THE BRONX — When Orquesta Aragón, the Cuban band credited with spreading the cha-cha around the world, came to the Beacon Theater in 1983, it was a passionately political affair.
Anti-Castro protesters heckled concertgoers entering the Upper West Side venue and vendors sold communist propaganda inside, according to a New York Times account at the time.
A lot has changed in U.S.-Cuba relations since then, but Latin music expert René López said people who see the band on Saturday at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx can still expect an "electric" show.
"It's festive. It's special because they don’t come here that often," said López, a Latin Grammy-Award winning producer who lives in Westchester. "Dancing breaks out in the aisles sometimes."
López, 78, said he helped bring the band to New York City for two concerts in the early 1980s, so he’s seen how Orquesta Aragón has handled political tumult while developing its sound.
"One of the things I’ve always heard them say is, 'We live in Cuba. We’re products of the Cuban revolution,'" he said. "'Any political discussions, we like to leave that up to our ambassadors and our representatives around the world. We’re here to play music.'"
While rooted in the charanga tradition of Cuban dance music, Orquesta Aragón made its international mark with mambo and the cha-cha. (Just say one-two, cha-cha-cha to yourself, and you’ll probably remember the infectious rhythm.) Their breakthrough "El Bodeguero" was covered by Nat King Cole in 1956, according to the Lehman Center. Soon after, the band was performing in New York City and beyond.
The U.S. embargo on Cuba amid Fidel Castro’s rise to power put an end to the band’s visits to the States. But Orquesta Aragón continued to tour other countries, and fans in New York found ways to keep up with their records.
"They were not released in the United States, but eventually through pirating they would make their way into the market," López said of the albums. "The avid Cuban record collectors were onto them."
Since the band’s founding in 1939, the original members have passed the torch — in some cases, to their own sons. The newer musicians have branched out into genres including timba, a relatively recent dance style popular in Cuba, according to López.
But, he said, they still perform the cha-cha hits that their fans here cherish.
"The band recognizes that was their initial success," López said.
Tickets for the upcoming show, which will also feature a New York City-founded band called Orquesta Broadway, cost $50 to $100.
"This will be a great event to celebrate Cuban culture and for those orchestras to reunite in our great city full of diversity and great musical traditions," said Eva Bornstein, the Lehman Center’s executive director.
During a 2015 Orquesta Aragón concert in Havana, the band brought members of the visiting Minnesota Orchestra onstage. The out-of-town group had played the national anthems of Cuba and the U.S. at its own show earlier in the night.
Asked if concertgoers in the Bronx on Saturday can expect to hear the Cuban band play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” López reiterated that Orquesta Aragón tries to avoid explicit politics.
But, he said, if the audience requests the U.S. national anthem, "they will probably play it."