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    Land of winds > Instruments > Instrument | Issue 20 (Jul.-Aug. 2014)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Gaita of Otavalo

Gaita of Otavalo

The Spanish term "gaita" (bagpipe) originally designates a large family of double reed wind instruments with a bag to maintain the air flow. However, in Latin America (mostly in the central and northern Andes) the word is used to refer to different aerophones of the flute family.

The gaita of Otavalo is a transverse flute made of cane, which belongs to the Kichwa or Quechua-speaking communities in the province of Imbabura (mostly, but not exclusively, in the Otavalo canton), in the Ecuadorian northern Andes. It has six finger holes, creating a very peculiar (not-equal-tempered) scale, and is made out of a piece of sukus, carrizo or cane that, as happens with a number of other Andean flutes, includes a muku or natural knot, which has become one of the most distinctive features of the instrument. In fact, its original name seems to have been muku pinkillu (flute with a knot) or sukus pinkillu (cane flute).

The gaitas are regarded as people, since they "talk" to one another and can "manipulate" people's emotions. They come in three possible sizes (and, therefore, three registers): ñañu (small flute, high pitch), pariku (medium flute, medium pitch) and raku (large flute, low pitch). Traditionally, any of these sizes is played in pairs, the two flutes separated by a small interval: the "primera" (first) flute (the lowest) is considered to be male and plays the main melody, while the "segunda" (second, higher than the former and female) plays the accompaniment. Today, trios are very popular, consisting of one "primera" and two "segunda" flutes. These instruments are periodically dampened with aswa or asua (corn chicha) in order to "quench their thirst", lubricate their interior and improve their sound.

The repertoire performed by these instruments is traditional and, despite its simplicity at first glance, it takes years of practice and skill (and, according to tradition, it is also needed to gain the help of mythical figures, such as the "sereno") to master the art of producing entire musical sentences in a single blow with a delicate vibrato while dancing, stomping in rhythm, and striving against both ambient sound and other players' music for hours.

The gaitas are accompanied by the kachu (natural horn), the churu (conch shell trumpet), the harmonica (which replaced the rondador/panpipes in the 50s), the guitar (which was introduced in the 80s'), the melodica (wind piano), whistles, shouts, stomping and singing.

The region is also home to another transverse flute, the kucha, made out of a piece of tunda cane without any knot (muku) in it, thinner, longer and higher in pitch than the gaita. This flute is not regarded as a person, but as the voice of the chuzalunku (a male spirit, the son of the mountains).

Historically, the gaita of Otavalo has been used in community festivals and ritual celebrations. During the second half of the 20th century, and with the significant exception of a few groups (such as Ñanda Mañachi) which played the instrument and disseminated its repertoire, the gaita began to disappear from the public sphere (where attention was shifted to the violin, the bandola and the guitar), though it continued to be taught in private along with its tunus or songs. In the 90s, the Valley of Otavalo suffered badly from a cholera epidemic and many masters and devotees of the gaita died. Those who survived in the community of Kotama/Cotama established a school of flute that was named "Hatun Kotama", which has become very famous in these few years thanks to a work recorded and distributed by Smithsonian Folkways.

At present, bands of "flauteros" (flute players) or "gaiteros" (gaita players) take part in the celebrations of the Hatun Puncha - Inti Raymi (between June 21 and June 26) that are held in different places of the Otavalo canton and surrounding areas (e.g. the Cotacachi, Antonio Ante and Ibarra cantons). The festival includes ritual bathing in holy rivers (armay tuta), paying visits to family members on the "eve" of the event, and the famous "storming of the square" (a kind of tinku), where flutes have a prominent part to play.

Article. "¡Así Kotama!" (CD booklet), in Smithsonian Folkways.
Article. "La sabiduría andina en la fiesta y el trabajo", by Luis E. Cachiguango C. In IECTA (Institute for the Study of Andean Culture and Technology) [es].
Article. "Música e instrumentos en la comunidad de Cotama", in WebCotama [es].

Picture 01. Gaitas of Otavalo 01.
Picture 02. Gaitas of Otavalo 02.
Picture 03. Gaitas of Otavalo 03.
Picture 04. Gaitas of Otavalo 04.

Video 01. "Hatun Kotama – Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador".
Video 02. "Yaku chaka", by flute players of Cotama.
Video 03. Flute players of Peguche 2011.
Video 04. Flute players of Cotama and Sisarina dances of Ilumán 01.
Video 05. Flute players of Cotama and Sisarina dances of Ilumán 02.
Video 06. "Colombillo", by flute players of Cotama.
Video 07. "Chalan pugyu", by flute players of Cotama.
Video 08. Interview with the flute players of Cotama [es].
Video 09. Flute players during the Inti Raymi Festival in Cotacachi (low quality).
Video 10. Dance during the Inti Raymi Festival (low quality).

Picture A.

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