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Luis Millones (1999)

Ten-thousand years of pre-Columbian musicMusic before the IncasPre-Incaic coastal culturesRivalry and the emergence of statehoodThe IncasMusic and Inca celebrationsMusic of the resistance


UNDERTAKING A HISTORICAL SUMMARY of the Andean pre-Columbian world is a vast and ambitious project rendered even more complex when narrowed down to the subject of music, sound technologies, and the contexts of performance. Music, including specific instruments, was at the center of the ancient Andean dialogue with the universe, and musicians and dancers are depicted on pottery and in textiles as central players in a cosmic discourse between humans, ancestors, animals, plants, and supernaturals. Archaeological evidence can be elucidated somewhat by the writings of the chroniclers of the Conquista. However, the publication of early documents is still at a nascent and precarious stage, and the search for such sources has been virtually paralyzed by the hazards and politics of scientific research in the five Andean republics that lay claim to these historical resources (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina). But even if research conditions were to improve, several insurmountable lacunae would persist in our reconstructed knowledge of music and dance, especially because of the dynamics of transmission that differentiate this region from Mesoamerica, where indigenous scholars and Spanish scribes conspired to document many cultural phenomena.

The tragic loss of information on the musical life of ancient Peru is attributable in part to the rapid elimination, beginning in 1532, of the learned elite of Tahuantinsuyu. In Mesoamerica, on the other hand, priests and educators were able to integrate large segments of the native elites into the cuicacalli (houses of song). Even prior to the conquest of Mexico, the rigid discipline in musical and poetic skills provided by these schools had made it possible to train many bards who rendered homage to the gods with hymns whose “verses are represented in their books by means of characters” (Reuter 1988: 28).

The Mesoamerican singers and musicians who spread their skills from the indigenous into the colonial world provided a bridge that also was crossed with success by the tlapixcutzin, or Náhuatl song director, whose responsibilities were seen as analogous to those of the Spanish maestro de capilla (chapelmaster). Through these strategies of training and transmission, European and indigenous musicians began to assimilate many skills and performance practices. Moreover, the musicality of Indian musicians was celebrated by the colonists, who assigned many of these performers important tasks in the chapels of New Spain. One of these Indian musicians by the name of Mateo successfully competed for the position of organist at the cathedral in Valladolid (present-day Morelia, Mexico) (Stevenson 1968: 198–99). In a letter dated May 15, 1556, to the Council of the Indies in Madrid, the Archbishop of Mexico Alonso de Montúfar commented on music activity in the Mexico City Augustinian monastery during that year, noting that—in that one locale—he had encountered 120 Indian musicians. The instrumentalists played shawms, sackbuts, trumpets, orlos (crumhorns), dulcians, and cornetts. What had compelled Archbishop Montúfar’s recital of conditions in the Augustinian house was not so much the number of Indian singers as it was the excess of native and European instruments that accompanied the daily singing of Hours and Mass. In a carryover from Aztec custom, Indian church musicians enjoyed exemption from tribute payments. The excess of both musicians and musical instruments of all types provoked the First Mexican Church Council of 1555 to pass an ordinance forbidding their further multiplication. Printed in 1556, the statute of this council curbing musical excesses received royal reinforcement from Philip II in a cedula of February 1561, ordering an abatement of “trumpets, clarions, chirimías, sackbuts, flutes, cornetts, dulzainas, fifes, viols, rebecs, and other kinds of instruments, an inordinate variety of which is now in use in the monasteries” (Stevenson, “Music in the American Viceroyalties,” in this collection of writings).

In part, this rapid integration of Mesoamerican Indians can be attributed to the regular teaching of music notation that facilitated the diffusion and study of chants and polyphony. This particular tool of transmission not only enabled Indians to familiarize themselves with the graphic representation of music but undoubtedly facilitated the transition between oral and written cultural systems. The acquisition of musical notation, however, cannot possibly explain the differences between Mesoamerican and Andean musical responses to the European invasion, forcing our return to a discussion of the demise of the Inca learned class.

In order to understand the limited presence of an educated Inca elite in colonial musical affairs we must grasp the profound impact of “the permanent state of war” (Assadourian 1985: 74) that characterized Andean society between 1530 and 1560. This trauma explains not only those losses suffered on the battlefield, but also numerous retaliations, internal struggles within the many ethnic groups controlled by the Incas, the destruction of agricultural hydraulic systems and other basic agricultural technologies, the repeated famines and pestilence, and the explosion of endemic diseases that followed the Conquista. The scaffolding for the suffering and dehumanization of this epoch was triggered by the “civil wars” which, instigated by the arrival of Francisco Pizarro’s armies, continued for more than twenty years of uninterrupted confrontation between the conquerors-turned-landowners, who were granted both lands and ownership of Indian laborers by royal decree. These encomenderos (Spanish colonists who were granted Indian workers by royal decree) competed with one another and argued with the Spanish Crown to obtain control of their core commodities: territory and human bodies.

The stranglehold of the encomienda system was coupled with the disappearance of a vital network of Andean specialists, including many musicians. In Mesoamerica, political and ritual authority were distributed between three centers of power. By contrast, the Incas made Cusco not only the capital of the empire of Tahuantinsuyu, but also a model of their ongoing political agenda. Thus, the best minds of their domains converged on the highland city of Cusco to contribute their talents to the growth of the state while sanctioning and glorifying the governing families. Potters and goldsmiths from the North coast, weavers and musicians from the Collao, and warriors and hunters from the three jungle borders passed through or settled in Cusco to render their services to the Incas. All this knowledge was in a process of constant integration. The careful education of the Inca noblemen proves that the leaders of the empire had planned to control society in order to perpetuate their status and dominion. Never did these empire builders guess that their project would be interrupted by the unforeseen arrival of Europeans.

