Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: "Chicharra"

The Chicharra is a sound effect that violinists, cellists, violists in tango orchestras create by using their bow on the "wrong side" of the bridge right below where they usually bow the strings of their instrument.   (Below, you will see and hear how the sound is made.)

Tango composers use this unusual sound very much like the popular percussion instrument used all over Latin America, the güiro, a little gourd washboard instrument.  

May I put a bug in your ear?  But please listen to what the cicada has to say.  She sings out a variation of an often implicit rhythm in tango, and she predicts how the whole tango piece is going to be played out.  

If you love tango, you will immediately notice this sound, but now let's see an example in a live orchestra and then in a following video clip, we will see exactly how it is properly made by the violin, viola or cello:

This second video is rather technical but the clearest example you probably will ever see!


Some believe that the chicharra is a more modern invention, but of course it was used in the Epoca de Oro (Golden Era) of tango as well.   Here's an example of Alfredo D' Angelis, using the chicharra very much like a typical güiro rhythm.  (Start listening at about the 70th second mark.)  And at the very end of this post, I have a picture of how arranger notated the chicharra and it's typical rhythm.

The bug in your ear: 
Dancers can learn a few things from the wise cicada. The chicharra seems to know the 3+3+2 rhythms of Africa and Middle East.  This morning I played the first video clip above for my 14-year-old son and asked him to tap out the rhythm that pervades the song.  The chicharra gave him the best clue, and he continued with that (until he got bored and left).  He and his brother are musicians, too, and sometimes we play together.  In tango, at least, the chicharra always sings out or plays around with the same ancient rhythms (sometimes called syncopations) that have their center around 3+3+2 rhythms.  I am not sure who taught the bug her wisdom, but please noticed that the first video plays on the upbeat of this rhythm and then the melody follows the same pattern throughout the tango.  The second video demonstrates this essential rhythm of tango but on the downbeat.  (If you actually count 123-123-12, the "upbeat" is just to clap on all the 2's and the downbeat is to dance on all the 1's.)

This rhythm does not belong to tango alone.  Middle Eastern music often features this rhythm as well.  One could argue that the European Jewish immigrants brought this rhythm to Argentina (along with the German made bandoneón), but that is not entirely true.  Even the melodies to some tangos came directly from Jewish songs.  Isn't it interesting that the Jews were slaves in Africa and their heritage and stories are centered in Africa?   Please enjoy this video below, an example of sacred music using this essential rhythm:

Here's the a photo I took a live concert of the violinist's score of "Canaro en Paris," with the notation of chicharra, playing off the 3/3/2 rhythms mentioned above.  The chicharra is at the very bottom of the photo.


  1. "Tango composers use this sound very much like the popular percussion instrument..."

    I'd be interested to see any evidence that tango composers used this sound, e.g. a score. I rather think instead its use was down to the performers. Or perhaps occasionally the arrangers.

  2. Chris, of course this is written into the music. It is not an option nor an arranger's whim. Trust me. If you do happen to go to a live tango concert, ask the violinist. I will try to find an example and add it to the blog.

  3. I think you're both right, in a way...the concert footage you show from the Pan-American symphony and the Pablo Ziegler concert, I believe the effect would be written out, but in smaller ensembles I think its more often improvised, even if its agreed in rehearsal to use it in a certain spot, its probably not written precisely. Also, the idea that its always linked to 3-3-2 is for me a little dubious. Its an effect you hear often in Piazzolla, and he also likes to use asymmetrical rhythms like 332, but I don't think the link goes much further.

  4. Korey, this perhaps is an aspect of musical notation that is similar to cadenzas in Baroque music (often not written) and vamps in jazz -- so perhaps in tango sometimes things are not written. My sense of it is that it is indeed written.

    Regarding rhythms: I do respect your opinion. And I loved your musicality class in Denver, back in 2010 (I believe). However, if I stand mostly alone on this issue, so be it. I am starting to realize that since only a few musicians hear what I am hearing, that this phenomena merely may be an example of auditory hallucinations, voices that others do not hear. But these "voices" are telling me to hold my tanguera with respect (but with passion). They are telling me to dance often in the pulse, but yet the voices move my soul with their playfulness around this pulse. These "voices" I hear speak of a central, essential rhythm. Let me have my auditory delusions. In my discussions of this, I need to add a long list of present day musicians who discredit my assertions. I am just trying to find a few people who hear the same voices I do... but that is "delusional" perhaps. I spoke to two different musicians from Argentina -- one in DC and the other in Heidelberg. Both were leaders of their orchestras. We spoke in length and they agreed with me. LSD? :-)

  5. "Chris, of course this is written into the music."

    Well, the chicharra isn't written in the score I have of the Golden Age example you gave (La cumparsita), or in any other classic tango score I know. If you do find an example in a classic tango, I'll be surprised.... and very interested to see it. Thanks anyway for the interesting article.

  6. Thanks for adding that score, Mark. Nice. But I'll bet the chicharra it shows is from the arranger and probably performer, rather than from the composer. Notice there's no composer name on that score. This earlier version shows the composers name... and no chicharra.

    Anyway, no matter - what matters is of course the sound, not sight! :)

    Thanks for that interesting article.

  7. I am making this comment after listening much more acutely to the chicharra, and I still maintain that in all cases I have heard--including during the Golden Age of tango--that the 3/3/2 rhythm is behind the improvisation. And why wouldn't it be? This is the African link to tango, the 3/3/2 rhythm.


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