A young man plays the siku

The Long and Short of It: Andean Panpipes Through Time

On a Sunday afternoon in the dazzling parks and plazas of Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima and other cosmopolitan cities of South America, a visitor might be struck by the sound of large siku ensembles performing in turn. Groups of twenty or more young urbanites, some long-haired and in neo-hippie dress, others in matching ponchos and fedoras, form rings and dance while playing double-row panpipes and large drums.

This is sikuri music – one of the most ancient musical traditions of the Americas. The sound is slightly familiar – maybe reminiscent of a pipe organ or the synthesized sounds on Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms – and yet very different: wispy, breathy, lighter, more powerful. What attracts these young cosmopolitans to this ancient native Andean music? There are musical genres and traditions all over the world that stretch back centuries. Along with these Andean panpipe traditions, there’s Japanese gagaku, the historical epics of the 13th century Malian Empire of West Africa, Gregorian chant and motets as well as the American banjo and its West African ancestors, just to name a few. How and why do certain musical traditions remain vital across centuries and what is it, exactly, that continues?

…while many urbanites may take it for granted that originality and change are a good thing in music and the arts, people in different societies and musical circumstances might not agree.

The forces behind musical conservation and change can only be understood on a case-by-case basis. Gagaku is a court tradition that peaked in Japan in the 10th century and was proclaimed a national treasure by the Japanese government in the 1950s. Some Japanese cultural institutions preserve this music in ways paralleling the Early (European) Music movement – for reasons of cultural pride. The string and xylophone musicians of the former Mali Empire memorize and convey the societies’ histories through song, generation across generation. Accuracy of received information is considered crucial, and so serves as a force for conservation. In Zimbabwe, certain musical genres are used to call ancestors into spirit possession ceremonies. To attract a spirit, pieces must be played in the form that the ancestor enjoyed generations back: another force for musical continuity.

Conversely, in capitalist societies, the need to continuously sell new products is a well-known engine for style change, as are the modernist values of progress, originality and innovation – especially in the realms of popular music and contemporary art music. It’s worth remembering that while many urbanites may take it for granted that originality and change are a good thing in music and the arts, people in different societies and musical circumstances might not agree.

So what is it that changes or stays the same? This question can be considered in more nuanced ways if music is thought of as (1) the sounds people conceptualize as music, plus (2) the social meanings of those sounds and (3) the practices and technologies that make them.

An old gourd banjo and a new commercial banjo

An early American gourd banjo (ca. 1840) and a commercial Deering Eagle II 5-string banjo.

For instance, the banjo began as a West African lute that was originally played in the colonial Americas by slaves, often in combination with slave fiddlers and percussionists for parties, whether their own or the master’s. The banjo-fiddle-percussion combo became the centerpiece of the most commercially successful form of urban-popular music of 19th century America: the minstrel show. In response, companies began mass-producing banjos in their current five-string form, with drum-like heads superseding gourd banjos. This instrument and African/African-American playing techniques (e.g., frailing or stroke style) were popularized among working-class and rural whites. Drawing from black-faced minstrelsy, the sound and image of the banjo kept some of its comic and working class associations as it, along with the fiddle, became the core of white string bands in country music’s initial commercial phase during the 1920s. Somewhat ironically, by the 1960s “folk revival,” the sound and image of the banjo had become synonymous with white Appalachian “folk” culture and ultimately bluegrass – its prior African, African-American and commercial urban-popular associations totally eclipsed. A sound, a technology, and certain musical practices (like frailing) can continue over centuries, while the meaning of the music can change radically. This is also the case with Andean panpipes.

Peruvian panpipes are among the most ancient extant musical traditions of the Americas, dating back long before the birth of Christ. The oldest archeological instruments were single-row ceramic panpipes found along the Peruvian coast from pre-Inca societies.  Single-row panpipes – the entire pitch gamut contained in each instrument – are still performed by indigenous musicians from Ecuador to Bolivia. As documented by 16th century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, double-row panpipes – the pitch series alternated between two rows and typically played by two musicians in hocket or interlocking fashion – were played in the highlands of southern Peru and Bolivia at least by the Inca era (15th century).

This valuing of novelty and creativity, for reasons of community identity and pride, leads to continual, gradual style change.

At the time of the Incas, panpipes and other flutes were associated with times of year and specific religious ceremonies. This is still the case in Quechua and Aymara indigenous communities where double-row panpipes, often known generically as sikus, are restricted to dry season (April through November) festivals. In the Aymara region, where I lived in the 1980s, each indigenous community has its own participatory ensemble of about 24-50 players, which serves as its representative in district-wide festivals. It is very important that during rehearsals each ensemble collectively compose one or two new siku pieces for each dry-season festival in order to distinguish the community. This valuing of novelty and creativity, for reasons of community identity and pride, leads to continual, gradual style change.

Change is tethered, however, by the participatory ethics of performance. In these communities any male is welcome to play with the ensemble during festivals, regardless of skill or whether or not he had attended the rehearsals. If newly composed pieces are too innovative, people who just show up at the festival to play will not be able to pick up the tunes on the fly. So, in this case, opposing forces balancing sonic change and continuity are built into indigenous Aymara musical practice while the meanings of indigenous siku music – community identity and the religious meanings of associated festivals – have remained stable over a long period of time.

Alongside Indigenous siku performance in highland communities, highland migrants and young middle-class students began performing siku music in the Peruvian coastal capital of Lima in the 1970s. For these working-class migrants, playing panpipe music from their home communities served as a social glue and identity emblem, allowing them to sustain self-help networks in the city. For the students, siku music was couched in romantic images of indigenous community, pre-capitalist ethics and economics, and the deepest roots of Latin American culture. In many ways, siku music was and is to these cosmopolitans what Appalachian fiddle-banjo music was and is to North American folk revivalists. In both cases, the music of an idealized “other” came to signify alternative ways of life in contrast to the modern capitalist society from which they had become disaffected.

A young sikuri group plays in the streets

Members of Alfredo Curasi Sikuri Group perform.

But playing siku music does not simply index indigenous culture. The very practice of paired musicians interlocking the double-row panpipes within the sonic mesh of a large voluntary ensemble is a concrete act of social cooperation and coordination. Sponsored by clubs that are organized along egalitarian, cooperative lines (in imitation of indigenous social style), the large middle-class siku ensembles provide a special space for these young people to form and practice values that contrast with the mainstream values of their societies. Since the 1970s, such clubs have formed in many major Latin American cities, whether situated in the Andes or not. Using field recordings and visits to village festivals, the members of these clubs work hard to imitate and achieve sonic continuity with indigenous ensembles, while the situations that they perform in differ radically from highland community festivals.

Do these urban siku groups represent continuity or change? Clearly, they represent both within a complex web of sounds, meanings and practices that make an ancient musical tradition relevant and powerful for young cosmopolitans.

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Thomas Turino

Tom Turino is an ethnomusicologist and the author of several popular textbooks in the field, including Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe, …more 

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