Friday the 13th is not generally looked upon as an auspicious day. However this particular Friday the 13th proved both felicitous and fortuitous for those salseros and salseras fortunate enough to attend the 70th anniversary performance by the legendary Cuban conjunto band Orquesta Aragon. For fans of this legendary ensemble, also known as La Madre de las Charangas Cubanas (The Mother of The Cuban Charangas) as well as La Charanga Eterna, this was a special evening, one those in attendance will remember fondly for the rest of their lives. Bassist Orestes Aragon founded the group in 1939 with seven other musicians. After Aragon fell ill in 1948, Rafael Lay Apestegui stepped in to lead the band. The band moved from its home town of in Cienfuegos to Havana in the early 1950s and quickly gained attention. Over the years it has evolved to a 13-member ensemble which has recorded hundreds of albums and CDs.
I first became aware of Aragon some decades ago through a set of lectures I attended by legendary Bay Area musicologist John Santos. Aragon are the first famous charanga band. This format, which includes violin and flutes, has a resonance found in no other form of music. For a time, a band called Charanga, Tumbao y Cuerdas performed in the San Francisco Bay Area, and John Santos, once a member of Orquesta Batachanga, also put together a conjunto which played with legendary bassist Cachao at the Opera House in the 1980s, but, generally speaking, this type of music is hard to hear live. The fact that the United States government, for reasons incomprehensible to the informed lover of world music, has made it so difficult for Cuban musicians to play here, added to the significance of this date. And Zellerbach Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus. is one of the best places in the world to hear quality music.
The one thing that has always impressed me most about the charanga, and especially the Aragon version, is the vibrancy of the flute. Flautist Eduardo Ramon Rubio Perez is a master performer, and he really welds the music together in a way that is easier to be heard than to be put into words. While violin and flute are sometimes employed in jazz, no other music matches the wondrous way they are employed in a charanga. Enthusiastic violinist, the beared and ebullient Rafael Lay, who had taken over from his father in 1948, took front-stage center to lead the band in style. Violinists Celso Valdes Santandreu and Lazaro Dagoberto Gonzalez Sibore, along with violist Eric Labaut Lay, hold down the rest of the string section. True to form, they played the cha cha cha (of which they are a legendary progenitor), as well as the lesser-known,but no less vibrant, danzon, onda-cha, pachanga and son rhythms.
Because these musicians have played together for so long, they have an almost telepathic rapport found in few other ensembles. They communicate with each other and with the audience through their sonorous rythyms but also through their syncopated movements. Although the original members have passed away, they did not depart before passing their traditions on to their successors. In that sense the band is a living organism, retaining its form, yet continually growing.
The ensemble was introduced by legendary DJ Luis Medina, and the orchestra pit, which served as the dance floor, was packed after the first few numbers in. Unusually, for this generally staid concert hall, dancing was encouraged. At one point, there were so many wildly enthused dancers that the promoter Sue Taylor, asked some of the dancers to move back from the orchestra pit to make space.
The three vocalists - Jose Palma Cuesta (who also played guiro), Ernesto Bacallao Serrano, and Juan Carlos Villegas Alfonso- complimented the mix as did guitarist Roberto Espinosa Rodriguez and percussionist Guillermo Gonzalo Garcia and drummer Horacio Rodriguez del Toro. Pianist Orlando Jesus Perez Montero added the rhythms that make this music so special. The only let down the entire evening came when, after an extended encore, the band had to stop. It was clearly evident that the audience would have liked to have stayed until dawn.