Orquesta Aragon | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Orquesta Aragon 

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You can't find a charanga band anywhere in the world more authentic than Orquesta Aragon. Founded in 1939 in Cienfuegos, a French colonial town about 100 miles from Havana, it's the oldest continuously operating unit in popular music--since the 1950s, young Cuban instrumentalists have considered the band the "major leagues," and many have vied for a chance to take part in what's become a cultural institution. If Orquesta Aragon had adhered strictly to the traditional charanga-band formula--mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with the stately sounds of violins and flute, and playing antique dance forms such as danzon and son--it would likely have receded into the mists of memory. But in the mid-50s, the group adopted a novel song form and rhythm (created by a contemporaneous bandleader) for its hit tune "La enganadora," turning this new music, called cha-cha, into an international sensation. Orquesta Aragon both conserves and builds on its legacy as the great popularizer of cha-cha: though the band has maintained its original charanga instrumentation, its brand-new disc En Route (World Village) showcases various fusions of cha-cha with other genres, from the "shake"--a blend of cha-cha with the signature rhythms of Chubby Checker's "The Twist," which the group began playing in the early 60s--to more recent hybrids like "rock-cha," "cha-onda" (which incorporates Guinean music), and even "rap-cha" (which improbably enough finds a balance between cha-cha and hip-hop). Currently led by violinist Rafael Lay Bravo--whose father, also a violinist, joined the band as a 13-year-old in 1940--Orquesta Aragon has perfected a stage show that telescopes more than 60 years of Cuba's musical history into a seamless set, complete with joyous, old-fashioned synchronized choreography from the singers and over-the-top displays from the band's younger percussionists. (I've seen one of the vocalists, in the midst of a dance "solo," leap right off the stage.) Here Orquesta Aragon shares a bill with Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Friday, December 7, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Youri Lenquette.

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