“It is a kind of music that is sung with all your heart, total devotion!”, exclaims Rafael Felipe Lay Bravo, bandleader and musical director of one of Cuba’s most renowned and revered ensembles, the Orquesta Aragón. The orchestra was originally formed in 1939 in a city on the country’s southern coast, Cienfuegos, and although they did not create the cha-cha-cha, they are arguably it’s most successful and emblematic world-wide representatives.

Asked about the secret to a 75 year success story, Lay laughs and says, “I guess I should blame on our excellent work! He continues to describe the foundation of the Orquesta Aragon’s lasting style: “Orchestras like ours, there were so many in the 50’s and 60’s, the Golden Age, but our work has  lasted because of the musical quality. For example, he adds, with the cha-cha-cha, “The way the Orquesta interpreted cha-cha-cha, we gave it a distinctive touch, with the rhythms of Europe, Africa and the Americas. The Aragon cha-cha-cha is unmistakable!”

The idea at the beginning, Lay explains, was to have a chamber orchestra but with percussion, so the audience could listen, dance, or both, and they created an original sound based on traditional  Cuban son with an African rhythm section and Spanish melodies, to which they added violins.

Over the years, the Aragón has created memorable arrangements of tunes in every sort of classic Cuban genre, from danzón to mambo. They have recorded with African artists such as Papa Wemba, Puerto Rican greats such as Cheo Feliciano, and many more musical luminaries from different lands. They even created a new beat called “cha-onda”, based on sounds heard in the streets of Africa during their tours in that continent.

And all of that was really not hard for them, says Lay. “Our music is very adaptable. We preserve tradition, but we incorporate new sounds–of course, we live in these times–but we do not lose our identity. Our sound then becomes updated, because we always incorporate popular rhythms that are around”.

He notes that their concerts share the breadth and the depth of their repertory, “We have elements from what we have played throughout all our years…we have been able to walk in time, and we always have pieces from each era of our development, from the classic tunes, to the newest ones”.

And the best thing of all, is the effect on the audience, says Lay. “We love to play for our audiences. We have a style, a manner of interpreting music in a way that totally captures our audience, and after our concerts, our audience is like, taken over, totally impregnated with Cuban son”!

The Orchestra Aragón brings its wonderful Cuban grooves to the Mayne Stage Friday April 18, for two shows. 7:30pm and 10:30pm.

Checkout Catalina’s radio show Beat Latino  (On FB andiTunes too!) as well as recent NPR features to explore the past, present and future of Latin music.

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