A short charanga primer: Essentially dance bands that combine African percussion with European strings and woodwinds, charangas evolved in Cuba more than a century ago. Due to their long and pivotal history in the development of many Latin musical styles, these groups have an exceptionally malleable repertoire. But today they're rare, especially at American universities, where only a handful exist. Charanga Carolina, then, is another jewel in the UNC system's crown.
For seven years now, UNC's Charanga Carolina has served as a groove lab for Latin music experiments in the Triangle. A university ensemble made up of students and local professional musicians, Charanga Carolina has earned a reputation with salsa dancers for some of the deepest, most authentic Latin sounds around. La Familia, a combination studio and live album produced in the Kenan Music Building studio on UNC's campus, celebrates a mature moment in the band's history.
The album title, taken from the Ray Barretto cover that closes the disc, reflects the band's philosophy: "We regard ourselves as part of a family," says the group's director, David Garcia. "Not only the professional musicians and all of our students, past, present and future, but the bigger family of salsa groups, musicians and dancers here in the Triangle."
This is a fitting manifestation of that outlook. Recorded earlier this year, La Familia is a full hour of music in 12 tracks, borrowing songs or arrangements from Los Van Van, Arsenio Rodriguez, Pupy Legarreta, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, La Sonora Ponceña, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. The album ranges widely across musical eras and styles. There's a danzon (the oldest genre associated with charangas, dating to the late 19th century), plus cha cha chá and son montuno from the 1950s. Violins substitute for saxophones on a Dominican merengue, while timba and songo stem from contemporary Cuba. The album also shows off a generation of Garcia's students soloing in authentic Latin idioms, notably flutists Caity Bunch and Ellye Walsh, violinist Sue-Jin Kwon and pianist Ian Seim. Other tasty solos come from guest artists, especially Nelson Delgado on vibes, Alberto Carrasquillo on trumpet and Ramon Ortiz on timbales.
By forging relationships between students and pros, Latinos and non-Latinos, Garcia brought something nearly miraculous to life: a charanga orchestra in North Carolina with an elastic range of repertoire and hypnotic, old-school danceability.