A shining, shimmering sound off steel strings illuminates Cuzco’s tradition. Most tourists will not have heard it, since the restaurants visitors frequent fill with performers of Andean music, a form that originated in Bolivia and spread widely in the seventies and eighties. The city has many musical styles, nevertheless it is this sound, from off a host of string instruments, that typifies Cuzco.
Cuzco has always had a rich musical tradition. The Spanish just added to it and modernity has brought even more variety. Yet there have also been various styles that have a symbolic resonance that makes one feel the city and its tradition.
To be sure, flutes and drums do not disappear, they are the root of so much Andean music and especially of many of the dance troupes that process around the plaza, if they are not accompanied by brass bands and drums.
But those steel strings that produce a sheen of sound that bounces like light speak of Cuzco more than anything else.
The string instruments did come from Spain originally, as part of the complex and rich development of lute-like instruments of one form or another that was transported to the Americas. The most common are the charango, the bandurria, and the requinto. Each of them has its own different number of strings and tunings.
Rather than simply providing a rhythmic accompaniment of chords for a melody performed by a singer or another instrument, in Cuzco on these instruments is commonly played the melody. However, it is seldom played completely straight. The melody appears ornamented with rolls that vary from player to player although they all fit within the traditions of the city.
The stringed instruments developed in towns and the city as the instruments of a class that was neither rural and Indian, nor urban and formally Spanish. They are the people described by Cuzco’s great poet Luís Nieto as Cholos, people in between. One of Nieto’s important works, besides the Hymn to the city of Cuzco, is a set of poems called simply El Charango, Romancero Cholo . In it the charango, a small instrument with a particularly rich dense sound, because of the tuning of its ten strings where the lowest note is in the middle, carries a main role as a symbol of the Cholo, the common man of Cuzco. Translations of these poems, which also describe the flute and a guitar, can be found on Cuzco Eats.
One master of the Cuzco charango who you can find on YouTube is the great Julio Benevente Diaz, originally from the nearby town of Huarocondo. He toured widely outside Peru including the US and Europe to bring his art and style to the awareness of musical connoisseurs world wide. Unfortunately, Don Julio has passed away, though his heritage lives on. Here is an homage in Spanish to Don Julio one of the great masters of the charango. Here is Don Julio playing a Cusco classic.
Whether on charango, bandurria, or requinto, the music of Cusco, different from other Andean styles, lives on in the hands and fingers of a hot of local musicians. Nevertheless, this is not the music you will hear in restaurants on the Plaza. There musicians tend to play a different, international style commonly called Latin American Music.