By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza
Andean chordophones (01): charangos
The charango is one of the most characteristic and captivating chordophones within Andean music, while, at the same time, proves to be very difficult to describe. There exist several versions and variants that cannot agree on a single definition: each of a particular shape and each made from different materials in different sizes and with a different number of strings. The origins of the instrument are neither clear nor easy to trace back. Although there are many theories, none of them offers anything more than speculation. The only thing that can be stated with any certainty is that the charango would be one of the many descendants of the European stringed instruments brought into the Americas during the conquest and colony periods. As new versions appeared, "naturalization certificates" were issued to each making them "citizens" of the regions in which they were developed. Nowadays, some of these regions are embroiled in a bitter dispute over the "paternity" of the instrument.
As time went by, both luthiers and musicians went on to choose the features of different variants that they liked best, what led to a standardised version known as "standard charango". Out of the latter and other popular variants (e.g. the small walaycho, maulincho or chillador, and the large ronroco), Bolivian Mauro Núñez created the so called "charangología", an ensemble of four charangos (standard version), consisting of bass, baritone, model and walaycho, comparable with the members of the classic string quartet. Starting from those sizes, other makers have also developed their own innovations (materials, designs, techniques), while remaining true to the fundamental characteristics of the instrument. Likewise, traditional patterns have evolved over time to be what they are today, occasionally taking advance of some of the newest features.
Smaller but similar in appearance to the guitar, the standard charango typically has 10 strings (of steel, gut, or nylon) in five courses, the first two and last two courses tuned in unison and the middle course in octaves. It is 37 cm long from the brigde to the nut and over 60 cm in total length. When the bowl-back body and neck are made of a single block of wood carved into shape the instrument is called charango lauqueado; on the other hand, laminate charangos use laminated wood or "plywood" (like the guitar), and usually have a flat-back body, though occasionally can be converted to a vaulted-back type ("pecho de gallo", literally "rooster's breast"). Traditionally, and until recently, the charango was made with a dried kirkincho (or armadillo) shell for the back, and was known as kirki or quirque. Today, the armadillo is an endangered species and their hunting is strongly regulated. The instrument can have wooden pegs or, more commonly, tuning machines, and there can be up to 20 frets on its neck. The soundboard has a sound hole in the centre, typically round, and is usually decorated. The back of the charangos lauqueados can be carved and coloured.
The standard charango is typically tuned e-a-e-c-g, this tuning being known as "temple natural" (natural tuning). However, there are many different styles of playing and a wide range of possible tunings (or "temples"), among which we can mention the "temple falso natural" (false natural tuning), "temple diablo" (devil tuning), "temple falso diablo" (false devil tuning), "quimsa temple" (three tuning) and "temple Pascua" (Easter tuning).
Picture 01. Charango lauqueado.
Picture 02. Charangos lauqueados.
Picture 03. Charangos made with a dried kirkincho shell.
Picture 04. Charango made with a dried kirkincho shell 01.
Picture 05. Charango made with a dried kirkincho shell 02.
Video 01. Charango played by Ernesto Cavour.
Video 02. Charango played by Jaime Guardia ("Oreganito del valle").
Video 03. Charango played by Alfredo Coca ("Selección de kaluyos").
Video 04. Charango played by Eddy Navia ("Rondó a la turca").
Video 05. Charango played by Julio Benavente Díaz ("Yawar fiesta").
Video 06. Charango played by Omar Ponce ("Cusqueña paloma / Chola huarocondina").
Traditional charangos are locally widespread, mostly (though no longer exclusively) in rural areas. These instruments do not always fit under a particular pattern: size, structure, number of strings and materials used in any given type of charango can vary from community to community, depending on both the maker's ability and creativity and the player's preferences and taste.
Generally speaking, it can be said that the greatest number of variants of the charango occur in the Central Sierra (Peru), the Meseta del Collao (Peru and Bolivia's highlands) and the neighbouring Andean valleys (Bolivia).
The charangos used in Ecuador, Chile and Argentina are standard charangos of different sizes (ronrocos, walaychos) brought into these countries from Peru and Bolivia, and, in some cases, adapted to local musical traditions and tastes. The standard charango is also the most widely used internationally alongside a number of other well-known relatives.
In Peru, the charango made with the shell of an armadillo (quirquincho, quirque) may have five single strings or 10 strings in five double courses, and is used in the provinces of Canchis (department of Cusco), Puno (department of Puno) and Huamanga (department of Ayacucho). The sound box of the ten-string charango can also be made from a gourd or mate.
In the provinces of Canchis and Cusco (department of Cusco) there are also 12-string charangos (with two triple courses and 3 three double courses), whose sound boxes can be made with the shell of a kirkincho or of carved alder wood (charango lauqueado).
