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Cuzco’s Tarola Drum and the Heartbeats of the Pachamama, the Mother Earth

Cuzco's Tarola, a Handmade Snare Drum

In Cuzco, drums are very important.  Although many parts of the world have their drums and their traditions of drumming, in Cuzco drums have a specific and ancient role.  They are part of the different traditions of all the communities that form part of Cuzco and are used in the vast majority of the feasts celebrated each year. One of those is the pageant of Inti Raymi.

In the weeks leading up to June 24th and the performance of this grand event, many musicians and dancers rehearse over and over to be able carry out the show without a hitch. Besides the numerous dancers the pageant requires musicians who play flutes (quenas) and  pututos (traditional trumpets of conch shells).  The trumpets invoke the mountains and people, while the flutes provide the sweetness of the melodies. A third group of instrumentalists, the percussion players, add a rhythmic base that, like thunder or the wind, roles and gives organizing background for the other instruments and the dancers.

The different rhythms signal changes in dances and melodies, giving continuity and plot to the great Inti Raymi event.

The percussion ensemble of Inti Raymi is composed of different traditional drums that have invoked and organized the people of Cuzco for thousands of years, even if in that time the context, rhythms, and melodies have changed.  These are the tarola (the snare drum), the tinya (a kind of tom tom) and the bombo (a base drum).   Despite the comparison to Western drums and the use of Western names, these drums have an independent  historical origin and existence in the Andes.

Playing the Tarola and Directing a Dance Troupe in Cuzco (Photo: Wayra)
Playing the Tarola and Directing a Dance Troupe in Cuzco (Photo: Wayra)

Inti Raymi’s first impression comes from them when the snares begin to sound in a tight roll.  Their particular sonic abilities, the roaring roll of a snare that sounds like rocks cascading down a cliff, water in a cascade, or thunder on the hills, marks the dance steps of a trot, or a ceremony for the entrance of the Inca.

The tarola is made in the traditional way, rather than the way of the contemporary industrial snare.  It is composed of wood, chord, and goatskin, and string snares.  The goatskin has to undergo a process of tanning which consists of removing its hair.  For this people use lime, salt, and fermented urine.  After the skin soaking in these it is buried.

When the hair falls from the skin without any effort it has a white and slippery color and texture.  Some tarolas use thongs of the same skin to bring tension to the skin drum head while others rely of twined straw chords.

The tarola has a certain rhythm that is particular to it:  the taroleada or trevoleo (roll). This is used for different kinds of distinctive dances from Cuzco. These include slower and quicker ones, such as the Qanchis, Quispicanchis, Paucartambo, and more, each representing a region of Cuzco.

The tarola and other percussion instruments accompany us in our joys at all moments.  Sometimes we hear them and realize what they are and otehr times we only follow the rhytym of some melody and we mark the rhythm in conjunction with the percussion. It is a very important part of the broader culture of Cuzco that includes its cuisine.

Carrying a Tarola while Playing Quena in Cuzco (Photo: Wayra)
Carrying a Tarola while Playing Quena in Cuzco (Photo: Wayra)

Here is a story of the history of the drum which I once heard. People say it is an Abenaki legend.

It is said that when Tunkashila (The Universal Grandfather) was finding a place for all people and animals to inhabit so they could take part in the life of Mother Earth, a sound like a strong explosion was heard in the distance.

Tunkashila heard it, but the sound continued to arrive stronger and stronger until finally it appeared right in front of the Creator.

“Who are you,” Tunkashila asked.  “I am the spirit of the drum,” the sound responded.  “I came to ask you to let me participate in marvelous things.”

“How will you join in,” questioned the Creator.

“I want to accompany the song of the people. When they sing from their heart, I will join them and sing like the heart beat of the Mother Earth. In this way all of creation will sing in harmony.”

Tunkashila granted the petition and from then on the drum accompanied the people’s voices.

Evene though this legend is said to be from an Algonquin people of North America it speaks to a truth of all the original peoples of the New World.  The drum is the center of all songs.

It is catalyzing agent for the spirit of the songs.  It raises them to the Creator, so that the songs arrive where they are desired to go. With every beat, the drum brings integrity, respect, enthusiasm, solemnity, strength, courage, and the fulfillment of the songs.

The drum beats are the heart beats of the Earth, giving approval to those who live on her.

The Abenaki say the Eagle embraces this medicine and carries the message to the creator.  In this way the life of the people is changed.

Translater’s note.  Though the Abenaki are an Algonquin people to who the legend is attributed in the link above, Tunkashila appears to be Siouan.  This is a problem for attribution.  Nevertheless, the idea of the story, that of drum beats representing a heart beat and the idea that the “spirit” is this sound or beat, is a very important one that seems to speak deeply to Cuzco’s drummers.  The use of the snare to start or invoke a feast or a certain step in a dance reminds me of the way firecrackers or bottle rockets also announce feasts and support them in critical moments, as things themselves and as petitions and prayers to the Earth and to the Sky.

Evening and the Heartbeat of the Earth (Photo: Wayra)
Evening and the Heartbeat of the Earth (Photo: Wayra)


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