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Article that focuses on the Cuban wooden charanga flute and its masters.

The Five-Key Charanga Flute / Article by David A. Pérez

A dying art form in modern Afro-Cuban music is the sound of the five-key wooden transverse flute, which in the 1950s and 1960s was dubbed the "charanga flute." Today, in Cuba, there are only a handful of musicians that can still play this classical instrument, as most artists have opted to play the modern Boehm system flute.

The modern flute is easier to play and features a separate tone hole for each note. The musician is capable of more expressive fingering. It was developed in the mid-1800s by Theobald Boehm, who is known as the father of the modern woodwind instruments. The five-key flute, unlike the Boehm system cylindrical instrument, is conical (smaller at the end away from the player) and is a direct descendant of the one-key transverse flute used by Frederick the Great in the 18th century.

During the 19th century, the transverse flute underwent many changes, with as many as eight keys being added to assist the musician in mastering the requirements of the concert orchestra and the new music that was being developed. In 1847, Boehm introduced the first of the modern full-key woodwind instruments. The five-key flute was divided into four sections to permit better intonation and easier tone production in the upper range.

The five-key instrument requires the musician to play fork fingered notes that restrict the range and sound of the instrument. So, when you hear the five-key flute generally, you may note an almost dry sound with the range of musical notes less numerous than those that can be played on the modern metal flute. For the musician of this classical instrument, tone is of the essence. There is a lot of soul required by the musician to achieve the right sound.

From the early part of the 20th century through the early 1960s, Cuba produced a long list of capable charanga flute players. Some were better than others. Some were able to produce exotic tones and some developed exceptional fingering techniques. Each one of these musicians had or has a unique style.

In the late 1930s, the music of the charanga changed and the flautist was able to move from a supporting role to a more prominent one that called on the musician to provide improvisational skills. As new recording techniques were developed, the charanga orchestration was extended to allow not only the piano an improvised solo, but also the flute and even the violin.

These are just a few five-key flautists who were prominent through the 1970s and into the 1980s:

Jose "Rolando" Lozano - In 1953 he was on the first RCA Victor recordings made with Orquesta Aragón de Cuba. He left the band in 1955 and came to the United States where he was a founding member of Orquesta Nuevo Ritmo de Cuba (1959). He brought his classical instrument into the world of jazz with recordings made with Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, the Tito Puente Orchestra, the George Shearing Quintet and Francisco Aguabella. In 1979, he organized a charanga band that made one recording.

Jose Antonio Fajardo - He began his musical career playing the five-key flute in the 1940s with Paulina Alvarez and Arcaño y Sus Maravillas. Fajardo started his first band in 1949 and by the early 1950s most of the members of Arcaño's organization were playing with him. Fajardo, like Lozano, is sure-fingered and capable of moving from charanga music to Cuban jazz to jazz. He can easily play the difficult low notes of the ancient flute and achieve a smooth sound when playing the higher range. Fajardo y Sus Estrellas Cubanas recorded on the Cuban Panart label. He recorded numerous other LPs on Coco, Fania, and Columbia (Sony). He can be heard with Charanga de la 4, Hector Rivera (1961), and some SAR all-star releases (1979-81). He has not recorded since the mid-1980s although he occasionally makes appearances in New York and Miami.

Albert Cruz (Pancho El Bravo) - Known for his quick fingering and sharp tonal guajeos, Pancho El Bravo was definitely one of the top musicians in the charanga music scene. He played with Orquesta Neno Gonzalez, which had been organized in the mid-1930s and which rivaled Orquesta Aragón for smoothness and delivery. Pancho El Bravo started his own charanga band around 1959 and became very popular both in Cuba and the USA during the 1960s Pachanga craze. His band is still in existence, although he has been retired since 1985.

Joaquin Oliveros - A student of the late Antonio Arcaño, Oliveros is a master of the five-key conical flute. He started out with Orquesta Sensacion in 1960 when he was only 18. He replaced another exceptional classical flute player, Juan Pablo Miranda (Panart releases: Cuban Jam Sessions). Oliveros is at home with classical music, with charanga music and with jazz. He is currently playing with Orquesta Charanga Típica Rubalcaba (headed by father of jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba). He can be heard on the recent recording Danzones - Orquesta Neno Gonzalez, which was released on CD in 1994. He may well be one of the best.

Eddie Zervigon - One of the young exiled Cubans who was able to organize (with his brothers) and maintain a successful charanga band in New York City for more than 30 years. Zervigon is an exceptional flute player. Orquesta Broadway was organized in 1961 and has remained a staple in New York despite lean periods when charanga was not in vogue (mid 1960s through the early 1970s and 1984 through the present). He has recorded on the SAR label with its all-stars and with a number of other top New York bands. Zervigon manages the tone and fingering with extreme grace.

Antonio Antonio Arcaño - Shortly before his death in Havana in 1993, in a discussion with my brother, Arcaño insisted that he "was not a very good flautist." If he wasn't, he certainly left a legacy. His styling and short improvisational riffs were among the first to be recorded with a modern charanga band. His band with, among others, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Orestes Lopez, Felix Reyna, and Enrique Jorrin produced innovations and styles that still have an impact on modern Cuban music. He did not record much after 1944. He directed a number of bands in Cuba in the late 1980s.

There are dozens of other musicians who play the charanga flute including Richard Egues (Orquesta Aragón and Orquesta Richard Egues) who switched to the Boehm system metal flute in the late 1960s, Johnny Pacheco, Gustavo Cruz (Charanga America), George Castro (Eddie Palmieri and Orquesta Típica Ideal), Juan Pablo Miranda (Orquesta Sensacion), Eloy Martinez (Orquesta Melodias del 40) and Miguel O'Farrill (Orquesta Enrique Jorrin).

Gilberto Valdés led a charanga band in the 1940s and early 1950s and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1950s. Gonzalo Fernandez played with Rosendo Ruiz y su Orquesta in 1956, and, after a long stint in Europe, reappeared in New York recording with his own Orquesta Super Típica, a studio band, and Pupi Legaretta y Pacheco in the 1970s. Pupi Legaretta plays both violin and the five-key flute and can be heard with his own band (1960s and 1970s releases). Another smooth classical wood flute player was Julio Guerra who was a backup to Fajardo, appeared with Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas through the mid-1960s and with Mongo Santamaria on the 1960 release Our Man in Havana.

Certainly, there are many more. Some musicians that play the Boehm system flute are Nestor Torres (jazz, charanga and Afro-jazz), Roger Sanchez (Charlie Palmieri and the Orchestra Duboney), David Valentin (Son Primero, jazz ensembles, Orquesta Libre) and the late Esy Morales (brother of Noro) who appeared in several film noir movies in the early 1950s. His exotic stylings were used by many of the five-key flute players.

Whether modern or classical transverse flute systems are used, each flautist develops a unique style which enhances each and every performance.

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