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Home > Travel Information > Peruvian Music > Peruvian Traditional Music

Peruvian traditional music

Panpipes , known by the Aymara as siku, by the Quechna as antara and by the Spanish as zampoņa, are ancient instruments and archeologists have unearthed panpipes tuned to a variety of scales. While modern panpipes - played in the city or in groups with other instruments - may offer a complete scale allowing solo performance, traditional models are played in pairs, as described by sixteenth-century chroniclers. The pipes share the melody, each with alternate notes of a whole scale so that two or more players are needed to pick out a single tune using a hocket technique. Usually one player leads and the other follows. While symbolically this demonstrates reciprocity within the community, practically it enables players to play for a long time without getting too "high" from dizziness caused by over-breathing.

Played by blowing (or breathing out hard) across the top of a tube, panpipes come in various sizes, those with a deep bass having very long tubes. Several tubes made of bamboo reed of different length are bound together to produce a sound that can be jaunty, but also has a melancholic edge depending on tune and playing style. Many tunes have a minor, descending shape to them. Playing is often described as "breathy" as overblowing is popular to produce harmonics. In general those who play panpipes love dense overlapping textures and often syncopated rhythms.

Simple notched-end flutes , or quenas , are another independent innovation of the Andean highlands found in both rural and urban areas. The most important pre-Hispanic instrument, they were traditionally made of fragile bamboo (though often these days from plumbers' PVC water pipes) and played in the dry season, with tarkas (vertical flutes -like a shrill recorder) taking over in the wet. Quenas are played solo or in ritual groups and remain tremendously popular today, with many virtuoso techniques.

Large marching bands of drums and panpipes , playing in the co-operative "back-and-forth" leader/follower style captivated the Spanish in the 1500s can still be seen and heard today. The drums are deep-sounding, double-headed instruments known as bombos or wankaras. These bands exist for parades at life-cycle fiestas, weddings and dances in the regions surrounding the Peruvian-Bolivian frontier and around Lake Titicaca. Apart from their use at fiestas, panpipes are played mainly in the dry season, from April to October.

There is something quite amazing about the sound of a fifty-man panpipe band approaching, especially after they've been playing for a few hours and have had a few well-earned drinks. It is perfectly normal for a whole village to come together to play as an orchestra for important events and fiestas. Andean villages are usually composed of ayllus (extended families) whose land is often divided up so that everyone gets a share of various pastures, but with everyone working together at key times such as harvest and when caring for communal areas. Music is an integral part of all communal celebrations and symbolically represents that sharing and inter-dependence: drinks are drunk from communal glasses which everyone will empty in turn. The organisation and values of each community are reflected in the very instrument an individual plays, down to the position of players within circles and groups.

Folk music festivals to attract and entertain the tourist trade are a quite different experience to music in the village context. While positively disseminating the music, they have introduced the notion of judging and the concept of "best" musicianship - ideas totally at odds with rural community values of diversity in musical repertoire, style and dress.

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