Good day dear readers and blog followers!
If you have been following this blog or Cuban music in the past 3 decades, then you are probably familiar with the work of La Charanga Habanera, a band that revolutionized contemporary Cuban music, one of the few bands that can claim to establish Timba as a standalone musical genre…
The “Habanera” part is easy to understand – the band comes from La Habana, the capital and largest city of Cuba… but have you ever wondered about the “charanga” part? what does it mean? what is “charanga”?
Well, this is exactly what this post will be dealing with today!
Above you can see a photograph of the Orquesta de Antonio Maria Romeu, an early Charanga ensemble founded in 1910.
Charanga is one of the 2 basic group formats that exist in Cuba since the late XIX century – the Chranga and the Conjunto.
The Charanga ensemble has its roots in the Orquesta Tipica, an ensemble which consists mostly of wind and bras instruments such as cornets, trombones, ophicleides, clarinets, violins, double bass, and some percussive instruments like the guiro and tympani.
Such groups existed in Cuba since at least the middle of the XIX century, and mainly played Contradanza music.
Later on, the format evolved into the Charanga Francesa, an ensemble that played mainly indoors (the Tipicas played mostly in outdoor events), and now included also flutes, more string instruments, and also a new percussive instrument, the Pailas (nowadays known as timbales).
Charanga Francesa type ensembles payed mostly Danzon, the national musical genre (and dance!) of Cuba, which evolved from Contradanza with some Afro Cuban influences.
The next step of this line was the Charanga format, originating in the early XX century.
Such bands mostly replaced the Tipicas and Francesas, and although mostly playing Danzon at those times, included a different line up of instruments, which produced a unique, lighter, more jolly and bright, sound.
These bands included double bass, cello, violins, flutes, Pailas (Timbales, which now also included 1 or 2 cencerros, also known as campanas), Guiro, piano, and sometimes also brass instruments like trombones and trumpets.
These Orquestas also mainly played Danzon, which was hugely popular at the time, such as the following:
On the other hand of the scale, coming from Oriente, the eastern part of Cuba, we have the Conjunto format, playing mostly Son based music, such as Son (both in the earlier campesino style and the later “urban” style that emerged in Habana in the early XX century…), changui, and later Son Montuno and Guaracha.
These genres are Creole music, with strong Afro Cuban influences, and early bands being duos, trios or cuartetos.
Typical son instruments include Bongos, Tress, Cajon (later bass) and maracas, with at least one of the musicians, mostly the Tress player, doubling as a singer (the others might accompany as back vocals).
This was very much “country music”, played mostly by Guajiros, peasants from the easter country side.
The following is a good example of the campesino style of Son:
Next, as Son music slowly made its way to the capital, the trios and cuartetos of country origin started being replaced by the sextetos, which now played in an urban set up, included more musicians and instruments, with the main addition being a guitar, and later clave and trumpets.
So now the typical instrumentation of a Son band included not only Bongos, Tress, bass (at times still the cajon or marimbula) and Maracas, but also trumpets, clave and guitar, with the lyrics and vocal style influenced by both the Spanish “troubadour” style singing and coros from Rumba and Guaguanco.
Here is a good example of the Son music played by sextetos…
So, what do we have now, in the 1920’s?
We have 2 band formats, the Conjunto and the Charanga, playing 2 different musical genres, Danzon and Son, and having 2 distinct sets of musical instruments, with little overlap (only the horns being an exception, but these weren’t very common in Charangas).
This was, of course, not a matter of artistic preference, but the sad reality of Cuban society of that time… a segregated, racist and discriminating society…
The Charanga and it’s Danzon music were mainly for the white upper classes, while the Son based music of the Conjunto was mainly consumed my the middle and lower classes, being mostly creole and black.
But this all started changing in 1929, or even before that;
A few examples of mixing both “families” exist even from the early XX century, with a notable one being the Estudiantia Oriental from Santiago de Cuba.
This band, formed in the late XIX century, had white and creole members (the Tipicas and Charangas Francesas of the time were exclusively white), women (most musicians at that time were male), included instruments both of the Charanga (pailas, cencerro, guiro, double bass) and the Conjunto (tress, guitar, marimbula, trumpets) formats, and played Son, Guaracha and Bolero, but also the occasional Danzon.
The band mostly consistent of university students, hence the name…
Anyway, in 1929 the musician and composer Aniceto Diaz created, for the first time, a genre that included elements of both Son and Danzon families, in an attempt to bring Son into the public spotlight and radio station broadcasts, still mostly dominated by Danzon type music.
