An introduction to the music of Perú

An introduction to the music of Perú

In common with other cultures, Peruvian music results from a fusion of influences. Like the rest of South America, Perú was probably isolated from global music until the European conquest. Its musical roots are, therefore, in the indigenous cultures and the instruments and styles which they developed.

Today, the musicians of the Sierra, the mountainous region, use a mixture of indigenous instruments and adoptions from Spanish influence. Examples are:

The music of the coast uses instruments that are chiefly of European or African origin:

Music from the jungle region will generally make use of rudimentary instrument, such as whistles, flutes and drums. Brazilian pop music is beginning to erode traditional styles. Many of the dances interpret the movements of local animals, such as the boa dance.

Pan pipes - zampoñas - the cajon Peruano box drum and a conch shell, used in instruments called the mullu and pututo.

Recent archeological discoveries show that instrument design has changed little in many thousands of years. Silbatos - flutes - have been found made from animal bone, from human bone, from wood and cane. The very ancient but huge settlement of Caral has yielded quena flutes and antaras that are virtually identical to those used today.

We know very little of the ancient music of Peru. Nevertheless, the music of the Incas was heard by the Spanish, and we know it to have had a pentatonic scale and was, according to the largely uncultured conquistadores, pleasing to hear. Contemporary Spanish visitors to China were not so polite about its music. The Spanish noted the importance of music in the standardised rites which the Incas imposed on their dominion, which extended from Ecuador into both what is now Argentina and Chile. Instruments that they mention have since vanished: the huankar was a vast llama-skin drum, for example, which is now lost. It was used in war, and on marches. A small hand drum, the tinya, was used by the women in fertility-related dances. Various groups are experimenting to re-introduce these and other instruments.

Two wind instruments are made from sea shells. The pututu uses the conch Strombus galeatus. Its traditional use was similar to the military trumpet: to alert, to warn, to signal. The mullu instead uses Spondylus princeps, and was used in religious ceremonies. Both of these were used for thousands of years before outside contact was made.

A Moche scene of a ritual which had a musical element to it. Some are playing wind instruments and the others are shown with their mouths open, surely suggesting song. The heavy clothes, and the stars above, suggest that this took place on a cold night.

The Spanish invasion brought new sounds and rhythms, all of which became incorporated in Andean traditional music, each region according to its situation and exposure, The coast, plainly, was the most influenced and the jungle the least. The way in which the harp, the violin and the guitar evolved as they spread shows this process in action.

Regional music

As noted, the coastal region received the greatest Spanish influence. Rhythms such as the Fandango became mixed with all manner of local music. After the establishment of the Republic, when the upper classes were more inclined to recognise local contributions, the form known as musica criolla emerged. African slaves, imported in the aftermath of these events, contributed new rhythms and styles, giving the tondero and the festejo.

Much the same hybridization occurred across Latin America, so the Fandango contributed to the mariachi in México, the Cielo Gaucho in Argentina, the Zambo en Venezuela, the Amor Fino in Ecuador and the Sajuriana in Chile. Musicologists reckon that the fusion generated in excess of a thousand forms in Peru alone. Some of these are now central to the Peruvian national identity, such as the huayno, vals peruano and the marinera, appearing on the scene in the early nineteenth century The huayno is discussed further below.

The vals "waltz" has little to do with what Europeans consider to be a waltz. It is both freer and more sensual, The woman may well dance separately from the man, executing a variety of stylised figures, whilst the man's task is to project masculinity. The vals form expressed everything for amorous themes to patriotic gestures, and excites strong audience participation when the right note is struck.

The marinera (seaman) mixes Spanish, Latin and African themes. The Caribbean zamacueca, which dates back to the 1600s, is thought to be the root of the dance form. In this, the woman dances alone, often brandishing a handkerchief. It was named in 1879 when the Peruvian expert in folk law Abelardo Gamarra following the exploits of Admiral Grau in the war with Chile. It has since acquired local variants, each with their own name: the marinera limeña,which is elegant yet dynamic, or marinera norteña, which is less formal and lighter.

Today's music is very much divided by geography, with the coast the most cosmopolitan, the sierra highly distinctive and with its own tonality, the jungle following its own influences, and much affected by Brazil. Popular music in the coast is international, but very much more influenced by other Latin national genres than by Western pop. (Which is, however, very much an influence on the young.)

The chief form in the sierra is the huayno. Other forms are the huaylas and the pandilla. These tend to have a high, nasal female singer over a pounding repetitive dance line. The note row used is distinctive, and regionally different. The South is ethnically distinct, and its huge street dance celebrations use forms such as the diablada de Puno. The Northern sierra is also different, having more flamboyant and passionate.

The music of the jungle is of course used for entertainment, but a strong element of shamanism has also entered its use. Mystical, trance music is widely on offer, with droning chants and repetitive figures intended to enhance drug-related experiences.

Peruvian music is having a considerable effect on the practice in other Latin countries, not least as television channels are shared and the Internet encourages file sharing. The pace of change has never been so fast, or the strength with which Peruvian music clings to its traditions and its identity.