The Sweet Sound of the Cuban Flute

Banner image: Orlando "Maraca" Valle (Photo by Alejandra Barragan)

Cuban music fans all over the world know that Cuban musicians are virtuosos second to none. Cuban music originally formed as a uniquely symbiotic combination of Spanish décima poetry and African rhythms. First popular in swank Havana nightclubs like the Tropicana, there were also country styles from Oriente Province, Cienfuegos, and other regions. I particularly love the wonderfully sweet sound of the charanga style that features flutes and violins. Let’s check out four flutists who excel in this part of the Cuban musical grid.

Orlando “Maraca” Valle

The maestro Maraca (b. 1966, Havana) is part of a new generation of Cuban flutists. He spent 10 years in school rigorously studying classical flute, then branched out and became one of La Isla’s hottest flute players. Unlike the other flutists mentioned below, Maraca plays the modern silver transverse flute. He was recently named a brand ambassador by the Gemeinhart Flute Company, long a manufacturer of high-end professional flutes. Here’s a clip of Maraca in action. The violinist is amazing, too!

Don Gonzalo Fernández

The late Don Gonzalo Fernández (1930-?) is sadly not that well-known today, and as I discovered in preparing this post, very little information is available about him online. He left Cuba for Paris in the mid-1960’s to collaborate with Congolese super group Africa Fiesta with Le Grand Kalle, aka Joseph Kabasele. Known as the father of modern Congolese music, Kabasele was (like Fernández) also born in 1930. Cuban 78 rpm records arrived in Leopoldville (now Kinshasha) in the early 1930’s and immediately won popularity. Congolese musicians would put their own stamp on Cuban music with Congolese rumba. Musicians in Congo, Senegal, Mali and Benin, and Guinea were particularly enamored of Cuban charanga, which blended flute with violins and is the sweetest Cuban style of all.

Listen here to Fernández playing the 5-key Cuban ebony flute—known for a warmer, sweeter sound than the silver flute—on a charanga with Le Grand Kalle called “Africa d’Ambiance”:

José Fajardo

José Fajardo (1919-2001) similarly plays the Cuban ebony flute and became famous in the 1950’s with his band Las Estrellas. After the Cuban revolution, Fajardo settled in U.S. and recorded more than 40 albums. Fajardo also specialized in charanga, and his classic song “Kikiriki” continues to propel dancers across dance floors all over the world. The song has a huge back beat and I’ve spun it many times on my radio shows.

Also watch him here in undated concert footage from The Red Parrot in New York.

Richard Egües

Richard Egües (1923-2006) joined the Cuban charanga and cha-cha masters Orquesta Aragón in 1955. The Aragón band toured West Africa, including Mali, in 1965 and again in 1971, and young Africans like Salif Keita were smitten. When I once asked Keita about his biggest musical influences, he only named one: “Aragón.” A few years ago at a gig by a newer incarnation of the band at Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, a group of Cubans, all seniors by then, were lined up with their vintage Aragón LP’s to get them signed. Talk about staying power. Here is Egües with Aragón:

This good recording of a favorite comes from the 1950’s RCA album “Que Suene la Flauta” (“What the Flute is Dreaming”). It showcases the beautiful sound of la flauta cubana:

Finally, we’ll close with a very cool old black and white dance number from Aragón:

(Maraca photos by Alejandra Barragan)