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The South American Charango

The charango is a small traditional South American stringed instrument that resembles a ukulele and has 5 sets of paired strings.

The charango is a member of the lute family and is said to have descended from the Spanish vihuela which had six pairs of double strings and was most commonly used around the 16th century to entertain the upper classes of Spanish aristocratic society.

An Angel Playing A Vihuela

An angel playing a six course vihuela de mano, from an altarpiece by Italian painter Girolamo dia Libri in 1520.

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By the end of the 17th century, the vihuela was over taken in popularity by the guitarra Espanola, a new instrument which unlike the vihuela (whose strings were predominantly plucked) had four sets of double strings and was more widely used for playing chords. This later developed into 5 sets of double strings and then eventually six as in the modern guitars we have today.

During the development of the guitarra Espanola and following it’s introduction to South America, the use of five sets of double strings became increasingly accepted as a common standard and variations of these instruments spread throughout South America and the Andes. Instruments such as the Venezuelan and Colombian cuatro or tiple, the Mexican jurana, the Andean guitarrilla (also known as charango mediano) and many others such as the chitarra battente, laud and bandolina emerged from the integration and migration of new cultures mixing with the colonising Spanish conquistadors.

Venezuelan Cuatro

Venezuelan Cuatro

Chitarra Battente

Chitarra Battente

Materials used in the construction of the charango varied depending on the resources available to the indigenous people in their local surroundings. Those living near tropical forests tended to fashion their charango’s out of single pieces of wood, whereas those in other districts fashioned the sound boxes out of the shells of armadillo’s and in some instances pumpkin shells or bull’s hides.

The modern day standardised charango is generally made from either wood or the shell of a native armadillo called the quirquincho. Those with bodies constructed from wood are known as charango de madera and those constructed from armadillo shells are called charango de quirquincho.

These wild quirquincho’s are native to certain regions of South America, particularly in the La Paz and Oruro districts and were traditionally hunted by the indigenous population for many reasons including the making of charms, being used as a source of food, for use in magic rituals, folk law and fortune telling and also in the making of musical instruments such as the charango and matraca. The matraca is a percussion instrument of great importance used by dancers to create rhythm at events and festivals. They are mainly exported to regions of Chile, Argentina and Peru.

Armadillo Charango

Armadillo Charango’s (Charango de Quirquincho)

Due to it’s over exploitation in the local and tourist industries, the quirquincho is now officially an endangered species and Bolivia has placed a complete and permanent ban on the capture and use of quirquincho’s for any of these practices.

As a musical instrument, a charango made from the shell of a quirquincho is of substandard quality and although quite playable, does not have great musical integrity. They generally possess a much more inferior sound quality to that of one made of wood.

The main exportation of quirquincho charangos are not as professional instruments but as tourist souvenirs and wall mounted trophies. If you are considering buying a charango, avoid purchasing one made of armadillo shell as exportation and domestic trade of these animals is now illegal. Please buy a wooden one and give the poor quirquincho a break.

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All the charango’s you will find on this site are all high quality professional instruments and are made by and for performing artists and musicians.

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The Charango de Madera

Professional Charango

Achieving almost mythical status, the charango is a true icon of South American music and is also extremely popular across the rest of the world. The charango plays a huge role in the events and everyday lives of millions of people, taking centre stage at festivals, celebrations, weddings, funerals, religious events and common family occaisions.

It’s popularity spans all cultures and classes and is played by farm workers, concert players, artisans, businessmen, the young, the old and men and women alike. It is often commandeered by courting lovers and played to win the affections of a loved one.

Charango Players

This versatile instrument can be played solo or in duet with one or more guitars and can take centre stage or be played in accompaniment with flutes, pan pipes, drums and many other instruments.

When picked the charango portrays an almost harp like quality and when strummed it’s colourful, vibrant energy comes into it’s own. The charango’s rhythmic capabilities stand out from the crowd along with it’s unique sound.

A Ninja Playing a Charango

I will soon be posting a ‘How to Play The Charango’ section which will contain loads of info on different tunings, stringing, lessons etc. to help you get to grips with this instrument. It will also feature more videos from other great charango players on You Tube.

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If you would like to hear more music from the charango I’ll be posting a charango music page in the near future. In the meantime, take a look at some of my other posts below.

Other Posts of Interest

Instruments For Sale
Why Do I Sell Bolivian instruments ?
Buy A Professional Charango
Classical Guitars
Flutes – Quenas and Quenachos
Street Musician Guarantee
Postage & Packaging Details
Original Artisan

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7 comments to The Charango – Music, History, Construction & Social Role Of The Andean Ukulele

  • Truly a great instrument. Yesterday 1600 Charango players got together in Cochabamba Bolivia and got in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing live at the same time. The prior record was 1000. I love that slowly but surely the instrument is getting more ans around the world.

    Luis

  • I bet that was a truly awesome event. Even president Morales turned up to watch.

  • Bernard

    I saw an Armadillo Charango in Otovalo Ecuador. Didmt know what I was looking at but thought it was just some kind of cool guitar. Now that I know what I’m look at, the next time I go back to Ecuador I will get 10 of them. They were only $65.00.

  • Hi Bernard – Sounds like an idea, but you really don’t want to be buying or encouraging the export of any of these quinquircho charangos. Exporting them is illegal and the species is now endangered. They are cheap unprofessional instruments and the sound they produce is inferior.

    Give the poor animal a break and buy a decent wooden one. They sound better, last longer and are much nicer to play.

  • peter

    Hi there, after recent interest in modern ukelele I was web browsing and found references to the Charango. I never realised previously the connection to the Charango, I have two in my collection that I played for a number of years along with a freind who had Samponia and Andean flutes. The smaller of the two was bought and delivered to me by a friend in the early 80s and the older one I found in a garage sale in the mid 70s. The older unit is intact with ears and everything and is quite loud. The newer unit was used as a mould for a local luthier for making fiberglass shells which work surprisingly well as a sound box. I must take up the Charango again, what a magic sound. Pedro

  • WL

    My understanding is that “quirquincho” is the “nine-banded armadillo,” which — far from being endangered — are as common as rats, and considered a pest in many places. Indeed, one still sees many charangos of new construction made from the shells of armadillos. Perhaps they are now coming from somewhere other than Bolivia, but the one I bought last year certainly came from Bolivia.

    Not withstanding, it’s a pretty cool instrument. And I love that video of “Charango Ninja”. First saw it on youtube about two years ago. :)

  • Hi, thanks for your input. There are many types of armadillo, some more common than others as you mention, but one of the species used to make charangos is the Andean hairy armadillo which I believe is still officially registered as ‘vulnerable’ on the ICUN Red list of threatened species (which is one step down from ‘Endangered’ and one further step down from ‘Critically Endangered’). I believe the Nine Banded armadillo is listed as ‘Least Concern’ whereas others list as ‘Near Threatened’ which would be listed as ‘Threatened’ if it were not for on-going conservation programs.
    Quick quote – “International trade of the Andean hairy armadillo is prohibited by its listing on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which specifies an annual trade quota of zero” so I guess it very much depends on the charango you go for.

    I can understand having one made of armadillo would be a really interesting piece, but I’d definitely prefer a wooden one to strum. :-)
    Cheers

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