Music from Peru and its Evolution

To learn more about music from Peru the book “Debating the Past: Music, Memory and Identity in the Andes” by Raul R. Romero is a must read.

This weekend I was lucky enough to be granted a whopping 16 ½ hour bus ride, each way, for a chance to take a glance at Arequipa, Peru. But it was really Sophie who hit the jackpot as she had the privilege of sitting next to me during the entire expedition! She was even more excited when each of us was confined to four inches of wiggle room if the person in front of us had his/her seat reclined, which turned out to be approximately 94% of the time.

Volunteering in Peru. Trip to Colca Canyon
Learning about Music from Peru on my way to Colca Canyon. Gorgeous.

But to be fair, it was hard for me to argue as I was skillfully bringing home the gold for the USA in a game of Bingo, earning me a free ticket back to Lima. In fact, it was so impressive that I even wrote a poem dedicated to my victory:

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The cards were dispersed for a pleasant rifa,
But only a few took part in the fiesta,
The gringo won Bingo,
Without knowing the lingo,
That is what happens when they take a siesta!

Despite popular belief, I also can count in Spanish. Now that I have your attention (I’m also a mind-reader), let’s move onto something that is actually pertinent to music. So, long after I took home the Bingo trophy and after I listened to every song on my 120 GB iPod, I shockingly decided to crack a book. Remember, this is the generation of information.

The hardcover was entitled, Debating the Past: Music, Memory, and Identity in the Andes by Raúl R. Romero. The author was a native of Peru who spent a great deal of his life in the city known as Huancayo, which is located in a Peruvian region known as the Mantaro Valley. He begins his focus with this city that is heavy on traditional culture, especially in relation to music from Peru.

Music from Peru Books
A great book to learn more about Music from Peru

The book extensively compares the three styles of music from Peru: traditional, modern, and radical. Romero maintains specific examples within the Peruvian music culture, but even more specifically to the Mantaro Valley region in which he is familiar with. He illustrates a time line for the different musical traditions and evolutions of music while comparing them based on extensive research. He also really gets his hands dirty by going in and actually conversing with locals on the topic.

Even though there is no real answer to which style of music from Peru is more “authentic” than another due to it being a mere question of opinion, he presents all sides of the story with as minimal of a bias as one can.

Preserving Traditional Music from Peru

The traditional point of view is that the music of their festivals, rituals, and people should not be altered in any way. Evolution is rejected as well as the combination of styles or genres, and they believe television and radio have corrupted people’s views of their customary music from Peru. They strive to maintain what they consider to be a “pure” sound (and dance because of its affinity with music), which leaves them heavily focused on the past.

For instance, Orquesta típicas are music ensembles in the Mantaro Valley region that are traditionally played only with clarinets. Since the clarinet is the historical instrument of choice for that particular ritual, traditionalists reject the idea of developing these ensembles with modern instruments like the saxophone.

In this example, modernists view this to be a positive and constructive development of that region. This is not to say that the saxophones should overthrow the clarinets, but rather to coexist with each other and add more flavor to the music from Peru that at one time was not possible. They are not in favor of the bitter and sorrowful idea that their music has been tainted by the television and radio because they believe those wonderful traditions, rituals, and festivals can still be maintained with growth from its original roots. There is more focus on the present.

It’s the members of the radical group that really raise eyebrows to both the traditionalists and the modernists with their focus on the future of music from Peru. They are typically younger generations that fall between fifteen and twenty-five years of age. They share a common goal of trying to create something that people can dance to, but their liberalism steals them away from the norms.

Keyboards, for example, are replacing other instruments because they can produce the sounds of multiple instruments with a simple flick of a switch, and can often create the sound of more than one instrument at a time. New genres are introduced, which brings the traditionalists and modernists together explaining that the radicals are replacing the existing sounds of the orquesta típicas, and are favoring complete innovation. Crazy youngsters.

These comparisons can be applied to music anywhere. And as time moves forward, music from Peru will continue to change. Some people will focus on previous traditions, some on the evolution of the time, and others on the future of music. I finally closed the book and continued my journey through Arequipa with Sophie which was indeed excellent. Even though we packed it all into one day, we saw canyons up close and volcanoes from a distance. On our 16 ½ hour journey back to Lima, we were challenged to a second game of Bingo.

This one was more engaging to the passengers as the leader offered a three-number reward for anyone who would get up and sing for the entire bus. I thought to myself, “as the undisputed, good-looking defending Bingo champion, I am practically called to the stage to show off my voice pipes to show Peru what’s up.” Even though I blasted them away by singing “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and earned three numbers, I decided not to be Michael Phelps and hog all the gold medals, whereas Sophie just plain lost. So, after I chose not to win, I decided to test the validity of sleeping pills. Yep, story checks out.

Plaza de Armas Arequipa
Master of Pigeons and music from Peru

16 ½ hours down, 16 ½ hours back, plus a 15-hour tour but minus the 3 hours we spent actually off the bus…carry the 1…that leaves us at *drumroll* cuarenta y cinco horas on a bus in 4 days. See, I can count in Spanish. Touché to myself.

Andrew is a volunteer for the Karikuy Peru Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.

About the Author
Andrew Crawford

Coming all the way from the windy city of Chicago, Andrew Crawford graduated from Lake Forest College with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Music. His primary objective for the volunteer experience is to explore and write about the music throughout the parts of Peru that he can reach, primarily Lima. He also loves to play music himself on just about anything he can get his hands on, mainly the guitar, harmonica, and drums – but he wants to add some Peruvian instruments to the list. Anyone want to jam??

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