Nature’s Sonorous Politics:

Music, Ecology, and Indigenous Activism in Andean Peru

By Joshua Tucker

Author Joshua Tucker helps out by sanding a musical instrument. Photo by Marco Tucno.

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.

Workshop for making instruments. Photo by Joshua Tucker.

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. In this way, chimaycha made seasonal change, pastoral subsistence, community geography, and the human life cycle—particularly the securing of a life partner—into distinct facets of one indissoluble ecosystem.

Variously sized chinlilis. Photo by Joshua Tucker.

Nevertheless, chimaycha wouldn’t have developed in the way that it has without the mediation of aid workers and local intellectuals. Shortly after the 1959 reopening of Ayacucho’s Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga (UNSCH), foreign non-governmental agencies (NGOs), working in partnership with the university’s Centro de Capacitación Campesina (CCC), came into poor rural communities like Quispillaccta. They mainly promoted crop improvement, irrigation and other such development projects. However, the CCC also established a Quechua-language radio program, featuring field recordings made by and for rural musicians with borrowed cassette recorders. This radio program drove the creation of a chimaycha performing scene, made up of young musicians eager to hear themselves on the radio. More importantly, it established a cassette archive of traditional music.

This bore fruit of a different kind in the 1990s, after the CCC’s program went defunct. Development projects had improved Quispillaccta’s economy, providing new opportunities to its children, and by 1992 the community housed an unusual sort of NGO. Founded by quispillacctina sisters Magdalena and Marcela Machaca, agronomist graduates of the UNSCH, the Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla was staffed entirely by fellow quispillacctinos. It promoted indigenous agricultural knowledge to counter the assumptions of academic agronomy, and provided resources for mitigating the local effects of climate change. It also supported cultural traditions like chimaycha, through which such knowledge was learned and transmitted. By the time they organized Radio Quispillaccta, at the turn of the millennium, ABA was in dialogue with actors tied to the global indigenous movement, and members of the association became convinced of the need to make environmental stewardship and indigenous distinctiveness into twin pillars of a regional movement for self-determination.

Listen to Radio Quispillaccta, then, and this is what you will hear: community news, programs about human rights and agricultural technique, exhortations about the value of indigenous tradition, and a lot of chimaycha. It’s not all traditional: the older style competes with an urban version that borrows heavily from mainstream pop, and has little to do with community life. However, Radio Quispillaccta’s staff accepts this as a part of a process through which young Quechua speakers are finding their voice and defining their values as indigenous people, tacking between the poles of community-centered ecocentrism and the dynamic changes of urban indigenous life. 

There’s no indigenous movement in Andean Peru? Maybe not in the nation’s halls of politics. But perhaps that’s not the right place to look.

Author with renowned chinlili player José Tomayllain in Chuschi plaza in Ayacucho, Peru. Photo by Óscar Conde. 

Joshua Tucker is Dean’s Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University. He is currently completing a book about the relationship between music, ecology, and indigenous social politics in the Peruvian Andes.He was a 2009-10 DRCLAS Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar.