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Land of winds > Instruments > Instrument | Issue 01. Jul.-Aug.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

quena kena qena khena Andean flute Andean instruments
The quena (Notched flute)

Vertical flute consisting of a cylindrical pipe open at both ends. Into the top end of the pipe there is an elliptical notch cut over which the player blows (closing this end with the flesh between his chin a lower lip) a stream of air downwards. The quena has between 4 and 8 finger holes along its front lower half (equidistant and aligned with the notch cut) and one thumb hole behind (opposite to the others and slightly higher than the first of them), a fact indicating the European influence in this type of Andean flutes. Materials, shapes, sizes and tunings are different depending on the region, though it is usually made of chuqui cane or “female bamboo”. “Professional” quenas are normally in the key of G (tempered scale), with G being the lowest note (all holes covered), have a U-shape notch cut, 7 finger holes at the front, one thumb hole at the back, are 35 cm long and 2.5 cm in diameter.

Picture by Edgardo Civallero. Top to buttom, quenas in E M, G M and F# M.
Quena, in Wikipedia.
“El pintao”. Quena solo. Video.
“Solo de quena”. Inti-Illimani. Video.
“Poutpurrí ancashino”. Raymond Thevenot. Video.



The quena (qina, kena, khena, k’ena, khhena, khoana) is one of the most popularized Andean instruments thanks to commercial music. Member of an aerophones family that includes many traditional flutes, the quena -in its standard or “professional” variant- is, perhaps, the Andean wind instrument most widely played today in the world.
According to Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification, the code for quena is 421.111.12: Edge-blown aerophones or flutes without duct; open single individual end-blown flute with finger holes.
It is a vertical flute of extremely basic structure, consisting of a cylindrical pipe open at both ends. On the upper end there is a U-shaped, V-shaped, square, semicircular or elliptical notch cut, over which the player blows, closing this end at the same time with the flesh between his chin a lower lip. The sound quality will vary depending on the shape, width and depth of this notch (sound intensity increases with wider notches, while sweetness decreases). Unlike the recorder or English flute, which uses a narrow windway and a blade-like edge to channel and vibrate air blown into it, the mouth of the quena is not constricted by a wooden plug (known as a block or fipple) what makes it really difficult to play. Along its front lower half there are a changing number of finger holes, similar in size and usually aligned with the notch cut. However, certain holes may not be aligned for easier playing, and some may be wider than others due to tuning problems connected with the instrument construction. Finally, their number varies from 4 to 8, though the “professional” quenas use to have 6-7 finger holes like the modern recorder. Sometimes there can also be one thumb-hole opposite to the ones on the front, which is located slightly closer to the upper end than the first of them.
Since the lower end of the quena has to be open, it will have to be drilled through when coincides with a node. In this case the remains of the inner membrane (which close partially this lower end, in Spanish “medio tapadillo” or “semitapadillo”) may influence the instrument final tuning.
The “professional” quenas are tuned in G M (G being the tonic note), are 35 cm long and 2.5 cm in diameter. Some of these “professional” flutes may be tuned in other scales (F M, F# M, G# M, A M) for special purposes, with their lengths and diameters varying proportionally.
The musical scale produced by the quena is mostly diatonic, though with the appropriate fingering it is possible to get a perfect chromatic scale. In addition, by practising the correct technique, its pitch range of two octaves can be extended upwards to two and a half octaves.
Middle and high register (one and two octaves higher than the tonic note) will only come out of straight pipes of circular section with fixed diameter. Cone-shaped bores, elliptical sections or a slight curvature of the pipe axis may cause the instrument to “lie” in those registers.

Cane is the most common material used for making quenas, which endows the instrument with its distinctive sweeping and silky sound. Traditionally it is made using a sort of cane called chuqui (female bamboo, wilulupu, sukus, suju suju, sokhosa, tacuarilla, carrizo, gádua, charro, cañahueca, caña brava); however, depending on its availability and geographical location, it can be made of other varieties, such as tacuara, “caña castilla” (common cane), castel mamaq and bombilla mamaq from Peru, tokhoro or bamboo. Each type of cane sounds different depending on its quality, rough inner texture, wall thickness, section shape (circular, elliptical), flaws and its drying and resting period. Although the most appreciated cane is the one that is allowed to dry in the shade, of circular section, polished inside, with consistency and regular grain pattern without disruptions, in traditional contexts these recommended features do not get much attention (hence the peculiar sound of some quenas: “pifiado” (messed up), “desafinado” (out of tune), “rasposo” (scratchy) o “vibrante” (trilled/rolled) as it is described by many “western” musicians).

Quenas are also often made of wood. However, making a perfect hollowed pipe with thin walls from a log entails a complex task. Therefore, it is a job for professional carpenters with experience in lathes. The sound of these quenas is higher and more precise. Even though it does not have the sort of harmonies provided by the cane, it is a good choice for musicians who want to show their technical dexterities instead of searching for the quena’s sound textures. In traditional contexts, quenas and other flute-like instruments can sometimes be made of branches drilled with a red-hot piece of metal. Their sound, full of harmonics, is not to the liking of “urban” quena performers.

Although in much less number, there are also quenas made of stone (talc, sandstone, and schist), clay, gourd, metal pipes and even plastic pipes. The latter are very much appreciated in places where it is difficult to find cane (what is becoming more a more common with the current ecological pressure on humid areas in the Andean uplands). The quality of their sound is not inferior but enormously different. Nevertheless, these quenas fulfil their function as the ones made of cane or wood. Nowadays, the bone quenas are a true rarity. The bones most commonly used are parina’s legs (Andean flamingo), pelican’s legs, condor and other large broad-winged birds’ wings, as well as llama and other mammals’ tibias. They are acoustically similar to wooden quenas, however, considering the shorter diameter and length of bones, their elliptical section, their porosity and the curvature of most of them, these quenas have a high pitch and fluctuating sound and are very difficult to play.

Their origin can be traced as far back as pre-Hispanic times. Stone, clay and bone quenas have been found at ancient burial sites belonging to pre-Hispanic cultures such as Chavin, Nasca, Chimu, Paracas, Mochica/Moche and Inca (Peru) or Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku and Chichas (Bolivia). The bone quenas were made out of large bones of condor’s wings, flamingo and pelican’s legs, auquenia’s ulnas and felidae’s femurs.
The pre-Incan and pre-Hispanic quenas are simple whistles with a variable number of holes on the front and a semicircular or crescent-shaped notch cut. Their holes were intended to be equidistant; however, their location would depend on the maker’s ability. Archaeologists believe that, sometimes, makers might have used their own fingers to determine how far apart the holes should be placed. On some occasions, the inner wall of the quena was sealed with beewax to clog all the pores and get a better sound. Any outside flaw (including failures when drilling the holes) was likely repaired with this natural substance.
At present there is a heated discussion about the scale which pre-Incan and pre-Hispanic quenas were tuned to. During the first half of the 20th century, many authors popularized the “Incan pentatonic scale” theory. However, recent studies on archaeological flutes suggest that those ancient scales would be variable and would not follow any specific pattern within the structure of the western music.

According to Karl Gustav Izikowitz, originally its geographical location was limited at the south by a line between Jujuy and the Chaco (Argentina) and at the east by another line parallel to the Paraguay River.
The stone quenas were well represented in the high plain; the ones made of clay, gourd and metal in Peru; the cane quenas from Peru to Guyana (along NE direction) and to Paraguay (along SE direction); the bone quenas, in Peru and along the Amazon River basin to Guyana. This author found jaguar bone quenas among the Patamona (Ingariko) of Guyana and the Yuracaré of western Bolivia, and Theodor Koch-Grünberg makes mention of deer bone quenas among the Ye’kuana (Makiritare) of Venezuela and of jaguar bone quenas among the Pemon (Taulipang) of Guyana. Mr. and Mrs. D’Harcourt, among their many works on South American music, informed of quenas 7-8 cm long, unique in its type, while musicologist Carlos Vega described the quena variants performed in Argentina.

The earliest references to quenas can be found in “Vocabvlario de la lengva aymara” (Juli, 1612) by jesuit Ludovico Bertonio:
    Cane flute: Quena quena (p. 243, first part) Pputu pputu, Quena quena, Lutu lutu, Ppía ppia cala &c: A stone or any other thing that has holes in it (p. 284, second part) Quena quena, Ppia ppía, Lutu lutu: A thing riddled with holes (p. 288, second part) Quena quena, pincollo: Cane flute (p. 289, second part)
Curiously enough, Quechua dictionaries at that time (Domingo de Santo Tomás (1560), Juan Martínez de Ormachea (1604), Diego de Torres Rubio (1603), Diego González Holguín (1607), Juan Roxo Mexía y Ocón (1648) and Esteban Sancho de Melgar (1691)) did not include the word “quena” or “quena quena”, though some of them associated “pingollo” (Santo Tomás) or “pincullu” (González Holguín) with “flute”.
The term “quena quena” will firstly appear in works by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (“El primer Nueva corónica y buen gobierno”, 1615) and Bernabé Cobo (“Historia del Nuevo Mundo”, 1653). The former, at pages 315 y 325 referred to “quena quena” as an Aymara dance (of the Collasuyo men) or one from Condesuyo (page 329) and to flutes as ”pingollos”. On his part, Cobo wrote: “Quenaquena es una caña sola como flauta para cantar endechas” (The quenaquena is a single cane used as a flute to sing songs).

Probably, the references provided by these old chroniclers (especially the ones by Guaman Poma and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega) regarding flutes of the Inca Empire made of died in combat enemies’ bones, might well refer to quenas.

The most popular quena is the so called “professional”, which has adopted several distinguishing features of western music: temperate diatonic/chromatic scale (which determine the number of finger holes on the front), a thumb-hole on the back, lack of tuning holes at its lower end and certain physical characteristic (material shape, quality and different treatments, construction process). However, many traditional quenas still remain unchanged. Some of them were and are performed in groups named tropas, ensembles of different sizes of the same instrument creating very peculiar harmonies, which entail a strong sense of community. Remarkable examples are:

• The pusi p’iyas or pusipías of Aymara origin (Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile). 4/0 (4 finger holes on the front and none on the back, hence the Aymara name “four holes”) and three different lengths: tayka (80 cm), malta (55 cm) and jiska (40 cm).
• The quena quenas (Bolivia). 6/0, 50-60 cm long and 3 in diameter.
• The Aymara and Chipaya lichiwayus or lichiguayos (Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile). 6/0 or 6/1. 5 cm in diameter and three different lengths (Chipaya names): pac pingallo (60 cm), taipi pingallo (40 cm) and kholto pingallo (30 cm).
• The Aymara choquelas (Bolivia and southern Peru). 6/0 and two lengths: guía or jach’a (60 cm) and malta (40 cm).
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