The 19th-Century French Five-Key Flute and the Modern Boehm-System Flute in Cuban Charanga  by Jessica Valiente
April 29, 2022 (No Comments) by Ganved14

“The 19th-Century French Five-Key Flute and the Modern Boehm-System Flute in Cuban Charanga”  by Jessica Valiente**

Of interest to many flutists working in charanga is the kind of flute that is commonly associated with the genre. For those who are not familiar with the term, a charanga is a Cuban dance-music ensemble consisting of a solo flute lead, vocals, violins, piano, bass, congas, and timbales. It has a history that reaches back 100 years, and it is most strongly associated with Cuban popular dance styles such as the danzón, the mambo, the chachachá, and the pachanga. This dance music ensemble rose to international popularity in the 1950’s.

Charanga has an easily recognizable characteristic that distinguishes it from most other Western music styles that utilize the flute today. Charanga flutists play in an extraordinarily high register, inhabiting the third and fourth octaves most of the time, seldom venturing far down into the second octave. This is because charanga developed at a time before sound amplification. As the lead voice, the flute must be heard over a large ensemble that includes at least two (frequently three) percussionists. The high register cuts through the din. Unfortunately, not many flutists today are not aware of the fingerings for notes more than a whole step into the fourth octave. Charanga flutists have had to create the necessary technique via experimentation. Until recently, tutors with the fingerings covering the necessary range did not exist.*

Fig. 1: 19th-century French five-key flute used in charanga. Contemporary reproduction by Peter Noy.

The flute that is historically associated with the charanga is a wooden flute with five keys (figure 1). This is a design that was common in France in the 19th century. This design made its first appearance in the early 19th century and was commonly used, along with other keyed, simple system flutes, until around 1860, when the Boehm system flute gained acceptance in France. Even after conservatory students, professionals, and wealthy amateur flutists in France began to use Boehm system flutes, French flute manufacturers continued to produce simple system flutes, including the five-key D foot, well into the early 20th century.  Keyed simple system flutes were favored by many flutists, amateur and professional, for their affordability; flutes with more keys cost more than flutes with fewer keys, and a Boehm system flute could cost as much as 10 times more than a simple system flute with five keys or fewer.  

So far, the charanga literature says little about the history of these older flutes. Explanations for why charanga flutists prefer them are speculative and full of myth. Information that can be found in charanga or Cuban music studies is often incomplete or inaccurate. Authors on charanga are usually accomplished charanga flutists, historians of Cuban music, or both, but they are not usually experts in the development of European classical flutes. Experts in the field of European historical flutes can tell us a great deal, but they tend to confine their interests to the music that was written at a time and place when these flutes were au courant (in this case, France in the first half of the 19th century). They have not usually explored the use of these flutes when they made their way to the Western hemisphere, and least of all their use in the Caribbean or Latin America. Occasional mentions of charanga in historical flute literature are nearly always inaccurate or incorrect.  A few flute historians and/or luthiers, such as Peter Noy (Canada, Fig. 11) have taken it upon themselves to study and replicate some of these instruments for charanga use (as opposed to use in historical recreations of 19th century European classical music).

Today, one great organological question among charanga flutists is whether the five-key flute is, in fact, more suited to the nature of the genre, particularly the high tessitura, than the modern Boehm system flute.  We are now living in a time when both antique French 5-key flutes and modern Boehm system flutes are used in performance by charanga flutists, so let’s compare:

Fig. 2. The modern Boehm flute

Figure 3. Theobald Boehm

The modern, or “Boehm” flute (figure 2), now used in symphony orchestras, concert bands, chamber music, jazz, contemporary popular music, etc., was invented in 1847 by the German flutist/engineer, Theobald Boehm (See figure 3).  He built his 1832 and 1847 flutes on acoustic principals that are entirely different from all previous European classical flutes, including the five-key flute.  Both innovations have a separate tone hole drilled for each of the twelve chromatic pitches of the first octave (and a few extras for intonation in upper registers, see figure 4), and the 1847 flute has a cylindrical bore. Since we do not have enough fingers to cover all of the holes, there is a complex system of closed and open keys, with rods, pins, springs, and levers to make it possible to activate all keys and open and close all holes, including those that a human hand cannot reach.

Fig. 4. Boehm-system flute tone holes (body only)

The traditional charanga wood flute with five keys operates on much older principals from those of the Boehm flute: The French 5-key wood flute and other European flutes until Boehm’s innovations are known as “simple system” flutes (we will use the definition of simple system flutes as described by Rick Wilson on his website,  Simple system flutes are conical and have six uncovered holes that lie under the first, second, and third fingers of each hand.  When all holes are closed, the flute produces the lowest, or fundamental, note of its range.  Lifting the fingers one by one, in order from the furthest end from the embouchure up to the nearest, will produce the seven notes of a diatonic scale, and overblowing all-holes-closed produces the fundamental note an octave higher.

