October 2014

The zampoña - an old instrument, but new to me

A few days ago, three volunteers and I went to the national park of Toro Toro. We visited this beautiful place with a guide, and not only was he great, he also introduced us to an ancient instrument: the zampoña. I had never heard of it before the trip, but it is one of the most important instruments in Bolivia, and in South America.

By: Anne-Lise Boissiere
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Pornic - France

Eduardo Taborga, Zampona player
Photo: Ximena Noya

The guide offered to play us some famous songs, and, of course, played El cóndor pasa, Simon & Garfunkel, La lambada and Los Kjarkas. I was fascinated by the sound of this instrument. Its sound was so pure, calm, and soothing.

Also called Siku in Aymara, the zampoña is a wind instrument which belongs to the pan-pipe or pan-flute family. The sound is similar to a flute but more varied. Zampoñas are made up of a series of cane tubes, bound together, open at one end and closed at the other. Bamboo pipes are mostly used to make the instrument.

It is known as a folk instrument and could be considered as the first mouth organ, having been created about a thousand years before the Incas. It originated from Peru and Bolivia; specifically, in the region around Lake Titicaca, where the Aymaras lived. According to Apulaya, the center of Andean Culture, it is deemed a musical item, produced by the Andeans and representative of their culture.

The Incas communities considered music a key element of life. They inherited the wind and percussion instrument from the Andean people and continued to play it to relax and to create a connection with death. According to The Peru Cultural Society website, music instruments were precious to them. They did not just make them; they perfected them and took care of them as valuable items. The purpose of music was associated to religious rituals, agricultural and war, as well as to respect and maintain a good relationship with the divinities.

A Zampoña workshop
Photo: Ximena Noya

When the European conquerors arrived in South America, they wanted the people to adopt their own culture and way of living. They particularly encouraged them to play European music. While Bolivian and Peruvian people had to adapt their music form, harmony and rhythm, they still had to use their own instruments like the zampoña. So, like many of its neighbors, Bolivian music is partly based on European culture yet also has Inca heritage.

In the Museum of Instruments in La Paz, I discovered many different types of zampoñas and charangos. There are many sizes of zampoña and, depending on the size, the instrument can be called by different names: Chulli, Malta, Sanka, and Toyo. Thanks to the huge collection in this museum, I could see the evolution of the manufacturing of these instruments. In the time of the Incas, the zampoña was very simple, made up of bamboo or wood without any features or decorations. Nowadays, each zampoña is different: painted, colored, and with specific finishings for each instrument.

To learn more about this instrument, I met Eduardo Taborga, a professional musician who plays the zampoña in the music group Amaru.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us how long have you played the zampoña? How did you discover this instrument and why did you want to play it?

My name is Eduardo Taborga, I am a member of the music group Amaru. Amaru is very famous at national and international level, with 38 years of history. In this music group I play wind instruments: all the zampoña and quena types. I think it is important to know more about the wind instruments. They are from Andean people; the zampoñas and quenas are part of that culture.

Photo: Ximena Noya

Since I was 15 or 16 years old, I became interested in this instrument. It has a very special and melodic sound. That is why I am interested, and I think, like all musicians, I have always wanted to investigate the instrument I play. That is why I started to read about the sound the zampoña makes, and the musical notes needed to create and play a song.

Are there many types of zampoña?
The zampoñas are an instrument from the Altiplano, from the Andean people. We cannot specify or be too sure of the origin of the zampoñas because we play it in all the Andean countries, such as Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Obviously, the instrument is played more in the highlands in Bolivia, in the region of Altiplano, in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosi. I think this is an instrument which is now internationally known because of musical groups that play it. It is an instrument made of bamboo tubes of various sizes, depending on the musical note. It also depends on the amount of different octaves. For example, the principal zampoña, which is the Malta, has seven (7) tubes above and eight (8) tubes below. The name of the tube above is Arka, whereas the other is named Ira.

We can start with the musical notes Si, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do… and thus in two octaves. Then we have the whole family which consists of the same note, only one (Octave higher or octave lower). For example, this zampoña’s name is Sanka. The Sanka is the same octave as the Malta, which has the same tonality. There is another one which is named Ika. This also has the same tonality. The biggest ones name is Toyos. They are almost one meter and twenty centimeters long.

Then we have the variety of the family. For example, this one is named Antara and this is the Malta, but its sound is much sweeter and much more melodic. We practically use it for romantic songs. The sound is really incredible. Then we have the chromatic zampoña, which is the Malta, and the missing chromatic notes, such as flats and sustained. Then e can play any song and we can accompany this with the piano, which emits the same notes. The zampoña we play for national themes has this problem of chromatic notes.

