Rhythms and dances of the Altiplano

Contrary to the impression of desolation that travellers sometimes take away with them, the region of Puno, situated at the Southeast end of Peru, is a rich and varied land; its high plateau serves as pastureland for alpaca, vicuna and lama herds and produces the best wools in the world. Cultivation in terraces, although only exploited to 50% of their capacity, provide many varieties of high-energy cereals and tubers. The valleys of San Juan del Oro and San Gabán, where the climate is slightly less harsh, produce pineapples, rice, oranges, bananas... The region also has many mines (gold, silver, uranium, copper), which unfortunately produce a great deal of pollution and provide no real economic benefits for the local population.

This region is as big as Belgium and the Netherlands put together and has a population of less than two million, the majority of whom are Aymara and Quechua Indians. The region of Puno is administratively sub-divided into 13 provinces and over one hundred districts. The town of Puno itself, the main town of the region, is situated at an altitude of over 3800m, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. As far as the centralist Lima government is concerned, this region is of little interest. Its only appeal is as a tourist attraction. Moreover, the place is made inhospitable by its altitude, its cold climate and its violent winds. But the proximity of the border has encouraged a thriving parallel and illegal industry of textile production for smuggling, particularly around Juliaca and Puno, the main border towns with Bolivia, situated on the other side of the lake. The very existence of these maquilas, or small illegal workshops that produce counterfeit goods, hidden away in the urban fabric generates serious problems of delinquency, smuggling of all sorts and exploitation of the workforce, especially children.

Legend has it that Puno is the cradle of the Inca civilization: the mythical Manco Capac is said to have come out of the waters of Titcaca on the orders of the Sun-God to found the Inca Empire. Modern archaeology has nevertheless revealed that many populations successively settled the Peruvian Altiplano before the arrival of the Incas. The most ancient population, the powerful and progressive Pukina culture, dates back to 10 000 BC.

Present-day Puno was founded in 1668 by the Spanish, who wished to exploit the mining potential of the region. As time passed, it became a place for meeting and exchange for the various cultures who, for five centuries, have been resisting the Spanish colonists' attempts to homogenize and their descendants' racism. As the new South American States became independent in the 19th century, their borders were defined without taking into consideration the already existing ones of Qulla Suyu – the southern province of the Inca Empire – dismissing the strong social organisation of the Aymara and Quechua peoples, their separate languages, their respective laws and different cosmologies...

The relationship to the land.
The peasant communities of Puno are dynamic social and economic entities, made up of nuclear families. They have their own cultural values and norms, which regulate community life, the main activities of which are agriculture and breeding. Agricultural techniques are ancestral and respect the balance of the Andean ecosystem. The inhabitants augment their income with other activities such as craftwork, weaving, and small-scale informal trading. The organisation of work is specific to the high plateau region: the whole family participates, including children and elders. For heavy work and works beneficial to the general public, able-bodied men and women join forces (mink'a). The pastures in the highlands are communal collective lands whereas the low lands in the valleys, better irrigated, belong to the families. It is estimated that 40% of the Peruvian lands are community-owned.

The wakas (ancestors), the apus (spirits) and the Pachamama (Mother Earth) are interdependent beings who work the earth together. The harvest depends on these entities. The Andeans believe that the world is divided into three: Kaypacha (the land of living beings), Ukhupacha (the underground domain of inert beings) and Hanaqpacha (the space reserved for supernatural beings, gods, angels and souls that are dying). All the natural elements: mountains, rocks, animals, but also the wind, the snow and the rain are living. Agriculture is regulated by myths and legends based on redistribution, reciprocity, understanding and solidarity.

Agricultural development projects – modern and individualised, according to the capitalist model – have been encouraged and some plots of land show that the cultivation of commercial potatoes and production of seeds have been introduced. The government has encouraged farmers to intensively reproduce these models and use plant-care products that are initially provided free of charge. Gradually, without improved seeds, chemical fertilisers etc. the yield has decreased, to the point that cultivating potatoes is today no longer viable. Andean terraces and the practice of leaving land fallow are gradually being replaced by the introduction of new mechanised and chemical agricultural techniques, irrigation and pesticides. Changing dietary habits are also having a direct impact on Andean agriculture. Instead of eating local Andean products, depreciated by town-dwellers, inhabitants of communities have taken to eating chicken, rice or pasta, imported foodstuffs that cannot be produced on the high plateaux.

