Charango: It looks like a wooden armadillo. You know, those critters always getting skittled on South American back roads. Anteater-like, shell-dwelling rodents that musicians like to behead, gut, slap a fretboard on and then a poultice of nylon or gut strings.
Well, no animals were hurt in this musical experiment, if that’s any consolation. Perhaps an endangered timber or two — I can’t vouch otherwise. What happens in Bolivia, where this was made, is all mystery to me.
Not that that’s where I found this charango — the 10-string fake armadillo. I brought it for $US300 on the streets of neighbouring Cusco, high up in Peruvian Andes. Pig of an instrument, too.
I’ve fooled around with guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos, citterns, fiddles, mando-cellos, ch’ins, bandurias, balalaikas, instruments I couldn’t even name.
I’ve re-tuned them, de-tuned them, battered them with brass, glass and chrome slides, distortion pedals, wah-wahs, tube-screamers, samples and patches . . . all sorts of nonsense. Tortured the neighbours a good bit too, I confess. But this charango’s a tricky proposition.
I’ve watched all manner of Andean pan flute band and thrash-strumming charangeur, I’ve seen some remarkable jazz and tango extracted from the instrument. It gets me dabbling about with the creature. Confused as all get-out, mind you.
The instrument has 10 strings in sets of two, four of them in unison, one an octave apart _ in the middle of the sets. The two sets either side are roughly in the same high-pitched settings.
Rather than climbing from low to high in pitch, this thing starts high, descends and then rises up again. Basically, two sets are tuned like a mandolin, or tenor banjo, or violin _ in fifths, reconciling on the seventh fret. Four sets, one of them overlapping, are like the highest four strings of a guitar. Go figure.
I show this box of mystery to a mate who’s handy with all manner of musical critters. His eyes light up: “Murph, what a gem!” Yeah sure, I think.
“I can’t scratch a tune out of the swine. It rolls about, jumps octaves, tricks you every second note. Sounds great until you play three notes in a row,” I reply.
My mate smiles back, inscrutably. He then proceeds, gently — you don’t rush these things — to work his way through Rondo á la Turk on the charango.
I slide back into my seat for the ride. I don’t know what I was expecting. Duelling Banjos, The Devil Goes Down to Georgia , some O’Carolan . . . anything but Mozart’s impossible Rondo á la bloody Turk. Last time I saw anyone playing that on strings it was Phil Emmanuel, Tommy’s brother.
But, nope, this was a Tuesday night, at Geelong’s Irish Murphy’s pub — barely anyone around — and a bloke sitting in the corner.
Take a bow, Geoff Sinbeck.