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    Land of winds > Instruments > Instruments | Issue 17 (Jan.-Feb. 2014)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Andean chordophones (03): harps from the Andes


Andean chordophones (03): harps from the Andes

The harps that were used and have continued to be used to the present day in the Andes are derived from instruments brought to America during the colonial period. These harps, whose model corresponded to that of European harps in Renaissance and Baroque times, usually had a wide sound box and six round sound holes on its upward-facing surface, and covered a range of up to four octaves. Generally speaking, this structure has retained many of its original features for five centuries. Although both diatonic and chromatic harps were introduced, it was the former that grew in popularity and found its way into Latin American tradition.

At the beginning, the harp was played alongside the vihuela to entertain European colonists. However, it did not take too much time for it to be also played in the cathedrals to the accompaniment of the organ (or in place of the latter at churches of less than cathedral status) and in the missions (mostly Jesuit ones) as part of their evangelization work.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the harp was extremely popular in aristocratic salons both in urban and country homes. Slowly but steady the harp passed into the folk tradition. Popular musicians ended up adapting the instrument, its playing techniques and its repertoire to the local needs, possibilities and likes, what in time was reflected in different traditions and styles of playing the harp through the region.


Article. "Arpas americanas", by Pedro Llopis Areny [es].


In Chile, this chordophone had a privileged role in the cultured music played in missions and cathedrals during the 16th century. During the 17th century, the harp moved to the refined salons of the main colonial towns, and later it found its way into inns, taverns ("chinganas") and rural communities. It was there, in the countryside, especially in the central and southern parts of Chile, where the harp become a central part of agricultural festivals and celebrations. In this context the harp is played by women, closely associated with the figure of the female singer, and it is used to accompany cuecas, tonadas and other songs.

As happens with the rest of its Andean sisters, the Chilean rural harp is diatonic; it is usually tuned in C major, and has about 35 strings. In some cases, its size was reduced to be played while held in the lap; smaller sizes were the preferred model for street minstrels and beggars.

Through the 20th century harps from Paraguay and its playing techniques were introduced to Chile. Paraguayan style was associated with cityscapes, male musicians and a type of virtuosity which felt more at home as a leading, soloist instrument than accompanying the singing. In time, the Paraguayan model took the place of the Chilean popular instrument (which is now little used) in the country's folk music performing.


Article. "El arpa en Chile". Review of Tiziana Palmiero's thesis. In Facultad de Artes de la Universidad de Chile [es].
Article. "Cordófonos". In Memoria Chilena [es].


Picture 01. Traditional harp in Naicura, VII Región, Chile.
Picture 02. The harp as part of a modern Chilean folk band.


Video 01. "Las dos puntas". By Dúo Arpas del Tagua Tagua.
Video 02. "Mi nombre se llama Chile". By Juan Altamirano and Carmencita Vélez.
Video 03. "La despedida". By Las Morenitas.


In colonial Bolivia, the harp played the same roles as those performed in Chile and the rest of Latin America. However, during the republican period, and mostly in Potosí, many harps were built with a concave sound box similar to that of a lute. The cross bar or neck already had its modern shape and the column or pillar was beautifully carved; the number of sound holes on the sound board ranged from four to eight; their sizes varied (though they were usually small); sometimes they had two long legs on which to lean when they were not being played; and the materials they were made from were as diverse as their backdrops, ranging from pretentious aristocratic demands (fine wood, inlays, gold finish) to the simplicity of modest urban musicians and the indigenous harps made of rough materials (armadillo's shell, barrels' remains). These instruments spanned four octaves (32-35, made of wire, gut or natural fibres) and were played while held in the lap. There are several models on display in museums and convents. Today, the instrument has little presence in Bolivian lands.


Article. "Las arpas de Bolivia", by Pedro Llopis Areny [es].


Picture 03. Harps with their sound box made from an armadillo's shell.


The Peruvian harp has already been described in a previous article. Peru is one of the few Andean countries where the instrument continues to be prominent in folk music. Traditional harps are played from the department of Ancash to that of Cusco. They are characterized by the large body size, though may have different shapes: those of Ayacucho are more round, the ones of Huancayo are wider and in Cusco they are bigger.


Article. "El arpa peruana: generalidades", by Claude Ferrier. In Música Peruana [es].


Picture 04. Peruvian harp in the "Danza de las tijeras" [Scissors dance].
Picture 05. Peruvian harp.


In Ecuador there are two harp playing traditions located in the Sierra. To the north, in the province of Imbabura, harps are made from cedar wood, have three sound holes, a straight neck and a column without carvings; they are used as solo instrument at indigenous weddings and funerals to play sanjuanitos and parejas. In the Central Sierra, in the province of Tungurahua, the harp is made from cedar and other woods and has a carved column. It can be used either as soloist instrument or as part of a band to play albazos, pasacalles, pasillos, etc. during festive events. In both traditions there is a second musician, known as "golpeador", who kneels next to the harp and strikes the sound box with his hands to set the beat. Regretfully, the harp tradition is endangered nowadays in the Ecuadorian Andes.


Article. "Arpa". In Ecuador Con Música [es].


Video 05. "Taita Chavo", harpist from Carabuela, Ecuador.


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