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Land of winds > Instruments > Instruments | Issue 06. Jul.-Aug.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Andean idiophones

Andean idiophones: general comments

Idiophones are among the musical instruments most widely spread throughout the world. They produce sound by way of vibrations that resonate throughout the body of the instrument without the use of strings (chordophones), membranes (membranophones) or a vibrating column of air (aerophones). Basically, most percussion instruments which are not drums are idiophones, such as the key, rattle, triangle, wood block, castanets, clash cymbals and so on.
Idiophones were probably among the earliest instruments made by man, for they would be quite simple of making. Both documents by Spanish chroniclers after the arrival of Columbus in America and archaeological remains found in the continent point to existence of idiophones among Pre-Hispanic American cultures. Some examples can be mentioned here: the zacapas (strings of legume seeds), the churus (sea conch rattles), copper and silver jingle bells and small bells as the ones described by Guaman Poma de Ayala, which were used in some Incan religious processions. Nowadays, their presence is felt across the Andean region, though they are much fewer in number and much less in variety than other musical instruments, such as aerophones.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero.
Idiophone, in Wikipedia.
Idiophone instruments of Colombia (not all of them are Andean) [es].

Andean idiophones

Rattles (Spanish “sonajeros”) are probably the most common Andean idiophones. They can be made of strings and bunches of objects like hooves (Andean camelids, sheep, goat, cow, deer, tapir or peccary), seeds and seed pods, small gourd shells, conches and, as far as they are available, exotic elements as e.g. toucan peaks. To make up the strings it is used wool, vegetable fibres and even stripes of fabric whereon said objects are to be sewn. These instruments are usually placed around one’s ankle or calf and they are the dancers (who, sometimes, also perform as players) that shake them and make them resonate through movement.
A particular kind of string-rattles are the so-called wak’allos (probably from Aymara wak’a, “sash, wide belt”). They are used in Bolivia and consist of rough fabric sashes on which pulus (small gourds) or ch’urus (sea conches) and wayrurus (a type of bean) are tied. The wak’allos made of ch’urus (symbol of fertility across the Andes since pre-Hispanic times) can be found in groups of mohoceños and mollos flutes players, as well as in most groups of chuncho dancers.
Doubtless, the chajchas are among the most popular rattles. It is said that these bunches or strings of hooves were recently named after the onomatopoeia for the sound they make by members of the Bolivian band, Los Kjarkas. Contrary to what it may seem, the chajchas were traditionally little used. However, they have become very popular with most modern bands of today’s Andean music scene, reaching the point where it is almost impossible listening to an Ecuadorian sanjuanito without following the beat of the chajchas.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero.
Chajchas, in Wikipedia [es].
Picture 01. Chajchas 01.
Picture 02. Chajchas 02.
Picture 03. Chajchas 03.
Video 01. Chajchas audio.

Andean idiophones. Vainas

Seed pods (Spanish, “vainas”) are also commonly used as idiophones, especially the ones of the flamboyant tree (Delonix regia), also known as “chivato” (Argentina) or “pajarillo” (Bolivia). Once they are dried, the woody consistency of these fruits and the great number of seeds turn them into a natural rattle very much appreciated by musicians, who may shake them in the air, strike them against their hands or legs, or even use them as a drumstick to hit any drum head (bombo, tambor, etc.).
Although the maracas or “gourd rattles” are less used in the Andes, they are well known in Colombia, some valleys of Bolivia and among Mapuche communities in the Patagonia.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero
Picture 04. Flamboyant seed pods.
Picture 05. Mercedes Sosa accompanying herself with a Flamboyant seed pod.

All instruments mentioned up to this point are made from natural materials and have little or no work to get them ready to sound. Among the idiophones made by man the most common ones are the metal jingle bells (Spanish, “cascabeles”). There is archaeological evidence of small bronze jingle bells along the whole Andean range. Today, they are present among the Mapuche dancers of the Patagonia (who know them as kaskawilla, sewn on a sash slung across the dancer’s shoulder) as well as in Bolivia and Peru, where there are small bronze jingle bells and much larger ones (up to 10 cm in diameter) made of tin or brass. Caporal dancers wear heeled boots bearing bells up the side, and they are also used by the pakochi dancers of Achacachi (Bolivia) and performers of saya, tundiqui, chutas and machu machu dances.

Jingle bell, in Wikipedia.
The caporales, an Afro-altiplanean dance, in Los Andes [es].
Picture 06. Kaskawilla (cascahuilla) 01.
Picture 07. Kaskawilla (cascahuilla) 02.
Picture 08. Kaskawilla made of seeds.
Picture 09. Caporal dancers’ heeled boots bearing large bells, Bolivia 01.
Picture 10. Caporal dancers’ heeled boots bearing large bells, Bolivia 02.
Video 02. Caporal. “Soy caporal”, by Tupay.
Video 03. Bolivian saya. “Mi samba, mi negra”, by Los Kjarkas.
Video 04. Dance of choique purrún (Neuquén, Argentina).

Cowbells (Spanish, “cencerros”) —a tradition brought by European shepherds and their flocks— can also be traced through the Andes range. They can be found in different dances such as the waka wakas or waka tokhoris of Bolivia, and any those connected with sheep and cattle rituals.
Bells and small bells (Spanish, “campanas” and “campanillas”) are similar to cowbells, though their tradition in the Americas is much longer, as confirmed by archaeological evidence (i.e. bronze bells belonging to the Diaguita/Santa Maria culture, northwest Argentina). Nowadays they are made either of bronze or tin and can be musically used in different ways. Maybe the most famous bells are those forming part of the lauraques, tiny objects (very small bells, metal figurines, pompoms, threads) that Chipaya women (Bolivia) used to secure the hundreds of thin braids in which they wore their hair. It is said that in the old times, when a Chipaya woman began to dance her hair resembled a big tinkling rattle. Today, this tradition is in danger of being lost or has already been lost.

