March-April 2014

From Clay Flutes to “El Condor Pasa”

But is it authentic?

By Audrey Coleman

El Condor PasaYou hear them playing in pedestrian malls or at farmers markets, the round and full yet plaintive-sounding quena flute floating in the air before you actually see the group of four or five male musicians. Beside the quena player, a musician is blowing on a set of panpipes, which may be small and soprano-pitched or larger and deeper in tone. Another is alternately strumming and picking the ukulele-sized charango. Another is harmonizing the melody with guitar chords. You might even see a member of the group hitting the big animal-skin covered bombo drum if this is a fully-formed Andean conjunto. I remember one group of young men playing in their ponchos in the plaza of old town Santa Fe, New Mexico. Another sporting both ponchos and the brimmed hats in a little park in Montreal’s café-dotted Latin Quarter neighborhood. I’ve seen them playing in the super-clean subway corridors in Toronto. Despite the variety of settings, one has the impression that their sound has existed for centuries.

What is it that draws audiences around the world – or at least around the West -- to Andean music? These street performers would not appear so frequently if their open guitar cases did not fill up with bills and change. Considered a super-popular roots music in this age of globalization, the Andean sound has traveled a fascinating world trajectory to obtain this status. So let’s look at its roots.

Music from the Empire

We know from archeological sites in Peru that the quena was played in the Inca Empire. Important community figures were buried with quenas among other valued objects. Drawings and journals of post-conquest military and missionary arrivals tell us that the numerous flutes were played simultaneously in long, complex ceremonies associated with the agricultural cycle. Flash forward to fiestas in traditional villages in the Cusco regions of Peru in the late twentieth century. Ethnomusicologists Tom Turino, Fernando Rios, and Jonathan Ritter observed in various communities that musical ensembles featured musicians all playing the same kind of traditional wind instrument. So, you’d have an all-quena ensemble or an all-panpipe ensemble playing continuously for long periods, much longer than what we consider the length of a piece --more like twenty minutes to an hour. They weren’t worried about boring the audience because there barely was an audience. Most people were performing. This music was participatory. Players having different levels of proficiency on their instruments repeated a melody over and over with gusto, giving little thought to a “public.” (This tradition of uniform instrumentation apparently held sway when the saxophone was introduced and eagerly accepted near the early century. Yes, you had all-saxophone orchestras playing in clubs.)

A Change of Empire

With the Spanish conquest and the influx of European secular and church music, string instruments such as harps and guitars entered the indigenous repertoire. Indigenous musicians invented the charango, a five-stringed and later 10-stringed guitar variant; they strummed the metal strings vigorously, open strings and fretted ones reverberating together not in harmonious chords but in a dense, buzzy dissonance. All-charango ensembles also became popular, repeating melodic material much in the manner of the quena and panpipe groups described above. But duos, trios, and larger ensembles that combined wind and string instruments also grew in popularity. Should we say that these heterogeneous groups were not “authentic” because they showed the influence of European instrumentation? That depends. Can we prove that music performed during the Inca Empire was the “real” Andean music? No. The Incas subjugated vast regions in the Andes. We cannot be sure that the peoples they conquered did not have different musical practices which the Incas snuffed out. Or that the subjugated peoples did not, in some measure, influence the music of their Inca conquerors. In fact, the question of authenticity becomes moot when we realize that virtually all cultures emerge from some form of hybridization.

Adding Mestizo to the Mix

In the Peruvian Andes cultural hybridity is mainly linked to mestizo culture, a mix of native and Hispanic influences. Mestizo musicians developed practices that were more geared to staged performance. For example, they plucked melodies on a larger, more resonant charango and gave pieces more variety by alternating plucked and strummed sections. Melodic passages featuring plucked parallel thirds took inspiration from the criollo waltzes favored in the salons of the elite.

Our tale takes a fascinating turn in the 1920s when elite intellectuals in urban centers beyond indigenous villages and towns began to embrace Andean culture. How did that happen? For centuries, colonial and class systems had privileged Hispanic landowners and made indigenous Andeans economically dependent. The elite had ignored or disparaged indigenous culture both before and after Peruvian independence. But in the 1920s, nationalist Peruvian intellectuals were searching for symbols of Peruvian-ness to celebrate and they re-discovered the native Andeans. Writing about them in romantic terms (think “noble savage”), listening to their “folk music” and composing music inspired from indigenous melodies were all facets of this indigenista movement. However, most of the writers and composers did not know enough about the real indigenous population to distinguish between indigenous and mestizo culture. As mentioned, the music and performance practices of the two groups had diverged in important ways.

