The Andes Mountains is the world’s longest mountain range. It stretches more than 4,500 miles across South America from Venezuela to Chile. Second only to the Himalayas in height, the Andes created geographic regions that influenced traditional music.
The music traditions of the indigenous peoples who live across the modern countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina, and northern Chile are among the oldest in Latin America. The traditional bamboo panpipes and quena flutes that help give Andean music its hauntingly beautiful sound have been played in this region for more than 500 years.
The mountainous terrain fostered and preserved a unique culture even amid political changes through the years. Life in the mountains can be harsh with limited vegetation and animal life. Nature, solitude, and religion have been dominant influences on people’s lives.
Today, the people of the Andes include descendants of indigenous (native) people, Spanish settlers, and African slaves. These varied cultures and regions of the Andes have all influenced the music. Individual villages developed unique musical rhythms, scales, and singing styles. A group of pan flutes made from locally available bamboo play a wide range of notes and rhythms. Bamboo, ceramic, and bone were used to make many traditional instruments in the Andes. Most instruments can be carried easily by a person or alpaca even over steep terrain.
Wind instruments, conch shell trumpets, and percussive instruments made from nuts are among the early known musical instruments in South America. The bamboo flute known as the quena creates a high pitched sound which is often associated with the ancient, traditional music of the Andes. The quena is common in traditional Andes music today.
When the Spanish arrived in South America in the 1500s, they brought with them the guitar, which was unlike any instrument used in traditional Andes music of the time. The charango was first made in Bolivia in imitation of the guitar. It was originally made from the shell of the armadillo. Now that armadillos are protected, it is typically made from wood. (Xenon Llusco, one of the musicians who perform Andean music in this video segment, calls the non-armadillo version “the vegetarian charango.”) This small, stringed instrument has been compared with the mandolin for its high pitched tone and size. Because of the charango’s origins, Spanish-speaking musicians once associated the charango as an “Indian” instrument. Political and social movements of the 1950s and 1960s created new interest and respect for indigenous cultures and the charango.
Here’s a closer look at some of the instruments of the Andes:
chajchas: a percussive instrument made by tying bits of shell or other materials (the ones shown in the video are made of goat toenails) tied together. Some have compared the sound to that of wind or falling rain.
charango: a small stringed instrument native to the Andes. The charango was modeled after the Spanish guitar. The size of the instrument was likely influenced by the mountain culture. A small stringed instrument could be carried easily while herding llamas or traveling in the mountains.
panpipes: wind instruments associated with music of the Andes. In Aymara, they are called siku. In Quechua, they are called antara. In Spanish, they are called sampoña.
quena: a flute, traditionally made of bamboo, with notched-ends. The quena is found in urban and rural areas. It was used before the Spanish came to the Andes region.
rondador: a wind instrument created by a row of pipes arranged so that harmonic thirds are played by blowing through two pipes at once. The rondador is the national musical instrument of Ecuador.
sampona: A wind instrument, traditionally made of bamboo, created by securing pipes in two rows.
1. Which instruments in this segment have you seen before? Which are new to you? Do they remind you of any instruments you have seen before?
2. Why do you think people might make percussion instruments out of materials such as goat toenails? What easily obtained materials could you use to make shakers or other percussion instruments?
3. Even though the three pieces feature different instruments, do they have characteristics in common? What adjectives would you use to describe this music? Are you familiar with any popular Western music that incorporates characteristics heard in these pieces?