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Orquesta Aragon: San Francisco, CA, November 4, 2012

Harry S. Pariser By

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Orquesta Aragon
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco, CA
November 4, 2012
Although the group is celebrating its 73rd anniversary this year, any performance by the legendary Cuban conjunto band Orquesta Aragon remains a very special occasion. For many decades of its existence the orchestra had been prohibited to tour in the United States; this ban was relaxed only in recent years, with the group performing at Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley two years ago. In November, 2012, Orquesta Aragon performed as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

To add some perspective, Orquesta Aragon has been together since 1940, a full twelve years before the late dictator Batista seized power. In 1953, Fidel Castro launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and then took power in 1959, when the band was 19. In 1961, the year of the band's 22nd anniversary, the CIA launched the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in which it unsuccessfully attacked the Cuban mainland. Throughout all of these turbulent events, and for decades since, Aragon has been a fixture on the island's vibrant musical landscape.

Long legendary for its cha-cha-cha, there is no other band equal to Aragon. Bassist Orestes Aragon founded the group in 1939, along with seven other musicians. After Aragon fell ill in 1948, Rafael Lay Apestegui stepped in to lead the band, which moved from its hometown of Cienfuegos to Havana in the early 1950s, quickly gaining attention. Over the years it has evolved to a 13-member ensemble, with hundreds of albums. Aragon is also known as "La Madre de las Charangas Cubanas (The Mother of The Cuban Charangas)," as well as "La Charanga Eterna."

Pianist Rebecca Mauleon, who now works for SFJAZZ but was once a member of the defunct local charanga band Orquesta Batachanga, introduced the band, noting that it has proved to have been "the most important band to emerge in the 20th Century" and that it is "really a family affair." The Aragon ensemble—who, with its grey business suits, shiny black shoes and white shirts, might be middle-aged-to-older salaried employees in any business—made a formidable appearance on the stage. The band's fourteen members include five violinists, güiro, three vocalists, timbale, congas, piano, bass and flute.

What was most immediately impressive about the Aragon version of charanga was the vibrancy of the flute. Flautist Eduardo Ramón Rubio Pérez is a master of the instrument, one who really welded the music together in a way that must be heard to be understood. While violin and flute are sometimes employed in jazz, no other music matches the wondrous way Aragon melds together within a charanga.

Because these musicians have played together for so long, they have established an almost telepathic rapport found in few other ensembles. They communicated with each other and with the audience through their sonorous rhythms and syncopated movements. Although the original members have passed away, they did not depart before passing their traditions along to their successors. While examined from this angle, the band can be seen as a living organism—one which retains its form, yet is continually growing.

Mustachioed Roberto Espinosa Rodríguez, who held down the band throughout on his blue electric bass, welcomed the audience to "our 73rd birthday." Holding true to form, the group played the cha-cha-cha, as well as the lesser-known but no less vibrant danzon, onda-cha, pachanga and son rhythms. The audience responded by dancing in the aisles and with occasional standing ovations. As he had at Zellerbach, the group's enthusiastic violinist, the bearded and ebullient Rafael Lay took front-stage center, leading the band in style.

The three vocalists— Jose Palma Cuesta (who also played guiro), Ernesto Bacallao Serrano and Juan Carlos Villegas Alfonso —complemented the mix, as did guitarist Roberto Espinosa Rodriguez, percussionist Guillermo Gonzalo Garcia and drummer Horacio Rodriguez del Toro. Pianist Orlando Jesus Perez Montero added the rhythms that made this music so special. Throughout the 90 minute-plus performance, the band churned out hit after hit, including "Bodegera" and "Pare Cochero."

The only letdown of the evening came when, after an extended encore, the band had to stop. Calls of "otra," as the lights went up, made it more than evident that the audience did not want them to stop.

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