CharangoThe charango is a small Andean stringed instrument of the lute family, which probably originated in the Quechua and Aymara populations in the territory of the Altiplano in post-Colonial times, after European stringed instruments were introduced by the Spanish during colonialization. The instrument is widespread throughout the Andean regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina, where it is a popular musical instrument that exists in many variant forms.
About 66 cm long, the charango was traditionally made with the shell from the back of an armadillo (called quirquincho or mulita in South American Spanish), but it can also be made of wood, which some believe to be a better resonator. Wood is more commonly used in modern instruments. Charangos for children may also be made from calabash. Many contemporary charangos are now made with different types of wood. It typically has ten strings in five courses of two strings each, but many other variations exist.
The charango was primarily played in traditional Andean music, but is more and more frequently being used by other Latin American musicians. A charango player is called a charanguista.
When the Spanish conquistadors came to South America, they brought the vihuela (an ancestor of the classical guitar) with them. It is not clear whether the charango is a direct descendant of a particular Spanish stringed instrument; it may have evolved from the vihuela, bandurria (mandolin), or the lute. Ernesto Cavour, Bolivian charanguista, composer, and consulting music historian for many museums around the world, has noted characteristics of the charango in various vihuelas and guitars of the 16th century, and maintains the charango is the direct descendant of the vihuela.
There are many stories of how the charango came to be made with its distinctive diminutive soundbox of armadillo. One story says that the native musicians liked the sound the vihuela made, but lacked the technology to shape the wood in that manner. Another story says that the Spaniards prohibited natives from practicing their ancestral music, and that the charango was a successful attempt to make a lute that could be easily hidden under a garment such as a poncho.
There is no clear evidence that points to a specific location or moment in time for the birth of the charango but there are a number of theories being debated. One of those is that it is believed the charango came into its present form in the early 18th century in the city of Potosí in the Royal Audiencia of Charcas part of the Viceroyalty of Peru (in what is present-day Bolivia), probably from Amerindian contact with Spanish settlers. Cavour presents evidence from Bolivian murals and sculptures as early as 1744, in, for example, the Church of San Lorenzo of the city of Potos (Potosí), the facade of which depicts two mermaids playing what he believes to be charangos.
Another two theories that are being researched are that the Charango originally came to Potosí from the Ayacucho region in colonial Peru as a result of migration within the Quechua populations. This suggests that the charango originated in the territory of what is now Peru via cultural exchange and then spread to the rest of the Andean area. This theory has not been proven either.
Because the modern states of Peru and Bolivia had not yet been established at the time, it is difficult to trace the charango's origin to a specific country, and the issue remains highly debated among nationalists from both countries.
One Bolivian musician has posited a third theory which is that the Charango was created as a variant of the timple canario from the Canary islands. More research however is required.
The first published historic information on the charango may be that gathered by Vega, going back to 1814, when a cleric from Tupiza documented that "the Indians used with much enthusiasm the guitarrillos mui fuis... around here in the Andes of Bolivia they called them Charangos". Turino mentions that he found carved sirens representing playing charangos in some Colonial churches in the highlands of Bolivia. One of the churches to which Turino refers may well be that mentioned by Cavour; construction on the San Lorenzo edifice began in 1547 and wasn't completed until 1744.
According to Eduardo Carrasco of Quilapayún, in the first week after the 1973 Chilean coup d'etat, the military organized a meeting with folk musicians where it was explained that the traditional instruments charango and quena were now banned.
EtymologyThe origin of the term "charango" is not entirely clear. One source suggests that the instrument took its name from its players, who were called charangeros, meaning "someone of questionable character and low morals". Another traces the term to the alteration of a Spanish term, charanga, which could refer to either a type of military music played on wind instruments, or an out-of-tune orchestra. Charanguista Alfredo Coca, offers yet a third theory: asserting that "charango" comes from a Spanish corruption of the Quechua word “Chajwaku”, which means joy, noisy, boisterous, referring directly to the sound of the charango. As support for this he points to the common practice of the Conquistadors appropriating local terminology.
Charanguista Ernesto Cavour disagrees, and tends to support the second origin, maintaining that the word “charango” comes from a mispronunciation of the Spanish word “charanga”, meaning "brass band" (a reasonable corollary to 'military music played on wind instruments').
One of the most complete contemporary statements on the origin of the term "charango" appears in the introduction to Duran and Pedrotti's, Charango Method, ostensibly the first complete, bilingual charango method to be published:
:"Charango" in an Ibero-American colonial term that refers to a series of Spanish-American cultural concepts related to "noise" and rustically constructed objects. The term "charanga", for example, was often used to refer to a small instrumental band. "Charanguero", meanwhile, denoted something rough or rustic. In his book El charango, su vida, costumbres y desaventuras, Ernesto Cavour has collected a large amount of information regarding the etymology of the word "charango". As this author related: :::"In the rural areas of Andean Bolivia, the instruemnt is not only known by the name "charango", but by many others as well, including: mediana, guitarrilla, thalachi, quirqui, p'alta, khonkhota, aiquileno, guitarron, anzaldeno, etc. ..." :An Uruguan publication from 1823 uses the term "changango" as a synonym for the Argentine "charango", and claims the same word was used during the eighteenth century to refer to old and poorly constructed guitars: :::"...In Argentina they speak of the Charango, a guitar with five doubled strings and a body made from the shell of an Armadillo. Nevertheless, the small Spanish-American guitar has been known by the name changango for more than one hundred years. In a footnote to his correspondence with Paulino Lucero regarding the Great War, Hilario Ascasubi explains this situation with indisputable clarity: "Changango: an old, poorly made guitar". :::(Excerpt from the newspaper "El Domador", Montecivideo, 19 March 1823). :Julio Mendivil engages in a similarly detailed discussion of this issue in his article La construccion de la historia: el charango en la memoria colectiva mestiza ayacuchana, Musicology Institut/University of Colonia."
