Besides a taste for fine pork barbecue, Cuba and Carolina now have another thing in common: charanga. The Cuban charanga orchestra was born in the late 19th century, a creole blend of violins, woodwinds and Afro-Cuban percussion. Four years ago, ethnomusicologist David F. Garcia founded Charanga Carolina at UNC-Chapel Hill to introduce his students to Latin music from a different angle.
"I wanted to get the classical music students involved in Latin music, because jazz students were already there," says Garcia. "I figured since we have violin players and flute players who I could draw from, why not?"
Charanga Carolina's annual dances are catching on with local salsa dancers, and what started out as an extracurricular ensemble is now a full-credit performance course, with growing institutional support. UNC's Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs even funded the first-ever master class for the group with flute soloist Nestor Torres. Torres, who has explored territory from classical to charanga and Latin jazz, fit the program perfectly.
"He worked with me on soloing, and he played for us, which was phenomenal. He started with a Bach sonata and then played variations on it in different styles including jazz," says Christina Smith, a flautist and junior from Cary. "It was so cool."
Torres trained at the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music. Smith says such an education pays off for charanga.
"Classical music isn't that much far away from this, and it's a complete necessity to be able to play this stuff. I'm still progressing and I can only go so fast, whereas he can come up with a melody out of nowhere," she says.
Smith is heading to London for study abroad next fall, though she hopes to return to the group in spring 2008. That's indicative of a group that's finally growing into its own: The charanga orchestra loses two of its original violinists, Leigh Peroutka and Jordan Delphos, to graduation this year. Peroutka will go on to the Cleveland Institute of Music, while Delphos hopes to pursue a conducting career.
"They deserve something special like this because they work hard, and they enjoy the music," says Garcia of his students. He hopes to make the master classes an annual event. Local professional musicians Pako Santiago and Nelson Delgado work with the orchestra, playing Latin percussion and singing. They add a true interface between campus and community: "Without it, we couldn't do this music," Garcia says.
While he was working with the orchestra in May, Torres and the band cut several takes to document the program's progress. Wearing his curly hair loose over a light-colored blazer with his flute across his lap, Torres took a break to discuss his past and charanga's future.
Nestor Torres: To me, it's a very timely thing, because these are my musical, improvisational roots. I am known as a jazz artist, but I really began playing charanga. And the fact that [David]'s teaching it here, in Chapel Hill, and then to see kids that, up until now, didn't have an idea of what this music was about, embrace it so much and the fact that they're playing it so well, they're so open, it's just a joy. I give David all the credit, and the students are amazing.
Independent: Timely in what sense? With what's going on with Latin music in general?
Since the mid-'70s when charanga became popular, it really has not been exposed or included. Some artists like Gilberto Santa Rosa have one song where he has that style. But that's not really what they do.
It's more of a local roots scene, especially in New York. Is that right?
Right. I was very fortunate at the time that I moved up to New York City. This music was very popular.
Tell me more about some of the bands and charangas that you've played in.
Some of the members of Orchestra Broadway decided to relocate to Miami in the '70s, and some of them stayed in New York and those members created Tipica Ideal. I didn't record with them, but I recorded with Conjunto Libre, with Andy and Jerry Gonzalez, and I've worked with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie. That's where I got my Latin jazz training. Then I played with singers that were part of a band called Charanga '76. Hansel and Raul, I did three records with them. Because of them I relocated to Miami. And also I got to record with quite a few people, even Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow, Justo Betancourt. What happened though when I came to Miami was there was not much work after awhile.
When did you move there?
'81, '82. We were doing well with Hansel and Raul for a while, and then I needed to work. Becoming a jazz soloist came kind of by default. By the time I moved to Miami, I really needed a change. As exciting as this music is, it's a lifestyle that takes a toll. And I've never felt very comfortable with the lifestyle, with the partying and all that it entails. Plus I was getting classical training and I knew that the flute has a tremendous range. In charanga music, the flute has a rather limited range—very piercing, very rhythmic. And I knew that I needed to expand my range.
Though I was in Miami, I would be invited to come up to New York at the Village Gate, the Salsa Meets Jazz Monday night concerts. I played with Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, James Moody, Dave Valentin, Hilton Ruiz, Michel Camilo, Chico Freeman, Frankie Ruiz. It was a really great time, really wonderful, soloing with these people. I really wanted to create a sound that would express myself in different ways.
So that's what you're doing now, soloing and playing with your own group?
Yes. I've been doing some recitals. I'm going to be doing quite a few symphonic works this coming year, primarily because my most recent CD, Dances, Prayers and Meditations, has a strong orchestral element to it. We're doing some really exciting things. With that in mind, my next step is to come back to charanga. Whether I will keep it in its purest form remains to be seen.
You have this in your mind now?
I've had it, even before David called me. And there's a professor at Stetson University who is doing a danzon ensemble. So it's sprouting, interestingly, within the academic setting. So now, as I said, I definitely want to do some very traditional things, but still bring that twist to freshen it up, to make it relevant to what's going on today.
What was your experience working with these students? What kind of things have you been able to help them with?
My job here today has been to get their doubts out of the way, to get them to really allow themselves to experiment, to come back to who they are. Because most of these players are classical, and there's a couple of them that are jazz cats, they feel that they're playing in very Latin grooves and syncopations and so on, and that that is a foreign language. Which it is, but it really isn't. So it's a matter of, "Come from where you are right now," and just trying to get them to have more trust in themselves.
Friday, June 8, 7-9 pm: Carnavalito. Brightleaf Square Concert Series, Durham. www.historicbrightleaf.com. Free.
Saturday, June 9, 3-8:30 pm: Durham Latino Festival: Sajaso (salsa), Tambor Vivo (Afro-Cuban), Leno y sus compas del Norte (norteña), Carnavalito (Latin), more. Northgate Park, 300 W. Club. 560-4355. Free.
Saturday, June 9, 3-8 pm: Rocky Mount Fiesta Latina: Saludos Compay (Latin), Charros de Mexico (ranchera), Orquesta GarDel (salsa), more. Main and Marigold streets. www.ci.rocky-mount.nc.us. Free.
Saturday, June 23, 12-8 pm: Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County Fiesta Latina, Shakori Hills, Silk Hope. www.hispanicliason.org.
Friday, July 13, 7:30-9:30 pm: Sajaso (salsa). Starlight Concert Series, Page-Walker Arts Center, Cary. www.townofcary.org. Free.
Friday, July 27, 7:30-9:30 pm: Carnavalito (Latin). Starlight Concert Series, Page-Walker Arts Center, Cary. www.townofcary.org. Free.