Pre-Columbian Music of South America

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Pre-Columbian Music of South America

Music once illuminated secular and sacred life throughout South America. Today we have nothing but the archaeological remains of musical instruments and iconography, which have been preserved mainly in the Andean region. Those remains give us information of some possible sounds and their relations with specific cultural spheres. Early Spanish accounts and the ethnographic study of living Indian traditions enable us to interpret their musical meaning.

Instrumentation developed mainly in the flute realm, with a rich variety of shapes, timbres, and musical possibilities. Some flutes produced melodies and others produced harsh timbres and dissonant chords between two adjacent tones. The first were represented by the siku, a reed panpipe that existed as early as the Chorrera culture (1000–300 bce) and reached a great development during the Moche culture (ce 100–800), lasting to the present in the Andean region from Bolivia to Panama. The siku was sometimes played in complimentary pairs, sometimes in big orchestras of many pairs of musicians, as in modern Aymara usage, to produce very elaborated melodies. Another popular flute to play melodies was the kena (quena), a reed or bone-notched, end-blown flute. It appeared around 5000 bce and gained great popularity in Moche and Inca times and is still played. Outstanding chord-flutes include the delicately sound-balanced double ocarina found in the Andes between Ecuador and Peru (300 bce–ce 500) and the antara, a ceramic panpipe in which each tube produces a shrill, vibrating tone. It appeared in Paracas (700–200 bce), developed in Nazca (100 bce–ce 400) and later in Atacama and southward, up to the Inca conquest (1400–1535). Stone flutes of the Mapuche region show a wide variety of forms. Another interesting flute, of unknown use, is the whistling ceramic vessel, a Chorrera invention that uses a hydraulic system to produce sound. It became very popular in the coastal central Andean region between 500 bce and ce 1470 and reached Mesoamerica to the north. Conch-shell trumpets appeared in Chavín (1000–200 bce) and existed up to Inca times. They were precious objects obtained by trade in Ecuatorial coasts and reaching the Peruvian highlands. Straight trumpets of metal, wood, cane, and ceramic, of diverse shapes, were also used throughout the Andes.

Cylindrical double-headed drums existed in the Andean region. They were played with a single stick or sometimes with a notched rope. Idiophones of different shapes were also common; the most important type was the rattle of gourd, ceramic, metal, or other materials. It was an important shamanistic instrument. Ecuatorian stone percussive chimes appeared between 500 bce and ce 500. There is no definite evidence of pre-Columbian clarinets, oboes, or chordophones, although there may have been a pre-Columbian musical bow. It is probably safe to say that, as in present-day Indian music, the most important element in pre-Columbian music was the human voice, especially shamanic trance-songs, including rituals using psychoactive plants. Scales were varied, including three-, five-, and six-tone scales, and melodies had a tendency toward tonal development. Whereas Western music presents a tendency toward the use of different voices in a coordinate tonal and rhythmic manner, avoiding parallel motion and noncoincidence, in pre-Columbian music the probable tendency was the opposite, toward the use of parallel motion or of discoordinated tonality and rhythm, avoiding coincidence. The "vertical" conception of sound was developed to produce sound clusters, probably related to the search for altered states of consciousness. Outside the Andes there is no archaeological evidence of pre-Columbian music in South America, although ethnographic data shows a rich and varied musical life in the great Amazonian region. The Selk'nam had a vocal music tradition with no musical instruments.


Latin America lacks a general survey on pre-Columbian music. An unsurpassed general survey on archaeological and ethnographic instruments is Karl G. Izikowitz, Musical and Other Sound Instruments of the South American Indians (1934). See also Robert Stevenson, Music in Aztec and Inca Territory (1968). A summary on recorded sounds is the cassette José Pérez De Arce, Instrumentos precolombinos (1982).

Additional Bibliography

Bejar, Ana Maria, and Raúl R. Romero. Música, danzas, y máscaras en los Andes. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú: Instituto Riva-Aguero, Proyecto de Preservación de la Música Tradicional Andina, 1993.

Harcourt, Raoul d' and Marguerite d'. La mú sica de los Incas y sus supervivencias. Lima: Occidental Petroleum Corp. of Peru, 1990.

                                   JosÉ Perez de Arce

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Pre-Columbian Music of South America

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