Andean Music and Dance

By Cara Howell

Tarabuco Dancers BoliviaWhile travelling through the Andean region of South America, one cannot help but become enchanted with the haunting, beautiful sounds of traditional music playing anywhere from the street corner, to a festival, or in a bar. Andean music is not restricted to traditional sounds; African rhythms from the coast and salsa in the cities join to create a musical melting pot. For the traveler, music provides a fun medium to participate in a foreign culture. Music is a timeless accompaniment to entertainment, and as any Latin American traveler knows, wherever music is playing, a fiesta is just around the corner!

Andean musicians use a variety of instruments, some even dating to pre-Inca origins. Wind instruments compromise the majority of traditional music. Quenas are notched-end blown flutes with a fingering style similar to that of a recorder. They were once made of llama bone, but are now carved of wood. They produce a pentatonic, or five-note scale, which to ears trained to a European musical tradition, has a distinctly melancholy tone to it. The panpipes, also called antaras or zamponas, are played by blowing across the end of the pipes. This technique produces a breathy sound, which may be as high-pitched as a birdcall or as deep as the voice of a bassoon. Percussion is provided by a simple, deep voiced frame drum, called a tambar or a bombo.

The arrival of the Spaniards in the 1520’s influenced Andean music with the introduction of strings. The result is a marriage of traditional and Hispanic instruments, which have evolved into uniquely Andean instruments, such as the charango, a small mandolin, made from the shell of an armadillo.

The Andean harp is another example, with its great, boat-like, half-conical sounding-box.

Today, Andean music is not only performed in the chincherias or cantinas frequented by Quechua speakers, but is also recorded in sound studios, on records, cassette tapes and CD’s, and played on the radio. The primary form of popular music, which has evolved from traditional forms, is the wayno. The wayno constitutes a complex blend of poetry, music and dance. It is a rural music, like bluegrass for example, and each region has developed its own characteristic variation. It is typically played in 2/4 time with an insistent, infectious rhythm; the dance is usually performed by couples, their hands joined, with much stamping of feet to cries of mas fuerza, mas fuerza, or stronger, stronger!

The African influence in Andean music cannot be overlooked. Black slaves came to South America from different parts of Africa; thus their music became a mixture of these different regional forms. Gradually African music blended with Andean and Spanish rhythms, to emerge as music criolla. Dance grew up alongside Afro-Andean music. In Peru, for example, the zamacueca, an African dance, stands as the precursor of the stately and elegant marinera, which has become the national dance. Travelers may stumble across one of the frequent marinera dance competitions. The Festival de la Marinera in January is the biggest one. Chincha’s Fiesta Negra in February is a good time to hear all kinds of Afro-Peruvian music.

Bolivia’s national dance is the cueca, derived from the Chilean cueca, which in turn is a Creole adaptation of the Spanish fandango. Couples wave whirling handkerchiefs to 3-4 time. Cuecas are intended to convey a story of courtship, love, loss of love, and reconciliation. Some of the most unusual and colorful dances are those performed at festivals on the high Altiplano, particularly during Carnival. La Diablada, the Dance of the Devils, fiesta at Oruro draws a large number of both foreign and Bolivian visitors.

Those travelling through the Andean region of South America are sure to hear traditional music playing, perhaps as accompaniment while dining in a four star restaurant, or while relaxing at a local pena. The most typical nightlife in Peru and Ecuador is a pena, or a musica folklorica club. This is a popular form of entertainment for a variety of people, from government officials to campesinos. Concerts are informal affairs, accompanied by traditional music and plenty of drinking. Don’t forget that many music stores in the United States and elsewhere sell a variety of traditional Andean music, so one can enjoy the sounds of the Andes long after the flight home.