A song drifted across the plaza. A forceful melody defined by a rhythmic flute that almost sounded like an animal breathing. A week later, as I climbed the ruins at Ollantaytambo, I still couldn’t get it out of my head.
Andean folk music is defined by the haunting tones of the Siku, the Andean panflute. Also known as the Antara (Quechua) and the Zampoña (Spanish), these reed pipes are the key musical ingredient and are also one of the most popular souvenirs for visitors to Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Sikus were perfected in Inca times along with a range of metal, bone, and earthenware flutes and wind instruments. The characteristic of Sikus is serial flutes with single separate notes for each pipe.
Zampona pipes originated with the Tiahuanaco culture, which flourished around 700 AD near the border of Peru and Bolivia. In their language it was called the Siku and players were Sikuris. Tiahuanacan musicians were inspired by the Andean peaks and composed music to perform in ceremonies honoring their deities: the sun, moon, sky, land, and condor.
The pipes are in two sections. The seven tubes called Arka are the female component, and the six tube Ira is the male.
The individual pipes correspond to the standard notes of the scale: Si, Sol, Mi, Do, La, Fa, Re; and La, Fa, Re, Si, Sol, Mi. The Inca tonal scale has five notes.
To play a Siku, the pipes are held in the left hand, and braced with the right. Blowing downwards, the player tries to force wind right to the bottom. Breath is drawn from the diaphragm, as with most wind instruments. Beginners need to learn breathing techniques, and avoid breathing in through the pipes, which can cause dizziness. An accomplished player can produce two melodies at the same time. The sound is somewhere between a European flute and a simple tin whistle. It has a breath-like quality that evokes the wind of the high peaks.
The double noted, call and response is the essence of Andean folk music, and it is due to the physical and philosophical duality of the Zampona pipes. It represents a dialogue between humans and the gods.
There were four types of music in the Inca world: War songs to spur the warriors into battle and honor acts of heroism; Funeral music to explain the passing of the body to the earth; Religious music to accompany ceremonies and explain sacred mythologies; and the most common, work or farm songs, often played as sing-a-longs.
Inca music was taught from generation to generation but may also have been notated using Quipus, a string knot accounting system.
Today Andean folk music sounds much like it always did with the exception of the guitars and other stringed instruments introduced by the Spanish. The style remains the same, heavy on repetition and atmosphere.
The music remains a vital part of ceremonies and of daily life, and you will undoubtedly hear it performed throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The distinct compositions and unique sounds are recognized world-wide.
A set of Siku is a great souvenir to recall the Andes. The instrument is light, durable and it’s easy to learn some basic melodies. Siku are often sold together with a book of instruction and simply notated traditional songs.