A few months ago, around my thirty-fourth birthday, I decided what I really needed was a smaller guitar. A man reaches a certain age, I guess, and after spending most of my life figuring out tunes on a classical guitar, I figured I’d gotten as good at “Wayfaring Stranger” as I was going to get. I thought something smaller might enliven the mix.
There aren’t really any standard guitars more diminutive than my Yamaha classical—I toyed with the idea of a Martin 000-series like Woody Guthrie painted up and played (“This Machine Kills Fascists“). But I realized that my desire to tweak Guthrie’s proto-punk motto into something more comfortably charitable (“This Machine Loves Fascists”? Wait, that doesn’t sound right) would probably make the 000 a not-quite-satisfying axe. Besides, other musical cultures—and more importantly, more-fun-to-say instrument names—beckoned.
In the late 1990s, I was briefly in a band composed entirely of travel guidebook editors. We had a guitar, drums, electric bass, keyboards, banjo, and jew’s harp, and I borrowed a sitar from an Indian friend and spent a couple of afternoons learning how to play a basic melody on it. Our entire repertoire consisted of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and a medley that began as “Dueling Banjos” and ended with “Alzo Sprach Zarathustra.” The band lasted one rehearsal and one concert before we broke up.
I kept the borrowed sitar in my room for a while afterwards, working on my technique of striking the strings with the special bent-wire picks called mizrabs, admiring the handworked body that—beneath the inlay and metalwork—seemed to be made, like Cinderella’s coach, out of papier-mâché and pumpkins. Eventually, though, my friend moved on and the sitar had to be wrapped up and shipped back to Mumbai, leaving me with a vaguely sitar-shaped hole in my musical life. I toyed with the idea of getting one for myself, but was always stopped short by what I called the sitar conundrum: I didn’t know where you could buy one in the U.S., or even if I found one, how I would know it was any good. And I assumed good sitars, by the time they got to America, would be far beyond my price range.
As luck would have it, a few years later my brother made a series of trips to India. Each time he went, I gave him a list of sitar-buying instructions and gave him a budget. Each time he returned with a different tale of thwarted ambition: the recommended shop was closed, I didn’t know how I’d take it on the train, here’s some Tamil film music instead. Part of the problem, I realized, was one of scale. Even with only one dried-pumpkin-resonator attached, a sitar is not a trivial travelling companion.
Years passed, other mild instrument-longings came and went. Banjo, dobro, Cuban tres. I loved the Veracruz-style treble guitar played on Los Lobos’ album La Pistola y El Corazon, sad teardrop shape of the guitarra portuguesa, Compay Segundo’s sprightly tres on the Buena Vista Social Club record. But an even higher, sweeter, smaller sound—and an even cooler name—soon lured me.
I first heard it pronounced, I think, in an interview with the British trip-hop band Morcheeba, who had an album out called Charango. The name, they said, was from a little South American guitar they’d happened upon in their travels with a tiny body and a very sweet tone. I realized I’d seen this instrument before in the hands of Peruvian street performers in Paris and in Harvard Square, strumming lightning trills besides the chopped, hollow notes of the pan pipes. They always seemed to be playing Simon and Garfunkel’s pop version of “El Cóndor Pasa,” which melody I always imagined the Andean street musician community must view as both a blessing and a curse. My thirty-fourth year arrived, and louder and louder came the call in the back of my head. Charango. Charango. Charango. It was time to make some inquiries.
The charango was born, the wikis tell us, in the city of PotosÃ in colonial Alto Perú, present-day Bolivia. Once one of the largest and richest cities in the world, PotosÃ happens to have been built at the lung-testing altitude of 13,000 feet—an oversight explained by the fact that it is just down the hill from the largest-yielding silver mine in history, the Cerro Rico, which funded many of Spain’s best empiring years. High-altitude mining exerts a great human cost, and the Cerro Rico claimed the lives (or at least the better years) of an estimated eight million indigenous Indian and imported African slaves and forced labourers.
So it was in this environment—the best and worst of colonial Spanish culture: a ballet school and an opera house and scores of men dying underground—that the Spanish guitar was adopted, adapted, and remade, emerging in the early 19th century, around the time the Cerro Rico ran out of silver. Since then, the miners have had to make do with tin.
Nowadays the charango really comes from all the Andean countries—from Ecuador and Peru all the way to Chile and Argentina, though Bolivia probably does the most to celebrate it as a national symbol. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited La Paz, president Evo Morales presented her with a custom-made charango, which had, in a joint celebration of Bolivia’s other national symbol and ribbing of U.S. anti-drug policy, its rounded body lacquered green with coca leaves.
The round body. Early Spanish references just record it as being a hollowed-out gourd, but charangos from the nearer past got their shape from a hollowed-out armadillo. The shell of the quirquincho, which seems to be any of several varieties of South American armadillo, makes a decent soundbox, and gives many charangos a definite Museum of Natural History vibe. Indeed, as I scoured eBay and TieandasLatinas.com, the quirquincho models had their definite attraction (at the time I was reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which features a stuffed armadillo in a prominent role).
The more I searched, the more I realized I was up against the old sitar conundrum: how to buy a musical instrument sight unseen, sound unheard, especially from a selection of random guys with eBay accounts and South American addresses? I made the rounds of Portland’s instrument shops. At one, the closest thing to a charango was a huge mariachi guitarrón slumbering peacefully in the corner (their banjos and dobros, also, very nearly led me from the path); at another, the proprietor said he used to stock charangos but he could never find a supplier who would send him reliably decent instruments. “They’d arrive from Bolivia,” he told me, “and two thirds of them wouldn’t be playable.” Anyway, he said, these days the real action was in ukuleles. He recommended a plastic-body model called the Flea, which looked less authentic than the mahogany-ply ones in the window, but sounded twice as good and cost twice as much. “These guys been paying my rent for the past two years,” he told me. I plinked and played it for a little while; it did sound nice, but the plastic body just felt wrong. My thoughts returned to sacrificial armadillos.
In the end, though, no scaly mammals would meet their maker on my account. I had a brainstorm, recalling a friend of my father’s who is a missionary technologist based in Ecuador. I secured the proper introductions and sent her a note asking if, maybe just maybe, she might like to go charango-shopping on my behalf and on my dime. She would be delighted, she said, and just so happened to be returning to the States in a few weeks. We finalized a budget, and I awaited word, which quickly came. “I bought the charango that our musical friend recommended. It is professional quality, handmade by ‘Cisneros’ in Ecuador with a rosewood soundbox and a pine soundboard . . . I think you’ll like it!”
She thought correctly. Long those days I waited for my charango to come. I surfed YouTube for some hint on how to play it when it arrived. There were clips aplenty, some demonstrative, precious few instructive. My favourites are by a masked man called “charango ninja” who plays at heavy-metal-solo speed.
The box arrived. I opened it up and took the instrument out. It was beautiful in its simplicity—no over-the-top flourishes, butterfly soundholes, or silly tourist carvings. Instead, a surprisingly heavy neck widening to a solid little back smoothed and varnished into a pleasant vaguely armadilline shape. The tone is sweet and harsh, depending on how you strum it. Its ten strings are a bit of a pain to tune, mostly because there are ten of them (four of them are E). It seemed truly, genuinely, pleasingly authentic, and I was of course quite proud to have procured it from the right real place. Of course, then I looked at the store receipt. It said, “Casa Brazil, Quito Ecuador.” I guess everyone thinks the most interesting music comes from somewhere else.
So for the past few months we’ve been getting acquainted, my charango and I, learning new chords and building new callouses. That first day, the song I had stuck in my head was not some obscure Bolivian tune but a charango-centered parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”—
Ooh my little ten-string’d one, ten-string’d one
When you gonna give me some time, charango?
Not exactly the way to do right by eight million dead silver miners, but don’t deny it’s catchy. Since then I’ve gained in confidence and skill, but despite my desires to really enter a different musical culture and space, so far most of what I play sounds downright American—a bit of ukulele, a dash of mandolin. We can almost play a passable “El Cóndor Pasa,” but our best song’s still “Wayfaring Stranger.”