Cowbell, in Wikipedia.
Bell, in Wikipedia.
Article. “La tumba 11 de la Isla de Tilcara” (illutrations of pre-Hispanic bells) [es].
Picture 11. Campana (bell), Santa María culture (Argentina). In Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.

Rhythm sticks, walking sticks and walking canes (Spanish, “palos de ritmo”, “bastones” and “garrotes”) are commonly used by Andean dancers to mark the rhythm of dance (i.e. the doctorcitos, auki auki, machu machus and palla pallas of Bolivia), sometimes with a bunch of hooves or several metal rattles rolled around one end of the stick.
Sistros and chullu chullus are widely spread domestic made consisting of flattened beer bottle tops which are perforated and strung on either a handle or a cord. The former can be seen in northwest Argentina associated with processions and the performance of carols.
Similar in shape are the gallu gallu spurs, which are used by Yampara dancers/musicians when performing the pujllay in Tarabuco (Bolivia). This is a dance accompanied by singing and huge flutes known as senqatanqana (resembling in shape other huge flutes, mohoceños) celebrating a good harvest. The dancers wear wooden sandals or ojotas with round steel sheets like huge “spurs”. When they dance, the gallu gallu spurs turn into true sistros or rattles, which provide the pujllay performance with its very distinctive character.
Traditional spurs can also work as improvised idiophones, especially in dances performed by livestock keepers: ranging from the Chilean huasos to the gauchos of northwest Argentina and to the Peruvian morrochucos, montoneros and qorilazos.

Picture 12. Gallu gallu detail 01.
Picture 13 (low quality). Gallu gallu detail 02.
Video 05. Stylish version of the pujllay dance of Tarabuco.
Video 06. The original pujllay dance.

Andean idiophones. Güiro, reco-reco, reco, recoreco

The reco, reco-reco, guacharaca or güiro is an idiophone from the Afro-Caribbean region, which is used in both the music of the Colombian High Plateau (i.e. playing the carranga) and the Afro-Bolivian music (sayas, caporales, negritos, and tundiquis), giving them a distinctive touch with its presence and sound. Traditional examples are made from either a strong bamboo or tacuara cane or a long gourd shell, with parallel notches cut in one side, while modern ones are industrially made from steel, plastic or fibreglass. The instrument is played by rubbing a scraper along the notches.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero.
Güiro, in Wikipedia.
Picture 14. Reco-reco made from bamboo cane, Bolivia.
Picture 15. Reco-reco made from gourd, Bolivia 01.
Picture 16. Reco-reco made from gourd, Bolivia 02.

The chiñisk’u or chinisco, a triangle made from a drill, is played within the sets of k’antu panpipes (Bolivia and Peru), appearing at both the beginning and end of the k’antu, and making it recognizable and easily differentiated from other sikuri styles.
In Bolivia, chinisco is also the name given to a rattle-stick used by some groups of panpipes typical of the Sud Lípez region. The latter is similar to another idiophone played in northwest Argentina, where it is known as clavelito. Both have been displaced by modern clash cymbals, European idiophones recently introduced into Andean traditional music by “brass bands”.

Andean idiophones. Trompe, birimbao, trompa, guimbarda, jew’s harp

The jaw harp, mouth harp, Jew’s harp, birimbao, guimbarde or trompe is a curious plucked idiophone known in many different cultures and incorporated into the musical repertories of many different countries such as Ireland, Vietnam or Russia.
It consists of a thin flexible tongue or reed attached to a rigid frame of metal, wood or bamboo. The instrument is placed in the performer’s mouth, the frame held firmly against the teeth and the tongue/reed plucked with the finger using the mouth as a resonator. The note produce is constant in pitch, though by changing the shape of the mouth and the amount of air contained in it the performer can create different overtones.
Although widely spread through the Andes range, it has been traditionally used by Mapuche communities in the Patagonia, mostly in religious celebrations such as the Ngillatún and the Camaruco, alongside other native instruments like the kultrun, the pifilkas, and the trutrukas.
In northwest Argentina, they are the women who play the trompe in intimate performances imitating tunes commonly played on other instruments (erquencho, quena).

Picture: Edgardo Civallero
Jew’s harp, in Wikipedia.
Picture 17. Trompe 01.
Picture 18. Trompe 02.
Imagen 19. Picture 03.
Video 07. Mapuche trompe


Andean idiophones. Matraca

This Andean idiophones review will be concluded with a brief mention of the ratchet. Brought to America by Europeans, they usually accompanied Catholic religious festivals in the Andes. However, as time went by, the ratchet was included in what would become the most popular Afro-Bolivian dance, the famous morenada (representing the forced marches of African slaves).
At present, morenada groups (Spanish, “comparsas de morenada”) are the largest and most important in any parade, festival, display and Carnival procession, and in all cases the dancers hold a ratchet in their hands and turn it around emulating the sound of the chains the slaves wore and accompanying the band. Ratchets have different shapes according to the changing costumes and motives of these morenada groups, and are made of most curious and unexpected materials.

Picture: Edgardo Civallero
Ratchet, in Wikipedia.
Picture 20. Different types of ratchet in Ernesto Cavour’s Museum of Musical Instruments (La Paz, Bolivia).
Imagen 21. Ratchet made from kirkincho (armadillo shell), Bolivia.
Picture 22. Feeding bottle shaped ratchets, Bolivia.
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