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.