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Rare Andean Instruments: Have You Heard of the Bandurria?

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The Bandurria is a lesser-known instrument that’s popular in the Cusco region of Peru. With its booming yet angelic sounds, it stands out from the crowd, often grabbing the attention of those who haven’t heard it before.

Despite the intimidating appearance of this sixteen-stringed instrument, it’s surprisingly easy to play, even for beginners. If you know how to play a few chords on the Ukulele, then you’ll feel right at home while strumming this unique Andean instrument.

Why haven’t I heard of the Bandurria before?

If you’ve spent time listening to Andean music, chances are you’ve heard the Bandurria before, but might not have realized it.

Locals often refer to the instrument by its nickname as the marimacho, or the tomboy, because of the deep and booming masculine sounds that it produces, while at the same time maintaining an angelic and feminine harmony. 

Andean musical traditions are an essential aspect of the culture. Even within the region of Cusco, almost every village and community has its own unique instruments and styles of music. With such diversity, it’s difficult to get a grasp of the musical styles and types of instruments that people play around here.

Where did it come from?

(Photo: Wikimedia)

The Bandurria, like other stringed instruments of the Americas, didn’t exist in the old world until the Spanish came, bringing along guitars and other stringed instruments. One of the instruments that the original colonialists brought was their own form of the Banduria. But while it shares the same name as the contemporary banduria of the Andes, it was a completely different instrument than the one that musicians now play in the Andes.

What makes the Peruvian Bandurria unique?

(Photo: Scott Montgomery)

How the Bandurria became a sixteen stringed instrument

At the time that the instrument first made its way to South America, it had 5 courses of strings, with each course being composed of two strings. But luthiers of the Andes started to construct their own versions of the instrument. Instead of 5 courses of strings, they cut it back to 4. And instead of creating two strings for each course, the luthiers started to make instruments with four strings for each course. And instead of using nylon (or in the past, sinew) strings, the Peruvian banduria had metallic strings.

How do they play it in Cusco?

Photo: Scott Montgomery

Among musicians, it quickly gained popularity for its distinct booming sound.  In the less-visited area of Sicuani, a few hours outside of Cusco, the banduria is an essential piece to any band. This region is well-known for its carnival-themed music.

Luthiers typically make the Bandurria in three different styles: small, medium, and large. The instrument’s four courses are typically tuned just like the ukelele: G-C-E-A, but this is not always the case.

Along with playing unique styles of music, each community within the Cusco area has its own way to tune the music. This is one of the reasons why those who looking for a clear-cut way for understanding Andean folklore music might get confused; as is the nature of folklore music, we can only understand its essence by recognizing the uniqueness within each community’s interpretations.

Check out the bandurria in action

Where can I get one?

Photo: Scott Montgomery

Within the city of Cusco, there are dozens of luthiers who make these instruments. Almost all of Cusco’s artisan luthiers can be found in the neighborhood of Santiago, on Bellavista street. This is the same street that is taken over on Saturdays by the Baratillo flea market. During the rest of the week, you’ll find a quieter environment where the sound of live music and the whine of carpentry tools can be heard.

If you want to find more out about Cusco’s luthiers, check out this article I recently that I recently wrote about them.

Are you interested in purchasing a banduria, or finding out more?

Feel free to contact me at scott@voyagewithscott.com. I organize tours across the area to visit Cusco’s luthiers. And if you can’t come to Peru, I can also ship you a bandurria anywhere in the world.

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Scott Montgomery is a multi-medium storyteller and holistic creative, a travel guide and transformational coach, whose core mission is to help others to live authentically with purpose and intention in order to make an impact in the world. After earning his masters degree in creative writing at Arizona State University in 2013, he made the move to Peru in order to write about indigenous communities of the jungles and the Andes, and to explore what this might have to do with his own life path. These years of traveling and living across the country have helped him to embrace a more purposeful lifestyle that's guided by the values of collaboration, creativity, and transformation. To find out more about what Scott's up to and how you can get involved, visit his personal website www.voyagewithscott.com