Thanks to the indigenista movement, mestizo musicians began to perform in concerts for the affluent classes, fashioning musical selections of a length and in a style that would please audiences. The government of President Leguía sponsored folk festivals around the country to celebrate and promote national identity. In Cusco city, which was becoming a tourist destination, a resident mestizo troupe known as Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo formed to entertain quiet, seated audiences. For the public, mestizo performance came to represent indigenous music and dance, sometimes perpetuating erroneous interpretations and stereotypes in the process.

International Encounters

Stand back, Buenos Aires: During the 1940s, a pair of Andean musicians from Northwestern Argentina, the Abalos Brothers, opened two Andean-themed clubs in an upper-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. From a well-to-do mestizo family, they gathered a group of traditional musicians and developed a highly polished style. Their performances featured a segment they called “Folklore of the Andes” that thrilled elite audiences. Their success established as standard the Andean ensemble’s instrumental lineup of quena, charango, guitar, and bombo (panpipes were added later) and influenced a growing number of Andean folkloric groups.

Now for the French-Andean connection: French interest in “exotic” music made Paris a haven for numerous Latin American composers and musicians. In the mid-1950s, an Argentine jazz musician named Jorge Milchberg came to Paris to study classical music, but changed direction after meeting other Latin American musicians who were learning Andean instruments. Inspired by the success of the Abalos Brothers in Buenos Aires, they founded a new folklore ensemble, Los Incas, making Paris home. The versatile members included Milchberg, who played charango and quena (but originally was a jazz bassist) another Argentine quena player (originally a Dixieland jazz clarinetist), and two Venezuelan singers who also played guitar and percussion. In fact, all the members of Los Incas had learned to play Andean music in France. Milchberg was the composer-arranger for the group. While their concerts included music from all over Latin America, their specialty was the Andean repertoire made famous by the Abalos Brothers.

Los Incas - El Condor PasaDuring the 1960s folk revival, groups like Los Incas entertained audiences in cities and university towns from Buenos Aires to Paris, from New York to Berkeley and Brattleboro. Educated, largely white audiences with eclectic musical tastes often were drawn to folkloric “traditional” music that might have seemed in strange contrast to their modern urban identities.

“Andean” Melody Hits the Folk Motherlode

Even people who have not followed folk music are familiar with “El Condor Pasa.” For many the world over, the melody seems to convey the essence of the Andean spirit; others groan that it has become too new-agey. Either way, it has a bizarre history that speaks to the global Andean phenomenon.

Peruvian indigenista composer Daniel Alomía Robles wrote the melody for a zarzuela (music drama) that opened in Lima in 1913. Possibly inspired by a folk melody, “El Condor Pasa.” was so well-received that it became a popular music standard in Latin America and beyond. For example, by 1938, U.S.-based, Spanish-born, Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat included it in the collection he released of South and Central American music titled The Other Americas.

In 1963, Jorge Milchberg wrote an arrangement of “El Condor Pasa” and Los Incas recorded it for their album Amérique du Sud. Given the tenor of the era, it doesn’t seem so unusual that an as-yet-unheralded folksinger named Paul Simon happened to spend time in Paris and happened to meet Jorge Milchberg, who gave him a copy of Amérique du Sud. Simon was so entranced by “El Condor Pasa” that he wrote English lyrics to it. He got permission from Los Incas (later known as Urubamba, honoring a river that flows at the base of Machu Picchu) to use the track from Amérique du Sud as background instrumentals for his English version of the song (“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail…”). Released in 1970 on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bridge Over Troubled Waters, “El Condor Pasa” became an American hit and entered the pan-Andean, global repertoire, having roots in the Andes, Buenos Aires, Paris, and the United States.

Simon and Garfunkel - El Condor Pasa

The tale has a bittersweet epilogue. Because the liner notes to the Bridge album credited Jorge Milchberg as composer of “El Condor Pasa,” the family of the actual composer, Daniel Alomía Robles, sued Milchberg for breach of copyright. Meanwhile, the government of Peru declared “El Condor Pasa” to be an official national treasure. Neither development has stopped other musicians from later sampling “El Condor Pasa” for other compositions.

Is “El Condor Pasa” authentically Andean? A melody composed for an opera, is it truly folk music? These are questions that Andeanists and ethnomusicologists may ponder. In the meantime, it remains in the repertoire of poncho-clad ensembles world-wide and most of us would rather just enjoy the music.

Information for this article was drawn from writings by ethnomusicologists Thomas Turino and Fernando Rios and lectures by ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter.

Audrey Coleman is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at University of California, Riverside.


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