What is Charanga?

The article below and the examples within it can be downloaded in pdf form here.

The recording of La Angoa referred to can also be downloaded in mp3 format here. The recording is from our new CD El Gato, which you can learn about on our CDs page.

What Is Charanga?

All terms in Cuban music seem to have more than one meaning – certainly the most confusing one must be “Mambo”, which can be a dance; a tune type; a rhythmic feel and a section of a composition (not just of a mambo). Even the original composition “Mambo” was a danzón!

Charanga is almost as confusing a term – it is most likely to be a type of Cuban musical group; but also it is a style, and can be the name of a band that doesn’t play charanga style!

But the essence of charanga is that it is based on the line-up of the charanga francesa (flute, violins and rhythm section) as opposed to that of the orquesta típica (brass instruments, clarinets, violins and percussion), and that is what the band Cafecito is modelled on.

Charanga bands developed in Cuban music in the early twentieth century playing danzones, the beautiful semi-formal partner dance which evolved into the cha-cha-chá, and since it was charanga bands who invented the cha-cha-chá, it was charanga bands who played it during the hey-day of this dance in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. And since it was also musicians in charangas who invented the mambo and the pachanga.

Famous charanga ensembles include Arcaño y sus Maravillas, Orquesta América, Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta Almendra, Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, and Estrellas Cubanas. There are dozens more.

To understand charanga it is first necessary to understand the danzón, which in some ways is the classic Cuban dance-form.

Extraordinarily the line of descent of the danzón appears to have started in England in the 17th century with the “country dance”, where the sexes face each other in lines and dance sequences, the style of which was imported into French aristocracy as the contredanse. The contredanse evolved into the cotillion and the quadrille. After the slave rebellion in Haiti at the end of the 19th century many French landowners together with their slaves emigrated to Cuba, taking their dances and musical culture with them. The contredanse became the Spanish contradanza, which gave birth to the danza which developed into the danzón. The essential difference between the danzón and its antecedents is that it is a dance for couples, instead of a dance of two rows or a square dance. The contredanse has also been revived in the twentieth century in the United States as the contra dance.

Of course before the danzón the contradanza also evolved into the Habañera (that is, a contradanza from the capital Havana – and so more elegant and presumably more respectable, as opposed to one from Oriente province – and so closer to the people), which swept Europe in the mid-19th century. The most famous example is undoubtedly the Habañera from Bizet’s opera Carmen - “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle” – actually not originally by Bizet but by the Spanish Basque composer Sebastián de Iradier y Salaverri (Sebastián Yradier) – the composer of the Habañera “La Paloma” (written after a visit to Cuba). Bizet mistakenly thought that he was adapting a folksong. The Habañera was extraordinarily popular in the 19th century in the Americas and Europe and it was the influence of “La Paloma” in particular that influenced the composers of the great number of Habañeras subsequently written and still being written today. There is a Habañera in the 16-bar strain of W C Handy’s “St Louis Blues”, and the Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio” by Eduardo di Capua, Giovanni Capuro, and Alfredo Mazzucchi is a habañera – and its characteristic bass pattern [Example 1] became the bass of the milonga in Argentina and it is now ubiquitous in the Tango.

The danzón is less well-known outside the Spanish speaking world than any of the other Cuban dances mentioned so far – most people have never heard of it, and if they heard one would probably think that it was a tango. The one danzón that is known in Europe and America today is “Social Club Buena Vista” by Israel “Cachao” Lopez, which gave its name to the album and the worldwide phenomenon of the Buena Vista Social Club band and CD’s which revive earlier Cuban popular music forms.

It’s a great pity that it is not better known though, because it is a fantastically rich form, one which has challenged composers to produce their best work. The first piece officially accredited as being a danzón is “Las Alturas de Simpson” (Simpson Heights) by Miguel Faildes, written in 1877. Interestingly when it was first performed the dancers were dancing sequences in rows whilst carrying arches and flowers, but by the time it got into the ballrooms of Havana in the early 20th century the dancers were couples, dancing very close as in the tango, the woman carrying a fan. Also, according to Alejo Carpentier, the danzones by Faildes are to all intents and purposes identical in form and style to other contradanzas of the time, and pieces called danzón had already been published, so it does seem as if originally the dances were identical musically, but they differed in what the dancers did - if the dancers danced sequences in rows they were performing a contradanza, if they danced as couples they were dancing a danzón.

