Charango: Icon Of Andean Music From South America

Peruvian playing a Charango at Cristo Blanco, Cusco, in Peru

Charango Origin

The charango is a small ten string Andean musical instrument from the lute family that originated from South America.

When the Spaniards arrived in South America, they brought with them the vihuela. The vihuela is considered to be the ancestor of modern-day guitars.

The native South Americans loved the vihuela, but they did not have the technology to shape the wood like the vihuela. What the natives did have however were armadillo shells.

Therefore, using the armadillo shells as the bowl shaped body of the instrument, the charango was born.

There is another theory of the origin of the charango. According to this theory, the charango initially came to Potosi in Bolivia from colonial Peru in a region known as Ayacucho.

The introduction of the charango in Potosi was as a result of migration within the Quechua populations, through cultural interaction it eventually spread to the larger Andean area. This theory is yet to be proven, however.

The final theory claims that when the Spaniards colonizers prohibited the natives from playing their ancestral music, the charango was an attempt to create a lute that could easily be hidden under the native’s garments.

The Origin of the Term Charango

The origin of the name is not clearly identified. There is a suggestion that the instrument got its name from the people playing it who were known as charangeros, which means a person of questionable character and poor morals.

There is another suggestion that links the name to the Spaniards, claiming that charango was an alteration of the Spanish term charanga. Charanga referred to an orchestra that is out of tune, or a type of military music played using wind instruments.

Also, some believe the origin of the word was crafted from the corruption of the Spanish word Quechua to “Chajwaku.” Chajwaku means noisy and boisterous in reference to the sound produced.

Charango Tuning & Playing Styles

The tuning of the charango is done using five pairs (or courses) of strings, normally tuned GCEAE. The strings are made from both metal-wound and nylon (sometimes a combination of nylon and tradition gut strings, Nylgut).

Dissimilar to other stringed instruments, all ten strings are tuned inside one octave, creating a narrow tonal range.

Here’s what the charango sounds like.

Some people play the charango using a pick while some play using their fingers. It can be played as a solo instrument, or it can accompany a guitar. When accompanying a guitar, the charango adds a vital sonority to Andrean folk ensembles.

The charango is very versatile allowing it to be used to interpret all genres of music from yaravi (an ancient traditional genre of Andean music normally quite sad) to carnival music as well as “wasichaky,” a traditional roof-raising dance.

The musical and cultural context determines how a charango is played as well as the person playing it. When the charango is accompanying an instrument, it is often played in a strong and rhythmic manner.

On the other hand, when a charango is played solo or as a melody tune, the technique used to play the instrument is the plucking of melody lines through double harmony notes.

Also, when playing solo, a charanguista may use the method of plucking melody lines through intricate arpeggio patterns. When playing as a picking or plucking instrument, it has a stunning harp-like quality.

Design & Variations

The standard charango has five double strings. The five pairs of strings are similar to the number of strings on a mandolin, an instrument found in North America. The difference, however, is in how its strung, tuned and played.

Sometimes, the charango is also referred to by some as the Andean ukulele. However, this isn’t accurate, despite the size of both instruments being similar.

The Hawaiian ukulele features four strings, and its origin is traced back to Portuguese immigrants who settled in the islands in the 19th century. The ukulele also sounds distinctively different.

The charango comes in different sizes, shapes, pitch, type of strings, and tuning. In more recent times, there have been numerous modern adaptions to its construction.

The ronroco is one of the variations. It’s larger in size and has a deeper tone and sound, essentially the bass or baritone charango.

Other variations may feature a neck that is separately glued on, a two-piece top plate featuring contrasting woods, friction tuning pegs made using ebony or palisander mimicking the traditional style, and a box construction in a guitar style.

One other aspect when it comes to design is the number of sound holes. The arrangement of the holes may vary from single round or oval hole to multiple arrangements of the holes.

A beautiful looking charango instrument.

One popular variation is to have a neck with two holes bored 3/4 way through, meaning they are parallel to the fretboard and close to the headstock. The boring of holes on the neck is believed to improve the tone of the instrument.

Nowadays, electric charangos are available, either solid-body electric or hollow-body acoustic-electric. The instruments with solid bodies are created in a way similar to that of small electric guitars.

The acoustic-electrics are an upgrade to the standard charango, with the additional component being a contact microphone that projects the sound produced by the instrument through an amplifier.

Traditionally, the round back was originally made of armadillo shells, however, these are rare and uncommon to find today. Like the rest of the instrument, the back, body, and neck are normally carved from a single block of wood, cider, or spruce the most popular.

But not all have round backs many have flatbacks. They look like mini-guitars, and some even have metal strings.

A typical charango has an overall length of 26 inches, and the length of the string scale is 15 inches. The number of frets is between five and eighteen.

The body generally features a narrow waist quite similar to the guitar shape and not the pear-shape like that of a lute. The soundboard and shape of the body may have minor variations compared to the traditional design.

Traditional versions had friction-style tuning pegs. These pegs are similar to those found on a violin. Today’s instruments, on the other hand, use tuning pegs similar to those found on a guitar. Once in a while, the pegs are positioned perpendicular to the headstock.

Most instruments feature different decorative features that vary according to the player’s taste. Some have simple purfling inlays around the top perimeter while there are those with headstocks that are curved elegantly. As well as mural-like scenes engraved into the back of the body.

Charango In Pop Culture

Over the years, more and more musicians have begun to use the charango in their music.

Contemporary urban artists like Luis Jimenez and Camilo Gomez, both of who are from Valparaiso Chile, are incorporating the instrument into modern music like jazz, Sufi, rock, and other new age music.

The hit song “If I Could” by Simon & Garfunkel also features the charango. Their lyrics are layered on top of the Los Incas recording of “El Condor Pasa.”

In 1976 the Japanese TV anime series 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother featured the instrument in its opening song, as well as another traditional Andean musical instrument, the Quena.

Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla is another artist who incorporates the beautiful sound of the charango in his work. Gustavo is the composer behind the soundtracks for the films Brokeback Mountain, Babel, and The Motorcycle Diaries.

Gustavo Santaolalla playing the charango.

Apart from individual artists, many bands have begun to incorporate the use of the Andean musical instrument. The Los-Kjarkas is an internationally renowned Andean band that uses it as the main instrument in combination with panpipes and flutes.

Another group that features the charango in their music is the electronica group Morcheeba. They even have an album and song titled with the same name.

A Colombian group known as Monsieur Perine also use the charango in many of their songs, bringing out a mixture of Colombian folk rhythms with jazz.

Final Thoughts

The charango has played a big influence on traditional Andean music and slowly made its way into more modern musical styles.

If you ever have the chance to visit Cusco in the Peruvian Andes, the sounds of the charango are everywhere and fill the streets with a great vibe.

One things for certain, the Spanish guitar’s little South American brother will never go out of style.