Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Nature's Sonorous Politics: Music, Ecology, and Indigenous Activism in Andean Peru

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Nature's Sonorous Politics: Music, Ecology, and Indigenous Activism in Andean Peru

Article excerpt

THERE'S NO INDIGENOUS POLITICAL MOVEMENT in Andean Peru. This, at least, has been the consensus view of scholars since the 1990s, when protests organized by indigenous parties shook the foundations of nearby Bolivia and Ecuador. Peru has been a neighborhood outlier ever since, a central Andean country where most people have indigenous ancestors, but few claim an indigenous identity.

A visit to Radio Quispillaccta, a community AM station located in the south highland city of Ayacucho, belies this conclusion. It shows that we need to consider carefully what we mean by politics, and where we look for how it operates. Amid posters advertising indigenous activist meetings and festivals in rural Quechua-speaking communities, Radio Quispillaccta's staff is sparking a profound change in local attitudes. Furthermore, they are doing it through broadcasts that center on the chimaycha music of their hometown, presenting it as part of a distinctive land ethic. Once inaudible within Ayacucho's urban soundscape, chimaycha has become a favored genre and a symbol of Quechua cultural affirmation for the city's youthful, indigenous migrant majority. It's helping to shape a newly invigorated debate over indigenous self-determination. As such, it holds keys to the ways that local leaders will organize their struggles in years to come.

My current research project traces the people, ideas, and technologies through which the chimaycha scene is organized. I didn't mean to get caught up in this: when I returned to Ayacucho in 2011, after several years of absence, I meant only to follow up on a thread I had dropped during dissertation research in the early 2000s. At that time I had become friends with Marco Tucno Rocha, a chimaycha performer and the foremost maker of the small chinlili guitars that accompany it. Few city residents could have identified this esoteric, aesthetically challenging style, and fewer still would have called themselves fans. The music circulated mainly among migrants from the small rural indigenous communities in the nearby Pampas River Valley.

However, I was enchanted by the contrast between its high, strident vocals and the music-box brilliance of its chinlili accompaniment and by the metaphoric intensity of its lyrics, which figured tales of romantic deception and abandonment. When I returned to ask what had happen to this rural music in a rapidly modernizing city, I found the improbable: not only had chimaycha become a stalwart feature of Ayacucho's rural hinterland, it had become part of an indigenous politics absent from the region a scant decade before-and its ecological resonance played no small part in this dynamic.

Chimaycha has always been an ecocentric idiom. In its original form it was part of a web that bundled human animal, and environmental cycles together into the kind of system that anthropologist Steven Feld calls an acoustemology-a sonorous way of experiencing ecological knowledge. Performed largely for amorous purposes by unmarried adolescents, it was associated with the annual pastoral cycle when animals are driven seasonally between high, frigid plains and tropical river bottoms. Herding was a young person's job, and long days away from parental oversight gave plenty of opportunities to meet, flirt and arrange nocturnal musical parties. Chimaycha became associated with a series of named places scattered around the mountain landscape, each a center of pastoral activity in a distinct season. Andean song is everywhere framed in terms of natural metaphors, and it was inevitable that chimaycha would come to revolve around the birds, mammals, landforms, and rivers that populated the very spaces in which the songs were sung. …

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