When you’re a legend, I suppose, you really don’t need the hype. That was the case when the venerable Cuban charanga ensemble Orquesta Aragón took the stage before a packed house at Mayne Stage on Friday night. There was a brief and subdued off stage announcement (“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, direct from Cuba, Orquesta Aragón.”) and then 10 middle-aged and quite unassuming gentlemen confidently strolled onstage and quietly got ready to play. After a brief musical introduction – something I take to be the Aragón theme song – they got down to business for well over an hour of glorious music-making spanning their historic 75-year career.
A little bit of everything from those 75 years could be heard. There was danzón from the early years, syncopated semi-classical chamber music gently evoking an age of tropical elegance. A good chunk of time was spent on the music they are best known for, the son and cha cha that, along with the mambo, took the world by storm in the 1950s. Make no mistake, though, Orquesta Aragón is not a museum piece, frozen in time, but an ever evolving unit that continually adapted new trends like salsa and timba to their classic, violin-driven sound. So there was that, too.
The violin side has the ability to make you swoon. Beautiful songs like the bolero cha “Sentia un Nuevo Amor” make room for brief quotes of 19th century European music like Borodin’s “Gliding Dance” and Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”. When violinist Lázaro Dagoberto González stepped to the front for an achingly romantic solo on “Bésame Mucho”, the crowd was brought first to an awed hush and then, at the song’s conclusion, a roaring ovation.
When you weren’t swooning, you were dancing. The triple-percussion threat of timbal, guiro and tumbadoras kept the energy high for the son cha and salsa numbers, playing against the violins and intertwining with the son montuno piano runs and buoyant bass. Meanwhile, front line vocalists Rafael Lay Bravo (son of the band’s leader during their heyday and their current music director) and Juan Carlos Villegas entertained with both unison vocals and soulful leads from Villegas. And, of course, there is the wonderfully fluid playing of flautist Eduardo Rubio riding nearly every song.
Photos by www.eliascarmona.com
They cruised through all their classic numbers, of course: “El Bodeguero”, Ven Morena”, “Pare Cochero” and more. Ah, the sweetness of that sound, the slight hesitation in the rhythm that swings ever so insistently. There wasn’t much room to dance in the packed venue, but believe me, a lot of people found a way. Uptempo son cha numbers like “Así son Boncó” and “A Gozar la Vida” sealed the deal.
A poignant, yet celebratory moment came about two-thirds of the way into the show. In 1999, Aragón invited the great Puerto Rican singer Cheo Feliciano to record “Son Al Son” with them for their La Charanga Eterna album. Cheo died in an auto accident the day before Friday’s concert, but for Aragón, this was not an occasion for some maudlin moment of silence. Instead, they called on the audience to applaud ‘loud enough to be heard in Puerto Rico’ as they dedicated a performance of Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández’ “Cachita” to Cheo. We did our best. Readers from San Juan can tell us if we succeeded.
All in all, it was a pretty incredible evening, but perhaps the most remarkable thing was the easy and almost relaxed energy coming off the stage. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. Confidence radiates from every band member, thus removing the need to for them to show off and allowing them to just do what they were born to do (that’s fairly literal – several of the members are second or even third generation) with consummate skill and grace. The evening closed much the same way it began, with the Aragón theme followed by an encore of “Ven Morena”, sending everyone home with satisfied smiles.
Author Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.