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Land of winds > The people > Culture | Issue 01. Jul.-Aug.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Andean culture
    Por mi tierra sí camino / con el soplo vital de la zampoña / y golpe de sangre en el tambor. / Así voy, / con azadones de arco iris andinos / sembrando en los surcos del indio / la esperanza del canto.

    [Across my land I do walk / with the lively blow of the panpipes / and the beat of the blood in the drum. / Thereby I go / with mattocks of Andean rainbows / sowing in the Indian furrows / the hope of the song.

    Arak Pacha. “Cantatierra”. On the album “Por los senderos del indio”.
The label “Andean culture” has been widely spread by folklorists, indigenistas (indigenism supporters), regional artists and traditionalist organization, perhaps as a means of reinforce and highlight their identity. Usually, this culture is associated with a distinctive iconography (in general pre-Columbian or Tiwanaku leitmotivs), with certain ideas of “cosmovision-spirituality-religion-ecology” and with several customs and native cultural expressions from particular regions of the Andes.
Nevertheless, such a label put special emphasis on a tiny part –however important it seems to be– of the Andean societies’ rules and patterns. On some occasions, this sample is distorted, misunderstood or approached from personal and selfish points of view, who aim to achieve a certain purpose using the culture of many different peoples. In short, it is about a sort of modern myth, a stereotype that should not be taken for granted without first making sure that it is true; on the contrary, it should be, at least, discussed and reformulated.
From a strict perspective, it cannot be said that there is an “Andean culture” as such. The peoples that live in the Andes are as different from each other as the ones settled in Europe. Referring an “Andean culture” entails an election and only underlines a shared (or not) set of values, no matter how many unique features of each region are going to be lost in this attempt to clearly homogenize and limit.
Basically, the idea of “Andean culture” is linked to several patterns from the central part of Peru and the high plains and mountains of Bolivia, that is, Aymara and Quechua cultures. They, despite their differences, have many elements in common, perhaps due to the Inca Empire (Quechua) rule over the Aymara domains of the south. Peru, Ecuador, north-western Argentina and the northern half of Chile were also under the influence of the Tawantinsuyo, which would have lent this huge area a homogeneous patina that the term “Andean culture” wants to emphasize. However, local cultures had a lasting effect on their regions and their imprint seems too great to be ignored. Furthermore, there are several peoples that never were subdued by the Inca and even nowadays they have a cultural heritage not at all similar to the stereotype Andean-Incan. A couple of good examples might be the Mapuche people of the Patagonia and the native peoples of Colombia.
On the other hand, such stereotype seems to forget (or simply disdain) an undeniable reality: the Andes are home to a conglomeration of races blended together in a mestizo stratum, which adds European and African elements to the native ones. All of this should be considered when speaking of a supposed “Andean culture”.
Any attempt to define this traditional culture should include very general elements shared by most part of the inhabitants of the cordillera. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that, since each part of the Andes is almost an entire world in itself, such a definition will only be another device to restrict this universe to particular categories that will reflect neither its diversity nor its complexity.
    El río, la yareta, el viento y las quebradas / los puso ahí nuestro Dios / Pachacamac, creador de todas las cosas. / Nosotros pusimos las pircas / y fuimos acomodando la vida. / Nos hicimos naturaleza / y la madre tierra nos acogió en su seno / y nos acurrucó en sus brazos. / Por eso somos río, / somos piedra, / somos montaña.

    [The river, the yareta, the wind and the quebradas / where put there by our God / Pachacamac, the creator of everything. / We put up the pircas / and went on arranging the life. / We became nature / and motherland received our spirits / and took us in her arms. / So we are river, / we are stone, / we are mountain.]

    yareta: a perennial plant native to South America.
    quebrada: narrow mountain valley.
    pircas: stone walls dividing fields.

    Arak Pacha. “Pachacamac”. On the album “Por los senderos del indio”.
First of all, it should be stated the existence of a tight connection between any people and their natural environment. The reason is obvious: since pre-Hispanic times until now, the different Andean peoples, mostly farmers and shepherds, depend on the environment and the success attained by their farm work not only to live but also to maintain national and regional economic stability. Therefore, the existence of rites, customs, chants, sayings and traditions related to the land, the animals and the crops is perfectly understandable. This human-environment connection is strengthened by the belief in powerful entities such as the Aymara and Quechua Pachamama and the Mapuche Ñuke Mapu, usually translated as “Mother Earth”. These representations of the Earth/land/world/universe as a mother, a home, a living being that interacts with human beings, feeding them on the one hand and, on the other, being looked after and treated with respect by them, refer to a cosmovision where humans are just a part of the whole and not its rulers.

