Music is one of the most important aspects of traditional Andean culture, but it is often misunderstood. To an untrained ear, it makes sense to classify all Andean-sounding music as being similar. By no means is this the case. Music from the Andes is as diverse and rich as the many cultures that brought it into creation. For those of you who love lively Andean rhythms, but don’t yet know about the many fascinating instruments that create the sounds you so often here, here is a crash-course in traditional Andean instruments.
The charango is one of Peru’s most beloved instruments. Though the charango is important to musical styles across the entire continent, the Peruvian charango has a unique build that is unlike anywhere else. The ayacuchano is the most popular style of charango in Peru. It stands out from other styles because it has a flat-back. This style of charango also creates a softer tone than other types of Charango. The charango is a great instrument for making high-pitched melodies. It is also often used to create complex rhythms by rapidly strumming the strings.
This sixteen-stringed beast is one of the lesser-known instruments of Peru. Ironically, people hear this instrument all of the time, even though they are often unaware. It plays a fundamental part in traditional Peruvian carnival music within the region of Cusco. Once you recognize the sound of this booming instrument, you’ll recognize its sound all over the place.
The Spanish are the ones who first brought the banduria to South America but in a very different form. Over the centuries, native communities within the Cusco region adopted the instrument as their own. In this process, they made it larger and added many more strings. It’s distinct voice booms over-top many carnival ballads.
Click here to watch the banduria in action.
Because of their distinct sound, the pan pipes are probably the most easily-recognizable instrument of the Andes. They also have the deepest roots. We can see from archeological remains that humans have had pan pipes with themselves for almost as long as they have walked the continent.
What most people don’t recognize, is that there are many different forms of pan pipes. The most popular ones are known as zamponas, which luthiers construct with two rows of parallel pipes which are tied together. Another kind of pan pipe is known as an antara, which is a one-rowed instrument.
Ocarinas are very popular with tourists, and you can find them at almost any marketplace within the country. But some are more authentic than others. Most ocarinas that you’ll find are mass produced and are therefore of a much lower quality than their hand-made equivalents.
Thanks in part to the demands of tourism, these instruments are much different than they were fifty years ago. You can still find authentic ocarinas if you look in the right places. In the town of Pisac, in the sacred valley, you’ll find several artisans who still make ocarinas in the traditional way. You can also make a trip to the village of Cuyu Grande, where many families make ocarinas by hand.
Just like the pan pipes, the quena is an ancient instrument. People used to make these flutes out of animal bones, the most popular being llama bones, and condor bones. Though you can still find animal-bone quenas, they are much more commonly made with bamboo or other hardwoods.
For those interested in learning a new instrument, the quena can be a difficult choice to start with, because you first have to learn how to make a sound by blowing across the notch at the top of the flute. But after you pick this up, things get easier, and a lot more fun.
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Cover Art: Scott Montgomery