October 2009

“Julio, I want a Charango, can you show me where the music shops are?”

“Oh there’s a strip of about 20 in a row right in downtown Lima.”

It was all over from there. With some child-like begging and a few temper tantrums, my plan succeeded as we headed to music central. I don’t know why that is considered immature because it is clearly a flawless technique. With a bounce in my step, I was able to regress to childhood and become a kid in a candy store again, except much less mature this time.

At my first outing (obviously there were more than one – I was an experienced colic baby), I picked up a couple inexpensive instruments to hold me over, such as those zampoñas and a pair of maracas to smuggle through customs. I avoided a charango because of cost, but that inner child of mine has an ample resume for draining my bank account.

Consequently, after doing credible YouTube research, I caved and purchased one of these 10-stringed mandolin instruments that were born in what is now considered the country of Peru. It plays like a guitar, except the strings are arranged in pairs. So when you press one finger on any given note, you are really hitting two strings and playing two notes at once. You can get a better visualization from the image below:

My Charango
Zoomed in on the Charango

It can have almost a middle-eastern touch if played one way, a ukulele sound if played another, and obviously a Spanish feel being the most prevalent. It seems very versatile and capable of many different sounds and styles. Most people play it without a guitar pick and just use their fingers and nails to strum and pluck the strings.

Check out this YouTube demonstration of how it is commonly played. I will be this good in about two weeks:

So I thought to myself, how could I be a guitar player, come to Peru (to study music nonetheless), and NOT pick up the most famous national instrument? Money has certainly been an issue, but this was surely a must-have. I was not planning on spending quite as much as I did, but I came across one that I didn’t knew existed, an acoustic-electric charango! Not only did it act as a normal acoustic charango, but I can also plug it directly into an amplifier for increased volume, effects, and perhaps even performances.

Although not my forte, Justin helped encourage my quiet bartering skills. A rare charango, a soft case, and an extra set of strings all for under $150 USD…I was practically forced into making it happen. Plus, the instrument alone is non-existent in the United States, and even if it were widespread throughout the country, the extra zeros on the bottom line of the receipt would be mind-blasting!

As a result, I suddenly had in my possession a carefully-crafted block of wood with a few connected strings that gave me a unique ability to create a distinct sound upon return to the US. I am pretty sure this cuts me to the front of the line for the new superhero election, but I may have already won the position. Now let’s see what I can do with this power.

I’ve had a few days to strum the ol’ 10-string thus far and I am more than pleased with my purchase. I decided last minute not to lug my 98-pound amplifier throughout my journey of Peru, so I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to play with the electric side of the instrument other than in the store where it was purchased. But, it sounded great plugged in for those five minutes, so now I am left with the opportunity to apply my skills from the guitar to the charango.

As far as I can tell, I have made a successful purchase, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will not end up pouting in tears because of some sly scam that I have been a victim of, as the theme of maturity continues.

Peruvian Charango

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The Zampoña – I had never even heard of the instrument before Peru, so if you are like I was and hadn’t heard the beautiful sound of a zampoña before, you are in for a treat.  In addition to the guitar and charango (a guitar-like instrument), the zampoña is a marked instrument of Peru and the Andes region. 

The Zampoña dates back to at least the Incas and possibly even further. 

The only examples I can think of that anyone might know is that reoccurring flute-like melody in the beginning of the Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or in the interlude of “The Circle of Life”.  Yeah, that’s right – I listen to the Lion King soundtrack. 

Actually, it was mostly arranged by Elton John and musically it is quite amazing.  I’m not entirely sure what instrument was used for those, but that is as close as it comes to the sound of the zampoña out of any popular examples that I can think of.


Check out this YouTube link as an example of a guy playing the charango and the zampoña at the same time.  You can get a taste of what both instruments sound like:

It is also known as a type of panpipe or panflute, but there are other local wind instruments that fall into that same category which are pretty much just variations of the basic structure.  They are constructed with one or two rows of small bamboo pipes held together by wood and thin string of some kind which in its history I have heard to be llama wool, but I’m not entirely certain. 

Each pipe is about ¾ inch in diameter, each with different lengths depending on the pitch you are going for; and the deeper the tube the deeper the sound.  The pipes are all lined up next to each other, usually in two rows, so you just blow from tube to tube in a flute-like manner to create a wonderful and unique wind-instrument sound.  They are usually tuned to the key of G Major and the scale is divided between the two rows of pipes.  They are typically played in at least pairs so the melody can continue during breaths, and also to be able to make harmonies.

Zampoña Notes
Zampoña Notes

The sound and the instrument both seem so pure, unique, and genuine, which cannot be matched by any other flute that I have heard up to this point.  I picked up two types of Zampoñas the other day in a strip of music stores in downtown Lima for a total of 25 soles between the two (a little under $10 USD).  Talk about a steal. 

The instrument is nowhere to be found in the United States, and here it is among the most popular instruments.  I didn’t pick up a professional one or one of too much value I imagine, but I’ll practice for a while and see where I get.  They do seem quite delicate though, so I will have to be careful during transportation.  We’ll see if it can make it to the United States and through customs (I assume that wouldn’t be an issue, but with the complete lack of the instrument in the US, who knows).

My practice time has been limited, but it will be a nice little instrument to add to the repertoire.  If I can get the sound accurate, it can sound very mystical and spiritual when actually played right.  Until then, I will have to work around siestas and annoy the other volunteers until they are ready to sleep.  Then I will play it twice as loud.