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History of the Andean music
    Land of winds > Music > History | Issue 15 (Jul.-Aug.2013)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The charango: its music and its performers


The charango: its music and its performers

Today the charango is the dearest and most demonstrative instrument for indigenous people and even mestizos. Each people make it in their own manner and according to their songs; they measure it, its body, its neck and then chose the willow, the walnut tree, the cedar depending on the region.

José María Arguedas

It can be said that the charango is considered the Andean string instrument par excellence, or, at least, the most widely spread and popular one. When we speak of the "charango", we are really talking about a whole family of string instruments (charangos and guitarrillas) all similar in structure though they evolve independently and became widely dispersed in Peru and Bolivia (e.g. the khonkhota). In addition to the many traditional variants, there are two or three standard models which are the ones that have attracted more attention internationally.

The history of the instrument remains obscure: scholar research on the charango is scarce, and many of the existing "studies" have little or none scientific base. There is certainty that both charangos and guitarrillas derive from Renaissance and Baroque string instruments introduced in America by Europeans, such as the vihuela, early guitars and lutes. Evolutionary processes gave rise to diversity as those instruments were adopted, adapted and refashioned by the indigenous and mestizo societies in the Americas. They were slow, long processes with multiple phases and gave birth to an array of different American chordophones including Andean charangos and guitarrillas, which, in turn, become more diverse to suit different purposes and match the needs and likes of local communities.

One of the first iconographic representations of a string instrument in the Andean region appears in one of the illustrations in Guaman Poma de Ayala's "Nueva corónica y buen gobierno" (1610; a four-string instrument played by a criollo, as stated by the author himself). Several representations of guitar-like instruments were later to be found in the collection of more than a thousand watercolours included in the Codex Trujillo del Peru or Martínez Compañón (1782-1785); specifically in the prints E 61 ("Indios bailando en la chichería", the instrument has 5 double courses of strings), E 141 ("Danza de negros", 4 double courses), E 145 ("Danza de los diablicos", 4-5 double courses) y E 152 ("Danza de las pallas", 5 double courses). From the same period (second half of 18th century) date the pictures of sirens playing guitarrillas/charangos; they were made in different sizes both in Peru (i.e. murals in the Church of San Cristóbal de Rapaz, province of Oyón, department of Lima; façade of the Cathedral of Puno, by Simón de Asto) and Bolivia (i.e. porch of the Church of San Lorenzo, Potosí). Representations also appear in Peruvian and Bolivian historical documents and chronicles, including Ricardo Palma’s "Tradiciones Peruanas" (towards 1863). This author refers to the instrument either as "charango" or as "charanga" and presents it accompanying a kashwa.

Towards the 19th century, the instrument would have become assimilated and consolidated into the Andean culture (mostly rural and indigenous), and its name (whose origins are still being debated) would have been adopted, as well as a number of legends, myths and narratives that would portray the charango as a sort of vengeful mockery of the Spanish conquistador.

Collection of essays. "Acerca del origen del charango", by Héctor Soto. In Charango para todos [es].
Article. Chalena Vásquez’s introduction the CD "Charango" by CEMDUC/PUCP [es].
Article. "El charango", by José María Arguedas. In Charango Perú [es].
Book. "Codex Martínez Compañón", in National Library of Colombia [es].

The charango: its music and its performers

Like many other indigenous peoples in America who adopted chordophones into their cultures (i.e Guaraní groups), native Andean societies would also have used the charango and the guitarrillas as a "percussion" instrument: beating the strings following a rhythmical pattern and playing a few simple chords. In fact, in the case of some types of guitarrilla, this way of performing has continued to this day. Peruvian Julio Benavente Díaz, in an interview, said: "in the past the charango was knew as a simple strummed instrument, held in less consideration than other instruments". A new range of performing styles would be brought over and popularized through the interaction with Mestizo and criollo guitar and other string instruments players: from simple picking (single and double courses) to much more complex developments such as the k'alampeo (chords and melody combined and built on a syncopate rhythm base).

Generally speaking, it was little appreciated by (European) urban sectors of the Andean society, both during the colonial and the republican period, who regarded the instrument with certain disdain ("kind of peasant guitarrilla used by indians"), and literature portrayed it as such (especially some criollo authors). Until the first half of the 20th century, the charango was referred to as "indian instrument" in a pejorative sense, that is, as an instruments with few musical pretentions, played only in rural areas where allegedly there was little literacy and a lack of musical culture.

Between 1930 and 1940, Bolivian players such as Mauro Núñez Cáceres and Rigoberto "Tarateño" Rojas Suárez began to popularize the charango in folkloric circles, mostly in Argentina. Núñez also started off a process of standardization (by establishing measures and tunes for the instrument), and composed the first soloist pieces meant to be played on the charango. His steps were followed by groups such as the one led by Antonio Pantoja, or players like Jaime Torres (Argentina). In the 1950s, the master charango player Jaime Guardia Neyra trod a similar path in Peru; Guardia popularized the charango's traditional style used in the department of Ayacucho playing solo or with the well-known band Lira Paucina.

