Orquesta Aragón - Biography
By Robert Leaver
Universally recognized as Cuban musical ambassadors, Orquesta Aragón is forever identified with the rhythm they brought to the world- the cha cha cha. Since the 1950s when they conquered the world with that hugely popular style of music and dance they have evolved into a bona fide Cuban institution that continues to this day. Founded in the provincial Cuban town of Cienfuegos by double bass player Orestes Aragón in 1939, they began as Ritmica de 39, then Ritmica 39, before eventually settling on the name Orquesta Aragón in 1940. Their instrumentation of violins, flute, piano, bass, vocals and percussion evolved form the salon style of Cuban dance music called danzón and has remained essentially the same since. The band rehearsed religiously and shared their earnings equally at the insistence of Aragón. After establishing their reputation locally they relocated to Havana in the 1950s where they enjoyed a growing popularity in spite of the capital’s reluctance to embrace groups from the countryside.
Virtuoso violinist Rafael Lay who had joined the band at the age of 13 took over as musical director at age 20 in 1948 when founder Orestes Aragón fell ill. Following a tradition he had established that when a member of the group falls ill he still receives his share of pay, he himself would receive his until his death in 1962. This act of moral conscience would presage the Cuban revolution that arose in the 1950s. A hit among Havana’s social clubs that booked them solid on weekends, their popularity spread hundreds of miles away to Oriente province, the birthplace of Cuba’s traditional son music, where they enjoyed a rousing response while performing at Guantanamo’s carnival in 1952.
As the mambo era was taking hold in Havana and New York City in 1953 composer Enrique Jorrín and his Orquesta Aragón developed a more dancer friendly variant of the danzón-charanga called cha cha cha. The catchy onomatopoeia of the vocal phrase cha-cha-cha echoed the basic clave rhythm of 1-2, 1-2-3 (un-dos, cha-cha-cha) and when combined with a fun dance step made for an irresistible new dance craze. As Jorrín’s composition “La Engañadora” (Unfaithful Woman) caught fire Rafael Lay paid him a visit and he generously shared dozens of his scores. Inspired by this new variant and its popularity Orquesta Aragón was paid 200 pesos to record four songs for RCA Victor including “El Agua de Clavelito” which became the big hit at Santiago de Cuba’s carnival in 1954. Meanwhile the band was finally making inroads into Havana’s most coveted gig, a daily radio show on Radio Progreso, sponsored by Cristal Beer, which began August 8, 1955.
With the group’s star on the rise flautist and composer Richard Egües joined in 1954. His composition “El Bodeguero” (The Grocer) (1955, RCA Victor) was ubiquitous in Cuba and became their first hit abroad. Nat King Cole even recorded the tune during his Havana sessions in 1956. Following a trip to Panama for their carnival in 1956 they toured the U.S. for the first time giving concerts in Miami, Tampa Bay, New York City and Los Angeles. Although many New York based orchestras were playing the cha cha cha Orquesta Aragón were recognized as the kings of this dance style by aficionados. These dozen neatly attired men of color in matching suits and poised on stage with violins and flute were the essence of elegance. But above all they played an easily likable form of music; piping out sweet melodies laid over a bed of violins and propelled by a steady rhythm section accented by a scraper (guiro), the vocal harmonies and choruses beckoned dancers to the floor. Moreover, their technical mastery and inventive soloing, in particular that of violinist Lay and flautist Egües who used space and dry pauses to great dramatic effect, made them a favorite among fellow musicians.
The hits followed in quick succession: “Pare Cochero” (Stop, Driver), “ Cero Codazos, Cero Cabezazos” (No elbowing, No head butts), “Cahita,” and “Los tamalitos de Olga” (Olga’s tamales). In heavy demand, they returned frequently to the U.S.A. and toured far and wide through the Americas and the Caribbean. Their prodigious mid-fifties output of 78 singles were collected on numerous LP’s and a couple excellent CD collections, including That Cuban Cha Cha Cha (1990, RCA/BMG Tropical Series) and The Heart of Havana Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (1992, RCA/BMG Tropical Series). As the race to reach the moon heated up between Russia and the U.S.A. Aragón sang “I’m going to the moon for my honeymoon” on the song “Me Voy Para La Luna.” The group introduced a new singer, Rafael “Felo” Bacallao, on New Year’s Eve 1958 and in the wee hours of that gig on New Year’s Day 1959 the owners of the club announced that President Batista had fled the country. Fidel Castro and his rebels entered Havana that day making history with their socialist revolution, and the band played on.