What type of zampoña do you play?
I conduct all the instruments and all the zampoñas. A lot of zampoña work in our music is important to the group to sound more melodic. We only combine notes in order to make the theme much more melodic.

Photo: Ximena Noya

Can you tell me about your evolution from amateur to professional?
I started out as a passionate amateur player of the zampoña. I started to play an Ikita but had not learned how to play pan-pipes. I am self-taught and learned the zampoña by listening to its music and melodies. Sometimes it was necessary to listen to other music and other zampoñistas so I can play the same melodies. Then, you acquire your own style, which characterizes yourself. When you listen to a zampoña you can recognize who is playing, and which conductor is playing the zampoña.

Where do you find musical inspiration? Do you write music?
Yes, with the passage of time it was necessary for me to learn to read music. It is necessary to write on paper melodies for the zampoñas. Over time you learn to write and transmit the songs on paper. The interesting thing is that zampoña music works also works for four (4) types of other instruments like the piano, accordion, and saxophone. I think it is fundamental to write music and to be able to transmit the feeling and the sound of the zampoña.

How many hours do you play every day?
When you start it is interesting because you quickly want to learn the songs, but there often is the problem of the headache! You have to blow a lot which gives you a headache; this is the main problem when you start. Then you get used to that and the way you practice has to be according to the method you use. I used to practice the zampoña four (4) or five (5) hours per day. Nowadays I practice for around one (1) or two (2) hours per day. I don’t have a lot of time because of my job. It is quite complicated but I continue to play. It is important to maintain at a good level.

Can you explain to me how to play? Is it hard to learn?
Like I said, at the beginning it is hard but then you make the sound according to your breathing, and it is easier to produce the sound when you know how to manage the instrument.

What is important is the breathing and the position of the bottom lips in order to emit the sound. You don’t let air escape from the tube, because if it escapes it does not sound like the right note.

Photo: Ximena Noya

What are the qualities to be a good musician?
Well, I think that practice is the most important thing to play the zampoña. I played a lot because the sound was not very clear. Over time with practice you can improve the sound. And I guess that is why the zampoña becomes a sweet instrument, a necessary instrument for our music, Bolivian music. I guess all musical groups play this instrument because the zampoña is a part of the history of Bolivia. So I think the most important thing is to practice.

Can you tell me one important event that happened to you?
The zampoñas are tied with threads and have a very special look. You have to be careful that the tubes do not fall out, but over time pan pipes will loosen. There are times when we have much activity. So you have to be careful, but sometimes it is exciting and once during a presentation some tubes fell, so we had to finish playing with the tubes on the floor. Stories like these are unforgettable. These things happen in a simple instrument which is artisanal and handmade; they are instruments that you manipulate.

Who makes the instruments?
There are many manufacturers here in Cochabamba. They are known thanks to the quality of the instrument. Some of them make the instrument and sell them in La Cancha, the city market. If you go there, you are going to see zampoñas for 20 bolivianos with the same quality of sound and same finetuning. The refinement is very important for the zampoñas. It requires plenty of time, and it is a slow process. When you have nearly finished the zampoña , you have to work hard on the finishing. What is interesting is that in places where it is very cold such as La Paz, Potosi, or Oruro, the tonality of zampoñas can be lower. In places where it is hot like Santa Cruz, the tonality of zampoñas rise.

It is important to keep the zampoñas tuned at 40 as this is the international standard for all instruments. But when we travel, for example in La Paz, what we do is lower the instruments from 40 to 38 because the zampoña's' tone lowers to 38. In the east it is the opposite because the tuning rises. It is interesting, and with practice you also learn to control your breath. Sometimes you have to manipulate the zampoñas to find the right tonality. These are things that you learn with practice.

How many years can a zampoña last?
Generally the zampoñas do not have a limited lifetime, but we always have to check the tuning and sometimes change the tubes. Several times the sound becomes opaque or cracked as the tubes break. Hence, we change the tubes and in any case and with time tend the pan-pipe. I generally change them every three (3) or five (5) years.

My favorite one is Sarka which has a very low sound, which is very profound. You fall in love with your instrument and you play until the morning. In my case, the presentations are during the night.

I started with Alejandro Cámara, who is a great master of the charango. We created a musical group. I learned to play with him. Though I did not have the necessary basic skills, I learned to play as a professional. Then I played in some other musical groups. I also played with Siembra, which created Sayubu. I have played with the group Incallajta and now with Amaru for 16 years. The year 1990 or 1991 was the start of my career with the group.

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