The very concentration of power sought by Inca royalty conspired against their survival even before the foreign invasion. Pizarro arrived in 1532, only a few years after the death of the last Inca had unleashed a long war between his potential successors. The Inca Atahualpa, the winner, sent his best troops to Cusco. When the city was stormed, the trapped nobility was massacred. Atahualpa was attempting to ensure that no one would survive who could claim a right of lineage or challenge his power. No sooner had Cusco been dismantled by these internal struggles of succession than it was sacked by Pizarro’s troops. Pizarro’s men, acting in their own defense, fought street by street and had practically destroyed Cusco in their wake when Manco II, supposedly the puppet Inca elected by the Spaniards, revolted and tried to annihilate his foreign masters. This confrontation was followed by the aforementioned civil wars during which Cusco was fought over and traded for as the jewel in the viceroyal crown. These events accelerated the death or flight of the Inca “literati.”

Exempt from this purge were the nobles who accompanied the puppet-turned-rebellious Inca Manco II, who, retreating from the victorious Spaniards, settled with a small court in Vilcabamba, east of the old capital. Years later, Viceroy Toledo stormed this last refuge of Cusco’s upper class, sacrificing the last official sages of the Tahuantinsuyu. The Indian noblemen who had opted for loyalty to the King of Spain subsequently had to adopt Christian clothing, language, and customs, beginning a painful effort to retain their privileges amidst fierce power struggles. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, this segment of native society had become somewhat consolidated and claimed their own social space. Even this relative rise in status, however, did not spare them the Spaniards’ contempt, nor the loss of important expressions of their culture. Repressed and replaced, they began to absorb their own oppression in that inevitable process of self-censure that has afflicted so many colonized peoples.


The loss of Inca specialists becomes even more regrettable when placed in the context of the wealth and antiquity of the knowledge to which the haravicus (poets) and taquiyachak (musicians) were heirs. The oldest known musical instruments in the Andean region date back approximately 7000 years and comprise an antara and a kena found in the sites of Chilca and Asia, both in the Department of Lima (Bolaños 1985: 11). A 4500-year-old cache of clay and bone whistles found in the Templo de las Manos Cruzadas (Temple of the Crossed Hands) in Kotosh (Huánuco) offers a broad spectrum of evidence for organologists. The latter collection consists of wind instruments made of bone, stone, and clay materials, albeit without the refinements attained by the master ceramists of subsequent centuries. It is possible that other instruments, probably membranophones like the tinya (a small, double-headed drum hung on the left hand), have left no trace of their existence because they were made of perishable materials. As far as we know, chordophones were not known in the Andean region prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.

About one-thousand years before Christ, a cultural complex flourished around the sanctuary of Chavín de Huántar in Ancash, northeast of Lima. Carved reliefs of humanoid beings playing the pututu can be seen in the circular plaza of the temple (Bolaños 1985: 14). The pututu is a trumpet made from the seashell of the strombus galeatus. The apex of the shell is perforated so that it can be used as a blowhole. The pututero or pututu player blows out of the side of his mouth, producing a deep sound capable of great resonance in the echo-chambered Andean highlands. The pututu is found throughout the Peruvian Andes and carries deep religious symbolism and significance. The importance of these conch-shell trumpets and the need to acquire them created a network of commercial exchange with peoples from the tropical waters of the coast of Ecuador, where the strombus conch is plentiful.

The slow disintegration of the Chavín complex saw the emergence of cultural forms into which aspects of Chavín society were absorbed and developed while prefiguring later innovative styles that began to insinuate themselves into an Andean aesthetic vocabulary. We are also left with some examples of musical interest from this Vicú / Paracas period between the fourth century B.C.E. and the fifth century C.E. The Vicú culture stands out for its ceramics, which include different types of whistles and antaras (panpipes), membrane-covered vessel drums, and copper laminated trumpets. The Paracas culture bequeathed us its weavings, wherein representations of musicians and dancers appear frequently. Of special note are several fragments of clothing to which small metal plaques were sewn or hooked (Bolaños 1985: 20), bringing the weight of these garments to some thirty kilograms. The result must have had a striking impact on those observing the performances, given the brilliance produced by the reflection of the sun or moon, or the mirroring of fires that illuminated the dancers and musicians. The impact of these vestments was further enhanced by the sound of chamrarara—leggings to which numerous rattling seeds were sewn (maichil, chañar, algarrobo, or vilca). We need look no further than in today’s danza de las tijeras (scissors’ dance) to infer the meaning and authority that these dazzling garments might have held for the ancient inhabitants of the Andean highlands. Yet these are but a handful of remarkable performance scenarios within the vast accomplishments of musicians and artisans ranging from the highest reaches of the Andes to the remote coastal deserts. All these ancient explorers of sound and aesthetics contributed to what is now remembered and romanticized as Inca culture, for discoveries in ceramic and acoustic techniques were often transmitted over vast geographic and historic distances.