Fig. 5: One-key Baroque flute, contemporary reproduction by Robert Turner

In the late 17th century, flute luthiers made certain changes to the previously cylindrical, keyless flutes played in Europe.  Unlike the flutes of the Renaissance era, which were made in a single piece, cylindrical, and had no keys (just six holes), the new flutes in the 17th century were made in three separate pieces or “joints” (later, the 18th century, they were further divided into four joints).  This was done so that the maker had more control over the complexity of the bore shape and could make subtle adjustments to define the tone to their taste.  The bores of these new flutes were conical, which made the high register sweeter and more in tune.  They added a single key (D#, on a standard-sized flute), which improved the tone and intonation of quite a few notes in addition to D# itself.  On a Renaissance flute or a single-key flute, notes outside of the fundamental diatonic scale of the instrument by use of forked fingerings.  The tone of fork-fingered notes can often be veiled (although this quality was not necessarily considered to be undesirable at the time).  Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, flute makers began to add keys to make it possible to “directly” finger more of the non-diatonic notes, so that they had the option of a fingering that was both more pure (tone) and louder than the veiled “simple” fingering option.

European simple system flutes may have any number of keys – from none to 13 or more – but none of those keys may close the six primary holes covered by the fingers, or it is no longer a simple system instrument (except on extended foot joints, but these are not relevant for charanga). On the five-key flutes preferred by charanga flutists, the keys are low D# (right-hand pinkie), Bb (left-hand thumb), G# (left-hand pinkie), short F (right-hand ring finger), and a “trill” or “long” C key (right-hand index finger).  Like any simple system flute, it is possible to play the French five-key flute without ever touching any of the keys other than the D# key, all the way up to A3 (A6).  Above A3, all five of the keys become completely necessary (charanga flutists perform up to E4 at the minimum; there are recordings of five-key flute performers in charanga playing as high as A4).  What this means is that the repertoire in this style of music can be played on a 19th-century simple system flute that has 5 keys or more, but it cannot be accomplished with fewer than 5 keys (at least, not with available and known fingerings).  So, the use of the five-key flute in charanga to the exclusion of all other available keyed, simple system flutes in the late 19th century is due to other historical and cultural factors not related to organology.  In other words, the five-key flute is not the only flute that can do the job.

Fig. 6. 5 Key Flutes. (Photo Rick Wilson)

One noteworthy characteristic of the French five-key flute that became an important part of charanga’s distinctive sound is the fact that it is conical.  The conical shape – as opposed to the cylindrical bore shape of the 1847 Boehm flute, may be a greater factor in this flute’s distinctive sound than the fact that it is made of wood.  Conical flutes, particularly French ones, play easily and beautifully in the upper-second and in the third octave.  The bore of a French flute is narrow, compared to English and German flutes of the same era and with similar key work. The narrower bore and the smaller tone holes made the highest register sweeter and more beautiful in tone than the same range of the English and German flutes.  The D foot also continued to be widely available on French flutes (again, after a certain time, the French also embraced the C foot, but the D foot was available as a less expensive option and was commonly favored by military bands).  This is a useful design factor in charanga.  It will always be easier to play higher on a shorter instrument. 

It is important to note, however, that charanga flutists do not achieve these highest notes on the French 5-key flutes exactly as they are.  Some adjustment is necessary.  With all original specifications, most of these flutes will not produce anything higher than B3.  But if the head cork is pushed in to a distance of ¼” from the upper edge of the embouchure hole, these high notes become possible (NB: changing the position of the head cork in this way renders the lowest octave or octave-and-a-half of the flute completely unusable; it will either not produce tone at all, or the tone will be weak and the scale will be out of tune; don’t do this to a flute you intend to use of other types of music besides charanga; or be prepared to move the cork back to its original position). Of course, the overall pitch of the instrument is affected by this.  Fortunately, flutes in this era were manufactured with a barrel and a long tuning slide. Charanga flutists pull out the tuning slide extraordinarily far to compensate for the new cork position.  The result of this combination is surprisingly good intonation, and an extension of the high range by at least a perfect fifth, and sometimes more.

Fig. 7. Danilo Lozano

Does the music really require flutists to play as high as A4? Not really.  Flutist/ historian Danilo Lozano has said that real charanga is about style and taste, the vocabulary, and an understanding of our traditions.  It is not about playing high.  Charanga standards in their original keys do require flutists to be able to play at least an E4.  This is already a challenge for typical, classically trained flutists.  Higher than this is not necessary, but it can be a plus.