As musicians became state employees Orquesta Aragón remained as a premier group and took their music to agricultural collectives, factories, schools and hospitals. In 1965 they participated in the Cuban Music Hall tour with some 100 Cuban musicians that began with a two-week residence at the famed Olympia in Paris, France before continuing on to East Germany, Poland and the USSR. Continuing to play their timeless cha cha cha classics along with boleros, danzónes, and charangas, they became more adventurous in their arrangements, stretching out tunes and leaving more space for more solos. In 1970 they toured Japan, playing gigs with singer Omara Portuondo in ten cities, and in 1971 along with Carlos Puebla and Los Papines they toured Chile at the behest of elected Socialist President Salvador Allende.
In November 1971 they embarked on an unprecedented tour of Africa that began in Tanzania then went to Egypt and Beirut incorporating Arabic melodies into their repertoire. They continued on to Congo-Brazzaville and the socialist state of Guinea where they were received like national heroes. They returned to Africa for tours in 1973, 1977 and 1978. Playing to huge crowds in large football stadiums where they shared the stage with the top bands in West and Central Africa had a profound influence on the band. Their popularity and influence in Africa is legendary, but Africa also influenced them. They created a syncopated rhythm they dubbed the cha-onda and began playing a rhythm they called sucu-sucu.
In 1978 a diplomatic thaw under President Carter made possible their return to New York City after a 17-year absence. They delivered a triumphal performance at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center, but a bomb blast at the entrance hall, engineered by radical Cuban-Americans in the wee hours following, led to an a cancellation of the next two nights. Short-lived and bittersweet their brief shining moment was captured by Monitor records on Recorded Live in New York (1975). Throughout the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s they made numerous notable recordings released only in Cuba on LP including Orquesta Aragón 39 Años (1978 Areito), an album that shows how sophisticated they were in bringing modern elements into classic Cuban styles
It is said in Cuba that musicians may die but bands don’t. Orquesta Aragón was fortunate that much of the group remained intact from the 50s through the 70s. But in the eighties the aging musicians began to retire or expire and in several instances were replaced by their own children. Most notably, director and violinist Rafael Lay died in a car crash in 1982 at which point Rafael Lay Jr. took over the reins at the young age of 24. Then famed composer flautist Richard Egües left the group in 1984 They continued to perform and tour abroad in the ‘80s and recorded a superb album with legendary West African singer Laba Sosseh entitled Akoguin Theresa (198? Disco Stock). They reprised many of their classics on an excellent series of recordings celebrating their 50th anniversary made in the Dominican Republic in 1989 and released on LP and CD as Disco de Oro, Album de Oro Vol. 1, & Album de Oro Vol. 2 (1992 Caribe).
As Cuban youth embraced a funky salsa influenced style called timba in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s the group experienced lean times. Then the success of the Buena Vista Social Club thrust Cuban traditional music into the international spotlight again and Orquesta Aragón began to tour and record regularly in Europe beginning in 1997. It had been nine years since their last European tour and their Cha Cha Charanga (1997 Candela) brought them a whole new generation of fans. During that tour they made an exciting state of the art recording in Europe that proved they were not a mere museum showpiece but a vital musical force. Quién Sabe Sabe (1998 Lusafrica), or Who Knows, Knows, breathes fresh life into aging standards such as “Si Sabes Bailar Mi Son” and “Sin Clave y Bongó No Hay Son” and delivers a rousing version or “Yaye Boy,” an international salsa hit by Africando.
To mark their 6oth anniversary they released La Charanga Eterna (1999 Lusafrica), a top-notch production that included guest appearances by legendary Puerto Rican salsero Cheo Feliciano and African superstar Papa Wemba. While reprising classics with invigorating arrangements they also penned an original, “Que Camello Que Salchicha,” that comments unfavorably on the diesel cab driven buses in Havana referred to as camels. With their reputation as one of the 20th century’s most significant musical artists secure they began the 21st century with arguably one of their best records ever- En Route (2001 World Village). Exploring a wider range of rhythms including the cha-onda, dormant since their African-influenced period in the ‘70s, and mixing in elements of doo-wop and hip-hop, they maintain their musical integrity while spicing it up.
For 70 years Orquesta Aragón have set the standard for Cuban dance groups. With joy and grace they have charmed audiences and filled dance floors throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa and Japan. Through their long tenure they endured numerous personnel changes and weathered great political and social change by keeping their feet firmly planted in tradition. Their timeless music is forged with sweet melodies, infectious rhythms and rich harmonies that transcend the confines of their beloved island home. A source of pride for Cubans of all generations they have crafted a body of work that is enjoyed the world over. Orquesta Aragón remains eternal.