By 300 C.E., the development of regional cultures and artistic styles had reached its apogee. Artisans of the coastal deserts, especially, had reached an expressive quality that is revered by contemporary scholars. In Nazca, south of Lima, a large variety of ceramic aerophones were produced: trumpets, antaras, monophonic and biphonic whistles, and oval ocarinas made of marly clay with a hollow chamber and no more than half a centimeter of thickness. Nazca drums were fashioned as ceramic vessels with a stretched skin over the opening, leather strips on the sides to tune the membrane, and a sound hole in the pointed base (Bolaños 1985: 26). Based on the iconography found on these clay vessels, César Bolaños suggests that the rite variously known as yunza, cortamonte, or sachakuchuy may be depicted in scenes rendered on large, kettle-type ceramic drums (1985: 28). The yunza is a festive ceremony in which paired dancers circle around a tree until they eventually dismember it with axes. Those who cause the decorated, gift-laden trunk to fall are rewarded by the responsibility of organizing the following year’s ceremony. The rite is currently celebrated in almost all Andean villages. Several decades ago, it was known mostly in the central Peruvian sierras. Its broader diffusion has occurred in recent times, possibly as a reintroduction in areas where its practice had been forgotten. This rite remains popular even in Lima among migrants from the sierras (González, Carrasco, Galdo, and Cavero 1980: 19; Vásquez and Vergara Figueroa 1988: 55).

Other Nazca scenes show the same musician playing several instruments, especially antara, drum, and rattle. In the 1990s, during the Fiesta de la Champería in Huarochirí, it was common to see a musician playing flute and tinya (Mapa de los instrumentos musicales de uso popular en el Perú 1978: 107). We shall return to Huarochirí, situated on the upper Lurín River region, in the central valleys of the Department of Lima.

Perhaps no other pre-Columbian culture offers greater wealth of iconographical information than that of the Mochica (also known as Moche, the best-known civilization of the Early Intermediate Period, ca. 200 B.C.E. to ca. 600 C.E.). The Mochica civilization dates from the latter part of this period. Contemporaneous with the culture of Nazca, Mochica aesthetics evolved in the valleys of the present-day departments of Lambayeque and La Libertad. Mochica ceramics constitute one of the most complete iconographic records of what must have been the ceremonial life and ideological universe of the Moche peoples. Even more significant is the fact that we have not only a wealth of excavated instruments from this era, which matched the acoustic sophistication of the Nazca horizon, but also evidence of the contexts in which musicians and dancers were drawn or sculpted.

Thus, we can corroborate that the musical instruments in these archaeological sites were associated with the exercise of power. Zampoñas (panpipes) dating from 300 or 400 C.E., for instance, are never missing from the burial sites of the curacas, who were the local or regional chiefs of the Chilean puna. The connection of music and power becomes even more evident in Mochica ceramics, where figures hold hands in various dance postures and musicians play a plethora of instruments. Figure 1 is a representation of a festival of the spirits of the dead from a Mochica ceramic vessel. Kenas, antaras, and tinyas seem to be the favorite instrumental accompaniment to the dances being depicted. A recurring motif shows the dancers’ cadaverous faces as protagonists from the world of the dead (Fig. 2) (Kauffmann Doig 1982: 361). These scenes link the art of the Mochica with the worldview of their contemporaries on the Chilean high plateau, who buried their curacas with zampoñas, confirming the obvious deduction that the function of music was linked to the politico-religious apparatus of early Andean societies.

Fig. 1: Festival of the spirits of the dead. In the center are two players with a pair of panpipes of seven and six pipes. Illustration from a ceramic vessel, Mochica culture (Kutscher 1950: 31).

Fig. 2: Dancers and panpipe players. Relief décor on a ceramic vessel, probably Mochica from north-central Peru (Baessler 1902–3 in d’Harcourt 1990: 96, Fig. 23, Spanish translation of d’Harcourt 1925).

Although it is no discovery to conclude that the function of music was linked to the politico-religious structure of the first Andean societies, the task still eluding researchers is a closer approximation to those sounds and the circumstances surrounding performance. The constant presence of drums can lead some to speculate that “their rhythms must have been isochronous or based on metric feet of which some very altered fragments may have survived” (Bolaños 1985: 22). Alongside funeral cortèges seen or imagined by the Mochica, their pottery vessels show war scenes that are also accompanied by musicians and their instruments. However, the scenario of war shows a preference for other instruments such as trumpets and pututus preceding or following the conquerors, possibly because the sounds of these instruments were used to instill terror in the enemy, sound the alarm of attack, or announce the news of a victory (Kauffmann Doig 1982: 360). Centuries later, the Incas had their messengers, or chasquis, carry pututus to announce their arrival, as drawn by Guamán Poma, the chronicler of the beginning of the seventeenth century (Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615 in 1980: 322).


An approximate point in time (700 C.E.) has been established as a probably date for the emergence of the first state-like forms in the Andean region. The most notorious and still debated example is the Huari society, which must have attained a level of political complexity around the beginning of the eighth century. The archaeological remains of the Huari culture can be seen a few kilometers from the city of Huamanga (Ayacucho, Peru). Research in this region has yielded few ceramic musical instruments, leading us to think that the Huari may have preferred other materials for their construction (bone, skin, or wood). Mario Rivera (personal communication) has suggested that the reified ideology subtending performance may have led instrument makers to seek materials considered scarce, and, therefore, highly valued. Thus, in Atacama and the coastal desert area from the Peruvian South to the central valleys of Chile, instruments made out of wood are common, although wood is extremely scarce. The value of ceremonial instruments made of rare and precious materials is consistent with the trade routes between Peru and Ecuador established to procure conch shells that could be turned into pututus. After all, we must not forget that the symbolic food of the huacas, or Andean supernaturals, was mullu (seashells).

