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  • UNESCO Collection Week 14: Mountain Music of Argentina and Peru

    Week 14 of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music contrasts the music of two rural cultures from remote, mountainous regions heard on Argentina: Tritonic Music of The Northwest, and Peru: Music of the Indigenous Communities of Cuzco.


    By Jeannelle Ramirez

    These albums come from remote, mountainous regions of South America, but sound starkly different. Though the instrumentation, melodies, harmonies, song structure, and phrasing on the compilations differ greatly, there are some common elements. They share an extensive use of aerophones (wind instruments), prominence of nasal vocal techniques, and a near-absence of Hispanic instruments.

    The music heard on these compilations bears little resemblance to Argentine or Peruvian popular music. This can likely be attributed to the relative isolation of these communities from urban centers, as well as their deliberate efforts to join with other indigenous people in sustaining cultural practices.

    Argentine tritonic music is based in the northwest region of Argentina throughout the puna, stretching through six provinces from the Bolivian border down into the vallisera zone near San Juan and La Rioja.

    The indigenous people of this region were conquered by both the Incas and the Spanish, losing their language and several of their traditions. Thus, songs on this compilation are in Spanish, while the musical system underneath them shares some similarities with Andean music.

    The most peculiar characteristics of this compilation are probably the sound of the erquencho (a single-reed instrument that produces a clarinet-like sound and is made from a goat horn) and the erque (a long cane-tube ending in a cow or goat horn, played in the fashion of a trumpet, with produces a flugelhorn-like sound), heard on tracks 1, 2 and 3. Interestingly, they are not played at the same time. The erque may only be played in the winter, typically during the months of June, July and August, accompanying the misachicos procession1.

    In the songs – which are sung in Spanish and use Hispanic poetic structures – we hear employed a technique called quenco, a nasal sound which is characterized by a kind of harmonics and a lot of sliding in and out of larger intervals. Men and women sing in similar styles, though the woman’s voice is more prominent. On the last track, harmony seems detuned due to the tritonic singing style, while a man’s spoken voice creates a call-response pattern. The vocal phrasing on several of the songs feels erratic, as if pushing forward and then stopping.

    The recordings on Peru: Music of the Indigenous Communities of Cuzco are from the department of Cuzco, where several indigenous communities exist. They are loosely organized and often consist of families spread over long distances, but are similar in that they practice endogamy and maintain some pre-Columbian traditions. Their lifestyles and rituals are largely determined by what elevation they exist in, with the higher elevations being concerned with mostly livestock reproduction, while the lower elevations focus on agriculture.

    Peru: Music of the Indigenous  Communities of Cuzco
    The music featured in this compilation exists for specific purposes in rituals concerned with agricultural cycles, fertility and honoring of ancestral cults. The music is typically performed along with dance. Song lyrics are mostly in quechua and the voice is used both in song and as an ornament to instrumental music, emphasizing ends of phrases with shouts and cheers.

    On track 17, we hear a female voice switching between an airy falsetto and a nasally head voice, accompanied by a single pinkuyllu (a large notch flute specific to the province of Canas). Repetition of melodic phrases, where the pinkuyllu and a male singer join the female lead, keep the music grounded with clear, accessible components.

    While the Argentine tritonic recordings feature two very different-sounding horns, the Peruvian indigenous music in this compilation features various flutes – notched and recorders – as the principal aerophones. These include the quena and lawato flutes and pikullu recorders. Apart from flutes, several of the recordings feature drums, including the large, low-pitched bombo (also featured in Argentine tritonic music and several South American musical genres) and the tambor. However, there are also small percussive instruments used such as the espuelas roncadoras. Performers sometimes play these while dancing. Though the presence of Hispanic instruments is rare, several types of guitars are used in the huaynos of Canas and can be heard on tracks 11 through 14. Notably, these songs also feature some Spanish lyrics, are considered to be mestizo music and are not intended to be part of a ritual.

    Reflecting two different facets of the various indigenous communities that exist throughout the South American Andes, these compilations present unique examples of the musical expressions of its people.

    It is significant that these indigenous communities have continued to develop these pre-Columbian musical traditions. The recordings featured in these compilations serve as a historical archive for the development and/or preservation of language, ritual and tradition.

    Jeannelle Ramirez
    New York based singer/songwriter and 2012 alumna of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music
    Twitter: @espaciodespacio | Facebook

    1 Rafael Parejo, liner notes to Argentina: Tritonic Music of the North West. UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1991, compact disc.

    UNESCO Collection Week 14: Mountain Music of Argentina and Peru | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings