Orquesta Aragon at San Francisco State University
San Francisco State
April 20, 2014
A San Francisco April sunny Easter Sunday had a number of events going on. The Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence were holding their legendary Easter Pageant in Golden Gate Park, and marijuana enthusiasts were convening on a hill in Golden Gate Park. But an even headier event was taking place a few miles to the south at San Francisco State University's McKenna Theater. Here, the San Francisco International Arts Festival had teamed up with the music department to present a rare evening concert appearance by Cuba's Orquesta Aragon. SFSU has long been a forerunner in terms of innovation and social change, and its professors have long been reknowned for their tremendous enthusiasm. Ethnic studies also first appeared at SF State. In 1968 the longest student strike in United States history resulted in the establishment of the nation's first College of Ethnic Studies here on March 20, 1969. Its School of Music and Dance (College of Liberal & Creative Arts) has been similarly known for its diversity.
In the world of salsa, here is no other band the equal of Aragon, an ensemble long legendary for its cha-cha- cha. Bassist Orestes Aragon founded Aragon in 1940 with seven other musicians. After Aragon fell ill in 1948, Rafael Lay Apestegui stepped in to lead. Following the move from its home town of Cienfuegos to Havana in the early 1950s, the orchestra quickly gained notice. Over the years it has evolved to become a larger ensemble, one which has generated hundreds of albums and CDs. For many decades of its existence the orchestra had been prohibited to tour in the United States; this ban has been relaxed only in recent years. To add some historical perspective to the mix, Orquesta Aragon had been together as a unit for a full twelve years when the Cuban dictator Batista seized power. The band was 18 in 1953 when Fidel Castro launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks; Castro then seized power in 1959. In 1961, the year of the band's 22nd anniversary, the CIA launched the Bay of Pigs Invasion during which it staged an unsuccessful attack on the Cuban mainland.
As the concert commenced, the first act was a collaboration between students at San Francisco State musicians and students and their counterparts at City College. The Afro Cuban Ensemble, a group of San Francisco State and San Francisco City College students directed by SF State professor John Calloway a flautist of note on the local scenetook the stage for a short performance in which local Jazz luminaries such as John Santos and Jesus Diaz joined the band for a number or two. They played "Julito y su Flauta," "Guajira con Tumbao" and "Para Bailar Lo Mismo me Da."
The ensemble was introduced by legendary DJ Luis Medina, who requested that everyone refrain from dancing in front of the stage. (Given the lively rhythms, the sole difficulty with an Aragon performance is to stay in one's seat). Because these musicians have played together for so long, they have established an almost telepathic rapport which few other ensembles can rival.
Then the band took the stage. In their grey business suits, shiny black shoes and white shirts, the Aragon ensemble might well be your stereotypical middle-aged-to-older salaried employees. Yet, on stage they proved to be a formidable combination. The band's ten members (trimmed down from the 14 who arrived to perform last time) included a vocalist (Juan Carlos Villegas Alfonso) fronting three violinists (Lázaro Dagoberto González Sibore}}, Pascual González Piedra and Eric Labaut Lay), güiro (José Palma Cuesta), timbales (Horacio Rodríguez del Toro), congas (Guillermo Gonzalo García Valdés), electric piano (Orlando Jesús Pérez Montero), bass (Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez) and flute (Eduardo Ramón Rubio Pérez). Rafael Lay, the enthusiastic violinist, took front-stage center and lead the band in style.
It is for good reason that Aragon is known as "La Madre de las Charangas Cubanas" ("The Mother of The Cuban Charangas") and "La Charanga Eterna" ("The Eternal Charanga") What most immediately impresses one about the charanga (and especially Aragon's version of it), is the vibrancy of the flute players. Although both violin and flute are sometimes employed in jazz, no other musical form matches the wondrous way they meld together within a charanga. Flautist Eduardo Ramón Rubio Pérez is a true master and his playing helped to glue the ensemble's music together.