The political complexity that begins to shape the concept of statehood in the Andes around the eighth century C.E. went hand in hand with a certain degree of specialization in which the rank of musicians competed with those of other dignitaries. Centuries later, the Spaniards collected accounts in Lambayeque of a governor, founder of the dynasty in that place, traveling with his court. Lord Naylamp arrived with a retinue of attendants who were later recognized as symbols of his greatness. Among these royal attendants was Pita Zofi, “who was his trumpeter or player of some large shells” (Cabello Valboa 1951: chapter 17). This account was collected in villages that one or two centuries earlier had been a part of the so-called “Chimú Kingdom,” a rival state of the Incas, settled in the northern coast of Peru. The appearance of Chimú or Chimor is contemporaneous with the disintegration of the old Huari state, whose influence was felt over a significant area of the central Andes. This expansion was enhanced by the use of dromedary caravans that allowed for the transportation and exchange of good and ideologies. It is probable that the Huaris used ancient trade routes and extended them for their own profit. If such were the case, it would explain the important trade in textiles, which are easy to accumulate and transport on the back of the American camelids. The finest of the Chimú textiles, called cumbi by the Incas, have designs that have fascinated many scholars with their depictions of dancers and musical instruments (Cereceda 1986: 149–53). However, we have scant evidence of how these characters and objects interacted in a specific cultural setting. A clearer view of context begins to emerge as we turn to the Incas.


Prior to their meteoric ascent to power and empire, the Incas were one among many chiefdoms or curacazgos (from curaca, or indigenous chief) that inhabited the valley of Cusco. Between 1000 and 1200 C.E., the Incas subdued the other peoples of the Cusco region and began their expansion toward the north, where their victory over the Chancas allowed them to build Tahuantinsuyu. The State of the Four Corners of the World, Tahuantinsuyu was headed by The Inca himself, who claimed direct kinship with the Sun god. When the Europeans arrived in 1532, they found a society with a carefully structured sociopolitical organization based upon an understanding of the landscape, ornate schemes of military strategy and conquests, and various types of alliances granting Cusco authority over a large number of Andean peoples. The autonomy of each group was directly linked to the degree of support pledged to The Inca (Millones 1987).

The accounts in Kechua collected by Francisco de Ávila (ca. 1573–1647) at the beginning of the seventeenth century demonstrate this network of loyalties and allegiances. In one of these accounts, the Yauyo ethnic group resorts to a mythical narrative to describe its relation with the Incas of Cusco:

[The Inca] Tupac Yupanqui arrived in this region (in the sierra of the Department of Lima) and demanded collaboration in order to defeat the uprising of three villages. To that end, he convened an assembly of deities, or huacas, and complained that he was not receiving appropriate supernatural support in exchange for all the sacrifices and offerings he had provided. His speech concluded with this threat: “If any of you says no, all of you will burn immediately.” Initially the gods did not respond, but Pachacamac, whose sanctuary is at the mouth of the Lurín River, finally retaliated with another threat: “Inca, almost Sun, because I am who I am, I will not speak; I can shake you as well as the entire world; I alone, yes, I can annihilate those enemy villages you talk about, I have the power to put an end to the entire world and to you. For that reason I kept very quiet” (Ávila [17th century] in 1975: 103).

We are interested in this account because the consultation ends when the god Macahuisa, son of the divinity of the Yauyos (Pariacaca), decides to help the Inca but demands that the Inca dance for him. It was thus that Tupac Yupanqui fulfilled his “cargo” (a finite ritual role or responsibility) as one of the huacasas, “personalities who sang and danced three times a year, bringing coca in a very large sack.” The dance performed was called huayllas, and it is danced today in the Mantaro Valley at harvest time (Arguedas citing Ávila [17th century] in 1975: 56).

The antagonism between the Tahuantinsuyu and its vassal ethnic groups was evident in many aspects of pre-European culture, and can even be traced to the festive calendar provided by the Incas to be observed throughout their domain. According to their perspective, the Sun, father of the official pantheon, presided over the more important gatherings and guided the cosmic organization of time. There is evidence, however, that other calendars coexisted with the master schedule imposed by the Incas, and that the peoples under Inca authority did not forget their local gods. This latitude was possible because the philosophical stance of the Cusco authorities made it easier for them to absorb foreign divinities than to persecute them.

The official festivities described by the chroniclers of the Conquista were all lavish. If we focus on music and dance, we see that those events referred to as taqui seem especially noteworthy. Taqui is a generic concept that Kechua/Spanish dictionaries of that period define as follows:

Taquini or taquicuni—Singing only without dancing or singing while dancing;
Ñauraycuna taqui—the music;
Ñauraycuna taquik cuna—the musicians;
Taquicta hucarik—the one who intones the song, or begins first, or the one who is followed by everyone else;
Taquiyta qquencochini—warbling, “singing in counterpoint” (gargantear, contrapuntear);
Taqui—song without “counterpoint” (canto sin contrapunto);
Yachachicusca taqui or chantasca taqui—song [with accompaniment?] (canto de punto) (González Holguín 1608 in 1952: 338, 446).

