By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza
Andean membranophones: general comments
Together with idiophones, membranophones are among the first objects used to make sound. They are percussion instruments which produce sound when something (a stick, the hand, some sort of rubbing motion…) causes one or two taut membranes or drumheads (made of skin, metal, plastic…) to vibrate.
In Andean America, the presence of membranophones has been documented through archaeological evidence and the colonial chronicles. Among the former it is worth mentioning Nazca and Moche/Mochica ceramic drums and sculpted and portrayed drum-players (Peru), while the best example of the latter are probably the illustrations included in Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s "Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno" (ca. 1615).
Picture 01. Nazca ceramic drum.
Picture 02. Small Nazca ceramic drum.
Picture 03. Sculpted drum player in a Moche vessel.
Picture 04. Drum player portrayed on Moche ceramic.
Picture 05. Drum featured in Guaman Poma de Ayala’s chronicle.
Andean membranophones players can play the drum either alone or with a wind instrument performed at the same time as they hit the drumhead. One example of membranophones played alone is the different types of little drums performed by the so-called Andean "copleras" (female coplas/stanzas singers) to accompany their chants. Another is the percussionists that accompany some traditional wind bands (i.e. mohoceñadas, tarkeadas) or modern ones (brass bands). The second category is exemplified by those musicians who play a pinkillo (type of flute) or a zampoña (panpipe) with one hand and any of the different types of Andean drums with the other simultaneously.
Picture 06. Andean membranophones in the Museum of Musical Instruments in La Paz (Bolivia).
Picture 07. Caja players (copla female singers, north-eastern Argentina).
Picture 08. Pinkillo and caja players (roncadoras, northern Peru).
The wankar, bombo Italaque, bombo Charazani or bombo k'antu, commonly known as "bombo sikuri", comes from the region of Italaque (Camacho province, department of La Paz, Bolivia) and has spread widely across the Meseta del Collao (Peruvian-Bolivian Altiplano). It accompanies, among others, the sikus de Italaque ensembles and the Bolivian sikus k'antu. The wankar is around 75 cm high and 60 cm in diameter, dimensions that make it one of the larger membranophones in the Andean region. Since it is traditionally built from the hollowed-out trunk of a laurel tree or a willow (using carpenter’s tools and embers), wankar players are usually called k'ullu q'ipis (in Quechua, "trunk-loader"). This long, difficult process of construction has been significantly simplified nowadays by using plywood and reusing old barrels, what allows for bigger drums.
Wankar drumheads are made of hide (llama, alpaca, sheep, goat, calf); in the case of those accompanying the sikus k'antu, the hair is removed from the hide, while the ones played with the sikus de Italaque have hair on them. Another difference is that the former does not have rims or hoops while the latter does. However, these and other features that allowed to distinguish one variant from the other are slowly disappearing. Today most drumheads have hair on them, most drums do have rims and all of them are usually referred to as "bombo" and are hit with a mallet known as jawq'aña in Aymara and waqtana in Quechua.
Ancient Andean traditions associate the sound of large bombos with the Earth's natural forces; it is said that the underworld (where music lives) speaks through their beats. Some traditions mention the existence of spirits in the belly of the drums, while others state the need of placing certain objects within the drum such as small pebbles, stuffed hummingbirds or feathers in order to increase the strength of its voice and endow it with strange powers.
Within modern bands (including brass bands), the place of the wankar is usually occupied by the so-called bombo banda (band drum), bombo de procesión or bombo de ceremonia, a huge membranophone belonging to the European military band.
The "wank'ara" (or "medio Italaque" as it known in Bolivia) derives from the wankar; it has the same structure but is half its height; the drumheads have usually hair on them and no hoops. Sometimes called "caja" or "bombo", it is very common in the Andes, especially among urban "Andean music" groups and as part of the sikuri ensembles. Despite being widely spread in the region and despite being designated as such, this membranophone is not the original wank'ara.
The "caja", a drum similar in shape to the "medio Italaque" is used in northern Peru, where it accompanies the pinkillos that give voice to the musical expression known as roncadoras. Drumheads are made of hide without hair on them. It has a charlera or chirlera (a string, sometimes with reed splinters or thorns tied to it) stretched across the bottom head to serve as snare. As we move southwards, similar membranophones to the "caja" are played in the department of Cajamarca to accompany local pinkillos.