The most common laminate charangos (with sound boxes similar to that of the guitar) can have five single strings or 10 strings in five courses. They are played in the departments of Apurímac, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huancavelica, Huánuco, Junín, Lima, Moquegua, Puno and Tacna. There exist 6-string variants (with a double second course) in the department of Lima; 8-string (with the second, third and fifth courses double-strung) in the province of Parinacochas (department of Ayacucho); 12-string (6 double courses) in the province of Puno; 12-string (double courses except for the second and fourth courses triple-strung) in the province of Canchis; and 20-string (five quadruple courses) in the department of Moquegua.
In Peru, besides 11 variants of charango, there have been catalogued 8 variants of walaychos or chilladores, the smallest version of the instrument. In the provinces of Víctor Fajardo and Cangallo (department of Ayacucho), there also exists a type of small chordophones known as "chinliles", "chinlilis" or "chinlilos" which, despite certain similarities, should not be confused with the charango.
Although guitar-like bodies are the most common, in Peru this is neither the only nor the preferred shape of the charango. In Huamanga, for example, they are shaped like an 8 but with the top cut off; in some places of Ayacucho department, it is made with a triangular or trapezoidal shape, while in Capachica (province of Puno) the instrument is round-shaped.
It is said that the most appreciated charangos in Peru are those from the villages of Huamanquilla and Pacaycasa (province of Huamanga, Ayacucho). They are made of alder or willow wood, with gut strings and lloque wood frets.
Article. "Mapa de los instrumentos musicales de uso popular en el Perú. El charango", in Charango Perú [es].
Article. "El charango peruano", by Chalena Vásquez [es].
Article. "Los charangos peruanos", in Cantera de sonidos [es].
Article. "El charango, instrumento panandino" [es].
Article. "Morfología del charango" [es].
Article. "Danzas con charango" [es].
Video 07. "El charango peruano".
Video 08. Alondra de Canas, accompanied by charangos and chilladores of Canas (department of Cusco).
Video 09. "Ripunay qasapatapi", by Julio Benavente Díaz.
Video 10. "Danza de los negritos", played on the charango of Moquegua.
Video 11. Chinlili.
In Bolivia, the most commonly used variants are the charango lauqueado and the one made with the shell of a kirkincho, with standard dimensions and 10 strings in 5 double courses (usually of steel or nylon, but also of gut in some regions). One of the most popular variants is the charango "diablo" (devil charango), also known as "campesino" (peasant's charango), "arriero" (herder's charango) or "layme". Not as finely crafted as some of its relatives, it has standard dimensions and features a lauqueado or laminated wood body, 10 steel strings in 5 double courses, 8 wire frets and wooden pegs. It is lightweighted and easy to carry, and it is usually tuned in "temple diablo" (devil tuning, thus its name).
The charango anzaldeño and the charango aiquileño, both from the department of Cochabamba, are similar to the standard charango. The former, native to the village of Anzaldo (province of E. Arze), has a flat-back, laminated wood body, 10 steel strings in 5 double courses and 10 wire frets. The second one comes from Aiquile (province of N. Campero), has a lauqueado sound box, 10 strings in 5 courses and between 12 and 17 wire frets.
Also from the province of Cochabamba is the charango sacabeño (from Sacaba, province of Chapare); smaller than the standard charango, it has a "rooster's breast"-back, laminated wood body, five single gut or steel strings, five frets (of cane, bone or wire), and a very small round sound hole. It is usually tuned in "temple natural" with the second and fifth courses an octave higher.
Featuring the same sound box (laminated wood, "rooster's breast"-back), the ranqha charango, ronco charango or tabla charango (from the province of Mizque, Cochabamba) has 6 cane frets, 10 strings in 5 courses, and an additional string ("chirriante") attached to a second peg-box and tuned, at least, three octaves higher than the first course. It comes in four different sizes: small or "medio requinto", medium or "segundo requinto", large or "requinto", and bass or "bajo".
The charango betanceño (from Betanzos, province of C. Saavedra, department of Potosí) has a lauqueado sound box with an arched back, 9 wire frets and between 10 and 12 strings in 5 courses. It comes in several sizes and can be tuned in different ways. The charango vallegrandino (province of Vallegrande, department of Santa Cruz) has a lauqueado sound box, 6 strings in 4 courses (the second and third courses are double-strung) and can be tuned at least in four different ways. The charango fandanguero (from the province of Nor Cinti, department of Chuquisaca) has a laminated wood sound box with "rooster's breast"-back, 10 wire strings in 5 courses and a very peculiar bridge shaped like a serpent. As suggested by its name, this instrument is used to play the local genre known as "fandango".
