You can’t find a charanga band anywhere in the world more authentic than Orquesta Aragon. Founded in 1939 in Cienfuegos, a French colonial town about 100 miles from Havana, it’s the oldest continuously operating unit in popular music–since the 1950s, young Cuban instrumentalists have considered the band the “major leagues,” and many have vied for a chance to take part in what’s become a cultural institution. If Orquesta Aragon had adhered strictly to the traditional charanga-band formula–mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with the stately sounds of violins and flute, and playing antique dance forms such as danzon and son–it would likely have receded into the mists of memory. But in the mid-50s, the group adopted a novel song form and rhythm (created by a contemporaneous bandleader) for its hit tune “La enganadora,” turning this new music, called cha-cha, into an international sensation. Orquesta Aragon both conserves and builds on its legacy as the great popularizer of cha-cha: though the band has maintained its original charanga instrumentation, its brand-new disc En Route (World Village) showcases various fusions of cha-cha with other genres, from the “shake”–a blend of cha-cha with the signature rhythms of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which the group began playing in the early 60s–to more recent hybrids like “rock-cha,” “cha-onda” (which incorporates Guinean music), and even “rap-cha” (which improbably enough finds a balance between cha-cha and hip-hop). Currently led by violinist Rafael Lay Bravo–whose father, also a violinist, joined the band as a 13-year-old in 1940–Orquesta Aragon has perfected a stage show that telescopes more than 60 years of Cuba’s musical history into a seamless set, complete with joyous, old-fashioned synchronized choreography from the singers and over-the-top displays from the band’s younger percussionists. (I’ve seen one of the vocalists, in the midst of a dance “solo,” leap right off the stage.) Here Orquesta Aragon shares a bill with Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Friday, December 7, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Youri Lenquette.