As can be seen, this is a polysemous concept which appears in the chronicles as synonymous with festivity, or as the act of participating in these events through singing or dancing. But there were many types of taqui. Taqui huari (which also appears as yauri or huarite) is especially noted. It was held in awe by the Incas, who claimed it was first danced by Manco Capac, the founder of Tahuantinsuyu, when he emerged from the bowels of the earth in the cave of Tambo under the mandate of his father, the Sun. Taqui huari was customarily danced for the feast of Capac Raymi, during the rites of initiation of the noble class. On that occasion, the young people of Cusco had to perform a series of tests in the presence of the mummies of their ancestors and images of the “Maker” embodied in the Sun, Moon, Thunder, and The Inca himself. Every so often, the initiated danced the huari and their arms and legs were flogged by their elder relatives, who eventually dressed them up in garments that signaled their passage into adulthood (Molina 1574 in 1959: 69, 75, 77).


During the holy days of Camay Quilla, which the chroniclers identified as falling in the month of December, several taquis were performed, among them the so-called coyo, chupay, quollo, and Chuqui huanllo. The coyo stands out because its creation was attributed to venerated Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the archetype of Cusco rulers. All these dances created a certain competitiveness between the Hanan and the Hurin Cusco, the two ritual moieties into which the capital city of Cusco was divided. To perform the coyo, dancers wrapped themselves in puma skins, which they placed over red undershirts. This type of taqui was performed with drums and repeated twice a day (Molina 1574 in 1959: 78). On that same ceremonial day, another taqui was danced, which has been widely mentioned. Cristóbal de Molina of Cusco (1535–ca. 1595) called it yanayra, but it is described elsewhere under other names. What is worth noting is the festive character of the dance and the fact that it was performed under the light of a full moon, when the earth had just been left fallow. It was then that a very long rope, beautifully braided with four-colored strands, was customarily taken out of a special container. The rope was described by Cristóbal de Molina as

black, bright red, white, and tawny, on the top of which there was a red and thick ball and all the hands held on to it, men on one side and women on the other. The dancers traveled around the plazas and streets of Cusco and, after paying their respects to The Inca and the huacas, at the end of the dance, they customarily left the rope on the floor [arranging it] as a coiled snake, because it was made as a snake (Molina 1574 in 1959: 83).

The popularity of the taquis was complemented by many other traditional genres. According to González Holguín, haylli means “to sing, or song of those who vanquish or triumph.” Haylli haylli means “victory victory” (1608 in 1952: 445–46). Sixteenth-century dictionaries translate haylli as a concept of triumph that is linked to the glorification of joint effort, be it in preparing the land for sowing or in celebrating victory over an enemy. In some cases, the affect of the moment seems to have been expressed with simple shouts of cheer set to specific rhythms. Thus, when the land was being plowed, farmers sang this haylli:

Ayaw haylli, yaw
Ayaw haylli, yaw
Ayaw haylli, yaw
Ayaw haylli, yaw.
Here is the Coya (the wife of The Inca),
here is Paya [noblewoman]
Ahaylli! Ahaylli! (Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615 in 1980: 1051).

At other times, the festive tone could take the form of an amorous exchange, sung and responded to by groups of both sexes:

Ayaw haylli yaw haylli
do you have peppers in your seed bag?
I will come disguised as a pepper
do you have a flower in your seed bag?
I will come disguised as a flower
(Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615 in 1980: 293).

Haylli is generally documented in the chronicles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in association with Inca military triumphs. The haylli was sung and accompanied by a mass chorus when the Cusco troops and their chiefs returned from war and The Inca walked over the bodies of the vanquished as a sign of victory. It is interesting to note that the completion of plowing and the defeat of enemies were expressed in the same manner. The 17th-century dictionary of González Holguín also defines haylli as a “rejoicing war song or well-finished and vanquished farms” (1608 in 1952: 157). The worldview that pairs these metaphors of war and farming suffuses the agrarian character of Andean society, although reaching further into this seemingly paradoxical relationship would lead us into the subject of another study.

Not all was war in these highlands, however. Love was expressed in the Andes through the haravi or harahui. The chroniclers defined this genre as “plaintive songs sung by the ñustas (young noblewomen) and the young men play the pingollo” (Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615 in 1980: 293–94). The pingollo referred to by Guamán Poma is a duct flute with five or six equidistant finger holes in the front and one in the back, which is played to this day in the central sierra. In Cusco, the haravi (harawi) was sung when the gods were given offerings of maize produced on one of the parcels of land linked to Mama Huaco, sister and wife (and, in some variants of the myth, mother and wife) of the first Inca, Manco Capac. His mummy, or a representation thereof, was the first to receive the chicha made with maize from such a harvest (Molina 1574 in 1959: 88–89; Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615 in 1980: 99). The harahui genre survived the Spanish Conquest and regained notoriety in the nineteenth century through the verses composed by a young poet fighting for his country’s independence. We are referring to Mariano Melgar (1790-–1816), who called it yaravi, the name by which this amorous lament is known to this day.

