From ancient times Peru has been a land of flutes. Different kinds of flutes formed ensembles that played for different events and, like a calendar, marked the season’s passing. Even today, though, in Cuzco one can hear every kind of music that plays in international ears, these flutes continue. Foremost among them is the quena (kay-nah).
In Quechua it is called qina and it is made from a tube of cane or wood (although sometimes people even use pvc pipe) with a notch at one end and 6 holes for the fingers down the front and one for the thumb on the back. Used traditionally by all the inhabitants of the Central Andean mountain range, it has a haunting and captivating sound that can glide like a condor on a breeze. Sometimes it just hangs there, as if at rest, before plunging towards the ground.
Today, along with the charango and the sicu or zampoña (the pan flute) it is one of the typical instruments used in groups that play Andean folklore. But it is not limited to that role as a symbol of our land and our people. It is also used in fusion music, ethno music, new age music, and more.
There are strong archaeological evidences that this instrument evolved and belongs here with us. Scholars have found quenas made from the wing bones of condors and other animals, such as llamas. As a result, comparing its sound to a condor riding the updrafts is not just a metaphor; there is a historical connection.
Today the quena, like Peruvian food, is known world wide. It is used by Andean folk bands and is also relied on for hte majority of the traditional dances of Cuzco.
In June, the month of festivals and feasts, you will hear a lot of quenas in Cuzco. On it are played the traditional melodies that accompany the dances, such as those of the feast of the Virgin of Carmen in the town of Paucartambo. In the majority of dances accompaniment provided by this instrument is primordial.
You will see people walking up and down the streets by the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s main square, offering for sale instruments such as charangos, quenas, and zampoñas (pan flutes). They will often perform some demonstrations for interested parties so that visitors will take iinterest to buy them and appreciate even more the music of our heritage.
There are many well known musicians who interpret pieces on teh quena and also groups who through their performances make the greatness of the quena known. These include William Luna, Antología, and many more.