In this post we visit Bolivia and look at how an instrument that traditionally was made of armadillo shells has evolved to use wood instead, as the local armadillos became scarcer. Along the way, we take a look at the world of armadillos.
Armadillos in the Andes used to turn into charangos. But these days armadillos are scarce and rarely turn into charangos anymore.
Keeping up so far? OK, so it’s a fair bet that many people might have only a vague idea about what an armadillo is. Some sort of weird animal wearing body armour, right? But what on earth is a charango? And what do armadillos and charangos have to do with the Nature of Music? These are all great questions, and this post will, hopefully, provide some answers.
Let’s start with the armadillos. People in the south-eastern states of the US may have encountered these odd-looking animals which are notable for their armour-plating and their propensity to dig a lot. Their armoured shell or carapace is made up of bony transverse bands covered with tough scales that are derived from skin tissue. The type of armadillo found in the US is the nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, which is also found throughout Central and parts of South America.
The armadillo is one of the state animals of Texas. It’s found its way into popular culture in the American south.
The armadillo regularly features in songs. A lot of these focus on the fact that armadillos often end up dead on the road. A lot of animals are killed on the world’s roads. There’s even a field guide to flattened fauna in the US.
I think that Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk” epitomizes odes to flattened fauna, but armadillos are equivalently well covered in song. For instance, there’s John John Brown’s “The Armadillo Song” and Brad Reynolds’ “Dead Armadillo in the Middle of the Road”.
And for pure singing and guitar virtuosity, it’s hard to beat John Arthur Martinez performing “The Armadillo Song”
There’s even the Dead Armadillo Brewery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Armadillos on the move
Plenty of armadillos seem to avoid death by vehicle in the US though. In fact their numbers and range are increasing. The nine-banded armadillo only arrived in the US in the late 19th century. It made the crossing from Mexico to Texas by itself but was also brought into Florida. It’s become common across the southern US states, but has also been expanding its range northwards in recent decades. Indeed, the appearance of armadillos in states such as North Carolina and Virginia is causing some concern. One 2021 article proclaimed “A wave of southern armadillos are marching north, besieging towns”. The northwards march is thought to be a result of climate change, with the cold-intolerant animals showing up further north as winters become warmer.
Dig it, man!
Why the concern about armadillos moving into new neighbourhoods? It’s not just that these weird animals haven’t been seen in these areas before. It’s their propensity to dig that gets them noticed. Armadillos are a great example of animals who dig for a living. They dig to root out insects and also dig burrows. In natural systems, this digging has an important role in keeping the armadillo’s habitat healthy. But in people’s yards and lawns, their digging is not viewed in such a positive light. In fact, a quick Google search comes up with many pages that discuss what to do when you get armadillos digging up your yard.
There are another 20 species of armadillo, most of which are found in South and Central America. They all share the same tank-like features, but vary greatly in size. The nine-banded weighs anything from 2.5 to 6.5kg and is about the size of a domestic cat. But the pink fairy armadillo only weighs about 120g and is about 9-11cm. At the other end of the scale, the giant armadillo gets as big as 54kg and 1.5m long.
They all dig. The giant armadillo is also a giant digger. Its front feet are impressive digging machines and it can make equally impressive holes in the ground. Unfortunately, it is relatively rare these days, and there are conservation and research programs underway to protect it and increase its populations.
A former student in our group at UWA, Gabrielle Beca, spent time working with the Instituto de Conservação de Animais Silvestres in Brazil on their Giant Armadillo project. Photos, courtesy of Gabrielle, show a Giant Armadillo being released back into the wild, a Giant Armadillo digging, and the large claws used for digging.
Unlike the nine banded armadillo, the giant armadillo is one of many species of digging mammal that have declined and are disappearing from their native habitats. Here in Australia, we’ve lost a whole community of digging animals from large parts of the country – because of habitat modification and the introduction of feral foxes and cats. And we’re only just beginning to appreciate what that means for the ecosystems they were part of.
We’re fortunate in Western Australia that populations of a range of digging mammals were able to hold on in small pockets and on offshore islands – so we can see the effect these animals have on their habitats. Their digging activities change virtually every aspect of the habitat – soil structure and richness, water retention, fire fuel distribution, homes for other species, and more.
My friend and colleague Leonie Valentine created a poignant image of the Australian bush haunted by the ghosts of diggers past. Major conservation efforts are underway across the country to reintroduce these animals – and their digging activities – to areas that have been made safe from predators.
Conquistadors, Cerro Rico and charangos
Back to armadillos. The term armadillo is derived from a Spanish word meaning “little armoured one” and reflects the colonial history of the Americas. Spanish Conqustadors spotted the unusual creature as they travelled through and colonized the Americas.
It was the Spanish colonization of Bolivia that probably gave rise to the armadillo’s musical career. Rather than ending up dead in the middle of the road, they ended up dead as part of charangos – stringed musical instruments a bit like a cross between a guitar, mandolin and ukulele.
The history of the charango is largely speculative, but the dominant version is that it originated in the city of Potosi in Bolivia. This city is remarkable in many ways. Its location at 4000m on the Altiplano – a huge high elevation plain sitting between two Andean cordilleras -makes it the highest city in the world. At one time it was also the largest city in the world. It is located next to a mountain called Cerro Rico, and it turned out that this mountain contained one of the richest deposits of silver in the world.
Founded in 1546, Potosi grew rapidly, reaching over 200,000 inhabitants, as the Spanish colonists extracted huge amounts of pure silver from the mountain. It’s estimated that 45,000 tons of pure silver were extracted from Cerro Rico between 1556 and 1783 – the largest source of silver for the Spanish crown anywhere in the world. This came at great cost to human lives, as thousands of local people were forced to work in unsafe mines. It’s said that the mines of Cerro Rico started the age of globalisation and capitalism. These days, the former glory has died, but mining continues and the mountain is collapsing in on itself.
Pieces of eight!
A mint was established in 1575 which started producing up to 5 million silver coins a year. These coins were known as “pieces of eight” because of their divisibility into quarters and eighths. These became an important form of currency in many parts of the world.
And, as anyone who watches pirate movies will know, “pieces of eight” were much sought after as treasure by pirates. This probably all started with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, in which Long John Silver’s parrot would squawk “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” at any opportunity.
Let’s use armadillos!
The Conquistadors and subsequent colonists brought with them an array of stringed instruments – early versions of guitars, mandolins, lutes and harps. It appears that local musicians enthusiastically adopted and integrated these stringed instruments into their culture. However, there was a slight problem with making these wooden instruments locally. The high elevation of the Altiplano – well above the treeline – means that few trees grow naturally around Potosi.
One version of events suggests that, since wood for instruments was scarce, local innovation stepped in. Someone had the bright idea that the hard shell of the local armadillos could form the bowl of the sound box for a stringed instrument. And so the charango was born.
So what exactly is a charango? An armadillo with strings? A traditional charango is pretty much just that. The armadillo in question is usually the the Andean hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus nationi), the species found in the Altiplano around Potosi. The size of its shell – up to about 40cm long – determines the dimensions of the charango. These vary a lot, but a standard charango is about 66cm long and consists of a body constructed with the armadillo shell attached to a wooden top and neck. It usually has 10 strings in 5 courses of two. But there are many variations on this theme.
It’s thus quite an odd-looking instrument – the relatively small size of the shell makes the instrument’s body look out of proportion in comparison with the wide neck and big headstock needed to accommodate the 10 strings. It’s like part of a guitar neck has been patched onto a ukulele or mandolin body.
El condor pasa
Despite its odd appearance, the charango became a fixture in high Andean music and is played both solo and in ensembles of other instruments, including guitars. Andean folk music was carried far and wide by traveling groups during the latter half of the 20th century. When I was traveling as a student in the 1970s, it seemed that you could expect to find a group from Bolivia, Peru or elsewhere in the Andes playing in a town square or thoroughfare in most cities you visited. Their distinctive sound which included pan-pipes, flutes and assorted stringed instruments – including the charango – was distinctive and highly evocative.
Many people of my generation will remember hearing this type of music for the first time in Simon and Garfunkel’s song “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)“, on the 1970 Bridge over Troubled Water album. Los Incas, who were a Paris-based Andean folk group that introduced Simon to the song, provided the instrumentation for the recording. Their leader, Jorge Milchberg, played a charango, and you can hear its distinctive sound on the record.
