A guide to this small South American powerhouse
If you were to take a mandolin, combine it with a ukulele and maybe toss in some oud or perhaps a bit balalaika, you might very well end up with a charango. So, what’s a charango? This diminutive, multi-stringed, multi-coursed, hollow-bodied axe offers up sweet sounds reminiscent of a mando, a high-strung guitar, or a uke, and projects surprisingly well for such a small instrument.
The first charangos emerged during the 18th century in the northern Andes Mountains of South America, an area comprising the present-day countries of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, along with northern Chile and the far northwestern piece of Argentina. Those early charangos were the creations of the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples, whose pre-contact music featured wind and percussion instruments. They were likely influenced by the vihuela, an ancestor of the modern guitar which was brought to the region by Spanish colonists.
Original charangos featured a resonator (the back of the instrument, which reflects sounds made by the strings) made of an armadillo shell, while the instruments of today have a wooden resonator that may be either flat or arched. Earlier charangos also featured a one-piece carved neck and bowl-back Charango soundboards (the top of the instrument) are generally made from spruce or cedar, though other woods may be substituted. While the hollow-body form of the charango is the most common, there exist solid-body electric charangos, which resemble (and tend to sound like) electric guitars in miniature.
The charanguista, the player of the charango, navigates five courses of two strings each, tuned G-C-E-A-E, in which the middle course of E strings is tuned in an octave while the other courses are in unison and tuned within this E octave. This is “standard” tuning for the charango and represents an Am7 chord. The C-course is tuned an octave above middle C, while the low E in the middle course is the lowest string on the instrument, followed by the G-course, the A-course, and the C-course. The two strings of the high E-course and the higher E string in the middle E-course are the highest tuned strings on the instrument. This tuning pattern is called “re-entrant” tuning as the strings do not progress in order from the lowest to highest pitch.
The charanguista plays his or her instrument through both strumming with one or multiple fingers, and/or by finger-picking individual strings, which can create a flamenco-like sound, only pitched considerably higher. The strings may be made of metal, nylon or gut.
With its large headstock – big enough to fit at least 10 strings – and rather diminutive body, the charango may appear somewhat top-heavy. As with the mandolin, violin and ukulele families of instruments, charangos come in multiple sizes and tuning schemes. The waylacho is a smaller instrument, also featuring five courses of two strings each, that is tuned either a fifth or a fourth higher than the charango. The charangon, or tenor charango, is tuned either a fourth lower (Argentine tuning) or a fifth lower (Bolivian tuning) than a charango.
The ronroco is a larger instrument that also features five two-string courses and is generally tuned an octave below the charango, though the charangon tunings may also be used. When the two lower courses are tuned in octaves instead of in unison, the ronroco is no longer in re-entrant tuning. The chillador can be either a charango tuned in standard tuning with a guitar-style body (curved sides and a flat back), or a flat-backed, steel-strung charango with either 10 or 12 strings. With the 12-string version, the fourth and second courses are triple-strung.
A newer member of the charango family, and evidence of that family’s on-going evolution, is the hatun charango. Peruvian multi-instrumentalist Federico Tarazona devised this hybrid instrument, the first of which was built in 2001 by luthier Fernando Luna in Lima, Peru. The hatun charango features 8 strings with only the third and fourth strings doubled as an E octave; the other 6 strings are single courses of one string each. The higher five strings are in the re-entrant tuning of a charango, while the two lowest strings are bass strings, making the whole tuning scheme: A3-D4-G4-C5-E5/E4-A4-E5. The two bass strings, the low A and D, are independently fretted in order to correctly intonate them on such a small instrument. A statement on Tarazona’s web site explains the hatun charango thusly: “The ease of playing the hatun charango allows access to a universal repertoire of music. A great number of adaptations of pieces for lute, vihuela, guitar and violin are easily accessible, and, of course, original pieces are easily and frequently composed for the instrument.”
Great Charango Recordings
While the charango is not commonly used in non-Latin music, a few examples can be found. Canadian songwriter-guitarist Bruce Cockburn plays one on his song “Lily of the Midnight Sky,” which is found on his 1986 album World of Wonders. Argentine musician Pedro Aznar plays charango on Pat Metheny’s Letter From Home, released in 1989.
Perhaps the most notable charango appearance in American music came in the song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” which appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water. Paul Simon, mistakenly believing that “El Condor Pasa” was an Andean folk song in the public domain, wrote English lyrics that he and Art Garfunkel recorded over an instrumental version of the song by Los Incas, an Argentinian folk band. But “El Condor Pasa” was composed by Daniel Alomia Robles as part of a Peruvian zarzuela, a musical play, of the same name. Robles received a U.S. copyright for the tune in 1933. Robles’ son sued Simon in 1970; the case was settled amicably.
Here are some links to videos of various accomplished charanguistas:
Alberto Coca, Palmeras: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-yCgpckMSs
Alberto Coca, Seleccion de Huaynos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2hFLFbenec
Ernesto Cavour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koafJV-CpiY
Jorge Milchberg: El Condor Pasa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lbq0S1AGZmg
Festival del Charango; Potosi, Bolivia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df9YJwba5ao
Gustavo Santaolalla, DeUshuaia a la Quiaca (played on a ronroco): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzX4rIdODwM
Federico Tarazona, El Condor Pasa (played on a hatun charango): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KxRqmlPedQ