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History of the Andean music
    Land of winds > Music > History | Issue 14 (Mar.-Apr.2013)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The quena: its music and its performers


The quena: its music and its performers

The quena is an instrument widely known throughout the world, which, alongside the charango and the zampoña (Andean panpipe), has become one of the Andean music "ambassadors" that best embodies the commercially successful catchy melodies from the Andes.

It is a vertical notched flute (without aeroduct), made from an open end pipe, which is part of a big a family (notched flutes, flûtes à encoche) with members all around the world: Suriname's human bone flutes, Ghana's kété, Rwanda's umwirongo, Japan's shakuhachi, Congo's m'breli, the Emerillon people's takala in French Guaiana, Vanuatu's pa-oo, the Maku people's kapao iètipe in Colombia, the Wayana people's tiwére and dite in French Guaiana, the Waika-Xamatari people's haiau in Venezuela, the Tiriyó, Wai-wai and Yaminawa peoples' flutes in Brazil, the Kalinga people's paldong in Philippines, China's xiao and feng huang xiao, Angola's tshokwe, the Apache people's courtship flute, and Korea's danso and tongso.

Picture 01. The Apache people’s courtship flute.
Picture 02. China's feng huang xiao.
Picture 03. Japan's shakuhachi.
Picture 04. China's xiao.
Picture 05. Bone flute, Brazil.
Picture 06. Human bone flute, Suriname.
Picture 07. The Emerillon people’s takala, French Guiana.
Picture 08. Vanuatu's pa-oo.
Picture 09. The Maku people’s kapao iètipe, Colombia.
Picture 10. Danso flute’s embouchure, Korea.


The bone flutes with three finger holes made by a hunter/gatherer/farming society settled in Inca Cueva (Jujuy, north-western Argentina; 2130 B.C.) are among the oldest examples of this type of flute recovered from archaeological sites in the Andean region. The same instrument was found in the hands of a mummy at the burial site of Sequitor (San Pedro de Atacama culture, north of Chile). Later on, it will appear among the remains of pre-Hispanic cultures such as Chicha, Chavín (900-200 B.C.), Mochica (100-800 A.D.), Nazca (100 B.C.-800 A.D.), Lima (100-650 A.D.), Chancay (1000-1470 A.D.), Chincha (1000-1450 A.D.), and Inca (1483-1533 A.D.).

Picture 11. Pre-Columbian bone quena, Huacho (Peru).
Picture 12. Pre-Columbian cane quena, Peru.
Picture 13. Pre-Columbian bone quena, Peru.
Picture 14. Mochica quena player.
Picture 15. Mochica bone quena.
Picture 16. Nazca quenas.
Picture 17. Chincha quena.


Today, Andean traditional "quena"-type flutes are classified into several subfamilies mainly spread across the central Andes, whose names vary according to the place they come from. Some of them form tropas (groups) of large instruments (quena quenas, pusipías, lichiguayos, choquelas...), while others, especially those of small size, are performed either alone or in small ensembles (shilos, lawatas, conivis, chaqallos...). They have two to six finger holes, their length is usually from 10 to 90 cm, can have V-, rectangular-, half-moon- or U-shaped embouchures, and do not always have one hole at the back. At present they are usually made from different types of cane, but also from wood, stone (steatite), bone, clay, metal or plastic, while gourds, human bones and bird bones were also used in pre-Hispanic times.

Picture 18. Quena quenas.
Picture 19. Pusipías.
Picture 20. Choquelas.


It is only since quite recently that the word "quena" (a term of Aymara origin) is used to generally refer to this type of flutes. The word occurs only occasionally in the written accounts from colonial times and in the first dictionaries and grammars of Andean indigenous languages (where vertical flutes were often referred by the umbrella term "pinkullos" or "pingollos"). The word started to spread by the end of the 18th century and, especially, during the Romantic period (at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century); sometimes, it was used indistinctly to refer to any type of "indian flutes". Today, the word "quena" designates the flutes that have a certain type of embouchure and, particularly the instrument known "standard quena ".

In the mid 20th century the Andean "quena" (the so called Indian "quena") underwent a process of adaptation to the standards of the western music. What happened was that another flute (the "standard quena") was "created" from different popular sizes of the traditional quena. The newcomer was tuned in Gmaj, its length was about 35 cms, and it had 6/7 front finger holes and one back finger hole to be able to reproduce all the half steps of the temperated western scale. Such instrument is not usually found in “natural state”, that is, in the regions where this type of flute is traditionally played.

