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What is a Charango

Las cuerdas de mi Charango traducen mis sentimientos: cuando estoy contento ríen, cuando estoy con pena lloran

José Prudencio Bustillo (1922)


The charango is a stringed musical instrument of the lute family, of Andean origin but now widespread throughout much of South America. Its sound is ringing, penetrating but extremely sweet.

It is the most widespread native instrument on the Andean area, particularly in the altiplanica and valleys of Bolivia, where its origins are likely to be delineated. However, it is also found in Peru, Equador, Chile and Argentina, again around the Andean plateau, where it has slowly spread over the years. It is also one of the most important instruments in Latin America, and although its recent spread has also taken it far away from its geographical origins, the charango still plays an important role within the indigenous traditions of the Quechua people, the most widespread ethnic group in the Andean highland area. If you want to understand what charango is, read on! There is much to discover.

Charango Aiquileño Boliviano
A Bolivian charango, traditional Aiquileño model. Luthier: Ignacio Suarez Rojas.

What the charango looks like

The charango is quite small in size, with an overall length that hardly exceeds 65 cm and with a diapason (vibrating length of the strings) of about 38 cm. Its size, but also its tuning, lead mistakenly to confuse it with the ukulele, with which it also to some extent shares a part of its history.

It is an instrument with a large number of variations. There are so many that it would be more accurate to say that the charango is a true family of chordophones. The variants differ greatly in size, shape, tuning and materials. However, there is one version with a specific shape and tuning that has become established and widespread throughout the world, which is called the standard charango.

The charango has a few special features that distinguish it from other stringed instruments: it is often carved from a single piece of wood, which is hollowed out into a concave, shell-like soundbox with an upper contour roughly resembling that of a guitar. This is one of the main characteristics of the Bolivian charango, of which the makers are particularly proud. The reason for this specific shape is unclear but can be traced to the evolutionary history of an instrument that until a few decades was also made from the shell of an armadillo or other animals, such as the sternum bone of the condor or the carapace of some gastropods. Today, however, wood is used almost exclusively.

The most common woods used to construct the charango’s body are two: jacarandà, a dalbergia of the rosewood family, with a reddish-brown color and characteristic knotty grain, and naranjillo, with a straw-yellow color and orange veins. Jacaranda is a harder wood that is stable to changes in humidity, which is why it is considered better and used on concert charangos. However, there are many other woods that can be used: tarco, quina quina, and sotomara are just some of them.

The origins of charango

The charango has a rather ancient origin. It is the evolution of the baroque guitars and vihuelas that the Spanish brought to the South American colonies during between 500 and 600. These instruments, which the European aristocracy used for their own pleasure, obviously spread beyond the palaces of the nobility, meeting the interest of the indigenous populations. Until that time, there were no chordophones on the American continent, but only percussion and wind instruments.

The taste of the original peoples over the centuries changed the form and role these instruments had, slowly creating what we know today as charango. To really understand what the charango is, it is essential to travel to Bolivia. There, if one goes deep into the rural communities, one realizes how many variations of these instruments still exist today: almost every community has developed its own variation and tuning, creating an immense legacy of music and rituals that revolve around the charango as an instrument of social life. There are hundreds of them, of which unfortunately many are now almost extinct.

The charango that has spread around the world today is one of many variations, which came into its own during the 1950s thanks to an outstanding Bolivian musician and artist of great importance, Mauro Nuñez Caceres. It was he who took the charango from its rural context and brought it into the urban milieu, overcoming the strong discrimination that affected the charango and generally any expressions of rural communities. Today the charango is an instrument with a two-faced personality: one is the modern, concert-like, absolutely urban one, which has produced a large amount of repertoire in the last century and has spread to Chile and Argentina. The other is a rural soul, deeply connected to ancestral rituals and pre-Hispanic culture, in which the charango is not so much a musical instrument as a tool of life, with a very decisive role in the communities that possess it.

Tuning of the charango

The standard charango has 10 strings, but these are arranged in pairs-like our mandolin-and consequently it is defined as a 5-chord instrument. There are many tunings of the charango, but the most common is the one defined by the so-called temple natural: G – C – E – A – E

Charango tuning

This is an open A minor seventh tuning, in which the strings all sound in unison except for the middle pair, where E is doubled in the lower octave. This particular structure requires the musician to develop a particular arpeggio technique distinct from that of other more common chordophones: if, for example, in a guitar the strings are distributed from the lowest (I string) to the highest (VI string), in the charango the order sees the lowest in the middle and the others (III – I – IV – II – V) follow in alternation. If you are looking for more information on charango tuning, read this article!

The spreading of the charango

The huge number of variations of the charango in its areas of origin can be disorienting for the Western musician or scholar who is accustomed to a very strict classification of the musical instruments with which he or she plays. Those who are not involved in musicology usually conceive of these variants as examples belonging to specific families where the instrument of reference is declined in forms necessary to cover the full range of timbre: think violin, viola, cello and double bass. The musicologist, on the other hand, knows that the canonization of musical instruments into specific families is a very recent outcome with respect to the evolutionary history of individual instruments and that it does not preclude the possibility of localized types of the same instrument.

This is the case with the charango, of which we observe a surprising number of variants. These are not only variants in terms of tuning (temple), but true constructive forms that are extremely different from each other. Talking about the instrument in its totality-tuning and outward form-we realize that the first and main subdivision is that which contrasts rural instruments with urban or modern ones. Given the complexity of the subject, it is better to deal elsewhere with the differences between rural and urban charango. Focus now on the urban one, which is then the one that has crossed South American borders spreading around the world in the last 50 years.

It is impossible to understand what the charango is today without considering the journey the instrument has made to Europe, where it has arrived only in the last forty years. For Italy, this happened thanks to the presence of Inti Illimani, the Chilean group in exile in our country during Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship in the 1970s. In Europe, other Andean groups appeared in the same years: especially in France Los Jairas (perhaps the most important Andean group ever) and later Bolivia Manta.

In more recent times, however, the charango is becoming known in North America and United States through an Argentine variant of it called ronroco, with music by an important musician and author of beautiful soundtracks: Gustavo Santaolalla. They are the soundtracks of films and series such as 21 grams, Babel, The Motorcycle Diaries, and The Last of Us, have in common the meditative and deep sound of this instrument.

In this beautiful piece, performed by Inti Illimani themselves, you can hear the sound of the charango in all its beauty and expressiveness