And you can hear Jorge Milchberg playing the tune solo on a charango in this 2006 video.
But what about the armadillos?
A key element of a traditional charango is, of course, that each instrument involves an armadillo giving up its life in the name of art. How you feel about that will depend on your general ethical mindset regarding the use of animals to provide humans with food, fiber and materials. But beyond that, there’s also the question of whether the practice has a detrimental impact on the survival of the species involved.
It’s thought that the Andean hairy armadillo was pretty abundant in the past, but these days their numbers have been much reduced by hunting, habitat loss and agricultural development. They have been hunted as food, for their shells, and because they can be a nuisance because of their digging activities. It’s ironic that, while the nine banded is marching through North America, the Andean hairy is in trouble.
Their use in musical instruments probably had a fairly minor impact on populations when the instruments were made and used locally. However, the charango also became a popular souvenir item for tourists. The shell is also used for matracas – rattles that play an important part in local festivals and are also sold to tourists.
As a result of concerns regarding declining Andean hairy armadillo numbers, the species was listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, and placed on the CITES Appendix 2 list, meaning that no export of the animal or its parts is allowed. In other words, no charangos should be sold for export or to tourists who will take them back to their home countries.
Within Bolivia, it’s also illegal to hunt or trade Andean hairy armadillos, but illegal hunting has continued despite this. In an effort to stop poaching, it became illegal in 2015 to sell or own a new armadillo rattle. Dancers who already owned rattles could keep them, however. Unfortunately, it seems that enforcement of the new rules is often slack or non-existent.
Tinkering with taxonomy
The Andean hairy armadillo has been recognised as a separate species since 1894. However, more recent taxonomic studies came to the conclusion in 2015 that the Andean hairy armadillo was not distinct enough from the more common screaming hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus)to be called a species in its own right. The recommendation was to lump the Andean in with the screaming. This animal gets its name from the high-pitched squeals it emits when handled. Its range extends into lower elevations than its Andean cousin.
Because the screaming hairy armadillo is more abundant and considered of least conservation concern, the Andean hairy armadillo suddenly lost its protected status. The IUCN removed it from its red list of threatened species.
We’ve brushed with taxonomy -how species are classified and named – in an earlier post. It’s clear that ongoing taxonomic research and changing methods regularly result in species and genera being renamed, amalgamated and separated. But, as with the armadillo situation, taxonomic decisions can come with important practical consequences for the organisms being studied. A set of organisms can suddenly lose or gain legal protection at a stroke of the taxonomist’s pen.
It is, however, unlikely that changing the taxonomy does anything to change the threats to the organisms that were previously called one thing and are now called another. The threats to the animals formerly known as Andean hairy armadillos in their high elevation habitats remain, regardless of whether they’re now considered the same species as the screamers further down the hill.
The authors of the taxonomic paper recognised this problem and tied themselves in a few knots over it, simultaneously calling for the species to be de-listed and pointing out the need to keep protecting it.
In fact, they also point out that there’s evidence from 30 years ago that the declining numbers of Andean armadillos were pushing people to hunt and use the screamers instead. Hence the impact of hunting is likely to be affecting both the high-altitude hairies and the lower-altitude screamers.
One of the authors concluded that “It doesn’t really matter the name of the species you have. If you want to still have armadillos in Bolivia, you need to protect the local populations. Even if they are not a distinct species after all.”
And if there are no armadillos in a particular place, there won’t be any armadillo-related activities, like digging. It’s analogous to the situation that would arise if all the plumbers suddenly disappeared from the city you live in. There may be plenty of plumbers in other cities, but there are none in yours to keep the pipes, taps and toilets in working order.
It appears that the Andean hairy armadillo is still recognized as threatened by the Bolivian government. It is still listed by CITES, with its non-lumped name Chaetophractus nationi. And I’m left pondering the question of whether the Andean hairy armadillo screams too. Surely a good diagnostic character?!
Back to charangos
Where does this all leave the charango? It would appear that illegal hunting of armadillos continues and that some of the animals still end up as rattles, if not charangos. It’s illegal to sell products made with the armadillos though, and CITES should prevent items made from them being traded overseas.