And so he did!
The first Danzonete – Rompiendo La Rutina, became hugely popular, and this music, including singing, claves and tres over the “background” of Danzon rhythms and instrumentation, became hugely popular, dominating the Cuban music scene of the 1930’s until the Son Montuno and Mambo took over during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and later on the Cha Cha of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
You can listen to the first Danzonete here!
The influence of this new genre was great;
It affected major figures such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Antonio Arcano and the Lopez brothers, who later went of to create and develop Son Montuno, Mambo, and Guagaunco-Son, incorporating even more elements of Son, Danzon, Rumba and Guagaunco together, influencing both the Charanga and Conjunto formats…
But for our story, let us go to the 1940’s;
Now the Charanga format started mixing with the Conjunto format, as creole and even black musicians started taking leading roles in the Cuban music industry.
During the 1940’s the Charanga ensemble underwent some changes, and now the bands started playing compositions consisting of both Danzon and Son elements, and even some elements coming from Son Montuno, a later evolution of Son music, which was had even more Afro-Cuban influence such as Rumba based bass lines, layered melodic phrases, polyrhythmics and such new instruments as the Tumbadora and the coro-pregon vocal pattern.
So while not actually having the bipartite structure of Son Montuno with the distinct Montuno part, or any direct imports from Rumba or Guaguanco, the music palyed by Charangas in the 1940’s and 1950’s definitely contained some elements of Son music, like the Tumbadoras (congas) and some string instrument Montuno like parts in the 2nd half of the compositions.
An example of this is the following interesting composition by Orquesta Aragon:
The 1950’s brought on even more of this mixing, with some influences of genres popular at the time, such as Mambo and Cha Cha (both of the Danzon derived family) and more Son Montuno (of the Son family).
This resulted, among many things, in compositions such as the following one, by then little known Charanga Orquesta from Oriente called Orquesta Reve, who’s leader, Elio Reve Matos, had a dream of taking Changui from the fincas (farms) of Oriente to the mainstream of Cuban music… a dream he would definitely realize, in his own way, much later on… but for the time being, Orquesta Reve was a typical Charanga type ensemble of the time, playing mostly Danzon based music, but as we have seen before, already had some strong Son influences.
This is a notable composition from that time, from one of the first LPs by Orquesta Reve, featuring flutes, violins, montuno on cello, and Tumbadoras playing Tumbao along with Bongos in the background…
So, here we have one of the most important Cuban bands of the 1980’s and of our day… throwing us a fine silk thread to Cuban music of even before the Revolution!
And Reve wasn’t the only one… when Reve’s bassist and musical director Juan Formell became an influential figure in the Orquesta in 1968, and later on, in 1969, when he left Reve’s band and formed his own, Los Van Van, he still retained the Charanga format, despite adding modern instruments and even more ideas inspired by various genres of Afro-Cuban music, such as ceremonial Yoruba Bata drumming, Conga and the modern Pilon and Mozambique genres.
The Charanga heritage can be heard quite clearly in Formell’s music from the 1960’s and 1970’s such as the following 2 composition, one from the times when Formell was still in Orquesta Reve, and the 2nd one from soon after forming Los Van Van…
Reve’s Changui 68′:
Van Van’s Songo:
Sounds quite similar, doesn’t it?
Charanga influences can be heard quite well in other notable bands of the pre-Timba era of the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as Ritmo Oriental.
As you probably remember, Orquesta Reve, Los Van Van and Ritmo Oriental (who, BTW, separated from Orquesta Reve in 1958…) are among the bands most influential to Timba… if you don’t, the following chart is a good reminder 🙂
And now, let us complete the circle by going back to the question presented in the beginning of this post… why is La Charanga Habanera called so? what does the “charanga” part of the name mean?
Well, simply put, the revolutionary Timba band is basically a Charanga format ensemble… this shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the history of the band’s creation and the mastermind behind it – David Calzado, that before becoming a band leader was… a violin player!
The band inherited the Charanga format from Ritmo Oriental, where Calzado played before forming his own band.
The influences of Charanga music can be clearly heard in many of Charanga Habanera’s compositions, most notably in their interpretation of classics such as this:
So, from Arcano and Jorrin through Reve and Formell to Charanga Habanera, the link is still strong, and the lessons of the past have been learned well by the leading figures of Cuban music in our age… so, remember the past, and you will provide for a brighter future…