ConstructionTraditionally a charango was made with a dried armadillo shell for the back and wood for the soundbox top, neck etc. While still common, this is no longer the norm: rather they are now typically made of wood, with the bowled back merely imitating the shape of the armadillo shell. Unlike most wooden lutes, the body and neck are typically made of a single block of wood, carved into shape. The charango's ten strings require quite a large headstock, often approaching or even exceeding the size of its diminutive sound box. Aside from these visual distinctions, it resembles something between a bowl-backed mandolin and a small ukulele.
The overall length of a typical charango is about 66 cm, with a string scale length of about 37 cm. The number of frets ranges from five to eighteen. The most common form of the instrument has ten strings of nylon, gut, or (less commonly) metal. (Variant forms of the charango may have anywhere from four to fifteen strings, in various combinations of single, double, or triple courses.) The body generally has a narrowed waist, reminiscent of the guitar family, and not the pear-shape of the lute. There are many minor variations in the shape of the body and soundboard (top), and many different kinds of wood are used, although, like guitars, the preferred tone woods for the top come from the cedar or spruce families. Old instruments had friction-style tuning pegs (similar to those used on violins), but today a classical guitar style peghead with geared "machine" tuners is the norm, though these are occasionally positioned perpendicular to the headstock. Most instruments include some degree of ornamentation, which may range from simple purfling inlays around the perimeter of the top, to elaborately carved headstocks, and whole scenes engraved, carved, or burned into the back of the body. Strap buttons are sometimes added, as are position marker dots on the fingerboard.
Variations may include a separate glued-on neck, a two-piece top plate of contrasting woods, old-style friction tuning pegs in palisander or ebony, guitar-style box construction, or even a hollowed-out neck. The size, shape, and number of soundholes is highly variable and may be a single round or oval hole, dual crescents, or even multiple holes of varying arrangement. Another variant is a neck with two holes bored 3/4 of the way through, parallel to the fretboard and close to the headstock (an innovation said to color the instrument's tone).
More recently solid-body electric and hollow-body acoustic-electric charangos have become available. The solid-body instruments are built very much as miniature electric guitars, whereas the acoustic-electrics are usually a standard acoustic charango with the addition of a contact microphone or piezoelectric pickup to run the output of the instrument through an amplifier.
In his book The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara described a charango he saw near Temuco, Chile, in 1952. It was "made with three or four wires some two meters in length stretched tightly across tins fixed to a board. The musician uses a kind of metal knuckle duster with which he plucks the wires producing a sound like a toy guitar."
TuningThe basic charango has five pairs (or courses) of strings, typically tuned GCEAE. This tuning, disregarding octaves, is similar to the typical C-tuning of the ukulele or the Venezuelan cuatro, with the addition of a second E-course. Unlike most other stringed instruments, all ten strings are tuned inside one octave. The five courses are pitched as follows (from 5th to 1st course): G4 G4 - C5 C5 - E5 E4 - A4 A4 -E5 E5. Some charanguistas use "octave" strings on other pairs in addition to the middle course. Note that the lowest pitch is the "E" string in the middle (3rd) course, preceded by the higher pitched "g" (5th) course and "c" (4th) course, and followed by still higher pitched "a" (2nd) course and "e" (1st) courses. This tuning pattern is known as a re-entrant pattern because the pitches of the strings do not rise steadily from one string or course to the next, but progress from high to low and then back to high pitch again.
The ramifications of the charango tuning are that there is a very narrow tonal range in most chords, often with many pitch duplications, which produces a surprisingly powerful sound from the small instrument. Seventh and ninth chords shimmer more than on a guitar due to the close harmonies. In terms of melody playing, the charanguista can create a harp-like sound with close intervals ringing out (i.e., like a piano with the sustain pedal engaged). With the close pitch spacing across strings (intervals like 2nds), a simple alternating finger-style pattern in the right hand can produce very rapid chromatic and diatonic runs with only minimal movement of the left hand on the fingerboard. This makes the charango an extremely agile melodic instrument, especially when compared to instruments traditionally played with a flat pick.
As with any stringed instrument, tunings for the charango may vary, but the "standardized" tunings most commonly used (for the 10-stringed, five-course version) are: G#m7 and Gm7 tunings are achieved by tuning a semitone or a full step down, respectively. Em7 is achieved by tuning down by a perfect fourth.
TypesThere are metal string, nylon/gut string, and mixed-string charangos. Some metal-stringed versions have all strings at the same gauge. There are also solid-body electric charangos.
There are many types of charango. In many cases the variant is named for the town or region in which it originated, or in which it is most frequently seen, e.g., the Charango Ayquileño of Ayquile, Bolivia. The number of strings on these variant instruments ranges from four to 20, and courses may be single, double, triple, or quadruple strung. (The standard charango has 10 strings in five courses of two strings each.)
Some types of charango are:
Other, less common members of the charango family include:
As one of the most popular stringed instruments in regions along the Andes, countless other regional variations of the charango exist, for example:Several hybrids of charango with other instruments have also been made, for example: charanquena (charango and quena); charansicu (charango and zampoña); and charango charanguita (charango and guitar).
NamesThe charango is known by different names in various regions of the Andes. A few include:
There are also many dialect variants of these terms.