May 2012

Long live the Charango!

Often mistaken for a small guitar, a banjo, or even a mandolin, the charango is actually an instrument on its own. Part of the Bolivian folklore, its origin is rather obscure.

Researched by : Svea Niestroj
Written by : Nina Féger
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Brest - France

Charangos in la Cancha

Firstly, the name “charango” has two possible origins. According to the musician and writer Ernesto Cavour, the word “charango” is coming from a mistake of pronunciation of the Spanish word “charanga”, which means brass band. Alfredo Coca, on the contrary maintains that it is coming from the Quechua word “Chajwaku” which means joy, noisy, boisterous, referring directly to the sound of the charango. He adds that the etymology coming from Quechua is more likely to be, the conquistadors having the habit to add local’s words.

When you first see the charango, you might think it is guitar in miniature. It is true, they look alike: the same body type, in the shape of an 8, a headstock and a neck. Only that with the charango everything is in odd proportions. First of all you would note the difference of size: this small “fakeguitar” is only 65 cm long.

Also the body seems too small in comparison with the rest of the instrument. If you look closely you will observe that each of the five strings is double. Another difference appears when you look from the side, the body is rounder than the guitar’s body. It is so because the original body of the charango was made from the carapace of an armadillo, but giving the little amount still living, today, wood is manly used into the fabrication of the instrument. The use of wood has by the way benefited the charango, making it sounds better. Nevertheless it does not sound at all like the guitar which can be played very harmoniously, the charango is rougher and very cheerful.

“The word “charango” may come from the Quechan word “Chajwaku” which means joy, noisy, boisterous.

There is many different possible origin of the charango, each one more or less likely to be true. In his study La construcción de la historia: el charango en la memoriacolectivamestizaayacuchana the musicologist Julio Mendívil observes that the Andean collective memory supports that the emergence of the charango was an attempt to make the guitar look ridiculous, due to the fact that the instrument represented best the secular colonial society. That is how the idea of the charango being born as a satire of the guitar reign. However no one can give sustainable proof to backup this hypothesis.

Another version of myth of the origin of the charango is from the author José Castro Pozo - it is tail about the friendship between an armadillo and an Indian - the Indian and his companion the armadillo are travelling together to go back to the village of the man. It is a long and difficult journey and to give them courage the armadillo is singing beautiful melodies. After several days without any food the armadillo asks the Indian to eat its flesh in order to save his life. The Indian grateful for the sacrifice of his pet, creates, with the carapace an instrument, thus he will be able to sing along with his friend again.

If defining how and by who exactly it has been created appears to be a bit tricky, we have more information on when and where it has emerge thanks to Ernesto Cavour. According to him*, the invention of the charango was to imitate the vihuela, the Spanish ancestor of the guitar and not the guitar itself. The vihuela was introduced in south America during colonisation in the 16th century. In fact if you compare the vihuela with the charango you will find more resemblance than the charango has with the guitar. As example the charango and the vihuela have 5 double strings. The charango holds a big place in Bolivian culture; we have found many iconographic traces of it like the mermaids playing charango on the doors of the church San Lorenzo in Potosí dating from the 18th century.

Charangos in la Cancha
Photo: Svea Niestroj

As a result the charango has been created around the 16th century, after the conquest of the continent. It began to be famous in the Andeans but only to the rural people, especially in the areas of major Quechua and Aymara cultural influence – no wonder why Alfredo Coca is calling Potosí the birthplace of the charango.

“The original body of the charango was made from the carapace of an armadillo.”

To sum up, the charango has about five hundred years of history but still appears very mysterious, it has only been popular for fifty years from now. Nowadays, it is famous in all parts of society, thanks to popular musicians such as Mauro Nuñez, Ernesto Cavour, Freddy Torrealba and even Los Kjarkas. Musicians who, thanks to their talent helped the charango being well-known across the world. At the moment the charango seems to be quite popular, particularly in movies which music has been composed by Gustavo Santaolalla such as Babel, 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries.

“Cholitas” and “Señoritas”
A non-musical registry of this presence is the photographic images used for the cover of the discs of 33 rpm also in cassettes. Those portraits were taken in areas of their daily life in which most of them appear carrying their little children in their backs and wearing everyday costume: panama hats (called locally “tarros”), K’epis (brief case), blusa and pollera.
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