Video 01. "Serranito", by Mauro Núñez.
Video 02. "Como el viento", by "Tarateño" Rojas.
Video 03. "Fiesta de Buri", by Antonio Pantoja and his group.
Video 04. "Encuentro en el estudio" with Jaime Torres, in Canal Encuentro (Argentina) [es].
Video 05. "Mañana me voy", by Jaime Guardia.
Video 06. "Huérfano pajarillo", by Jaime Guardia.


Along the 1960s and the 1970s, its use was spread by several bands and players who took the instrument to the rest of Latin America and Europe, and gave it a place in their repertoire and recordings. In Argentina, Jaime Torres included the charango in the famous "Misa Criolla", while in Bolivia Ernesto Cavour (with Los Jairas) and William E. Centellas were two of its best ambassadors. Julio Benavente Díaz, in Perú, disseminated the playing style used in the department of Cusco. These players inspired others to find their own voices; for instance Héctor Soto in Chile and Eddy Navia (with Savia Andina) in Bolivia. In Europe, the instrument was spread by groups such as Los Incas (featuring Argentinean Jorge Milchberg) and Los Calchakis.

Video 07. "Tu casamiento y mi muerte", by Los Jairas.
Video 08. "Los Jairas vol. 2 (1967) – Complete LP", by Los Jairas.
Video 09. "Fiesta del charango", by William E. Centellas.
Video 10. "Sara tarpuy", by Julio Benavente.
Video 11. "Mi ronroco tiene una pena", by Héctor Soto.
Video 12. "Salay", by Eddy Navia.
Video 13. "Cora y kirquincho", by Jorge Milchberg.


With the rise of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement, music groups from across the region included the chordophone in their performances and works, giving it a key role to play: from Illapu, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani and Curacas in Chile to Los Folkloristas in México. Some of these bands even featured skilled charango players/composers: for example Argentinean group Markama (with Archi Zambrano), Bolivian group Rumillajta (with Juan Jorge Laura) or Peruvian group Los Wayanay (with Luis Tovar Valera).

Video 14. "Llanto de una madre - Dos palomitas", by Illapu.
Video 15. "Mis llamitas", by Inti-Illimani.
Video 16. "Camanchaca", by Los Curacas.
Video 17. "Cacharpaya del indio", by Los Folkloristas.
Video 18. "Señora chichera", by Markama.
Video 19. "Akulliku", by Rumillajta.
Video 20. "Killincho", by Los Wayanay.


Since then, the charango has widened its boundaries to include new admirers as well as players; while the number of the latter has doubled in the last few years. There has been an explosion of new schools, styles and techniques. Some of the most distinctive artists on today's Bolivian scene includes Alejandro Cámara (and his groups "Semilla" and "Sayubú"), Ariel Villazón Torrico, Alfredo Coca, Agustín Alonso, Saúl Callejas, Celestino Campos, Edwin Castellanos, Pepe Murillo, Jorge Oporto, Donato Espinoza, Alberto Arteaga, Bonny Alberto Terán and Klarken Orozco.

Video 21. "Inti wasi", by Alejandro Cámara.
Video 22. "Annunakis", by Ariel Villazón.
Video 23. "Selección de huayños", by Alfredo Coca.
Video 24. "Sin título", by Agustín Alonso.
Video 25. "Niño aymara", by Saúl Callejas.
Video 26. "María Luisa", by Celestino Campos (live).
Video 27. "Pretenciosa", by Edwin Castellanos (with Fernando Torrico).
Video 28. "Saya caporal", by Pepe Murillo and Los Bolivianos (live).
Video 29. "Torotoreñita", by Jorge Oporto.
Video 30. "Estudio para charango", by Donato Espinoza.
Video 31. "Che, cholita", by Alberto Arteaga.
Video 32. "Ingrata, no llores", by Bonny Alberto Terán.
Video 33. "Dulce churucuta", by Klarken Orozco.


In Argentina we find Diego Jascalevich, Rolando Goldman, Carlos Ibarra, Daniel Navarro, Gustavo Patiño and Adriana Lúbiz, while from Chile César Palacios, Gastón Ávila, Horacio Durán, Conrado García, Claudio Araya, Pedro Plaza and Italo Pedrotti are some of the best-known names.

Video 34. "Sin título", by Diego Jascalevich (live).
Video 35. "Estudio para charango", by Rolando Goldman (live).
Video 36. "La viajerita", by Carlos Ibarra (live).
Video 37. "Título desconocido", by Daniel Navarro.
Video 38. "Salaque", by Gustavo Patiño (live).
Video 39. "De aquí para allá", by Adriana Lúbiz (with Luis Pérez, live).
Video 40. "Vuelo de parinas", by César Palacios.
Video 41. "Suriando", by Gastón Ávila.
Video 42. "Tonada triste", by Horacio Durán.
Video 43. "Tiempos", by Conrado García.
Video 44. "Reencuentro", by Claudio Araya.
Video 45. "Ñustas", by Pedro Plaza.
Video 46. "Otoñal", by Ítalo Pedrotti.


However, despite the wide range of differences that may exist among all of them, most of the Andean players who have struggle to master the charango acknowledge that they take their inspiration and roots from indigenous communities: the very same communities where the complex and unfinished story of this wonderful string instrument started.

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