The charango is a small South American stringed instrument of the lute family, about 66 cm long, traditionally made with the shell of the back of an armadillo. It typically has 10 strings in five courses of 2 strings each, although other variations exist.
The first historic information on the charango was gathered by Vega going back to 1814, when a cleric from Tupiza documented that "the Indians used with much enthusiasm the guitarrillos mui fuis... around here in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia they called them Charangos". Turino mentions that he found carved sirens representing playing charangos in some Colonial churches in the highlands of Bolivia.
File #857 of The New Chronicle of Guaman Poma eloquently expresses under the suggestive title "Indian Criollos" a drawing and text representing the Indigenes of Peru and Bolivia playing a similar instrument. Assuming the chroniclist is not representing the actual "charango" it is very important to notice that the image he presented is dated in the early 17th century, registering the musical mestizaje of the chord instruments in Peru and Bolivia.
The 2005 documentary film "El Charango" (director, Jim Virga; editor, Tula Goenka; assoc producer and sound, Andrew Reissiger) sheds light on the relationship between the charango and Cerro Rico, site of the world's largest silver deposit and therefore the most likely location of the charango's birthplace. El Charango the film
Traditionally made with a dried armadillo shell for the back and wood for the soundbox top, neck etc, today charangos are commonly made of wood, with a bowled back imitating the shape of the armadillo shell. Unlike most wooden lutes, the body and neck are typically made of a single block of wood, carved into shape. The charango's ten strings require quite a large headstock, often approaching or even exceeding the size of its diminutive sound box. Aside from these visual distinctions, it resembles a small ukulele.
The overall length of a typical charango is about 66 cm, with a string scale length of about 37 cm. However, the number of frets ranges from five to eighteen.
There are many variations in the shape of the top in "plan view" and species of wood, though cedar or spruce family woods are preferred for the soundboard (top), and there is generally a narrowed "waist" somewhat reminiscent of the guitar-family--not the pear-shape of the lute.
The typical construction is a one-piece body and neck, classical guitar style peghead and machine tuners, spruce top, and some degree of ornamentation. Variations include a separate glued-on neck, palisander or ebony vertical tuning pegs, guitar-style box construction, or even a hollowed-out neck. The size and shape of the soundholes is highly variable and may be dual crescents, round hole, oval hole, or even multiple holes of varying arrangement.
More recently solidbody electric and hollowbody acoustic-electric charangos are coming on the scene. The solidbodies are built very much as miniature electric guitars, whereas the acoustic-electrics are usually more like a standard acoustic charango.
The instrument has four to fifteen metal, gut, or nylon strings.
In his book The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara describes an instrument that he identified as a charango while near Temuco, Chile in 1952. It was "made with three or four wires some two meters in length stretched tightly across tins fixed to a board. The musician uses a kind of metal knuckle duster with which he plucks the wires producing a sound like a toy guitar.
The ramifications of the charango tuning is that there is a very narrow tonal range in most chords, and so there is a tremendous wall of sound. Seventh and ninth chords shimmer more than on a guitar due to the close harmonies. More importantly though, in terms of melody playing, the instrumentalist can create a harp-like sound with close intervals ringing out (i.e., like a piano with the sustain pedal engaged). With intervals like minor 2nds and major 2nds fingered on different strings, the charango player can play sustained melodies at rapid speed with an alternating thumb/finger pattern.
Tunings for the charango vary, but the "standardized" ones most commonly used (for the five-stringed version) are:
|5||GG (392 Hz, above middle C)||Lowest tone, highest position|
|4||cc (523.25 Hz)|
|3||Ee (329.63 Hz, 659.26 Hz)||Strings are tuned an octave apart|
|2||AA (440 Hz)|
|1||ee (659.26 Hz)||Highest tone, lowest position|
Abm7 and Gm7 are achieved by tuning a step or two down, respectively. Em7 is achieved by stepping the appropriate amount down.
The number of strings may vary, and includes:
There are both steel string and nylon string charangos. Some steel-stringed versions have all ten strings at the same gauge. There are also solid-body electric charangos.
There are, of course, various dialects to this slang.
Icelandic folk singer Ólöf Arnalds plays the charango extensively on her award winning debut album Við og Við. Produced by Sigur rós' Kjartan Sveinsson, album tracks that feature the charango include Klara, Moldin, and her cover of Megas' Orfeus og Evridís. Ólöf also played the charango on two tracks on Skúli Sverrisson's Sería album, namely Sungio Eg Gaeti and Sería.
Andrew Reissiger of the world music group Dromedary features the charango on many songs. Reissiger has introduced the instrument to both the Americana/Folk tradition via Jonathan Byrd's The Sea and The Sky and recently on a Puerto Rican CD with Roy Brown, Tito Auger, and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger called "Que Vaya Bien."
The Jewish Latin musician Yehuda Glantz frequently performs with a charango. He informs his audience on the live album "Granite" that he plays a charango from his native Argentina.