The Orquesta Aragón is truly one of the most historic names in Cuban music. Founded in 1939, Aragón has been performing throughout the world with their irresistible form of Cuban roots music.
One of the pioneer charanga style bands, a type of ensemble that uses violins and flutes over a swinging rhythm section, Orquesta Aragón is responsible for many classics of the Cuban repertoire.
Orquesta Aragon’s extraordinary adventure started on September 30, 1939, when acoustic bass player Orestes Aragón Cantero brought his small charanga to Cienfuegos, the third largest town on the island, for their debut.
The band featured violins, piano, flute, percussion and a singer. Charangas were specialized in the danzón, a style that was then about fifty years old with its vocal variant, the danzonete, it was quite the rage at the time.
The group, which called itself Rítmica del 39, then Rítmica Aragón before settling on its final name of Orquesta Aragón at the end of 1940, also played waltzes and fashionable Spanish tunes.
The band was just one of a number that played at dances and parties, but its founder’s personality was to make all the difference. He held advanced social ideas (he was active in the popular socialist party, with communist allegiances), so he declared war on stardom.
Performance fees were to be shared out evenly between all the musicians. It was out of the question that the lion’s share would go to the director, or a star singer. “I want to found a musical family”, he said. “I’m not looking for virtuoso players but musicians with human qualities.”
Aragón was to conduct the band that bore his name for nine years, until a serious lung infection forced him into early retirement in 1948. Aragón appointed violinist Rafael Lay, who was only 20 years old but had already played for seven of them in the band, to take up the baton.
On Lay’s instigation, Orquesta Aragon gave its first concerts in Havana, which to provincial musicians had always been held up as an impenetrable fortress. In 1953, when the vogue for cha cha cha swept out the mambo, the Aragón seized its chance. It clinched a recording contract with American label RCA Victor, that was very active in Cuba, and in no time had a string of successes.
In 1954, flutist Richard Egües brought his stunning virtuosity and unequaled sense of improvisation to the band. Orquesta Aragón meant cha cha cha, and the world over people danced to the rhythm of the band from Cienfuegos.
In that ten-year period, the Aragón sang “I’m going to the moon for my honeymoon”, and treated Cuba to its first demonstration (home-made) of stereophonic reproduction.
Audiences were invited to tune into their radios and televisions simultaneously, and heard the sound of Egües’ flute or Lay’s violin pass from one speaker to the other. There was a succession of trips: Panama, Venezuela, United States, right up to 1959 and the triumph of the Revolution.
Embedded with its founder’s left-wing ideals, the band placed itself at the service of the new regime. All of Cuba’s musicians became State employees and were awarded the same salary, which boiled down to extending to the whole of the profession the co-operative principle instituted in the past by Orestes Aragón.
Since then, the Aragón served the people, to get them to dance but also instruct them, introduce them to their musical heritage. The band traveled the length and breadth of the country, which had just tasted agrarian reform and one of the largest ever literacy campaigns ever undertaken, to play in sugar cane production complexes, villages, factories, schools and hospitals.
The revolution knew how it could turn music to its advantage to spread its message. It was fast to form the habit of sending musicians abroad to act as ambassadors for Cuba’s culture and new values.
In 1965, the grand Cuban Music Hall tour brought the Aragón to France for the first time, where the musicians were mobbed throughout their three-week residence at Paris’ Olympia Theater.
In November 1971, the Aragón discovered Africa, long after Africa had discovered the Aragón. The countries of Black Africa had lived through the end of colonialism and access to independence to the accompaniment of the cha cha cha.
The Cuban models had far-reaching influence on modern African forms, starting with the Congolese rumba. To Africans ears, the Aragón was “the” standard by which Cuban music was judged and almost everywhere it went, the band was given a welcome befitting a head of state.
Africa in return left its mark on the group’s music, with musical pieces such as Muanga, by Franklin Boukaka from the Congo, and later the Bembeya Jazz National.
In the 1980s the Aragón went through a difficult period. Rafael Lay was killed in a car crash in 1982, Richard Egües left the band in 1984, and the musicians who had been there from the very beginning (timbalero Orestes Varona) or played during its golden age, followed each other into retirement.
Today’s Aragón consists of a mixture of old and new members, including the children and nephews of the original legends. Rafael Lay Jr, the son of original front man Rafael Lay Sr, now leads the group. While they maintain the classic sound of the past, they also incorporate the new flavors in Cuban music.
Orquesta Aragón’s hits include such classics as Sabrosona, Cachita, Bodeguero, Nosotros, Esperanza, Pare Cochero.
That Cuban Cha-Cha-Cha (RCA International 2446, 1990)
Exitos De La Orquesta Aragon (Orfeon 10838, 1992)
Sabrosona (Orfeon 11383, 1995)
La Insuperable (Iris 618, 1996)
La Original Orquesta Aragón (International Music 1920, 1996)
Gold (Habacan 2461, 1996)
Cuba: Sus Mejores Interpretes Celia Cruz/Orquesta Arag?n (Orfeon 13005, 1997)
Cha Cha Charanga! (Tumi, 1997/Candela 4284725, 1997)
Cuba Es Una Maravilla (Musica Del Sol 7019, 1997)
Quien Sabe, Sabe (Lusafrica 262612, 1998 /USA: Candela 4285549, 1998)
Latin Roots Aragón/Jose Fajardo (Sony Discos Inc. 82891, 1999)
Años De Oro (DC Productions 9212, 1999)
Legends Of The Century: Cha Cha Cha (P.O.W. Records 83149, 1999)
Los Inéditos “En Vivo” (DC Productions 9201, 1999)
La Insuperable (1999)
Orquesta Aragón (International Music 82006, 1999)
Los Reyes Del Cha: 1939-1999 (60 Aniversario) (International Music 7054, 1999)
Cuban Originals (BMG U.S. Latin 69938, 1999)
Ritmo Cha-Onda (Fania B200 2000)
Los Aragones En La Onda Del La Alegria ( Fania B250 2000)
Por Siempre Aragón (2000)
100% Cuban, Sonora Matancera/Orquesta (Lideres Entertainment Group 950 047, 2000)
Siempre Charanga (Bongo Records 22001, 2001)
Vol. 4 (International Music 5003, 2001)
La charanga eterna (Lusafrica 362112, 1999)
Cha Cha Charanga (2001)
La Original Orquesta Aragón De Cuba (Orfeon 13844, 2001)
La Nueva Orquesta Aragon (Ultra Music Ltd. 1101, 2001)
La Aragón, Comin’ At U! (Universal Music Latino 160 506, 2001)
En Route (World Village 468006, 2001)
La Cubanisima Orquesta Aragon (2002)
Richard Egues Grandes Hits Con La Aragón (2002)
Bongo y Charanga (Sono Logic 1008, 2002)
Por Siempre Aragón (Egrem, 2002)
The Lusafrica Years (Lusafrica, 2009)