Pachamama, in Wikipedia.

There are a lot of cultural expressions closely related to the land, the crops, the stockbreeding, the mines, the hunting or the harvest. Musical instruments, taboos, dances, songs, prayers, propitiatory rituals, ceremonies, festivals, customs: each and all of them are involved in the human-nature relationship.
Another outstanding aspect of the traditional culture of the Andes is the mestizaje (the result of biological and cultural mixture of different ethnics) at all levels. In the sphere of religion, the identification of Christian saints with native deities resulted in a new repertoire of prayers, feasts, offerings, images, oaths and loyalties. The Devil, associated with the mines spirits, or the Virgin blended with the Pachamama, are excellent examples. Expressions such as the Diablada of Oruro or the Festival of La Tirana, rituals such as the Qoyllur Rit’i (see) or the ones to honour the Virgin of Copacabana, or even the Carnivals: different roots joined together to bear hybrid fruits, which nowadays flourish in Andeans grounds besides ancient expressions such as the Mapuche Nguillatún, the chaya or the Ecuadorian Yamor Festival, and others typically European.

Diablada, in Wikipedia.
Fiesta de La Tirana, in Wikipedia.
Virgen de Copacabana, in Wikipedia.

In other fields, the merge of different cultures created fascinating elements such as the “brass bands” used in traditional celebrations; the Quechua songs with stances in Spanish; pre-Hispanic instruments performed to honour white Virgins and Saints; or the Ekekos’ faces with more and more European features as times passes.

Ekeko, in Wikipedia.

The emphasis on both the community spirit and the community work is another predominant feature of different Andean societies. Andean people’ sense of belonging to a certain community (either in a native little village or in a slum area of a city) is remarkable. This fact is clearly reflected in many cultural expressions. Parades and dance groups, for instance, represent particular communities in any festival (Carnivals, processions, entradas or “entrances”). Likewise, everybody takes part when the troupes of panpipes, pinkillos or tarkas have to be assembled. The solo musician or the soloist dancer is not understood to fall within the community spirit in traditional contexts, not even in the most modernized ones. From the sowing and the harvest to the minka or community work to build houses and repair the irrigation ditches; from the corpachadas and the cattle branding traditions to the celebrations associated with giving thanks to the “high spirits” and expressing gratitude to Earth forces and the toast to the Tío (the devil or lord of the mines) to request his protection: everything entails a strong sense of community.
Another characteristic shows the importance of farming and stockbreeding, which shape not only gastronomy but also traditional, mestiza and modern clothes. Typical Andean dishes consist of corn, pumpkin, squash, chilli and beans (in the valleys and mountains), and of quinoa and tubers like potatoes (in the high plateau). On their part, the most traditional clothes are made of wool (llama and sheep) and leather. It is worth noting the role of clothing in forming identities: colours and designs can give information about the age, the social class, the ethnic group, the marital status and the emotional states of a person.
Although the use of the coca leaf (a very important agricultural product of Bolivia) has been said to play a significant role in traditional “Andean culture”, its influence is much greater in Bolivia and southern Peru than in other parts of the Andes. A number of rites such as the reading of coca leaves in a form of divination, the coca leaves offerings to the Pachamama and the presence of coca leaves on the table of rural “priests” paqu or on the altars apachita, take on special significance in both areas, which can not be extrapolated to the rest of the Andean geography.
All things considered, to speak about a unique and homogeneous “Andean culture” makes the same nonsense as thinking of only one type of “Andean music” or a single “Andean language”. Each region possesses particular and distinctive features and, though there are several common elements to the entire Andean world that seem to endow it with a homogeneous appearance, diversity is what best characterizes the cultural richness of the Andes. Its astounding range of many different peoples and traditions makes this region a true medley of colours, textures, flavours, sounds and smells. It is this extraordinary diversity, what Land of winds will attempt to tackle, issue after issue, in this section.
    Nosotros cantamos / o tratamos de cantar / lo que el hombre de nuestra tierra canta / y sentir / lo que la gente de nuestra tierra siente. / Por eso nuestro canto / muchas veces no florece ni contento / ni alegre. / Pero vamos a seguir cantando / porque no queremos perder / los últimos vestigios de nuestra cultura.

    [We sing / or try to sing / what the man from our land sings / and fell / what the people from our land feel. / Therefore our singing / often blooms neither happy / nor cheerful. / So we are going to continue singing / because we do not want to lose / the last vestiges of our culture.]

    Arak Pacha. “Me voy, me voy”. On the album “Por los senderos del indio”.
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