One of the most popular Andean musical instruments is a small guitar with five double strings that looks like a Spanish bandurria. If looked at from the front, there is nothing special, but when you turn it around, it is surprising. Its resonator, which is more or less rounded, is not made out of wood. It’s the shell of an animal!
The fact is that the resonator of this mini-guitar is made out of the outer skeleton of a small mammal, the armadillo, which is also known as tatú, atatou, quirquincho, querú, cabasu, piche, mulita, toche, mataca… These are names that are sometimes also applied to the instrument.
There are 20 or 21 species of armadillos (biologists cannot agree on how to classify them), and all of them live in the South American pampas and other plains areas, and as far north as the southern part of North America (very few of them are found in the jungles).
The uniqueness of the armadillo lies in the fact that, despite being a mammal, instead of having its body covered with hair, it is covered by a protective shell or armor. The word armadillo comes from the Spanish word armado, which means armored. This armor, articulated to allow for movement, is composed of two large shields. One covers the shoulders and the other covers the back, separated by a series of transverse armed bands that vary according to the species (from 3 to 13). Another frontal shield protects the head.
The tail and the outer part of the limbs are also covered by articulated plates, although there are some species, like the tatús de rabo molle (from the Cabassosus class), that have an exposed tail.
When the animal is attacked, it rolls itself, like hedgehogs do, and becomes practically invulnerable. The one known as mataco (Tolypeutes matacus), forms a sphere so perfect that in some places it is know as bolita (little ball in Spanish), a name that is also given to the charango.
It should be noted that some armadillos, as good mammals, do have long disperse hairs, such as the one called peludo (hairy in Spanish or Chaetophractus villosus).
It is the hard shell that is used to make the resonator for the charango, specifically the one that covers the body, without the head, limbs and tail, and that is why the instrument is rounded. Nevertheless, not all charangos are made using armadillo shields. Some are made from cedar or chestnut wood. In that case, the resonator is usually flat. The cover is normally made out of pine or fir.
Inspired by Spanish guitars carried by the colonists, some of the first charangos appeared in the 18th century. The charango has become one of the most popular instruments in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Peru and northern Argentina.
The Quéchua and Aimara country folk of Peru and Bolivia prefer the charango with a flat wooden resonator and metal strings. The players from northern Argentina and Lake Titicaca region prefer the armadillo charangos, also with metallic strings. This version of the charango is also used in urban areas, although the strings are usually made out of nylon, giving it a deeper and clearer bass sound.
Sources: Charango description based on the article The Charango, a Peculiar Instrument by Marta Vigo, biologist. Translated by Angel Romero. Courtesy of Arca de Música.