Under the influence of the dance form son, a new section was added at the end of the danzón, the montuno section or mambo section, over which musicians would improvize. This was first done in 1910 in “El Bombín de Barretto” by José Urfé. Later in the 1930’s & 40’s this mambo section was developed by the Lopez brothers Israel (“Cachao”) and Orestes (“Macho”) Lopez, both members of the charanga Arcaño y sus Maravillas, in the so-called danzón del nuevo ritmo.

The Lopez brothers often made this section very elaborate, always exciting and danceable, with short rhythmic vocal coro sections, punchy violin motifs (guajeos), sometimes new melodic material, and exciting flute and piano solos, the flute always playing in the highest register (often as high as f3, which is the highest possible note on the western concert flute) which makes the flute sound as if it might be a piccolo. (It is now mandatory for Cuban flute players to be able to play with complete facility in this super register, and even today it is not uncommon for bands with a virtuoso flute player to have one new danzón on a modern CD, even though the rest of the featured music is in salsa or timba style. Actually a search of YouTube will show you that flute players have almost pop-star status in Cuba and the Latin American world.)

Eventually two things happened to the last section of the danzón. The section became a new dance form in its own right – actually two new dance forms – the mambo and the cha-cha-chá. Both of these forms swept the western world in the 1950’s, and the mambo evolved (through its close connection with son) into the music which is now known as salsa.

Part of the appeal of the danzón is in the way it fuses European and African musical elements in a way that leaves their origins clear. For instance the danzón section is clearly European, with the flute, strings and piano to the fore and sounding very much like a small chamber ensemble, or like a palm court orchestra. And the mambo or cha section is clearly more African inspired, with the congas joining the rhythm section and the emphasis on rhythm and punchy string guajeos.

Even though danzones are no longer danced in night clubs, the danzón form itself is alive because of the high regard in which it is held by musicians. Danzones worth checking out are the classics La Angoa by Felix Reina & Carlos Reyes, Almendra by Abelardo Valdés, El Progresso by Israel (“Cachao”) Lopez, and the recent (though in traditional style) Danzón Barrocco by Orlando “Maraca” Valle. Cafecito feature in their repertoire La Angoa, and two new danzón influenced pieces by Janet Sherbourne – El Gato Que Tiene Hambre and Bolero-Cha, the scores of both of which can be downloaded for free from this site!

A musical analysis of a danzón – La Angoa.

To understand the musical aspects of the danzón it is worth spending some time analysing one. In this article I am using the version recorded by Cafecito which you can hear here and which is itself a reconstruction of the version on the Ethnic Folkways CD FW04066 The Cuban Danzón: Its Ancestors and Descendents by La Orquesta Folklórica Nacional Cubana. The musical examples are transcribed from this recording by our flute player Jan Steele, though there is also a short score of the full composition in The Latin Real Book by Rebeca Mauleón-Santana and Larry Dunlap (Sher Music 1997). The letter scheme used below is the same as in The Latin Real Book version.

The instrumentation in the Cafecito version of La Angoa is:

Flute, 2 violins, viola, piano, timbales (pailas), guiro, congas (tumbadoras), and double bass.

The structure is as follows:

