Last year Cuba's Orquesta Aragon celebrated its 60th anniversary with the release of La charanga eterna (Lusafrica), and it's hard not to be impressed by the group's staying power. Formed in 1939 by bassist Orestes Aragon Cantero, it's seen countless changes in its lineup of a dozen or so (understandably, no original members remain today), but its status as Cuba's greatest exponent of charanga--a sound distinguished by a front line of three violins and one flute--hasn't been seriously challenged in 50 years. The band came into its own in 1948, when 20-year-old violinist Rafael Lay, who'd joined the group at 13, took over as leader; a lung infection had forced Aragon to step down. In contrast to the brassy son popularized by Arsenio Rodriguez, full of ripping improvised solos, Orquesta Aragon's music was delicate and restrained and almost entirely composed--but it proved just as popular with the island's dancers. The group drove the cha-cha craze that hit Cuba in 1953 and, thanks to a deal with RCA, swept the U.S. a year later. Fluid, thrilling flutist Richard Egues joined in 1954; that lineup's sound--bouncy, airy, but still stinging--is well preserved on a new Aragon collection, part of a ten-volume RCA series called "Cuban Originals." During the cultural changes that followed Castro's rise to power in 1959, many bands saw their audiences dwindle, but Orquesta Aragon thrived: In the 60s it toured Europe and the Soviet bloc, and in the 70s first visited Africa, where bootlegged Aragon recordings had made it famous; a weekly performance series on Cuban radio that the band began in 1955 continues to this day. Lay died in a car accident in 1982--his son, violinist Rafael Lay Bravo, has led the group ever since--and Egues split in '84, but the current lineup continues to expand its repertoire, staying true to the band's original sound and retrofitting other Cuban song forms with charanga instrumentation. In 1989 the Mayor's Office of Special Events provoked a storm of anti-Castro protest when it booked Orquesta Aragon at the first Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival; the gig was canceled. Thankfully the political climate has cooled a little since then--in Chicago, at least, if not in Miami. Tuesday, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Youri Lenquette.