The harahui / yaravi, especially as appropriated by Melgar, has been discussed at length by scholars as an example of discontinuity and continuity of pre-Columbian genres. This polemic is not limited to this genre alone, for the claim to ancient roots of the many musical forms cultivated at the turn of the twentieth century can be questioned, especially in the light of changes in instruments and in the language that generates text structures. However, a close scrutiny of González Holguín’s 1608 definition brings us to the very heart of the verses written by the poet Mariano Melgar almost two hundred years later: “Songs about the deeds of others or remembrances of absent lovers and of love …” (1608 in 1952: 152). Of course, given the cultural devastation of the sixteenth century, it is unlikely that the music and text of Melgar’s yaravis could in any way be of Inca origin; but the thematic content of his type of song was anchored in ancient expressive forms and aesthetic norms. The yaravi also has fueled debates on its very capacity to reflect the ethos of the indigenous population of Peru (see “The Yaraví” in Stevenson 1968: 299–303). Nonetheless, these epistolar debates from previous centuries prove that the characterization of the harahui given by González Holguín in 1608 persists in forms that have survived three centuries of colonization.

In Inca times, each of the genres discussed above had a Cusco or “state” version, as well as regional or local versions that flourished within the different political realms and communities functioning under Inca control for more than a century. Each community grafted its own calendar of feasts and rituals onto the agenda of celebrations handed down from Cusco, entwining local and imperial concerns in a manner not unlike the later merging of Catholic and indigenous rites. In both instances of domination (Inca, and later Spanish), local celebrations were retained tenaciously as bastions of autonomy. When the avalanche of Conquest dismantled the Tahuantinsuyu, it became easier for the ethnic groups previously under Inca control to retain their local traditions, and, when the Spaniards arrived, these groups absorbed the cultural legacy of Spain as another form of domination. Within this perspective, performance has continued to be directly linked to the display and manipulation of political power.


A linear reconstruction of the history of Andean music is likely to neglect important processes that have been omitted from the hegemonic record because of their controversial nature. The official story blatantly silenced vast areas of artistic manifestation that openly or covertly underscored the Andean struggle to resist European invasion. It is not easy to unearth these materials, for their very nature required that they be concealed by those who produced them. When these expressions of resistance came to light, the Spanish authorities chose at best to ignore them, but most often to repress and destroy them, leaving virtually no record of their existence in extant documentation on the encounter of cultures.

Andean music and dance were always met with mistrust by Spanish colonial authorities. In many cases, the clergy and other stewards of morality banned the traditional Andean celebrations known as taquis, condemning them as “drunken bouts” in which all manner of “perversions,” including the covert worship of native deities, were practiced. This self-righteous, moralizing attitude contradicted the very needs and practices of the authorities’ own colonial economic system, which included the forced sale of alcohol and other goods to the Indians (repartimientos). Throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru (1542–1824), colonial authorities found it necessary to attribute unbridled behavior to the Indians in order to justify their oppression. Notwithstanding, some Andean chroniclers were able to discern complex layering of meanings in these festivals. Facing renewed threats of suppression, Guamán Poma de Ayala wrote these words to the King of Spain: “These dances … have nothing of witchcraft or idolatry or incantations in them, and they are only a festivity for merriment and rejoicing, [and] it would be very nice if there was no inebriation” (1615 in 1980: 288).

The ambivalence of the Spanish authorities seldom intimidated the Indians, who took advantage of the Catholic calendar to recreate the spaces in which they could express beliefs and reflect upon the transformation of their universe. In this sense, Indians used the European liturgical calendar in much the same way in which they had used the Inca calendar. The concerns of the Europeans about the anti-colonial feelings generated through the celebration of taquis and other Andean rituals were legitimate, but the structure of the colonial economy, based as it was on forced Indian labor, made the eradication of Andean celebrations impossible. The so-called drunken bouts were ceremonial acts through which the local Indian chief, or curaca—an indispensable link with the Spanish bureaucracy—legitimized his power, providing the order and continuity necessary for the existence of the community under his command. Had the government of the City of Kings (Lima) eliminated the contexts within which these ceremonies or taquis took place, and, consequently, had the curaca not been permitted to exercise his power, this would have led to the demise of his authority and—as he was a part of the power structure—his fall would have carried with him the collapse of the Spanish pyramid of domination (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Andean musicians in the “Tabla de Sarhua” (Sarhua Board), a wooden panel measuring 35 x 40 cm. Originally made in the community of Sarhua (Ayacucho, Peru) for newly joined couples. Courtesy of Luis Millones.

Spanish fear of and reaction to the taquis often emerged from specific events, such as the messianic movement known as Taqui Ongoy (Taki Onqoy). In 1565 news spread of the emergence of indigenous preachers in the south of Ayacucho (Peru). Before being discovered, these men had disseminated their teachings throughout the entire region which makes up the present-day Department of Ayacucho, as well as to a large part of the neighboring localities. The name of the movement, Taqui Ongoy, may be translated literally as “song and dance sickness,” and the attitudes of the participants were described as expressions of apostasy. One such description reads as follows:

Yten, si saben etc. que el dicho canónigo Cristóbal de Albornoz fue el primero que sacó a luz por su muncho cuidado y diligençia la seta y apostasía llamada Taqui Ongo, en la qual davan los yndios después de bautizados en bailar y temblar andando a la redonda y en aquel baile ynbocaban al demonio y a sus guacas e ydolos, y en el bayle renegavan y apostatavan de la verdadera fe de Jesucristo y de todas las enseñanças que avían resçebido de los cristianos y saçerdotes que en este reino avían pasado, la qual seta yba cundiendo y estava ya derramada en la mayor parte de estos reinos … (“Información de servicios, Cuzco 1584” in Millones 1990: 205).
If you know that the canon, Cristóbal de Albornoz, through his care and diligence, was the first to uncover the sect and apostasy called Taqui Ongo, in which the Indians, after being baptized, would abandon themselves to dancing and shaking, going around, and in that dance would invoke the demon and their guacas and idols; and in the dance they would renege and apostatize the true faith of Jesus Christ and all the teachings they had received from the Christians and priests who had passed through this realm; and this sect was growing and had spread across most of these domains (Millones 1990: 205).

