Now in its 64th year, Cuba’s mighty Orquesta Aragon is possibly the world’s oldest dance band. Throughout its career the group has kept itself vital by tweaking but never fully abandoning its traditional sound. Formed in 1939, it took more than a decade–and the addition of violinist Rafael Lay, who replaced group founder Orestes Aragon Cantero in 1948–to make its name as the island’s premier practitioner of charanga, a stately dance style distinguished by a front line of violins and flute. Then in the mid-50s it spearheaded the cha-cha craze, popularizing it first at home and then in the U.S. The instrumentation hasn’t changed much over the years, but the group has heated up its rhythmic attack and the vocalists have adopted more contemporary pop phrasing. In fact, on its most recent album, En Route (World Village, 2001), Aragon, now under the leadership of Rafael Lay Jr., attempts some rather silly fusion experiments. Tracks like “Guasabeando el Rock and Roll,” a self-described “rock-cha” that has more in common with Glenn Miller than the Killer, are probably designed to prove it’s keeping up with the times, but nothing could sound mustier. Still the bulk of the group’s repertoire, drawn from time-tested Cuban forms (danzon, son montuno, guaracha, bolero), makes it easy to ignore these missteps, and it’s the old reliables that continue to keep audiences dancing. Aragon has played in Chicago twice since 2000–at Ravinia and Symphony Center–but Friday’s engagement is the first time it’ll perform here in the proper context: a club with a dance floor. Friday, May 9, 7 and 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. Saturday, May 10, 8 PM, Wilson Hall, Fermilab, Kirk and Pine, Batavia; 630-840-2787.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy of World Village.