Karen Joseph: The Queen of the Flute
Brooklyn-born flutist Karen Joseph's credits read like a "Who's Who" of Latin music. They include participation in the most iconic bands devoted to charanga, a supremely danceable style of Cuban music. However, Joseph is careful to note that her studies began in the classical music realm. On Thursday, May 23, Lincoln Center audiences can revel in her virtuosity at a free concert at the David Rubenstein Atrium, part of the popular ¡VAYA! 63 series, presented in collaboration with the NYU Music and Social Change Lab.
Joseph tells stories—punctuated by an infectious laugh—of growing up surrounded by music. Raised by two teachers, a mom who sang and a dad who loved jazz and played piano by ear, she recalls how she started to play the piano as soon as she was big enough to clamber up on the bench. She proceeded to experiment with the instruments her parents rented for her a month at a time—moving though violin, cello, trumpet, and oboe—before the flute captured her musical heart and soul at 11 years of age, never to let go.
Joseph auditioned successfully and gained acceptance into a performing arts high school. It was then that, as a frequent attendee at social dances, she heard her first Latin band live: none other than Eddie Palmieri with his original La Perfecta! So began her lifelong love affair with Latin music.
Joseph completed her university studies in classical flute at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. After graduation and back in New York, she began to take Latin gigs around town, and met bandleader Johnny Almendra, whose friendship provided a great source of knowledge and inspiration, even before they worked together in the seminal charanga group La Charanga 76. When Joseph joined La Charanga 76, her path was established, placing her in the annals of music as an important figure in this vibrant chapter of New York Latin dance music.
La Charanga 76 crystalized a New York Latin dance trend, taking off on the music created by the Cuban charangas. These traditional ensembles play a style of dance music popular in 1940s Cuba and later transplanted to New York to shine in the golden era of the 1970s and ‘80s, with ensembles led by Latin musical artists from Puerto Rico as well as Cuba. Heavily influenced by the "Son Cubano" and the genre's roots in fusions of the French contradanse as well as in Haitian and other Afro-Caribbean music and dance styles, charanga bands (in contrast to big-band salsa's reliance on brass) typically feature virtuosic dialogues between violins and flute. The classic heart of charanga is the warm sound of acoustic violins, over which the flute improvises in the high register in solos described as "dancing with the rhythm."
Joseph speaks of her time with La Charanga 76 fondly, an era that includes classic recordings, such as Charanga 76 en el 79, for which Gonzalo Fernández wrote arrangements with flute parts designed especially for her.
Joseph credits her classical chops with imbuing her solos with a special flow, comparing charanga flute solos to Mozart.
In the following decades, Joseph continued to focus on charanga, spending time in Miami to work with founding members of La Charanga 76, Hansel and Raul. Upon her return to New York, she joined Puerto Rican maestro Charlie Rodríguez's band, backing up luminaries such as Johnny Pacheco and Pete El Conde. She also speaks proudly of her decade working with Johnny Almendra y Los Jóvenes Del Barrio, performing "hardcore charanga." Over the years, Joseph has continued to work with other charanga bands such as Charanga América, Siglo 20 with José "Chombo" Silva, and more recently with Pupi Legaretta.
Joseph credits her classical chops with imbuing her solos with a special flow, comparing charanga flute solos to Mozart. However, she notes that one challenge is to improvise smoothly and assertively in the upper register of the flute. She would take her classical exercises and practice them up in high ranges, "to move around up there, to kind of be really agile in that register." And as in many ways her background mimicked the rigor that conservatory-trained Cuban musicians often bring to their work, Joseph was a perfect fit for the charanga genre.
In 2002, life brought Joseph around full circle; she joined Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta II, the contemporary version of the first Latin band she heard live in her high-school days. Today, she continues to add her magic with Annette A. Aguilar & StringBeans, Luis Blasini y Iroko La Banda, Leopoldo Fleming, Yerason Orquesta Charanga, Steve Colón y Siglo 20, and, from time to time, Eddie Palmieri as well as Memo Acevedo's Manhattan Bridges Orchestra and YAMBAWA, a new project with pianist Amy Milan and Anthony Corrillo.
Regardless of whom she performs with, Joseph is a beloved figure in the scene, admired for the fluid, elegant inventiveness of her playing. For the May 23 concert, Joseph has created a retrospective of her work, highlighting a couple of La Charanga 76 charts, as well as tunes by Charlie Rodríguez, Eddie Palmieri, Charanga America, and Los Jóvenes del Barrio. She’ll be performing with MamboCha, her own band, in an ensemble that boasts trombone, trumpet, and three percussionists, as well as violin and vocalist. With that configuration, she explains, she can go in the salsa/mambo or pure "hardcore" charanga direction—either way, ensuring the utter danceability of the evening. And of course, above it all, Joseph—known in the musical community as "La Reina de la Flauta"—will be dancing her flute to the rhythms.
Catalina Maria Johnson is an international radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, and music curator. She hosts and produces the radio show and podcast Beat Latino, and is a frequent contributor to NPR Music, Bandcamp Daily, and Billboard.