Fig. 8. Mauricio Smith

Some performers on Boehm system flutes have been known to play as high as F#4 in concert, and Mauricio Smith was reputed to have been able to play G4, as he had a custom-designed headjoint with a specially cut embouchure.  There are charanga recordings with five-key flutists hitting A4.  B4 has been known to happen.  In this regard, the wood five-key flute has the advantage.  No standard concert, Boehm system, C flute has played that high (charanga culture has made the piccolo instrumenta non grata).

Even this advantage, however, is not enough to halt the march of time. Over the last 40 years, in Cuba and elsewhere, the Boehm flute has been gradually replacing the five-key flute in charanga. This is partly because of the perceived scarcity of the

Fig. 9. Richard Egües playing a Boehm system flute. Photo Gerardo Arreola

instruments, but also because of the global spread of school-band music education, and the easy availability of inexpensive Boehm system flutes. Today, the list of five-key wooden flute players is short (but growing; there is a revival currently under way). Even some senior charanga performers who began their careers on five-key flute transitioned to Boehm flute by choice (most notable, Richard Egües, the flutist who had, so far, the longest tenure in Cuba’s seminal charanga band, Orquesta Aragón).

Dispelling the Myths:

How did the French 5-key Flute Arrive in Cuba?

Common charanga-lore states that these five-key flutes came to Cuba by way of Haiti, as French human traffickers fled the Haitian Revolution and made their new homes on the eastern side of the island of Cuba.  This often-repeated story (unfortunately, also repeated by myself; this paragraph is an official retraction of such statements made in my doctoral dissertation, City University of New York, 2015) offers a neat and tidy explanation of how and when these flutes came to Cuba and why the early predecessors of Cuban charanga were known as the charanga francesa in the mid and late 19th century.  But unfortunately, this story does not align with the actual timeline of the development of the flute:  The mass exodus of plantation owners from Haiti to Cuba ended in 1804, probably before the first five-key flutes were made in France.  And even if evidence ever surfaces to show that the French five-key flute existed before 1804, these flutes were not made in quantities that would account for their presence in Cuba before 1845.  In the early 19th century, French flute craft methods were slow, and luthiers preferred precious metals and fine woods.  These flutes were neither made quickly nor in great numbers.  The quantity of such flutes made before 1845 could not account for many leaving the country, and certainly not for so many of them ending up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the Caribbean.  After 1845, flute production methods became more industrialized, and design and material changes made the flutes much cheaper.  (They still play quite well, they just did not cost as much and there were more of them).  Flutes of this type, manufactured between 1845 and 1930, are not rare.  These flutes were produced in large quantities and shipped all over the world.

Charanga researcher Antonio Kohiba Rivera has demonstrated that a variety of flute types could be found in Cuba in the second half of the 19th century (not necessarily in large numbers), as in other parts of the Americas.  English and German flutes were available as well as French, and they could have anywhere from 1 to 8 keys, or more.  Why, then, did the French five-key flute take root as the de rigueur flute for charanga, to the exclusion of all others, for more than 80 years?

Fig. 10. Antonio Maria Romeu

A likely and logical explanation (not necessarily confirmed) could be that a certain distinguished and influential flutist in the early days of charanga played a five-key instrument with a D-foot and suited their performance practice to fit the instrument they played.  If this were to be true, it’s very likely that it could have been Francisco Delabart, who replaced Alfredo Valdes in the charanga of Antonio Maria Romeu.  Delabart is reportedly the flutist who devised the 4th octave fingerings to go beyond the normal, traditional range of the French five-key flute.  His unparalleled range and beautiful improvisations earned him the nickname “La Flauta Magica.”  It would be easy to imagine that many flutists would want to imitate his success, beginning with the same type of flute.  And because flutes of any kind were never easy to come by in Cuba, flutists passed their flutes on to their pupils and successors.  Before long, they were all passing along the same kind of flute.  Furthermore, flutes of other types were frequently cannibalized for parts to keep the five-key flutes in circulation in good repair. Ultimately, the five-key flute displaced all other flutes in circulation In the realm of charanga (keep in mind that in other musical circles in Cuba, such as jazz, classical music, and military bands, other types of flutes were used).  Eventually the five-key flute evolved from being a practical or affordable choice, to a choice to imitate an admired innovator, and finally to a choice that represented propriety and authenticity to charanga flutists in the succeeding decades. 

