On view in the Musical Instruments galleries is an arresting stringed object, an armadillo shell for its back. Ken Moore, the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of Musical Instruments, spoke with me about this work.
Jennette Mullaney: This instrument was modeled in imitation of a charango or jarana. How did this fusion come to be?
Ken Moore: The typical charango, a small, fretted lute often distinguished by its rounded armadillo-shell back, is found throughout the Andes of Bolivia and parts of Peru and Argentina. Among the Museum's collection are these standard Andean versions as well as an unusually large adaptation from Mexico.
The story of our instrument and its smaller cousin are both tales of hybridization. Like many instruments in the New World, both combine characteristics of the Spanish guitar with indigenous adaptations, the armadillo shell being one. The smaller charango, known from the early eighteenth century, made its way over major colonial trade routes—size probably made it a handy companion on these trips.
Eventually the form found its way to Mexico, where a larger version was manufactured. Here it combined features of the jarana, an instrument of the Yucatan Peninsula used in son (folk music), differing from the smaller Andean version, which was used as a courting instrument played by men. Today these acoustic instruments may have a wooden back and are electronically amplified. Another instrument, combining African and Spanish features, is our rare, late nineteenth-century Jíbaro (country) guitar from Puerto Rico. This instrument, one of two known examples, features designs reminiscent of African textiles carved and incised on the body of a guitar known as a bordonúa.