The Offbeat Music of Peru

RAFAEL entered the hallway and sank into a chair. We’ve been recording for hours and I’ve never had a session like it, he said. Instead of just sitting down and playing the usual accompaniment, I spent the entire afternoon trying to teach the orchestra how to play mountain music.

That shouldn’t be such a task, I said. You are all expert guitarists, and folk music is so simple.

Simple, yes, but have you ever noticed the beat? It’s that beat that gets anyone who hasn’t been raised in the Peruvian mountains.

Well, yes, I’ve noticed that the folk music of Peru is a bit different, but—well, just what is there about the beat?

After every few bars there’s a bar introduced that gets only a fraction of the normal beat. Now this simply isn’t done in music. Any musician knows that a piece of music has just so many bars and each bar a given number of beats, whether it be two, three, four or even more. But not the Peruvian mountain folk music.

Now, just a minute, I said. I know a little about music and I do know that each bar has to conform to the timing in order to have rhythm. There’s nothing more frustrating than playing or singing a piece of music when each bar is not given full value. Are you telling me that . . .?

That the Peruvian folk music doesn’t give all the bars equal value of beats? Yes. Here, I’ll demonstrate. With that he hummed a tune with which I was familiar, having heard it many times in my four years of teaching in the interior. As he hummed, I noticed that at every fifth bar he stopped short at just half the number of beats. It sounded delightfully normal—for Peruvian music.

Don’t you remember the kind of dances they do to this music? he asked. Here, I’ll refresh your memory. With that Rafael got to his feet, shuffled a few steps while humming the same tune, then stopped short, bringing both feet to a halt in quick succession on the fifth bar, starting in again immediately for the next four bars, only to stop short again on the fifth. How many times I had seen the Indians sing and dance this way! It was fascinating, and so typical. This type of dancing, together with this music—a perfect match.

My mind raced back to the quaint little towns dotting the puna (high, cold, arid plateau) or nestling in the terraced valleys of the Andes. I recalled the scenes of little orchestras at work in the plazas with homemade harps and flutes. Bright, billowing skirts spun into focus revealing sturdy-legged dancers circling opposite their knitted-capped partners. Twirling and stomping to a stop—twirling and stomping to a stop.

Rafael was speaking again. He was explaining that it would be difficult to put this offbeat music into writing, but that nevertheless it was uncomplicated and simple to play. All except the broken bar, that is, for this creates an incredible problem for conventional musicians. Their mental metronome, so to speak, strives to supply the missing beats and equate the rhythm and thus the peculiar offbeat savor of the folkloric music is lost.

Today’s Ancient Inca Music

Peru is divided down its long middle by the high Andes mountain range, keeping communication between the mountain population and that of the coastal strip to a minimum in the centuries before modern transportation facilities. The Inca-inspired mountain music therefore has been preserved in its nearly original state. What seemed a rather curious fact was that, whereas this folk music had failed to infiltrate to any degree into the comparatively nearby coast, it nevertheless penetrated a 2,000-mile length of mountains while undergoing only minor changes from one section to another.

These changes have developed into three regional moods that have come to be recognized today as characteristic music of the northern, central and southern sections of the Peruvian Andes.

To illustrate, if you were a native of the northern mountains, you would like your music gay and lively, and you would be accustomed to dance to it in fast, jumping steps or in marches. You would have grown to love the violin and the locally made harp, the quena (flutelike instrument made of cane), and the guitar strumming its accompanying rhythm.

But, contrariwise, most certainly if the South were your home, you would sway to the melancholy strains of the mandolin and the accordion, rounded out by the twang of the charango and the extra-heavy beat of the big guitarrón as they doled out their sad melodies. Dancing to these mournful ballads, you would be overcome with emotion, tears streaming down your chapped cheeks.

Or if you were raised in the Central Andes region, the land of the saxophones and the clarinets, the harps and the violins, you would delight in the lilting melodies in the popular mood. The distant thumping beat of the cajon (homemade drum) would lure you to the public plaza where you would join hands with the circle of dancers or clap rhythmic accompaniment.

The Offbeat

Although the Indians of the mountains have learned to dance to the waltz that has infiltrated from the coast, the waltz rhythm is practically unknown in the composition of this folk music. The popular two or four beats to the bar is generally phrased into groups of several bars in succession followed by an offbeat bar.

Where the broken bar is interjected varies according to the piece and sometimes varies even within one piece of music. One might, for example, have a piece with the first two bars of four beats each and followed by a bar with just one beat, succeeded immediately by the two bars of four, and then the one beat. This would be repeated throughout the whole piece with scant variation of tune. However, what may be lacking in color and creativity is compensated for by their boundless enthusiasm as they stomp, clap and shout hour after hour to more of the same.

Emotional Outlet

These Indian folk are outwardly unemotional but their music is capable of deep expression and sentiment. One example of this is the slow and melancholy ballads sung at social gatherings to a music called El Triste (the sad one). This is a music for expressing laments and sentimental serenades, and it is the only music where the singer is featured. The soloist, singing in either Spanish or Quechua, is accompanied by a single guitar fingering only the melody. He sings these melancholy tunes with exaggerated sadness, provoking tears of deep emotion in the eyes of all the listeners. It is not uncommon to see little bands of guests grouped around crying freely and unashamedly, a good time being had by all.

Undoubtedly, primitive music is appreciated most by its own natives. But in recent years some orchestral arrangements of this Inca-inspired music have been made for symphony orchestras. Although the offbeat bars have been sacrificed, the prevailing minor tones of the music, played in rich orchestral harmony, are surprisingly beautiful.

By: Flor Ayag

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