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  • UNESCO Collection Week 46: Music and Community Lifeways

    This week’s UNESCO releases feature the diverse sounds of Bolivia: Panpipes and Music of the Inuit: The Copper Eskimo Tradition. Despite their geographic distance, both of these cultures have rich musical traditions that are deeply linked to community ritual.


    by Francisco D. Lara

    As an ethnomusicologist with a keen interest in the indigenous music of South America, I was eager to see what musical linkages might exist between Bolivia: Panpipes and the Music of the Inuit: The Copper Eskimo Tradition. As ought to be expected, the two albums differ significantly in their instrumentation, sound, and musical structure. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what the two musical traditions did share: an emphasis on ritual music and its reflection of beliefs and values, relationships within the Inuit, Aymara and Quechua communities, the natural world, and their past. In other words, the music featured on the two albums is inextricably linked to the lifeways of each respective community.

    Music of the Inuit is perhaps most illustrative of this intertwining of music and local lifeways.
    Encompassing songs and dances of the Copper Eskimo as well as other neighboring Inuit of the Canadian Northwest Territories, the album consists of 16 tracks unified in their ritual function as socially binding gifts. The liner notes, written by Jean-Francois Le Mouël and Alain DesJacques, explain in fascinating detail how the Copper Eskimos traditionally exchanged songs and dances just as other material items with distant neighbors within specific ritual times and places. Songs (aton) and dance songs (piheq) were composed and practiced by all individuals within the community and were offered to other specific individuals only within the context of a dance-house (qalge). Whoever received the gifted song and dance within the qalge was obliged to respond in turn (whether immediately or at a later meeting is not made clear in the commentary). The performance of aton and piheq therefore signaled the enactment of a deep social bond either initiated or maintained through ritual exchange.

    The song texts of Music of the Inuit are likewise reflective of Inuit lifeways. It should be noted that the album consists of six songs thought to be the first audio recordings of Copper Eskimo music (tracks 1, 2, 9, 13, and 16). These are most revealing in that they speak to a way of life now possibly unfamiliar to modern-day descendants of the Copper Eskimo. Track 1, “Three Connected Songs,” for instance, speaks to an intimate connection between the Inuit, the land, and the seasons. As the liner notes explain, the patterns of social life were dictated by the seasons, specifically the overarching cycle of the disappearance and reappearance of the sun in the long winter and summer months respectively. Whereas winter presented opportunities for family reunions and spiritual and social rituals, summer was a time for the separation and migration of sub-groups (nuclear families) in search of game.

    It is no surprise, therefore, that the three songs contained in track 1—“I Shall Follow Them,” “Wandering,” and “I Am Water, I Am Current”—reflect these social realities as well as the concerns, fears, and desires of the Copper Eskimo. “I Shall Follow,” for instance, speaks of a hunter’s search for musk oxen far into the north, of his joy at following the birds south and reuniting with distant neighbors at the dance house, and his fear of being shamed by his friends and family for his hunting skills and the quality of his game. “Wandering” speaks even more so to the inner fears and desires of the hunter, who encounters difficulty and hardship in his task and longs to be instead by his wife’s side. In contrast, “I Am Water, I Am Current” has a more joyous and hopeful spirit as the singer, embodies flowing water, completing the interlocking cycles of seasons and Inuit daily life.

    Though audibly distinct in terms of its instrumentation, song structure, and lack of lyrics, Bolivia: Panpipes similarly reflects Quechua and Aymara beliefs, values, and lifeways. The album consists of 13 tracks of panpipe music from the province of La Paz recorded by French ethnographer Louis Girault between 1955 and 1975. Girault’s recordings encompass both Quechua and Aymara panpipe traditions and present examples of dances of pre-Columbian origin no longer practiced in the region. Though the liner notes, written by sociologist and ethnomusicologist Raphaël Parejo, are comparatively sparse on details concerning specific performance contexts, they nonetheless provide rich ethnographic information on the communities and the Andean panpipe tradition in general. Enough detail is provided, however, to understand how the panpipes relate to daily life.

    Referred to as siku in Aymara and antara in Quechua, the panpipes highlighted in this album are unique in their construction and playing technique. Of pre-Columbian origin, the panpipes are made of thick reed-cane tubes fastened together to make two complementary single-row pipes that, when played by two individuals in alternating or hocketing fashion, produce a single scale. They therefore require two individuals to play a melody and realize a song. These are typically played in panpipe ensembles featuring a large drum (wankara in Aymara or wankar tinya in Quechua) during festive or ritual occasions linked to the agricultural and social cycles of the communities.

    As the liner notes describe, these ensembles typically feature panpipe sets of different lengths, which sound typically an octave and a fifth apart depending on the size. These different sizes are given names such as “grandmother,” “mother,” and “little girl” that describe their role and function within the ensemble. Ethnomusicologists have long noted the relationship between the construction and hocketing technique of the Andean panpipes with the social structure of highland indigenous communities as well as with related beliefs concerning duality and idealized gender relations. The dense, overlapping textures of the ensembles and the ritualized dance choreography of the Quechua kantu (tracks 1-8; described in the liner notes) further illustrate this relationship.

    In sum, Music of the Inuit: The Copper Eskimo Tradition and Bolivia: Panpipes are unique in that they offer listeners a rare selection of musical traditions once—and, to a certain extent, still today—vital to the daily existence of these indigenous populations. Though differing in sound, the music of these respective albums nonetheless share strong parallels in terms of their use and relationship to the lifeways of the Canadian Inuit and Bolivian Aymara and Quechua communities.

    Francisco D. Lara
    Library Assistant, University of Memphis

    UNESCO Collection Week 46: Music and Community Lifeways | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings