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Land of winds > Instruments > Instrument | Issue 05. May.-Jun.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

arpa andina peruana instrumentos andinos
The Peruvian Harp

The harp is a triangular frame chordophone that arrived to Latin America with the Spanish conquerors and went through its most brilliant time during the colonial period, when it was used to provide the entertainment for the parties held by the wealthy criollo families. At present, is widely spread across Central America, Venezuela and Paraguay. Along the Andean range it is used in Peru and, to a much less extent, in Ecuador, Bolivia and the central part of Chile. The South American harp is usually larger than the Celtic and smaller than the classic one. Within the American types, Andean harps use to be wider than the ones played in the lowlands (Paraguay, Venezuela, Mexico).
The general design of the Andean harp is based on its huge resonance box, mostly made of different types of wood but also of very big gourds and large walakatus (giant armadillos) shells. The triangular frame is positioned upright on this box and furnished with 32 to 38 strings tightened by using metal pegs or wooden plugs. The resonance box has two or three legs allowing harpists to rest the instrument on the floor, and between two and six “mouths” or sound holes on the soundboard. The type of harp played nowadays by popular and traditional musicians (in South America in general and the Andes in particular) is similar to the European instrument that was brought to America in the XVI century: it is diatonic with gut and/or wound steel strings (though at recent times nylon strings have also being introduced) and has no pedals (invented in 1720).

The Peruvian harp (the variant most widely spread in the Andean region) includes many local versions which vary in their shape: the harp of Lucanas province (Ayacucho department) has more rounded lines; the harp of Huancayo is wider; the one of Cusco is the largest and may have eight sound holes on the sound board; while the “domingacha” harp (also of Cusco) is the smallest.
Although harpists usually rest the instrument on its legs on the floor, sometimes they can tie the instrument to their shoulder with several sashes to carry it hanging down when the harp has to be played in processions and dances.
Mostly the harp is used as an accompaniment instrument: the harpist plucks the low-pitched strings with his left hand and intensifies their sound by striking (sometimes strumming) the high-pitched strings with his right hand. The strings are usually set into motion by the harpist’s nails, though some performers pluck the strings with a plectrum while others use metal nails.

The old gut strings continue to be used in Huancayo, Huancavelica and Huamanga: their beautiful sound is an essential part of the huaylarsh and the chonguinadas performance. In many regions of the Andes, this material is used to make the thickest strings (low-pitched sounds) while the thinnest (high-pitched sounds) are made of wound steel. In recent times, nylon strings of different thickness have been introduced. They come cheaper but their sound quality does not quite match that of the former ones. In the Cusco region, nylon fishing thread is usually used, producing a sharp, muffled, dull and percussive sound. Despite their low quality (worsened by the poor wood used to make the resonance box), this is the characteristic sound of the harp of the Cusco region nowadays.

The Andean harp can be played alone, in duets (with the violin), in small bands and in big orchestras. In the departments of Huancavelica and Ayacucho, duets are commonly used when performing the “Danza de las tijeras” (literally, scissors dance): in these musical expressions, the harp provides the rhythmic base for the entire performance. As stated above, the harp has established itself as part of small rural ensembles (including mandolins and/or violins), big orchestras of Huancayo (including a lot of wind instruments such as saxophones, trumpets and clarinets) and the (almost disappeared) “orquestines” of the region of Cusco (groups of mandolins, violins, accordion, Andean flutes and percussion instruments). In addition, modern urban groups of huayno commonly include the harp among their instruments, besides the bass, keyboards and electronic drum kit.
The Andean harp is usually featured at private and local saint’s day parties, religious festivities and ritual celebrations, playing many different rhythms especially huaynos and the huaylarsh. In Peru, for instance, the harp can be heard at Christmas in Querco (Huaytará province, department of Huancavelica), at the “Fiesta del Agua (literally, The Water Party) in Puquio (Lucanas province, department of Ayacucho), at the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, at the Qoyllur Rit’i Festival, and in any “Danza de las tijeras” competition (Huancavelica, Ayacucho).


The Andean harp, in Amigos de villa [es].
Peruvian harp.
The orquestín cusqueño (small band of the Cusco region) [es].
YouTube channel “El arcángel del arpa”, with different styles performing lessons [es].

Picture 01. Andean harp.
Picture 02. Group of Andean strings including the harp.
Picture 03. The harp in a brass band.
Picture 04. Violin and harp (carried on his shoulder).
Picture 05. Andean harp.
Picture 06. Harp of the Cusco region.

Video 01. “Adiós, pueblo de Ayacucho”, by Otoniel Ccayanchira.
Video 02. “Carnaval huamanguino”, by Otoniel Ccayanchira.
Video 03. Example of a harp of the Cusco region in a “modern” band. Máximo Apaza Jr.
Video 04. “Solteracha”, Daniel Zamalloa y los Melódicos del Cuzco (video recorded in a chichería in the Cusco region, a place where the chicha, a fermented beverage derived from maize, is sold).
Video 05. “Valicha”, by Florencio Coronado.
Video 06. Street harp player in Ollantaytambo.
Video 07. “Esperanza de muchos”, by Lucerito del amor. Example of harp in a “modern” band.
Video 08. Music from Huamalíes, south of Peru, by “Lirios de Llata” band.
Video 09 (low quality). Violin and harp (the performer is holding the harp in the air).
Video 10. “Expreso Puquio”, by Manuelcha Prado, with harp and violin.
Video 11. Danza de las tijeras (literally, scissors dance) 01.
Video 12. Danza de las tijeras (literally, scissors dance) 02.
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