Author: Kuster, Ted

Mountain Music

When my brother and I were growing up in Lima, Peru, we were surrounded by a kind of music that you hear these days at every big outdoor attraction: those high flutes, the little armadillo-shell stringed instruments, the big booming bass drum. This was before Paul Simon gave the genre a worldwide boost by touring with a band from Bolivia. In those days it was just country music for country people. We took it up with enthusiasm, my brother on the lead instruments and me on the rhythm.

Like mountain music in the US, mountain music in Peru is often casually mistaken for folk music. Itís not folk music, although it relies heavily on folk instruments and ideas taken from traditional songs. Most of the songs you hear today have authors, and were heard for the first time on the radio and in juke boxes. What matters is that people took this material up because it said something they needed to hearOne thing they needed to hear about was nostalgia and loss. Big mass migrations tend to give rise to song lyrics that lament the singerís faraway home. Millions of rural Peruvians in the 1950s and 1960s were being forced to leave their plow in the field and look for a job in the town, repeating the migration that American southerners had been making since the 1930s. They werenít any happier about it.

So itís no surprise that the typical Andean song lyric goes like

Sabe Dios si volvere
A la tierra donde naci
God knows if Iíll go back
To the land where I was born

Which is not so far from

For I'm bound to ride that Northern railroad
Perhaps I'll die upon this train

I think thatís why, when my brother and I caught our first taste of Flatt and Scruggs, there was such a sense of familiarity. Happy songs about sad things: itís a formula that keeps on working.

Like bluegrass, the Andean ensemble has to get the maximum kick with the smallest number of players possible. First you need a high, lonesome sound, which you get with a flute called a quena (pronounced kay-na). It takes a lot of the leads and provides counterpoint to the vocals, like a fiddle.

The charango, like a banjo, gives the group some of its drive and a shiny, bright sound that helps attract the attention of passers-by. The charangoís body was traditionally made with the shell of an armadillo, but as people got pickier about tuning, good old wood backs became more popular.

The guitar thatís used in these groups is usually a Spanish or classical guitar, which hasnít changed that much from the guitar that the colonists brought over in the 1500s. But youíll see every kind of guitar there is these days, including 12-strings for the extra volume.

The bass sound comes from the bombo, a big drum with two leather heads with the horsehair still on them. It isnít tuned very tight, so it has a booming sound of complex and ambiguous tonality. That way your ear can pick the tones out of it that fit whatever key they group is playing in, and it sounds right. The principle is very similar to the big clay jugs that were played in the American South and the Caribbean before basses came along.

Iím a slave to the banjo now, but I still keep a charango around and tuned up, just in case I get the urge to issue a lament about my dear old Andean mountain home.

Posted:  12/25/2012

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