With the pass of time, different luthiers went on adding new features; most of them were copies or adaptations of the techniques used to enhance the classic European aerophones: the use of noble wood, precious metals, special plastics and exotic cane varieties in their construction; the use of hard material (bone, ivory) for embouchure inserts; the use of varnish and lacquer; an array of highly specialized machinery to optimized every stage of the construction process from drilling to tuning, etc. This is how a sort of "quena culture" was born, mostly based on searching and categorizing those features that best display the instrument’s quality.

Between 1920 and 1930, many South American groups of traditional, folk music included the first "standard quenas" among their instruments, which would remain inside the commercial music circuit ever since.

Towards the middle of the last century there were several groups and quena players who sought to spread the sounds of this aerophone (e.g. Alejandro Vivanco in Peru, Julián Tucumbi in Ecuador and Antonio Pantoja in Perú and Argentina). At the beginning, likewise other autochthonous instruments, the quena was despised and pushed into the background as an "ancillary" element, however, the skills developed by some players and the exploration of the instrument’s musical possibilities, gained it a solid reputation and a large fan base.

Video 01. Documentary film about Alejandro Vivanco Guerra.
Video 02. "Romance de viento y quena", by Antonio Pantoja and his band.


By 1960, the instrument arrived in Europe (mostly France) in the hands of migrant musicians. The groups and soloists of "Latin American music" living in the Old Continent (e.g. Los Incas, Los Calchakis, Los Chacos, Los Guacharacos, Guillermo de la Roca, Alfredo de Robertis, Facio Santillán, "Uña" Ramos, Jorge Cumbo) would popularize it and increase its use. Meanwhile, the quena had enlarged its fan base throughout Latin America, especially among the groups that would become part of the "New Song movement" (Spanish, "Nueva Canción"): Jatari, Los Huayanay and Ñanda Mañachi in Ecuador; Ruphay, Los Jairas and Los Kjarkas in Bolivia; Alturas, Vientos del Pueblo, Tiempo Nuevo, Puka Soncco, Los Uros del Titicaca, and Raymond Thevenot and Los Machu Picchu in Peru; Illapu, Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún, Curacas, Kollahuara and Altiplano in Chile; Los Chaskis, Raíces Incas, Markama, Huerque Mapu, Cuarteto Zupay and Jaime Torres in Argentina.

Video 03. "Munahuanqui", by Los Incas.
Video 04. Complete LP "La flute indienne" (1967), by Los Calchakis and Los Guacharacos.
Video 05. "Menuet badinerie", by Los Chacos.
Video 06. "Aires del Tawantinsuyo", by Guillermo de la Roca.
Video 07. "Selvas vírgenes", by Facio Santillán.
Video 08. "Triste olvido", by Uña Ramos.
Video 09. "Alfonsina y el mar", by Jorge Cumbo (with Lito Vitale).
Video 10. "Saltashpa - La acequia", by Jatari.
Video 11. Complete LP "Folklore vol. 2" (1967), by Los Jairas.
Video 12. "Oiga señora", by Puka Soncco.
Video 13. "El cascabel", by Illapu.
Video 14. "Milonga de mis amores", by Jaime Torres and Cuarteto Zupay.


The great work of performers such as José Miguel Márquez (Illapu), Lars Nilsson (Markama), Claudio "Pajarito" Araya (Huara), Lucho Cavour, Pancho Valdivia Taucán, Fernando Sepúlveda, Raúl Mercado, Pedro Chalco, Edgar Espinoza, Omar Salgado, Raúl Olarte, Marcelo Peña and Arturo Flores (see reviews and novelties), among others, has turned the quena into a concert instrument. By the hands of those who have mastered its craft, it has surpassed the limits of its traditional Andean repertoire and it is now used in jazz (e.g. Humahuaca Trío), rock, tango, classical music (e.g. Barroco Andino), celtic music, salsa and cumbia, as well as in Latin American folklore (e.g. Los Folkloristas and Khenany in Mexico, Gustavo Patiño and Los Huayra in Argentina).

Video 16. "Cantos ceremoniales", by Illapu.
Video 17. "Música maravillosa", by Barroco Andino.
Video 18. "Tierra mestiza", por by Folkloristas.


Some researchers and musicians point out that the modifications on the original instrument made by luthiers along with the development of styles and the performance of external repertoires, have turned the "standard quena" into something else that has little in common with the original and remains is "foreign" to the Andean musical universe.

Be that as it may, the "standard quena" has succeeded in introducing many musicians from worldwide to the astonishing diversity of the music of the Andes. On the other hand, different traditional variants of the quena are still being played on the occasion of popular festivals, as well as in private places. And it is precisely there, far from musical instruments factories and conservatory music sheets, where the quena retains all the flavour of a legendary instrument.

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