b.1 Opening chord on the dominant 7th (E7) a sort of a “call to dance” (as in a Viennese waltz).
Letter A to H – Danzón Proper
Letter A, bb. 2-9. Introduction & Paseo (key of A minor) with melody on flute. The paseo section of a danzón is derived from the contradanza, where the man guides the woman to the place where the couple before were dancing. In the danzón the dancers choose partners, chat, flirt etc, then start dancing when the first strain of the composition begins, in this case b. 9, letter B. Musically the paseo section in La Angoa is characterized by 4 bars of the regular percussion pattern of danzón called baquateo, a two bar pattern played on the timbales (pailas) and guiro and notated thus [Example 2]. The first bar of the baquateo has its own name – cinquillo (five notes). [Example 3]. This rhythmic pattern is ubiquitous in all Cuban music since the middle of the 19th century, as well as in tango and in ragtime. It is also worth noting that the baquateo is a slightly more complex version of the son clave pattern which is the basis of salsa [Example 4]. Note that the congas don’t play at all during the danzón section. This is followed by 4 bars where the timbales play paseo, which is a one bar pattern played on open timbales [Example 5]. In bar 9 the rhythm section breaks on beat 2, followed by a minim (half-note) leading into the main theme (prima) where the dancing proper starts. Harmonically this section is characterized by IV, V, I in Am, the Am chord falling on the second bar of the phrase (feminine perfect cadence).
Letter B, b 10. Prima.
This theme (in A minor, with a short section in F major) lasts 16 bars, the last two bars (bb 24 – 25) of which feature a unison break which leads to
Letter C, b. 26.
Reprise of the Introduction & paseo (letter C, bb 26 – 33). The dancers stop dancing here and return to chatting and flirting, but they are always ready immediately for the segunda, which is signalled by a slightly modified break.
Letter D, E & F, bb. 34 – 67. Segunda.
Violin theme. The segunda traditionally features the strings, and it is always a more romantic, relaxed, lush section after the prima, which tends to have rhythm section breaks at the end of sections, and features the flute often in its highest registers. In this case, the segunda has its own more complex structure - 8 bars in A minor (starting with an A minor chord in the first bar, which is a strong contrast to the feminine cadence which occurs many times in the prima) with a digression to F major, the whole 8 bars repeated and ending in A major, followed by 16 bars in A major with a digression to C# minor, and the last 4 bars leading back to a reprise of the first 8 in A minor. The last two bars of this reprise (bb. 66 - 67) have a break leading to
Letter G, bb. 68 – 75. Reprise of paseo.
The last bar of this paseo reprise has a unison break (featuring a pattern which is often used as a standard ending in danzón) leading to
Letter H, bb. 76 – 85. Mambo
Here the tempo picks up and the rhythm section are essentially playing a cha-cha-chá. The congas (tumbadoras) join the other two percussionists. The timbales play a triple abanico (fan – as in the fan held by the female dancers, and a characteristic pattern for timbaleros in all Cuban music styles) which is a seven-stroke role on beat 2 or 4 ending on a rim-shot on beat 1 or 3 [Example 6]. This dramatic flourish really gets the mambo going and is essentially telling the dancers that there is no going back to the elegant aristocratic danzón and that they can let their hair down! The mambo features a two bar string riff, or guajeo, [Example 7] over the chords Am, Am6, Bm7b5, E7, with standard cha-cha double-bass tumbao and piano montuno [Example 8], while the flute has a short melody prefiguring the style of the later improvized solo, the section ending with a unison break lasting 2½ bars, and leading to
Letters I & J, bb. 86 – 117. Piano solo.
The piano solo is one of the characteristic features of the 20th century danzón. The strings drop out for the piano solo. Normally solos take place over a two or four bar harmonic structure, as in the flute solo later in this piece, but La Angoa is unusual in that after 16 bars of the 2 bar scheme in A minor there is a modulation to C major for 10 bars, before modulating back to A minor and ending with a 2 bar break into
Letter J, bb. 118 and subsequent. Flute solo.
This takes place over the same strings and rhythm section cha-cha-chá pattern as at letter H. At the end of the open-ended solo the flute plays the first four bars from the melody in H, which signals the
Codetta to the rest of the musicians, which is a written out phrase with a two bar break with a standard danzón ending.

Lastly it is worth noting the differences in the piano playing style between the danzón section and the mambo section. If you listen to the Cafecito recording, you will hear that the piano part is considerably elaborated in the danzón section with romantic flourishes and arabesques. As we perform it the pianist plays from a short score with chord symbols and it is up to her how she chooses to play the part.


Much of the information above was gleaned from the following sources, which should be consulted by anyone who wants to know more about this wonderfully rich and varied music.

Written Sources

Apel, Willi (1970)
Havard Dictionary of Music, 2nd Ed. Heinemann.

Carpentier, Alejo (2001, originally pub. 1946). Ed. Timothy Brennan
Music in Cuba. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3230-8

Leymarie, Isabelle (1997)
Cuban Fire – the story of Salsa and Latin Jazz. Editions Outre Mesure, Paris. ISBN 0-8264-5586-7

Manuel, Peter (1988)
Popular Musics of the Non-Western World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506334-1

Mauleón, Rebeca (1993)
Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Sher Music, California. ISBN 0-9614701-9-4

Mauleón, Rebeca; Dunlap, Larry; Sher, Chuck (1997)
The Latin Real Book. Sher Music. ISBN 1-883217-05-9

Orovio, Helio (2004)
Cuban Music from A to Z. Tumi Music, London. ISBN 0-9511055-5-8

Various articles on Wikipedia

Articles on www.descarga.com.


The Cuban Danzón: Its Ancestors and Descendents by La Orquesta Folklórica Nacional Cubana. Ethnic Folkways CD FW04066

We hope you enjoy reading this article and that you find it informative. Please let us know if you have any suggestions to improve it, or suggestions for future articles. We will gradually add more articles about charanga and related music to this site.

This article © Jan Steele & Cafecito, 2009

Click to go back to our home page to carry on reading about Live Latin Band Cafecito.