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History of the Andean music
    Land of winds > Music > History | Issue 13 (Jan.-Feb.2013)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Introduction to the sikuris music


Introduction to the sikuris music

The zampoña or Pan flute is a wind instrument with a long history and a wide geographical spread within Andean societies.

The best well-known Andean Pan flutes are probably those from the Meseta del Collao (southern highlands of Peru and the Bolivian Altiplano) and its surroundings (north of Chile, north-western Argentina), including both double-row sikus, phukus, phusas or lakas and some single-row flutes. Generally speaking, the sikus (the most widely spread) are played by musical ensembles comprising between twenty and a hundred players: the famous "sikuris bands". Accompanied by different percussion instruments (bombos, cajas, snare drums, drums, cymbals and/or the triangle) and, sometimes, by a group of dancers usually consisting of women, the so-called "sikuris", "phusiris" or "zampoñeros" (flute players who play and dance) perform pieces of music commonly known as "sikuriadas" or "sikureadas".

The performance is spectacular from beginning to end and the resulting sound is very powerful. It has become popular in many parts of the Andean region, and has spread from its original location to neighbouring areas and to all those places where communities from Bolivia and Puno (Peru) gather to play music. As a result of their popularity, and within the frame and scope of the Andean music as a musical genre, the sikuris bands have been linked to the idea of "traditional Andean Pan flute" at the expense of other traditional music groups that have been overlooked or remain "undiscovered" such as the antec or chunchos from Peru.


Introduction to the sikuris music

In some sikuris bands, the same individual plays both a Pan flute and a drum while dancing. Even though the dance moves are neither too complicated nor too difficult, it becomes a great achievement for them to rhythmically dance and play with all the other players, being sometimes drunk and usually above 10,000 feet.

To blow the flute and the same time they are striking the drum, players hold the Pan flute with their left hand, have the drum slung over their shoulders and beat it with the drumstick held in their right hand. The bombo wankar and the bombo wank'ara are the two most common types of drums for this purpose.

Each band plays a particular "tropa" of sikus. The term "tropa" designates a group of panpipes of the same type arranged and put together in a certain way. Broadly speaking, a "tropa" brings together different sizes of the same instrument and a number of instruments of each of the different sizes, giving it a set of characteristic by which it possible to distinguish one "tropa" from another, and also the bands playing them.

In the following paragraphs we will analyze a particular "tropa": the one featuring a type of panpipes known as sikus ch'alla. These are "standard", "professional" or "commercial" double-row Andean Pan flutes with 7 or 8 pipes of chuki cane each. The "tropa" includes four different sizes of this flute called (from smaller to bigger) chuli, malta, sanka and toyo. The four sizes have exactly the same notes arranged in the same way, and sound in parallel octaves: the notes produced by the sanka sound an octave higher than those of the toyo, the notes produced by the malta sound an octave higher that those of the sanka, and the notes produced by the chuli sound an octave higher than those of the malta. Thus, the pipes of the toyo are twice as large as those of the sanka and so on and so forth.

The "tropas" of Andean panpipes generally include three or four sizes tuned in parallel octaves; on rare occasions there are only two, and up to nine in remarkable cases.

Although the "tropa" is defined by a certain number of sizes, a sikuris band can decide not to use them all (especially when there are not players around who can play this or that size, usually the biggest instruments).


Introduction to the sikuris music

On the other hand, as it was mentioned above, a "tropa" includes a number of instruments of each size. Following with the example of the sikus ch'alla, the "tropa" usually comprises twelve instruments: four chulis, four maltas, two sankas and two toyos. Obviously, they can be more (i.e. four of each one), or fewer (leaving out the toyos, because of the difficulty of playing them).

Another matter to be considered is the fact that double-row panpipes are usually played "in halves": each row or "amarro" is played by a different player. Thus, two players are needed to play each chuli featured in the "tropa" of sikus ch'alla: one blowing the chuli arka and the other blowing the chuli ira. Since the "tropa" has an average of four chulis, there will be needed eight sikuris (siku players). Doing the same operation with each of the sizes, a band playing ch'alla will need twenty four sikuris, and at least one bombo player and one of snare drum (in this particular case, the sikuris do not play a percussion instrument).

The "tropa" is called after the type of the Pan flute used. In turn, the band playing that particular "tropa" usually receives its name from the "tropa"; as happens with the music style performed by the band. Therefore, the "tropa" of sikus chiriguanos (double-row sikus with 3/4 pipes) is called "chiriguanos"; the same name that is given to the band playing this "tropa", and to the resulting music style.


Introduction to the sikuris music

Back in the '60s, most of the musical groups performing "Latin American" or "Andean" music in general, included the music for sikuris bands in their repertory. With the exception of a few rare recordings made by authentic community siku ensembles (featured on ethnographic audio collections), most of the sikuriadas that appeared on the albums recorded at that time were played on a maximum of four sikus and mirrored the mestizo/urban style of sikuri. Several examples can be found in recordings by Curacas, Kollahuara, Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún, Illapu, Los Jairas, Jaime Torres, Los Incas or Los Calchakis.

Towards the end of the '70s and, especially, during the '80s, the "Andean music" groups adopted instruments, styles and performance techniques much closer to the traditional bands of sikuris. As a result, the sound of their sikuriadas became more like those performed by their original players from the Altiplano. Among those groups we can mention Raíces Incas, Altiplano, Alturas, Los Kjarkas, Kamaq Pacha Inti, Ruphay, Wara, Arak Pacha, Takillakta, Alpamayo, Markamaru and, especially, Awatiñas, which contributed to the spread of Aymara music styles for sikuris.

In the '90s both the respect for traditional forms of performance and the interest in different styles of sikureadas seemed to increase. This not only led commercial bands such as Andino, Boliviamanta, Inkuyo, Machaqa Qhantati, Kollamarka, Ukamau and Alaxpacha to look for a more "authentic" sound, but also allowed that indigenous and rural groups (who had been recording since the '70s) were able to access the music industry.

Today, the boom of the Internet has made it possible for those interested to watch and listen to the different ways of playing sikuris music by both small and large bands throughout the Andes.


Article. "Sikuri: ondas sonoras en los extramuros del mundo", by Christian Reynoso. In NoticiasSER [es].
Article. Sikurin Utapa: La casa del sikuri [es].


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