The music of the Andes is associated with agricultural and pastoral rites: ceremonies giving thanks for a successful harvest and healthy flocks, in which offerings are made to guarantee good weather or other conditions that in turn ensure a good harvest. In agricultural and musical terms, the year is divided between the wet, growing season (jallupacha, which commonly, though not necessarily, starts at All Saints and ends at Carnival) and the cold, dry season (awtipacha). Wet and dry seasons alternation is accompanied by the alternation of instruments and rhythms: the pinkillo (duct flute), the tarka and the guitar are played during the jallupacha, since they are said to call the clouds and rain and therefore to help the crops to grow; while the quena (notched flute), the zampoñas (panpipes) and the charango (a small strummed, metal string instrument) can be heard during the awtipacha, for their sound would blow the clouds away causing clear skies and frosts, the latter being essential for freezing the potatoes to make ch’uñu (freeze-dried potatoes, light and easily transported that can be stored for several years with a long history of provision both highland and lowland Andean populations).
In the Andes, the “power” (enchantment) associated with musical instruments has to do with their ajayu: “spirit”, “heart” or “soul”. This ajayu is not innate, it is acquired after the instrument encounters with a supernatural being. In Bolivia, this "demonic" creature (a label coined by the Catholic church) is known as Sirinu or Sereno, a saxra or “evil” spirit that lives in gullies, ravines, waterfalls, streams and springs and, as it is said, is the owner of the music and good sounds: the one that gives the former to those who know how to listen to its message (which is blowing in the wind or blurred in the water) and the latter (ajayu) to the instruments it is offered.
The Sirinu appears during the jallupacha, after the feast of Saint Sebastian (20 January), and disappears with the end of the anata or Carnival (February/March), once the rainy season is over. It is said to inhabit the manqhapacha, the “underworld” (associated with hell by Christian people), that is, deep in the belly of the Pachamama (in Quechua language, “the earth’s mother, the mother of the universe”), where everything that exist comes from and in turn returns to. According to the Andean view of the world, the music emerges from the manqhapacha. And one of the “doors” that lead to the underworld are the springs: where water comes out of the ground “making noise”, “singing”, “bringing the music with it”.
It is during the jallupacha when men and women make offerings to the Sirinu in exchange for new melodies and songs. Players usually leave their instruments (charangos, guitars, flutes, accordions, drums) near the place where it is supposed to live, for the Sirinu to tune them and provide them with a “special touch”, which will turn each instrument “unique” and therefore “superior” to the ones that have not been “tempered”. This process is called “to leave the instrument in the hands of the Sirinu” (in Spanish, “serenado del instrumento”). However, there are some players who after making their offerings to the Sirinu (ch’alla of some drink, coca leaves, food) spend the night beside the stream or spring listening to the water’s murmur: in other words, the voice of the spirit whispering new tunes.
These new tunes must be collected every year and played on the proper instruments for each season.
In central-southern Peru, “the Siren” is a mythical creature whose features are similar to those of the Sirinu, although it is specifically associated with the charango. Young men, who play this instrument to woo a girl, use to leave it near the courses of water where the Andean nereids live for they to tune the chordophone in such a way that its sound win the heart of the one they love.
The tradition of tuning/tempering a musical instrument and collecting its sound from supernatural beings goes beyond the Sirinu: in northwestern Argentina, “the Salamanca” is an enchanted-demoniac place where, as it is said, great musicians would acquire their skills, even at the expense of selling their souls. It is also said that many instruments have “duende”, a certain magic about them (especially the accordion) and that some of them (e.g. drums) have even the power to call the forces of the universe.
Chilean composer and singer song-writer Osvaldo Torres wrote a tale titled “Esteban Jarro”, which would be later popularized by the Italian group Trencito de los Andes in their album “Escarcha y sol”. The story features a blind man who sells charangos and provides a lot of details on the Sirinu tradition.
Article. “Los Ajayus de la música del Carnaval” (“The Ajayus of the music of Carnival”), by Richard Mújica, in Jach’a Kamani [es].
Thesis. “La música en la fiesta de Todos Santos: las nuevas prácticas y representaciones musicales en la despedida de las almas en Ovejuyo” ("The music at the festival of All Saints: new musical practices and representations to accompany the farewell of the souls in Ovejuyo”), by Diego Machicao Arauco. See chapter “El origen de la música” ("The origins of music"), pp. 31-34 [es].
Sirinu, in Aymara Religious Dictionary (Universidad Católica Boliviana San Pablo) [es].
Article. “El charango y la sirena: música, magia y el poder del amor” (“The charango and the siren: music, magic and the power of love”), by Thomas Turino, in Charango Perú [es].
Article. “Serenos de verso, susurros de medianoche” (“Verse Serenos, midnight whispers"), by Juan Mallqui, in Causa y Efecto [es].
Article. “Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers”, by Henry Stobart in British Forum for Ethnomusicology.
Lyrics of “Esteban Jarro”, by Osvaldo Torres [es].