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Orquesta Aragon at Birdland

- Jazz

Jazz and Cabaret Reviews

By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower

May 16, 2003

Orquesta Aragon
(See Bio)
315 West 44th Street, NYC
Gianni Valenti, Owner
Andy Kaufman, Business Manager
Tarik Osman, Manager

Orquesta Aragon
Photo by Roberta Zlokower

For an avid Salsa dancer as I, this was a most difficult challenge. That is, to just listen to a dynamic, Cuban Orchestra, which plays in the traditional, Mambo style, even more traditional than Jose Alberto, who has generously borrowed from the Cuban style of Latin music. I do not profess to be an expert on Cuban music, but I do own and listen to beloved CD's of Cuban music, such as Cachao, Hilario Durán, and Chucho Valdés. Orquesta Aragon played in the original style of a Cuban Nightclub, with singers, Latin percussion, flutes, and vocalists. Their shirts of silver glittered in the spotlights, and the audience, who dined and wined, during this first set, were obvious longtime fans. I noticed the dynamic quality of the earthy bass, which actually provided much of the signature rhythm and tempo, as well as the sensational showcasing of the solo flute, reminiscent of my experiences at the Copacabana. I also noticed and appreciated the Latin percussion, which combined many of the natural and metal instruments that were used by Mayra Casales in Regina Carter's concert, also at Birdland.

This orchestra was completely at ease and spoke only in Spanish, to each other and to the mostly Latino patrons. Unlike Jose Alberto's orchestra, there was no obvious leader, up front. Rather, the musicians appeared to hand the lead throughout the set. The manner in which musicians would point to each other, as they switched the lead to numerous soloists and combinations of musicians, with varying effect, was illustrative of the camaraderie and professionalism of these men. (I did not see female musicians or vocalists onstage, during this set.) The lead violinist was quite remarkable, as there is no sound more exciting than Cuban Mambo on strings. The audience called for more, with aggressive calls and clapping. Patrons danced in the aisles, as the bluesy bass, gypsy violin, and steel drums rocked Birdland. My fantasy dance partner did not leap from the bar to whisk me to the tabletop. Yet, I had a wonderful time listening to traditional Cuban Mambo, Son, and differing, but danceable, rhythms. I will definitely search for their signature CD.

Orquesta Aragon's Bio

Two time Grammy nominated Orquesta Aragon, Cuba's premier charanga band, has continued to exhilarate devoted fans for 64 years. Even more amazing than Aragon's longevity, is the group's ability to keep building a large and enthusiastic following with its remarkable recordings and enthralling live performances. While Aragon's endurance may be unparalleled, it's the freshness of the group's consistently evolving musical approach that contributes so greatly to its widespread popularity and acclaim. This Spring, Aragon carries that tradition forward with a concert tour of the United States.

"Orquesta Aragon, which artfully layers...flute over violins and percussion, is no nostalgia trip," notes critic Lloyd Sachs for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Though it still plays some of the courtly danzon melodies with which it established its reputation, it has absorbed all manner of cha-cha and mambo, son and guaracha sounds--and American styles, too...The songs, old and new have a deceptive urgency beneath their airy melodies, relaxed grooves and laid back four-part vocals."

The way in which Aragon both preserves and enhances its legacy as the great popularizer of cha cha is the cornerstone of its success. In revealing the secrets of the band's endurance, current leader, Rafael Lay, Jr. explains "it's always being aware of what is happening around us. One cannot live outside what is happening or what is fashion in music today. You also have to remain true to your sound," Lay continues "We celebrate our past, but we're always adding new songs, because Aragon is a band of the times."

Orquesta Aragon's latest album, En Route, is a perfect example of Rafael Lay Jr.'s philosophy. Released on harmonia mundi's World Village label, En Route includes nods to rock, hip-hop and African music along with a more traditional repertoire. The critically acclaimed album was highly successful among a diverse audience, and earned the group its second Grammy nomination. Aragon's first Grammy nomination came with its previous album, La Charanga Etema (Lusafrica).

Photo by Roberta Zlokower

Orquesta Aragon
Photo by Roberta Zlokower

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at