On South American music: the Charango

Photo: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

While traveling in South America I became aware of this refreshing sound which was news to me. The instrument was the “charango” and I completely fell in love with it.

It’s a guitar-shaped instrument, and as you might be able to find out, it’s typically made with the shell of the back of an armadillo. It has 10 strings combined to form 5 pairs (just like the Portuguese guitar, which has 12 strings combined in 6 pairs), each pair tuned in the same note (including octaves).

Fabricio (who’s surfing the charango in the photo) recommended that I’d browse the shops in La Paz if I wanted to get myself a decent, cheap charango. So I did, and after almost 3 hours of bargaining around town, I finally purchased one, with the traditional cover plus a book with chords, tuning, technique, etc. I admit, there wasn’t much more touristic activity for me that day: I went back to the hostel and spent something like 4 hours playing…my fingers rejoiced when they encountered strings! Mine isn’t made out of an armadillo’s back, anyway – those are more expensive and I didn’t want to spend much.

The instrument’s most famous appearance worldwide (that I remember, at least) was probably in the soundtrack for “The Motorcycle Diaries” by Gustavo Santaolalla. Actually, that was the first song I managed to play by ear when I purchased the charango, since it’s quite catchy and beautiful.

There’s a very interesting article by Max Peter Baumann from the University of Bamberg (Germany),  “The Charango as Transcultural Icon of Andean Music“, from which I transcribe a part:

In the Altiplano, on the other hand, particularly in the Oruro district, the material used for the sounding body came from the shell of the armadillo (charango de quirquincho or tatu), in unusual cases even from pumpkin shells or permanently formed bulls’ hides. The wooden pegs inserted from behind found in rural areas were generally replaced in urban areas with steel pegs with spiral screws inserted from the sides, and nylon strings displaced the steel ones. While the instrument used to be strung with animal tendons and gut in the villages for lack of metal wire, stringing with metal courses has since emerged predominant among the Indios, who prefer a metallic sound.

If my post triggered any curiosity at all, then you should definitely read Baumann’s above mentioned article on this whole subject, and even learn a bit more about South American ways and History.

There are many resources out there, like the Sociedad Boliviana del Charango, so you’ll have no trouble finding out much more about this fascinating musical instrument.

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28 comments

  1. This is why I absolutely love the Latin culture… I have to do some more research on the charango…

  2. I closed my eyes, listening to the music, and was transported to a place I want to be….thank you.

  3. Amazing music, I enjoyed it a lot, thanks for making my day!

  4. Ukelele mixed with banjo. Lovely. Thanks. I’ll be youtubing Charango music all evening now. Neat that it’s made from an armadillo shell. Neat for us, not the armadillo, of course. 🙂

    I’ll post your blog on my local homeschool e-loop as a supplement to Geography studies.

    • @Gloris again: the sound of the charango is very addictive, I agree!! But I’d say armadillos can rest assured nowadays (at least a bit), since most charangos are made out of wood now 🙂

  5. beautiful. The music transported me, too, thank you. Memories of several trips to that interesting country with warm people.

  6. Pingback: Great Charango Pic « Cultural Organology

  7. IslandGirl

    Love how you captured Charango through your photograph. It is truly a unique way of looking at an inanimate object.

  8. tom scott

    check out joshgarrels.com “words remain”
    thanks alex

    • @tom scott: just seen the website, and it’s sounding real good man; my kind of a cultural mix put into sound – thank you for the recommendation!

  9. Tri

    ( I tried to Leave a Comment on your “friendly recognition” tab, but it didn’t work). I love love love this photo! And, I have to say, I am truly humbled that you have nominated me as 1 of your top 12 blogs. Humbled. Thank you. Great minds think alike, and I too think your blog is one of my favorite! So, thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Namaste.

  10. i can’t seem to click on your “about”. Who are you, and how is it that you are able to travel the world this way? curious. Gloris

  11. This was awesome. Thanks.

  12. As for the problems opening the other pages, I’m having no trouble at all. Asked a friend to try it out and she could open both of them nicely…

  13. mise en ligne de fetes, carnavals , festivals, concerts , theatre etc…. dans nos regions francaises

  14. I’ll bring your blog to my reader

  15. I LOVE the photo!

  16. MLIN

    It is indeed a nice instrument … but some nature freaks will criticise that it is made with the bones of a quirquincho …

  17. MLIN

    Well, as for the wooden charangos, I have to say that the sound is never ‘the same’ as with a normal ‘armadillo’ 🙂

  18. Yeah,
    The charango is one of my favourites too. It’s something to do with the enthusiasm in which it is played, it seems almost impossible not too enjoy yourself!

  19. Slowly but surely the charango is getting known by guitar-type players from all over the world. Yesterday 1600 chrango players played together in the soccer stadium of Cochabamba, Bolivia and got into the Guinness Book of World Records. Events like this help spread the awareness of this magical instrument. Viva el charango!

    Luis
    @CharangoStore.com

  20. Boy

    Many years ago i fell in love with the charango.
    But sometimes it is hard to properly play them;specially the tremolo.
    A very fast strumming all the strings.
    But until now i practise only with a DVD course and a learning book,
    because here into the Netherlands you can,t find a teacher.
    But i still love my charango.

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