The wank'ara (from Quechua wankar, "drum", and k'ara, "peeled") is a hand drum from the Peruvian and Bolivian Altiplano, which accompanies some groups of flutes such as the waka-pinkillos or the sikus mimulas. It is 15-20 cm high and 50 cm in diameter; its body is made of plywood; its drumheads can be made of polyethylene and of sheep or goat hide without hair; and has hoops and chirlera. Although it is quite unusual, some luthiers do not remove the hair from the hide.
The wank'ara is usually played with a single drumstick or waqtana, though some variants are played with two as if they were snare drums; one of the latter is called caja mohoceñada or tambor mohoceño, and accompanies the flutes known as mohoceños.
When the wank'ara does not have hoops, it is called caja (though this term is freely used to designate a wide range of other Andean membranophones). The caja might probably derive from the Incan drums portrayed by Guaman Poma in his "Corónicas..."; and its presence, with slight differences between the names as to their structure or form, can be traced across the entire Andean region.
In the Andean valleys of Bolivia and in the department of Tarija, besides marking the rhythm for wind instruments like erkenchos or pinkillos to follow, it accompanies traditional coplas sung at Carnival as well as during religious and seasonal festivals. The Tarija variant is known as caja chapaca, and the one used in the departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí, caja pinkillada or caja chicheña.
Picture 21. Cajas chapacas (Tarija, Bolivia).
In Argentina, there are a lot of variants of the caja: musicologist Rubén Pérez Bugallo mentions the caja vallista, the caja puneña, the caja santiagueña, the caja tucumana and the caja chayera. The main differences between one another are their height and their diameter. They are mostly used to accompany coplas and to mark the rhythm for erkenchos and kamacheñas.
The caja can also be found in the Norte Grande and the Norte Chico of Chile, where is played in the same way as in north-eastern Argentina.
Picture 22. Cajas vallistas (low quality).
Picture 23. Detail of caja chayera 01.
Picture 24. Detail of caja chayera 02.
Picture 25. Cajas chayeras.
Picture 26. Caja chayera (drumhead made of polyethylene) and erkencho (Argentina).
Picture 27. Caja chayera and erkencho (Argentina).
In the Peruvian Central Sierra the caja is called tinya, and accompanies different types of chants and coplas, such as the ones sung in Quechua during the Andean herranza (livestock branding) and the festival of Santiago.
The Chipaya people (department of Oruro, Bolivia) play square (ushni cajas), rectangular (pap pish isquin caja) and triangular cajas (chap isquin caja); all have hide drumheads and their body is usually made of cactus wood. In addition, this region is home to the curious maisho caja or bombo Chipaya, a drum made of cactus wood, which measures 30 cm in high and diameter and is wrapped in llama hide (this is due to the wood's porosity); finally the hide drumheads are placed on the cylinder joined with each other by a wool cord.
In the Andes we find different types of "tambores": membranophones with hoops, higher than wider, and whose drumheads are synthetic or made of hide with or without hair. They are played in the north of Ecuador, in the Peruvian Central Sierra, in the Bolivian valleys (where they are known as "bombo zamba") and in the central valleys of Chile. Likewise, there are different variants of redoblantes or tarolas (snare drums), ranging from the European type used in brass bands to the native examples (made of wood and hide).
In the Andean region of Argentina it is worth mentioning the so-called "bombo legüero" or "bombo criollo", made from a ceiba trunk, 60 cm high and 45 cm in diameter, with goat/lamb hide drumheads and hoops. It is played with two drumsticks, and is present in many music genres including typical carnavalitos. Tradition states that its sound can be heard from a distance of one league (Spanish legua, originally referred to the distance a person or a horse could walk in an hour; the Argentine league is 5.572 km or 3.462 mi), therefore the name "legüero".
Among the Mapuche people, to the south of the Andes, we find the caquekultrun (a double drumhead tambour) and the kultrun, a semi-spherical kettledrum. And finally, in the warm valleys or yungas to the east of the department of La Paz (Bolivia), Afro-Bolivian communities play cajas or tambores de la saya, which are unique it their kind.