So Much in Love, the Great Huayno Llaulillay

Afternoons, glasses of beer rise and clink together over plank wood floors and hand-crafted wooden tables and chairs. Men gather to meet friends, talk, laugh, and drink. Throughout the Andes, and not just in Peru, you can see this through doors and windows as you walk down the street, or you can go in, grab an empty chair—if there is one—and lift your glass of beer.

It was not always this way. Beer began to be produced in the Andes with the spread of the railroads in the late nineteenth century and you can track the development of major breweries following the spread of major rail lines leading to the dominant Cusqueña, Cristal, Pilsen Callao, Arequipeña, and Pilsen Trujillo. That these mostly have names of dominant regions in the country, tells us something of the fragmented nature of how Peruvian railroads were built entrepreneurially and were not interconnected, even though today all these brands are owned by a single transnational company, Backus and Johnston.

Prior to the development of cantinas as a national institution, people would go to picanterías and chicherías to imbibe and enjoy masculine company afternoons and evenings. Both of these still exist and continue to draw people, even though beer has gained an even stronger presence in Peruvian life as almost a social sine qua non and picanterías find themselves more and more serving beer rather than chicha.

Not surprisingly this major Peruvian institution, beer and the cantina, finds itself reflected in Peruvian song, including in huaynos. This song style with a storied tradition that contrasts with the Creole music of the coast is still sung and danced to throughout the country, but especially in the highlands.

Sharing chicha and beer in a cantina (Walter Coraza Morveli)

One popular huayno that comes from some decades ago and is “iconic in the vernacular repertoire of Cusco, Llaulillay—attributed to Graciano Puente de la Vega, deserves attention. Despite its lively rhythm marking the steps of the energetic dance that accompanies it, the song’s words take us right into a cantina with raised glasses of beer and the sorrow and joy that enlivens it. The twined contrast of sadness and happiness appears in the main image that makes the song’s title, Llaulillay. In Quechua, the common and symbolically powerful language of Cusco it mentions a spiny and beautiful relative of the aster flower, the Llauli, that becomes personal with the two suffixes, -lla and the possessive -y, “just my piercing beauty, the Llauli” It is not the European rose but a large native flower that grows throughout the valleys and planes of upland Cusco. That is love and it grows and withers with the seasons; when the rain falls it blossoms in great if painful beauty and when the rains cease it withers into brown flowers, leaves, and spines.

This doubled image supports the music with its bouncy and driving 2/4 rhythm where you can almost hear the snapping of shoes on the wooden planks. It also expresses a strong value in Cusco: no matter what, no matter how tragic or sad, you should laugh and smile and dance to be part of social life.

After laying out the Llauli’s duality in the first stanza (Love is a plant, Llaulillay/ it grows and fades, llaulillay) the huayno almost says the same thing but makes an important change, following the tradition of paired Quechua couplets although the song is in Spanish. The second stanza’s first part repeats the words of the second line of the first stanza, before its twist. It now takes us into the world of ayni, reciprocity, to explain the growing and fading (It grows and fades, llaulillay/ under threat of forgetting, llaulillay. The Spanish actually says “bad payment”, or a bad return on an initial gift or offering, as if forgetting to irrigate when the rains fade, so I used the word “forget” to express the “bad payment”.

Andeans fear being forgotten by loved ones. They invest time, energy, food, drink, and dance in you, and then you leave. Will you return? Will you bring gifts (payments or counter-prestations in reciprocity speak)? Will they still matter to you?

Enjoying fresh beer.
Enjoying fresh beer.

More than just friends, this song is about the love of couples, the paradigm of duality that makes the universe spin like the rhythms of the huayno and, so, the song continues. It reminds us we are in a cantina when the next verse calls out: “‘Waiter, another drink!’ Llaulillay”. The singer calls out in a male world where the female half is absent. This is not the chichería where women make the beverage and serve it. It is the world of beer with a male waiter and male companions, for the moment away from the world of love, since it withered as manifested in being forgotten by your love. (It must be noted that women also go to cantinas though that does not change their predominant relationship with masculinity). This is a world of men’s stories, laughter, jokes, and solidarity that covers and transforms the sorrow of bad payment and loss. The end of this stanza makes this clear when the singer states why he wants another beer: “’To forget my pain, llaulillay’”. It is not a single pain, a single loss, but is plural “penas” which could be sorrows or pains. (I chose the latter to keep the lines tight.) You could say the pains are those of masculinity, of manhood, that is of loving while being a man and not being fully corresponded or understood.

While penas is a word in Spanish that is fairly general, underlying it in Cusco is a set of distinctions in Quechua of importance. Individual pain can be nana if it is physical like a bleeding wound. Otherwise, it is ñak’ari, I am told, an existential suffering like that of the condenado who roams unable to let go of his penas and his pecados, his bad actions. Then there is pensamientuwan, meaning recurring thoughts that simply will not let you go, such as of love or of loss. One final contrast, that is very important according to the Quichua psychiatrist Mario Incayawar, is llaki, which is sorrow, but not an individual one. It requires more people and hence has a strong collective aspect. This is crucial for Llaulillay, as we have seen.

The song continues by almost repeating the last line of the prior stanza, though with changes. It does so in order to lay down a condition: “If we forget these pains, llaulillay”. The act of drinking, of moving into male space for a while, just for a while—as represented in the much-repeated personalized name of the flower—enables a change: “we can get new loves, Llaulillay.” We can engage again with the thorny beauty of love.

Songs often come in multiple versions without the words being identical, no matter how they might have originally been written. Even singers can change the words from performance to performance. For this song, the group Los Campesinos add an additional verse here (two couplets). They sing, “Love is like a condor, laulillay,/ that stands above its prey, llaulillay.” In context, this couplet presents that singer, the man, as prey, something grasped in the claws of a massive bird that soars high and plunges to earth to grab you before tearing you to pieces.

Now, instead of repeating the last line either directly or in modification the song engages the contradiction of a man being prey, since such seems untenable to masculinity and is at the heart of the dilemma. He should be the actor, the doer, and the one seized. So, the structure breaks and the man becomes the condor now, the one tearing and breaking the flesh of his beloved, even the one doing the mal pago, the break in ayni: “On feeling that sorrow, llaulillay, / he shakes his wings and flies away, llaulillay.”

The song now shifts to the chorus, the zapateada, when shoes pound the floor raising dust as couples spin and recognize the potential treachery of men and that of women. “What have you done to me, / what have I done to you, / to be so much in love without knowing each other well?”

With a final flourish and striking chord the song ends. It has danced us through Andean love as duality and coming together where neither side can be really known by the other, lest love fail, even if it is spiny and beauteous.




Leylis Gutierrez, Llaulillay, 

Incayawar M, Saucier J. “Pain in remote Andean communities – learning from Quichua (Inca) experience.” Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2010; 10: 1379. Available: ? ArticleID=1379 (Accessed 28 January 2016)

My gratitude to Eric Rayner for his help with the Quechua semantic set on pain.

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