Ritmo section.

One could say that there were two main phases in the history of Charanga – the first wave of Charangas in the early years of the twentieth century with their danzas and danzones, with groups such as Antonio Maria Romeu (founded in 1911), Ia Orquesta Ideal and La Orquesta Torroella and the second wave of Charangas in the 40s and 50s like Arcaño, Aragón and América that played the Danzones del nuevo ritmo, the mambo, the pachanga and the chachacha. In both phases there were always sections of an arrangement dedicated to flute extemporisations, sections dedicated to virtuosic piano displays and melodic violin sections.

Orquesta América was the first charanga to play the chachachá and Orquesta Aragón became the main innovator of this style, doing the most to popularise it. Founded in 1939 in Cienfuegos, Orquesta Aragón is still going today, sixty years on, with some members sons of the original musicians. The history of charanga lies with this band:

‘For more than forty years Cubans have made Monday lunchtime their regular listening slot with the Orquesta Aragón on Radio Progreso. Whatever happens, if it’s Monday, then the airwaves from the island’s western-most point Cap San Antonio, to Punta Maisi in the east vibrate to the sound of the Aragón violins. The Aragón is one of those things that has been there forever as far as the Cubans are concerned. The group got today’s grandparents dancing to the danzón, today’s parents to the chacha, their children to the cha-onda.’ (Xavier Gomez, 1999 sleeve notes from La Charanga Etema, Aragón, Lusafrica 1999)

One of the most important charanga musicians of all time is Richard Egües, Aragón’s flute player of great virtuosity and improvisatory prowess. Egües and Rafael Lay senior were the creative driving force behind Aragón’s worldwide success. Egües’s composition ‘El Bodeguero,’ performed at the height of the chachachá craze, propelled the band to fame and the name of Aragón became synonymous with chachachá.

Aragón toured the world extensively (see the interview with Richard Egües, below) and had a profound influence on West African musicians such as Papa Seck, Youssou N’Dour, Papa Wemba, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita and Boncana Maiga. Whilst touring Africa Aragón’s Tomas Valdes created the Chaonda style, a rhythm inspired by Guinean music. Conversely the number Yaye Boy by Papa Seck and popularised by Africando is now played by the modern Aragón. This cross fertilisation continues today, proof of which Papa Wemba has recently recorded with the new Aragón (No quiero Llanto on La Charanga Eterna CD).

Charanga still flourishes today in Cuba in all its forms, from the traditional to the Candido Fabré/Los Van Van variety and if you visit Havana check out the Plaza de la Universidad in Vedado on a Monday afternoon, where the traditional charanga band swings, the vats of special brew provide for the many and where the danzón is danced both beautifully and flirtatiously by incorrigible OAPs!

There are many other great charanga groups and musicians not yet mentioned here, such as Charanga Rubalcaba, led by the pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, the violinist Pupy Lagarreta and the pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. There are also a huge number of beautiful danzón compositions by composers such as Romeu, Urfé, Felix Reina, Coralia and Orestes Lopez, Electo Rosell and Abelardo Valdes. A wonderful introduction to their masterpieces can be found on the CD Cuba the Charanga by Rotterdam Conservatory Charanga Orchestra (Nimbus 1997). A good cross section of Orquesta Aragón ‘s repertoire can be found on their 60th anniversary CD La Charanga Eterna (Lusafrica 1999). For the West African Charanga and Charanga influenced Salsa check out Africando’s releases on the Stern label. If intrigued by the aforementioned Dutch Charanga you may be tempted to sample England’s home-grown variety with Charanga del Norte’s recordings Ay Mama!, Danzones and Libélula.
© Sue Miller, Leeds, June 2000