Those who converted to Taqui Ongoy explained that the “guacas” (huacas, wakas, or Andean gods in general)

did not enter stones, or trees, or fountains any more, as during the time of the Incas; but rather they entered the bodies of the Indians and made them talk; and from this they took to shaking, saying that they had the guacas in their bodies; and many of them had had their faces painted with red color, and then they were placed in some fenced areas, where the Indians went to worship them as the guaca or idol that was claimed had entered the body (Millones 1990: 178).

As can be seen, the “drunken bouts” or taquis transcended their ceremonial or recreational function, becoming ecstatic dances that encouraged possession of human bodies by divinities.

The Taqui Ongoy is important for various other reasons. Its doctrine presents an initial interpretation of the process of the Conquista. The leaders of this movement asserted that “… when Marquis Pizarro entered Cajamarca and defeated the Indians, it was because God (Christ) had already defeated the guacas. But now all the guacas had resurrected to fight against [Pizarro] and defeat him” (Millones 1990: 178). The movement also documents a fundamental ideological reordering in the Andes: The Inca is not mentioned, nor the gods of the official religion. The narrative speaks only of “the time of the Inca,” and the majority of gods who are summoned in the frenzy of the dance are those local deities that had been relegated to a subordinate position during the splendor of the Inca empire.

The political ramifications of this religious rebellion drew implacable persecution, for Taqui Ongoy was immediately associated with the “idolatry” of pre-Hispanic religions and offered a heretical reinterpretation of Catholic worship (Millones 1987). In other contexts, indigenous music and dance were not punished but rather used as elements in strategies of conversion. Indeed, music and dance were so central to the process of conversion that priests encouraged performances in the atrium or even inside the church. The dangers of such permissiveness were always present in the minds of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but decisions to restrict these practices varied over time and according to the perceptions of each religious order. Sometimes the decision was even left to the judgment of individual priests (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Drawing by the chronicler Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (1615 in 1980: 730). The text reads: “Principales. Los hijos de los principales ellos propios han de danzar delante del Santísimo Sacramento y delante de la Virgen María y delante de los Santos de este reino.” / Chiefs. The sons of the chiefs themselves will dance before the Holy Sacrament and before the Virgin Mary and before the Saints of this realm. (Two young Indians, of the nobility, wearing costume and mask, dance before the main altar.) Courtesy of Luis Millones.

In other settings, officials vociferously condemned the practice of Indian spirituality and the celebration of “pagan” feasts, but found it impossible to enforce their judgments through specific punishments. Such is the case of the gatherings at the colonial tambos or chicherías. These establishments arose as expressions of the new economic order which converted the pre-Columbian tambo (a place of rest and relief on Inca roads) into a kind of Castilian roadside inn where a Spanish or creole traveler could find rest and obtain repairs for a damaged coach or care for his beasts. All these shelters were precariously set up along the old trade routes, now expanded through increased commerce and warfare. At the beginning of the colonial era, Inca tambos and their neighboring communities were forced to supply the Spaniards and their allies without any remuneration. Once the Andean world was reordered, new tambos were formed as commercial establishments ruled by acculturated Indians, mestizos, or Spaniards, who saw them as an opportunity to make a modest fortune. Thus, a whole new class of merchants and styles of abuse began to emerge.

The same can be said of the chicherías, meeting places located outside the urban centers where people gathered to share food, drink, entertainment, and news. The chichería, named after the fermented corn chicha that was consumed there, was a nexus of activity for the middle and lower strata of colonial society. The chicherías also gave lodging to popular musicians who could make a living by entertaining those who gathered to socialize. The popularity of such places was influenced by the fact that they offered a context in which one could freely express complaints against the government through popular ballads or in threatening, mocking, or iconoclastic proclamations. The ideas and songs exchanged, even when anonymous, were often openly subversive and had a strong impact on the poor and disenfranchised, encouraging them to dissent. At the same time, these establishments were used also as forums to breed conspiracies and disseminate information that would have been repressed otherwise, and that the upper echelons of government could not control (Fig. 5).

north-central Peru

Fig. 5: “Indians dancing in the courtyard of a chichería.” Painted by Indian artists accompanying Bishop Baltazar Jaime Martínez Compañón in his 1782 pastoral visit (Martínez Compañón 1778–88 in 1985: E 61). Courtesy of Luis Millones.

Naturally, the Church was displeased with activities of the tambos and chicherías. In their reiterated condemnations, the clergy alluded to the sexual license that characterized these places and were especially concerned by these covert activities because members of the colonial elite would be known to frequent them surreptitiously. Except for isolated cases, protests from the pulpit did not prosper, and these gatherings have continued into present times, though their importance as performance spaces has declined as popular music has found other venues of dissemination.

