Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities October 2017

2017-10-20-2848Curiosity: Charango

Country of origin: South America (most likely Peru or Bolivia)

Maker: Unknown

Created: possibly late 19th or early 20th century

Measurements: 774mm

Material: armadillo shell, wood and metal



The charango is a small string instrument belonging to the lute family. It is a typical and popular instrument in the Andes of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and parts of Argentina. It most likely derives from the early guitars that the Europeans, especially the Spanish conquistadors, brought with them from the 16th century onwards. Before, indigenous instruments included the panpipe, notched flutes and double-headed drums but not strings. With its high pitch and smaller size than a guitar, the charango is more in line with the musical aesthetics of the indigenous people and can be carried around more easily.

Since its first conception, the charango has played an important part in the traditions of the campensinos, the indigenous Quechua or Aymara- speaking peasants of the Andes who earn their living mainly with herding llamas and sheep or cultivating barley and potatoes. There is for example the papa tarpuy, the potato-planting ceremony of Canas, a province in Cusco, Peru, during which the charango would be played. In northern Potosí, in the Bolivian Andes, the instrument is associated with the dry winter season (April-September). Agricultural and cultural calendars are published by a variety of organisations indicating the appropriate instrument for each season. Henry Stobard points out that there are rural areas in which up to 12 different instruments are played in the course of the year.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

In the above-mentioned areas, the charango is also hugely important during courtship. A young man would come into town, typically on market or feast days, dressed in his Sunday best and woo the girls with his musical skills. He would decorate his instrument with colourful ribbons and mirrors to attract the opposite sex. Legend has it that each ribbon represents a conquered girl; interpreted as such, they are very much a sign of machismo. The charango acts as a kind of intermediary between the young man and the target of his affection; talking is not an obligation. A popular tune for courtship, for example in Cusco, is called the tuta kashwa (night dance). If she likes his musical advances, she might simply indicate this with a smile or glance of encouragement. After a while, she will join him, singing along the charango. A group of young couples might get together to dance and sing and, well, take it from there…. To put it bluntly: A young man out and about with his charango is certainly out on the pull. On the other hand, if a boy can’t play the charango, his chances with the girls are slim. Once a man is married, traditionally, he would put his instrument aside as he might be seen as a bohemio, a womaniser and general rake, if he carried on playing.

In order to get the best out of a young man’s charango, he often follows a century-old ritual after its purchase: At night, preferably during a full moon, he places the instrument near a lake, spring or waterfall. He leaves it there overnight together with gifts such as little ornaments, alcohol, coins or coca for the resident sirena. Sirenas are commonly portrayed as beautiful women with fishtails. Probably evolved from combining legends of local water spirits and Greco-Roman mermaids, these creatures are said to be particularly prevalent around the area of Lake Titicaca. Just like the sirens that lured sailors with their sweet songs in Greek mythology, the sirenas possess great musical powers, which they can transfer onto the charango. They will play and tune the instrument, and the next morning the charanguista will reclaim a powerful weapon for courtship. It is said that its sound will be so seductive that no woman can resist it. However, it is important not to interfere with the sirena as her music could also drive you insane if overheard. It is possible that the sirena/mermaid is so strongly associated with the charango, because the stories about these specific enchantresses arrived in South America at the same time as the guitars and mandolins. Hence, the indigenous people might have automatically connected one with the other in their minds.

Traditionally, men would play the instruments and women would sing. Although, rather than seeing this as a subordinate role, they are well respected for their songs and fine voices. The charango is in fact often seen as an accompaniment to the singing rather than the other way around. There are also again certain beliefs as to why a woman should not play the charango: In Tomaycuri, a rural community in northern Potosí, a woman playing the charango might cause dry fields. In nearby Kalankira, she might lose her weaving skills, and a pregnant woman might lose her child if she played the pinkillu (a kind of flute).

Although a typical instrument of the more rural areas of the Andes, the charango would make its way into cities such as Cusco and Puno, south-eastern Peru, during the early decades of the 20th century. Young middle-class mestizos (originally people of mixed European and indigenous parentage) would learn how to play the instrument from campensinos and then take their skills with them when their families moved into town to find work and adapt a more urban lifestyle. Often, the parents would not be particularly enthusiastic about their offspring’s musical taste as the charango was seen as an instrument of the baja pueblo, the ‘lower class people’ – something they would have liked to distance themselves from. Mandolins and guitars were more respected. However, at the same time a new ideology evolved, called indigenismo, among Peruvian artists and intellectuals. The rights of the Andean Indians and indigenous culture became focus of this movement, and its supporters condemned ‘foreign’ and ‘colonial’ values. Consequently, the charango became more respectable and an urban tradition of charango playing developed. The mestizo charanguistas would perform the long-established wanyo (song-dance) of the central Andes and add different genres such as the waltz to their repertoire. That way, they catered towards an urban, elite audience and raised the status of the charango. They also created a new style of playing the charango. Originally, the strings would be strummed, but the mestizos started plucking them instead.

In the past, the charango was generally made from the dried shell (carapace) of an armadillo, just like our curiosity. These days they are usually made from wood. They normally have five pairs of strings, but there are variations, and this one seems to have had only four sets of strings; unfortunately, they are missing. Strings are usually made from nylon or metal, depending on which playing style (strumming or plucking) and sound the charango player prefers. They are often richly decorated with carvings and/or inlays. The only ornamentation our charango has is a bridge in form of a lizard or salamander.

(Click in images to enlarge them.)

Some of the articles and books I read about the charango during my research go back to the early 1980s. The newest was published in 2008. Maybe a some of the above-mentioned traditions and beliefs have diminished or even vanished since then, and it is already indicated in the Henry Stobart’s 2008 article that women play the charango and that men sing these days, too. However, as the charango has such a tradition and now popular status in many Latin American areas, I thought it important and rather fascinating to include some old beliefs and superstitions as well.

It is just a shame that our charango won’t woo anybody anymore as its missing strings have condemned it to everlasting silence…

These youtube links show a great variety of charango players:

Alfredo Coca

Luciel Izumi

Ernesto Cavour

Feria y Festival del Charango Nacional E Internacional Aiquile 2016

La Mas Grande Orquesta


Broughton, Simon et al, eds. World Music – Volume 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific – The Rough Guide. Rough Guides, 2000.

Stobart, Henry. “In Touch with the Earth? Musical Instruments, Gender and Fertility in the Bolivian Andes.” Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 17, no. 1., 2008, pp. 67-94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20184606. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Llama’s Flute: Musical Misunderstandings in the Andes.” Early Music, vol. 24, no 3, 1996, pp. 470-482. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3128262. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

— and Howard, Rosaleen, eds. Knowledge and Learning in the Andes: Ethnographic Perspectives. Liverpool UP, 2003. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=380586. Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Torino, Tom. Moving Away from Silence: Music of the Peruvian Altiplano and the Experience of Urban Migration. University of Chicago P, 2014. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=486000. Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Urban-Mestizo Charango Tradition in Southern Peru: A Statement of Shifting Identity.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 28, no. 2, 1984, pp. 253-270. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/850760. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.

—. “The Charango and the Sirena: Music, Magic, and the Power of Love.” Latin American Music Review/ Revista de Musica Latinoamericana, vol. 4, no 1, 1983, pp. 81-119. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/780281?sid=primo&origin=crossref. Accessed 09 Oct. 2017.


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