Orchestra with a family spirit

Rafael Lay Bravo makes no distinctions between Cuba and music, nor between Orquesta Aragon and family. His life has been entwined with the legendary act’s work and travels, no matter where, for the past 25 years. The orchestra, now an incredible seven decades old, will be in Athens for one show this Saturday at the Iera Odos club. Since Orquesta Aragon’s inception, younger members have been added as needed for its uninterrupted course. Bravo, the band leader on vocals and violin, makes it clear that he does not perceive the project as an orchestra, but as family, «a big family,» in his own words. «Orquesta Aragon was not established for the money. It was not created so that its members could make a living. All of us who serve it love music with a passion which we want to share with others,» Bravo told Kathimerini in an interview. «Rhythm for us equals ideology. We believe that rhythm exists everywhere. Without rhythm, life has no essence, or flavor,» he continued. The group’s members not only consider it an obligation to keep alive their homeland’s tradition, but also to groom and condition younger musicians for successful integration into this evergreen musical whole. Inevitably, there has been some change in the band’s sound. «Even we were forced to change our sound. We also added other styles,» Bravo explained. In earlier times, the orchestra was renowned for its cha-cha numbers. It has provided sultry sounds, be it danzon, cha-cha, or cha-onda, the latest development, for three generations of dancing Cubans. «We play all the Cuban styles, but our selections are determined by the audiences,» said Bravo. «I remember a show in Milan a few years ago. We’d prepared a set made up of rhythmic songs and a few wonderful Cuban ballads. The audience didn’t let us play any of them. The night developed into a wild party. Audiences know what they want and guide you.» This orchestra’s long-running history began to take shape when Bravo’s father took the baton from Orquesta Aragon’s founder, Oreste Aragon, who established the act in the city of Cienfuegos. The project was originally known as Ritmica de 39, then Ritmica Aragon, before settling with Orquesta Aragon in the late 40s. The band’s repertoire has in the past included waltz numbers and contemporary Spanish songs. «I’m interested in having a musical family. I’m not looking for virtuosos, but musicians with quality. In the late 40s, everybody had turned to American jazz and the orchestra’s music was not that popular. But my father never stopped believing in it. He changed the sound, worked hard, and was vindicated soon after,» said Bravo. «He signed a record deal with the major label RCA in the 1950s, which was the big breakthrough.» Asked to comment on the differences between Orquesta Aragon and one of Cuba’s other major musical ambassadors, Buena Vista Social Club, Bravo remarked: «Buena Vista is a collection of great Cuban musicians that changes constantly. Orquesta Aragon features specific musicians who have known each other for years, which makes for greater versatility in the repertoire and adjustments in line with the audience’s mood. So, there’s a little more communication here.»

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