Cuba’s most celebrated Charanga band, Orquesta Aragón, gave a breathtaking and dazzling performance in front of 500 aficionados in the McKenna Theatre at San Francisco State University (SFSU) on April 20.
The evening kicked off when MC Luis Medina of KPFA introduced SFSU’s Afro-Cuban Ensemble of led by Dr. John Calloway and the City College of San Francisco Charanga Orchestra led by Anthony Blea. The combined 30-piece ensemble of young men and women warmed-up the audience with a four-song set, resulting in a thunderous standing ovation at the end.
But the night belonged to Orchestra Aragón. The audience was enthusiastic with every song. At times, more than 50 couples could be seen in the aisles swaying to the Cuban rhythms that resonated throughout the concert hall.
Founded in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1939 by bass player Orestes Aragón Cantero, the band has survived several decades and in its present incarnation boasts of two older members: Guillermo Gonzalez Garcia Valdes on congas and Eduardo Ramon Rubio Perez on flute.
With this year marking their 75th anniversary, the 10-piece group played everything from danzon to bolero, cha-cha-cha, mambo, and everything in between. Orquesta Aragón is usually a 14-member band, but four members were refused their visas before their nine-city national tour began. San Francisco was their seventh stop before winding up their tour in Seattle and Puerto Rico.
All of the band members excelled on their instruments: three violins, a flute, a conga, a piano, a timbale, a guiro, and a bass. On stage, bass player Roberto Espinosa Rodriguez served as spokesperson for the band.
Throughout their 17-song repertoire that lasted for nearly two hours, Aragón’s performance was smooth and effortless. Their use of dynamics —playing softer— was admirable. Perhaps easy for one individual to perform, it takes effort for all 10 band members to come down to a whisper. It is then that one can truly appreciate how well rehearsed these artists have become.
During the piano and flute solos, Orquesta Aragón would shift from time to time to trademark musical motives playing classical, as well as popular melodies. It is a way of teasing the audience and sharing in a bit of mutual fun.
At one point, violinist Lazaro Dagoberto Gonzalez Sibore performed his rendition of Besame Mucho. He brought the house down with his spirited and passionate approach to this timely piece of music.
For the finale, Orquesta Aragón invited Dr. John Calloway,Anthony Blea and members of both ensembles for a sizzling jam to the tune “Pare Cochero.”
The only other short come was the lack of set design. An indication that this event was hastily put together — no palm trees, no backdrop, no lighting, no Cuban flag or other iconic figures of Cuba on the large screen. This left something to be desired, but it appeared that the 500 Charanga aficionados in attendance were quite forgiving.
Without question, Orquesta Aragón gave a memorable performance that was enjoyed by those in attendance. Like one concert attendee put it: “It was amazingly cool.”