Ivoir Feeling - volume 8
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Orquesta Aragón - biography
Double bass player Orestes Aragón Cantero formed the Orquesta Aragón in 1939. With now 70 years of uninterrupted existence, it is probably the oldest band still playing today, in terms of popular music.
The group played its first gig at a private party on September 30, 1939 in a house on the corner of Cristina and Gloria Streets. The date was chosen as the official birth of the band first called Rítmica del 39. The young musicians chose Rítmica rather than Tipica as they wanted to show that while they respected the old danzon, the interpretation they gave was full of real vim and vitality. The group’s name soon changed and their very first slogan proclaimed: “Dance with Rítmica Aragón. We take our commitments seriously, we’re carefully presented and have a select repertoire.” At the end of 1940 they settled on their final name of Orquesta Aragón. The first months were hard, but, by dint of their work, the band carved out a solid reputation in Cienfuegos that spread out through the whole Las Villas province. Rafael Lay distinguished himself as an outstanding violinist, and the band gradually filled out: after ten years, the Orquesta was a clear match for the best bands in Havana. The capital, however, operated as a closed shop, nevertheless Orquesta Aragón did succeed in it in an unexpected way. Then, led by Rafael Lay, the band set off to conquer the world at the start of the fifties.
At the time, Havana was in the grip of the cha-cha craze and this genre - created by Enrique Jorrín - was sweeping the world. Backed by Jorrín himself and the great composer Beny Moré, Orquesta Aragón became the emblematic cha-cha orchestra. The Orquesta entered its golden age in the 50s and 60s with a line-up featuring Rafael Lay (band leader and 1st violin) and other names that have become legendary in Cuban music: Richard Egües (flute), Panchito Arbolaez (güiro), Pepe Palma (piano), Guido Sarria (congas), José Beltrán (double bass), Celso Valdés (violin), Orestes Varona (timpani), Felo Bacallao and Pepe Olmo (vocals). "Cha-cha" rapidly became synonymous with "Aragón". The band signed to the American RCA label and won wide acclaim in the United States - the great Nat King Cole added the famous El Bodeguero to his repertoire.
In the winter of 58 to 59, Orquesta Aragón were number one in Cuba's Radio Progreso hit parade with the cha-cha Cuba Cubita Cubera. The establishment of Fidel Castro's government on January 1st, 1959 in no way hindered the band's success, but their international activity was redirected. With the Cold War at its height and a blockade decreed by the United States, culture - and particularly music - became a valuable mouthpiece for the Cuban government.
The legendary “Music-Hall de Cuba” tour was organized in 1965. More than 100 artists - including Elena Burke, Celeste Mendoza, Los Zafiros and Orquesta Aragón - performed in Paris, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. The French capital was the first port of call with three weeks at L’Olympia, the famous Parisian theater. Critics and audiences were extremely enthusiastic. The craze for rock 'n' roll and twist was at its height in Europe and Orquesta Aragón recorded a number of rock and twist-inspired cha-chas (shake) that met with great success. The group has always shown a taste for mixing genres. Apart from rock-cha and shake in the early sixties, Orquesta Aragón has also recorded variations on classical themes by Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky (not to mention their wild parody De l'Opéra au cha-cha-cha), and delightful covers of standards such as Volare, Black is Black and Un Jour un Enfant (1969 Eurovision prize).
Africa was another great adventure for the Orquesta Aragón. After its decolonization, the continent was going through sweeping, radical changes and the eyes of the new generation were on Cuba: the spread of revolutionary ideals and new interpretations of the tragic issue of slavery went hand in hand with the light steps of cha-cha. In 1971, the Orquesta Aragón discovered Africa… long after the continent had discovered them. Their initial destinations were Guinea (governed by Sékou Touré) and Mali, but many other tours followed with their succession of schedules, official festivities before audiences of ministers and diplomats, and concerts for the people. With the spread of bootleg cassettes, Orquesta Aragón - ambassadors, pioneers and the only group to travel throughout Africa - became supreme stars from Guinea to Congo and Benin to Zanzibar. They even produced a new beat, cha-onda, created by violinist Tomàs Valdés and based on sounds heard in the streets of Conakry.
The group's line-up has naturally evolved since the glory days of the 50s and 60s, but changes have been made with certain continuity. Rafael Lay Jr. began to lead the group as first violin after the death of his father in a road accident in 1982 and the oldest member is now violinist Celso Valdés who joined the band in 1960. The violin section - which provides Orquesta Aragón's "color" - also features Dagoberto and Lazaro González, father and son. Orquesta Aragón is a family: new members - chosen for their instrumental or vocal talents - are co-opted by the other musicians, ensuring continuity of tradition. So the current line-up includes Ernesto Bacallao, son of Felo Bacallao, and José Palma, son of Pepe. Many young Cuban musicians dream of joining the legendary charanga one day, but the waiting list is long, especially since the average age is low at present, with unique musicians such as timpanist Inocente Álvarezand or flautist Eduardo Rubio…
Quien Sabe Sabe, 1998 – In this album, the band dipped into its golden age repertoire and returned to the period arrangements of Rafael Lay Senior and Richard Egües, with the exception of Yaye Boy, the hit by the Senegalese band Africando (the Aragón had wanted to play it as soon as they heard it in Colombia). In October the same year they filled La Cigale, a famous venue in Paris, with a concert that will linger in people's memories.
La Charanga Eterna, 1999, which coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the band's founding, was prepared with particular care. A happy medium was found between the rereading of the Aragón heritage (El Paso de Encarnacion) and Cuban classics (Siboney, Bruca Manigua). A few guests came to join in the celebrations: the great singer Omara Portuondo, Pancho Amat the virtuoso tres player and Puerto Rican friend Cheo Feliciano, the salsa legend. Also performing, Felo Bacallao who was part of the Aragón original line-up and came back from Caracas with his voice – so much part of the Aragon's history, still intact on Me Boté de Guano.
En Route, 2001, holds a few "historic" pieces previously recorded by Rafael Lay's band like Si Envidia which confirms - if such proof were needed - Orquesta Aragon's masterly skills in the art of danzon. It includes also new material of particular interest: Ahora Si Sabroseao, an impassioned guaracha written by the band's violinist Dagoberto Gonzalez, or the hectic cha-onda A Bailar mi Cha-onda, penned by his son Lazaro. On this album overflowing with beat, Orquesta Aragón are more than ever En Route for a place in history.