To understand why music was seen as such a threat by those in power we must grasp its place in the Andean worldview. The pugnacious nature of Andean cultures and their continued repression reinforced the predominant role of music in the ideological realm. There are countless stories in which music plays a defining role in the origin and destiny of human and divine beings whose lives intersect in the Andes. It is thus that, as told in the texts collected in Huarochirí (in the valley of the Lurín River, Department of Lima), around 1598, the god Huatyacuri was challenged by his brother-in-law, a rich and presumptuous man. Their exchange involved a series of competitions, some of which entailed musical ability. In the first bout, the brother-in-law sang around two hundred songs and danced with many women. When it was his turn, Huatyacuri appeared with his wife and sang accompanied by a drum-playing skunk, achieving remarkable results, for “the whole world moved.” Later on, “the wealthy man brought many pumas” and began to sing again. Huatyacuri arrived with a red puma who came out of a spring (puquio) and sang with him. This time the rainbow appeared in response to their voices. In the last competitive round Huatyacuri challenged his brother-in-law to sing and dance. No sooner had the “wealthy man” started his performance than the god uttered a shout and the brother-in-law, transformed into a deer, fled (Ávila [17th century] in 1975: 41–43).

This text is significant for several reasons. Huatyacuri’s father is Pariacaca, the most important divinity of the region. This made the competition quite unequal. But the mortal did not know the caliber and power of his opponent, who had taken the form of a poor man, incurring the brother-in-law’s contempt. The language of the narrative both embellishes and conceals the long dispute between the Yauyo ethnic group, whose patron deity was Pariacaca, and other groups of the region (Cantas, Colliques, and Quives, among others), who were finally defeated by the alliance of the “sons of Pariacaca” with the Incas. Some of the confrontations probably took the form of competitions of song and dance, as well as displays of magnificence meant to dazzle rivals. Without dismissing the role and impact of warfare, we should note that these competitions and demonstrations of wealth also established or subverted political power. The account transcribed privileges the exploits of the winners and reclaims for their gods the power to tip the scale of history.

The relationship of music with the world of ancestors and supernaturals continues in the popular tradition, not only because references to communal origins and destiny are analogous to those described in the chronicles, but because the music is intertwined with the emotional history of Andean peoples. In practice, any human relationship is revealed through melodies, notably in the amorous genres (Millones and Pratt 1990), and music is central to the entire life cycle. Thus, even in our times, guitars and charangos are often placed next to a spring, with the expectation that the following day their sonority will have increased and the musician’s fingers will have become more dexterous.

Accounts of disputes and deceptions between musicians or dancers and creatures from other dimensions of reality constitute a recurrent theme in the popular literature of many parts of the world (Fig. 6). In the Andes, the scissors dancers, who move virtuosically to the sound of two metal sheets resembling scissors, are believed to be competing with the devil. A ritual of resistance practiced in regions associated with the spiritual strength of the Taki Onqoy (an anti-Christian indigenous insurrection that took place in Parinacochas, south of Ayacucho, in 1565, whose quest was the return of local shrines’ spirits [huacas] and the expulsion of Europeans), the Danza de las tijeras (Scissors’ Dance) takes the shape of a ritual battle between two specialists who perform spectacular acrobatic feats for an audience that declares one of them the winner. It is also a dance of endurance, with each dancer taking turns to outdo the opponent in trials testing the power of mind over matter, manifested in their ability to control natural and supernatural forces. The music is provided by a violin and a harp carried on the musician’s shoulder and played upside down. Although the harp and violin were brought to the former colonies by Europeans, they have been appropriated by the population to the extent of being considered native instruments. To the continuous improvisations on a tune played on the violin and harp, the dancers’ steps and the tuned steel clappers they hold in their right hand (resembling loose scissors) provide the rhythmic component to these compelling performances. Now a banner of Peruvian creativity throughout the world, the Scissors’ Dance tradition is entrenched in the departments of Ayacucho, Apurímac, and Huancavelica in the southern Peruvian Andes. It plays an important role in celebrations of Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, St. John the Baptist, and the Fiesta del Agua, the ritual cleansing of irrigation ducts (Fig. 7). We also find many accounts of prodigious musicians who challenge supernatural forces to achieve their aims or mock the gods in dazzling displays of virtuosity that stress the importance of music.

Tabla de Sarhua

Fig. 6: “Tabla de Sarhua” (Sarhua Board), wooden panel from Sarhua in Ayacucho, Peru. Courtesy of Luis Millones.

Danzantes de Tijeras

Fig. 7. Danzantes de Tijeras (Scissors’ dancers). Photo of Los Danzaq de Ayacucho, one of Peru’s most prestigious Scissors’ Dance groups, courtesy of José Carlos Vilcapoma Ignacio. Instruments and costumes of Los Danzaq de Ayacucho are displayed at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM/Phoenix), Latin American Gallery, designed by Malena Kuss.

This type of relationship or interaction between humans and supernaturals is hardly new, for it rests on ancient dynamics of coexistence between humans and divine beings. No invocation of the sacred is made without the accompaniment of music or songs, for the very sonority of the performance creates the energy conducive to the convergence of different worlds.

This vast subject underscores the role of musical knowledge in the maintenance of cultural traditions. In the Andes, soundscape and landscape converge. The long history of man’s connection with the melodies of his land demands that all activity, even the most clandestine, be expressed through song, dance, and the sounding of instruments.



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