A curious variant is the so-called "charango de pukarillo", made in the region of Monteagudo (province of H. Siles, department of Chuquisaca). This instrument features a lauqueado sound box with the soundboard glued into place with glue made of chojllo chojllo cactus juice. The strings are made of palm fibre. It usually comes in two sizes.
Among the small-sized charangos, special mention deserve the walaychos, chilladores or maulinchos. Until recent times, they had wire strings and were tuned in "temple natural". Today, however, they feature nylon strings and are tuned in "temple natural" one fifth higher than the standard charango. Rural versions of these instruments, widely spread in the north of the department of Potosí, are sometimes called jiyawas after the popular jiyawa rhythm played on them.
The larger variants of the instrument include the ronroco or ronrroco, the jatun or hatun charango (in Quechua, literally, "large charango"), the guitarrón of Laquepalca or 15-string guitarrón (department of Oruro) and the "guitarrilla potosina" (department of Potosí). The ronroco is usually lauqueado, and very similar to the standard charango though it is tuned one fifth lower (and one octave lower than the walaycho). The jatun or hatun charango is one of the chordophones referred to as "of new generation", that is, of late invention.
Among the charangos there is a family of Bolivian stringed instruments commonly known as "guitarrilla", for their average size is that of a small guitar. Their sound box is usually made of laminated wood with a flat back. One of its most important members is the khonkhota; other examples include the talachi or thalachi (used in the mining villages of Uncía, Llallagua, Calacala and Siglo Veinte, in the province of Bustillo, department of Potosí, in three possible versions, low, medium and high sound box); the guitarrilla or p'alta charango, with low sound box, 7 wire frets, 8 steel or nylon strings (first, third and fifth courses double-strung), round sound hole, and also used in Potosí; the mediana, a widely spread instrument, in three sizes (the larger is a bit smaller than the guitar), used in the departments of Chuquisaca, Cochabamba and Potosí; the "guitarrilla chipaya", used in the western part of the department of Oruro (provinces of Sabaya and Sajama), with 10 steel strings in 5 courses, 7 frets, and in three sizes (similar to those of the mediana); the charango carnaval or "guitarra chicheña" (from Calcha, department of Potosí), a bit smaller than the guitar, with 5 steel strings, 6 wire frets, small sound hole and the sound box made with the shell of a kirkincho or of lauqueado wood; the jalk'a charango, a bit smaller than the guitar, used in Cochabamba, Oropeza (Chuquisaca) and Chayanta (Potosí), usually made of lauqueado wood but also with the shell of a kirkincho; and the jitarra, used in some parts of Chuquisaca, Potosí and Oruro, similar to the mediana, with 8 gut strings in 4 courses, 4 cane frets and mostly played at Easter and harvest time.
Finally, another curious example is the samba charango from the region of Pocoata (department of Potosi). This instrument has 10 wire strings in 5 courses, 10 wooden pegs, a 10 cm deep sound box made of laminated wood with "rooster's breast"-back coloured in black or green, and is usually tuned in "temple diablo".
Article. "Les guitarrillas du nord du departement de Potosí (Bolivie): morphologie, utilisation et symbolique", by Philippe Lyèvre. In Bulletin de l'IFEA, 19 (1), 1990, pp. 183-213 [fr].
Book. "El charango: su vida, costumbres y desventuras", by Ernesto Cavour [es].
Article. "Modelos de charangos", in Sociedad Boliviana del Charango [es].
Picture 11. Bolivian charangos 01 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 12. Bolivian charangos 02 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 13. Bolivian charangos 03 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 14. Bolivian charangos 04 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 15. Bolivian charangos 05 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 16. Bolivian charangos 06 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 17. Bolivian charangos 07 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 18. Guitarrillas 01 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 19. Guitarrillas 02 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 20. Guitarrillas 03 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 21. Guitarrillas 04 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 22. Guitarrillas 05 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 23. Guitarrillas 06 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 24. Guitarrillas 07 (Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments).
Picture 25. Mediana.
Picture 26. Rankha charango.
During the last decades there have been lots of innovations in the charango building; the Bolivian charanguista (charango player) Ernesto Cavour has created more than a dozen "new charangos" (e.g. charango pinquillo, charangola, estrellita, charango sonqoy, charangolina, charanputu). Throughout the Andes, luthiers strive to introduce the latest technology advances, the best materials, the most innovative designs, etc. However, many of their traditional features continue to exist and be appreciated. Somehow, they continue to shape "modernised" features, thus allowing present-day charango players to look into the past to learn about their instrument origins, history and developments.