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Charanga Carolina shares Cuban traditions with UNC community

Members of Charanga Carolina perform at Hill Hall on Monday, April 24, 2023.

Danzón, a popular music genre and dance in Cuba, has influences from Afro-Cuban and European classical music. UNC's campus is home to Charanga Carolina — the only university-based Charanga music ensemble in the state. 

Participants preserve and share Cuban cultural traditions, grow as musicians and create community within and outside of the campus community through a variety of instruments, including flutes, bass, brass and Latin percussion. 

Brevan Hampden, director of Charanga Carolina this semester, said the group is an essential part of the campus community. 

To his knowledge, the group has done more off-campus shows than on-campus ones, including at The Fruit in Durham and at La Fiesta del Pueblo in Raleigh. 

“When it comes to that song and Charanga and that music, Charanga is pretty much kind of that staple in the community at this point,” he said.

Started in 2004 by professor David Garcia, Charanga Carolina specializes in Cuban danzón, contemporary New York-style and Cuban salsa, as well as other Latin American dance and music styles. Hampden said his personal connection with Garcia helped him become involved in the group after Garcia began inviting music professionals in the community to sing and play with the ensemble.

Jesse Ainslie started playing guitar for the ensemble last spring. He said that the students who stay for multiple semesters and fall in love with the music and grow as musicians.

“I think that all of us that stick with it feel that we are inheriting a tradition in North Carolina that you know, it doesn't go back centuries,” Ainslie said. “But David Garcia started this program in like 2004, and it's an early example of the University pushing the boundaries of historical music and that's really valuable.”

One area where students can really grow as musicians in Charanga Carolina is in improvisation, Hampden said, adding that not only is the instrumentation “pretty intense,” but students often aren’t used to the improvisation required in this kind of music.

Improvisation was a new skill for Laney Dowell, who has been a vocalist in the ensemble for a year now. With the help of Garcia and Hampden, she became more comfortable with the performance style.

“You can't learn the entire genre within a short amount of time, so I just kind of went in with an open mind,” she said.  

Another necessary component of Charanga Carolina is understanding the historical and cultural history of Charanga, Cuban danzón and other genres of music they play, Dowell said. 

Ainslie described how the foundational rhythm of danzón — also known as the clave — was brought to the Americas over centuries by various cultural and religious groups from all over the world, including North and West Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He said the rhythm has crucial importance to danzón and various other music genres.

“The clave is the underlying rhythmic structure of Cuban danzón,” he said. “And you have to hold it in your body while you are moving your hands on your instrument or while you are breathing through your instrument.” 

At Charanga Carolina’s most recent concert last Monday, members of the audience also seemed to feel this rhythm in their bones.

“We had people dancing in the aisles, which was so exciting because, I mean, it's first and foremost dance music,” Dowell said. 

As Charanga Carolina approaches its twentieth anniversary, Hampden reflects on the legacy he hopes it will have at UNC and in the broader community.

“I just want to see the legacy continue,” he said. “So that you know, the art form and the music continues to grow and shape and get preserved around town and have been around since the late 1800s, mid 1800s.”


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