The paths of acculturation
Puno is considered to be the capital of Peruvian folklore. The region has many different dances, over three hundred according to some sources. The diablada, the morenada, the llamerada, the marinera puneña and the pandilla puneña are the best-known.

The numerous religious feasts provide many occasions to dance and play music. The most important feast day of the region is dedicated to the patron saint of Puno, the Virgin of the Candelaria (Candlemas), which takes place in the first week of February. During this week, the various corporations and neighbourhood and community representatives for the whole district and beyond parade and dance in processions through the town. The carnival dances are more colourful. Ritual, erotic, agricultural or carnivalesque, these dances accompany a rhythmical music, played on pinquillos, bombos, drums, flutes and mandolins. The carnival festivities pay tribute to springtime and the fields in full bloom. Men and women wearing colourful clothes specific to each community, express loving sentiments, women by sensual movements and men by feigning indifference to them, at least at first.

Although these festivities are still highly popular, it is however sad to note that over the past decade, a cultural "mix" has emerged in the name of which some dances and types of music are turning into simple consumer products devoid of their original meaning. Trashy garish costumes, hyper sexualisation, mini skirts and thigh boots, simplistic choreographies,... the "modern" influences from nearby Bolivia, and from Brazil via television, are gradually replacing the traditional rhythms, dances and costumes of the Andes. Competition between various parading formations and "schools" also leads to one-upmanship to the detriment of traditional values and continuity.

The Son Quenas group was created in 2002 by the merging of a group of young traditional musicians playing wind instruments and a dance association. Originally, most of them were in training at the university. At first, the group, which has seven musicians and twelve couples of male and female dancers, went to villages in the region of Puno during community festivities to participate for free and, in return, learn there the particular rhythms. Today, partly due to their popularity, but above all due to necessity and economic opportunity, the group is paid for its performances. Its usual repertoire includes thirty-odd songs and twenty-odd dances representative of the regional and Peruvian, even occasionally Bolivian, traditions. Particularly appreciated by hotel owners, the group performs for tourists, favouring a simplified repertoire, dynamic and rousing ("contagiosa") in order to get the holidaymakers dancing diablada, morenada and other farandoles with them… Parallel to these events, performed to earn their living, the group also perpetuates the traditional versions of Puno songs and dances like those recorded on this record – though this is becoming more and more rare.  

"Sayuri", in Quechua, means "rising generation" or "to rise". In Aymara, it means "weaving".


CD tracks

  1. 29 September
    This Aymara piece, interpreted by the
    sikuris, is played in commemoration of the creation of the village of Conima. 
  2. Moho Carnival 

    Aymara musical genre typical of the Moho province.

  3. Kajelo
    There is also a sung version of this rhythm, which evokes Aymara chauvinism. Pisacani Community.

  4. Sambito
    This piece, in the
    saya musical genre, expresses the intermixing of the African and Indian cultures in Puno. It is played and danced mainly in Puno during the Candlemas Festivity.

  5. El Casarasidi
    This Aymara hayno is played during traditional weddings.
  6. Diablada traditional
    This dance symbolizes the struggle between good and evil and is symbolic of the intermixed folklore of Puno.

  7. Chucuito Carnival
    Rhythm of the Quechua Community in Chucuito province.

  8. Ichu Carnival
    Rhythm of the Aymara village, Ichu, renowned for its onion production. 

  9. Arapa Carnival
    This Quechua rhythm is famous for its flag dance (
    wifala), which it generally accompanies. 
  10. Kallahvas - Sandia
    Dance of Quechua healers and tradi-practitioners in Sandia province.

  11. Llameritos de Canteria
    Quechua pastoral dance related to lama and alpaca breeding.

  12. Kajcha
    Quechua carnival rhythm from Melgar province, also played during corridas and coupling ceremonies for sheep.