Wednesday, January 05, 2000

Huayño and the Andean Eternal Golden Braid

When I was two years old, we moved to Peru for three years. Our home was located in the tiny coastal village and mining town of San Juan de Marco, in the state of Cuzco.

Most Northern hemisphere dwellers who possess any familiarity with Peruvian music usually think first of the Andean panpipe bands that one can now hear on seemingly every public square throughout the world.

To my ear, this music is reminiscent of the Eternal Golden Braid featured in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach (by Douglas Hofstadter), so do the melodies seem to spiral and loop.

But I was also exposed to both the gypsy-styled Musica Criolla and the cacophonous Huayño music.

Huayño is the style that made its biggest impression on me as a young child.

First because of its dense sound, and secondly, because I heard it in the markets, where I was always treated to an Orange Crush.

The result is that today, over thirty years later, I can't so much think of an Orange Crush without also thinking of Peru and hearing Huayño in my head.

Talk about a case study in music branding.

Huayño itself is dance music, performed by a band consisting of harp, harmonica, mandolin, saxophone, panpipes, accordion, guitar, violin and charango, a South American version of a lute. Lyrics are sung in both Spanish and Quechua –an indigenous language of South America and at one time, the official language of the Inca empire.

The best description of Huayño music I have read or heard is 'Urban Mestizo'. Like all Peruvian music, its genius is in its simultaneous capacity to convey immense joy along with profound sadness, within the context of a single song.

If Huayño music has any US counterpart, it is perhaps in the country swing, made popular by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Everyone north of the equator knows one Huayño song; it is the Simon & Garfunkle remake of 'El Cóndor Pasa' by Daniel Alomía Robles for the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, rechristened 'El Condor Pasa (If I Could)'.

In recent years I've noticed that Huayño has merged –or is merging– with other South American mixed band styles. What we are seeing, and hearing, I think, is the emergence of a pan-Latin America urban dance music. Whatever it will become, and eventually be called, any time you hear a blend of aching violins, accordions, and brass or reeds over danceable beats, you hear the influence of Huayño.

To North American ears, perhaps only a musicologist can tell the difference between Huayño and Cumbia. Cumbia is an Afro-AmeriIndian invention, but even to my ear, both increasingly share an intertwined musical destiny.

As it happens, I think Huayño has left its mark even on me. I have long noticed in myself the tendency to compose melodies centered on the thirds and fifths (a feature of Huayño, of course). It is, I can only imagine, the aural legacy left to me as a result of living in Peru at such a young an impressionable age.

Hey, and by all means, I'll take it, –that and ice cold Orange Crush, please.

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