It has also been suggested that, in the earliest decades of charanga, Cubans perceived these five-key flutes as more desirable because they are French, and that there were certain social and cultural conditions that existed that made the performers wish to appear as “French” as possible (as opposed to “black”). This makes sense when viewed in light of the origins of the Franco-Cuban culture on the eastern end of the island, even if the flutes themselves did not arrive there with the French creole refugees.  This racial-social phenomenon is well-documented; Afro-Cubans from Santiago de Cuba refer to themselves and are referred to by others as “franceses.” Because the flutes are French in origin, they fit in well with charanga-lore.

Is It a Baroque Flute?

Anyone already familiar with the charanga world may have occasionally heard a Cuban flutist describe the French five-key flute as a “Baroque flute with 5-keys” (“una flauta barroca de cinco llaves”). This results from a common misunderstanding of the definition of a Baroque flute, and Cubans are not the only ones who make this mistake.  It is not unusual even for well-schooled flutists to assume that all wood, jointed, one-key European flutes are Baroque.  In fact, one-key flutes continued to be manufactured during the Classical and Romantic eras, even as many other changes took place in flute design.  To understand why the five-key flute favored by Cubans is not in any way a Baroque flute, we must first understand the chronology of stylistic eras both in music history and in flute-making.  The Baroque era in music is usually defined as 1600 to 1750.  The Baroque flute did not appear immediately in 1600 but began to be made later in the 17th century.  However, 1750 is a good estimate for the time when one-key flutes are being made to suit Classical era aesthetics rather than Baroque aesthetics.  One-key flutes made in the last 17th and early 18th century sound different from flutes made after about 1750 or 1755, and they feel quite different to play.  We can say that the era of Classical flute manufacturing changes to more Romantic era aesthetics around 1820, and this includes the design of one-key flutes of the time.  Classical and Romantic-era one-key flutes might look the same as baroque flutes on the outside, but they are quite different on the inside.  Changes in bore size and shape, wall thickness, embouchure hole size and shape, etc., made for a very different sound. Late 19th century five-key flutes are not Baroque flutes.  They are Romantic flutes.

Is It Necessary to Enlarge the Embouchure Hole?

Fig. 11. Peter Noy, flutemaker

There is a controversy surrounding an additional modification made by many charanga flutists, but not all.  Again, this has become accepted charanga-lore that is not supported by evidence.  Through much of charanga’s history, many charanga flutists have enlarged the embouchure hole on the head joint of these French flutes, and the reason that is nearly always given for this modification is that it will help to produce higher notes.  However, there is no physical/acoustical reason to expect such a thing to be true.  Perhaps a larger embouchure hole will produce more volume (which, to be fair, is an important consideration for a flutist playing in a large ensemble that includes two or three percussionists in the days before audio amplification), but not a higher range.  Furthermore, by exhaustive experimentation (over 300 flutes, with audio and video documentation), Antonio Kohiba Rivera has proven that these flutes (made after 1845) will produce high notes even higher than the highest charanga flute notes on recordings with correct positioning of the cork and good embouchure technique.  Alteration of the embouchure hole, which lessens the value of these instruments, is not necessary to play charanga in the expected range.  Historically speaking, a number of the most distinguished charanga flutists in the genre’s history never enlarged the embouchure hole on their instruments, including Jose Fajardo himself.  For those not familiar with the details of charanga history, Fajardo was one of the three or four most important flutists in all of charanga’s history.

With empirical research on extant 19th century flutes and good, forensic historical research, we know more about how the five-key French 19th century flute became the established flute in charanga for nearly a century, as we continue to preserve and promote the charanga tradition even in contemporary social dancing among Latin music fans.  Hopefully, with the contributions of determined, younger researchers like Anthony Kohiba Rivera, we will have a deeper understanding of its history for the benefit of future generations of charanga fans and performers.

Jessica Valiente

** Dr. Jessica Valiente holds a BA in music from Barnard College in conjunction with Manhattan School of Music, an MA in music performance from Queens College and a DMA in flute performance from the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a 2015 recipient of the American Association of University Women American Dissertation Fellowship for her dissertation on the Cuban charanga in New York 1960-2000. She has performed in numerous classical, jazz and Latin groups, but is best known as the musical director of Los Más Valientes. She took over from Flute Journal editor Dr. Peter Westbrook as chair of World Music for the National Flute Association. Dr. Valiente has now written a tutor on charanga flute technique which we will publish in 2022.

[Note: This article was originally published in 2016. It is being offered again after being substantially rewritten following further research. Dr. Valiente would like to thank Michael Lynn and Anthony Kohiba Rivera for their assistance in the rewriting of this article.]

Below; Charanga ensembles featuring 1. The modern Boehm system flute  2. The wooden 5 key French flute:






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