But it still happens to some extent, and there are exhibits in places such as the Valparaíso Natural History Museum that display items confiscated from travellers by authorities acting under CITES regulations.
It’s also very easy to find “vintage” charangos with armadillo shell backs for sale – for quite handsome prices – on sites such as Ebay and Reverb, mostly from US sellers. The 2020 Reverb advert proclaimed: “Handmade Armadillo Shell Charango with Ears intact!”
However, most things you read about charangos these days indicate that there has been a strong move away from using armadillo shells to make the instruments. Most charangos are now constructed using wood.
So, that sounds like quite a big change to make to a traditional instrument. Completely removing one of the dominant features and using an entirely different material. How can these wooden instruments even be considered proper charangos?!
In fact, wooden charangos have been around for quite a while. Interestingly, most people who have tried both types actually consider the wooden instruments to be superior in a variety of ways. A comment on Reddit 5 years ago sums things up nicely:
“I once owned an armadillo charango by Gamboa, a famous Bolivian maker. I took the charango to a humid region of the Amazon and it promptly fell apart. Keep in mind that an armadillo’s “shell” is not a true shell like a turtle’s, but plates of thickened leather, and thus extremely sensitive to humidity. They are also structurally weaker at the neck joint, as the neck is usually attached to the shell with no other form of attachment other than glue and wood putty. I agree that armadillo charangos are tonally inferior and furthermore are prone to infestation by beetles and other parasites. They occasionally come up for sale on ebay for ridiculously expensive prices, just leave them alone.”Reddit
Armadillo-shell charangos are subject to disintegration or pest damage and, it would appear, don’t sound as good as the wooden alternatives. I suspect the ones with hairy shells would be very scratchy to play too.
A Pedro Quispe Torrez wooden charango
My interest in finding out more about charangos started from when I recently came across an all-wood charango for sale at an apparently bargain price here in Australia. It was made by Pedro Quispe Torrez in El Alto, another city in the Altiplano of Bolivia. Pedro has been making charangos since 1996 and proudly proclaims that his charangos “are the inheritance of an ancestral art made into a musical instrument”.
Until I saw this instrument advertised for sale, I had only known about the dead armadillo charangos, and so I was fascinated by this all-wood version. The seller was a bit vague about the details of this instrument, and said that it was made from “a single piece of gorgeous white spruce pine and features a jacaranda fingerboard”.
The instrument is certainly very lovely to look at and sounds really interesting. It came with a book entitled “The Charango Chord Bible” that somewhat dauntingly contains 1728 chords. Another instrument that is easy to play in a rudimentary way but challenging to sound good at!
The charango has a body, neck and headstock carved out of a solid block of wood and has a round back and flat top. I think the seller got a bit muddled with the wood – the white spruce pine is a direct translation from the Spanish Pino Abeto Alemán, which seems to translate as European spruce. Looking on Pedro Quispe Torrez’s website, it would appear that he uses a range of hardwoods for the bodies, including palo santo, jacaranda, soto mara and naranjillo. From the photos, it would appear that my charango is most likely naranjillo.
It’s difficult to get accurate translations for many of the wood types or to figure out what tree they might have come from. It’s likely that Naranjillo is Argentine Osage Orange Maclura tinctoria, known to produce good quality wood for specialty uses.
Pedro Quispe Torrez charangos under construction, and charangos carved to mimic the traditional armadillo shell. All photos courtesy of Pedro Quispe Torrez, Instagram.
When tradition moves on
Pedro Quispe Torrez has developed a reputation for making high quality instruments and is among a band of charango makers who are using wood instead of armadillos to continue the charango tradition. The tops provide a canvas for interesting and sometimes intricate designs, while the wooden bowls are beautifully carved. Some even reference the history of the instrument by mimicking the armadillo shell.
So an entire tradition of making musical instruments with one type of material has been able to transform itself to use another, less problematic, material. If Bolivian artisans can do it with the charango, maybe it’s not such a big leap of faith to think that guitars can evolve in a similar manner. And maybe humanity as a whole can navigate the changes needed to secure a sustainable future.
Just to conclude this post, in case you need some mellow relaxation, here is a video showing 4 minutes of an armadillo digging a hole.
For a full list of past posts, go here.
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