The charango, a unique and beautiful Andean musical instrument
18 September 2019
Andean music, as we shared in a previous post, is rich in history and emotional expression. Those characteristics are clearly reflected in one of the keystone instruments that characterizes the music of the Andes, the charango.
What is a charango ? The traditional model is a small, 10-stringed instrument that originated in the Andes, probably in the 17th or 18th centuries, and which is still widely played today.
Its exact origins are uncertain and several theories have been proposed- that it derived from the Spanish vihuela, or from the lute, or the mandolin, or the Canarian timple.
Where it was developed is also in dispute- either in Bolivia, or in the central Peruvian Andes. Regardless of its origins, it is a great instrument.
Some might call the charango an Andean ukelele, but that would not be accurate, although their size is similar. The 4-stringed Hawaiian ukelele, so popular in the past few years, originated in the 19th century with Portuguese immigrants to the islands, and its sound is quite different.
The charango’s sound is powerful, high-pitched and sweet. It is well suited to playing melancholy Andean ballads, but it can also produce a joyous, bouncy sound. All this depends on the tune being played, the musical style and the type of charango.
Traditionally, the charango’s bowl-shaped soundbox was made from the hard shells of armadillos. Today, most charangos are made of wood, which for many players has a better sound (this also conserves poor armadillos!).
The long neck and bowl are commonly carved from a single piece of wood, often cedar or spruce. The basic charango has ten strings arranged in five pairs, or courses, both nylon and metal-wound. Some courses are tuned in unison, others in octaves. It does take a bit practice to tune a charango!
In fact, charangos are a family of different instruments, which vary in size, construction, number of strings, and tunings, depending on their region of origin.
For example, the ronroco is a recent variation that is larger in size and with a deeper sound- a sort of baritone or bass charango.
Charango music is generally played in many traditional Andean musical styles. Some of the most internationally-renowned Andean bands, such as Los Kjarkas, Quillapayun, and Inti-Illimani, play charangos as a main instrument, together with flutes and panpipes. Widely respected master charango players include Ernesto Cavour, Jaime Torres and Federico Tarazona.
Many contemporary musicians also have also used charangos in a fusion of musical styles. You can listen to beautiful sounds of charango and ronroco in the music of Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who composed the scores for the films The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel and 21 Grams.
In Cusco you can hear charangos being played by small bands, at folkloric dances, at restaurants and many other places.
Also, as a small instrument, it is a favorite of visiting musicians who purchase their charango to take home. This writer has played charangos for years, and although no expert, can vouch for how much fun and creative this Andean instrument really can be.
Travel to Cusco to hear the beautiful music of the Andes, and maybe you’ll even find your next lovely instrument.
Contact Andean Lodges at andeanlodges.com to reserve a great trip to Cusco, where you’ll discover all the wonders of Andean music and traditional culture.