This region’s musical tradition does not discriminate. All sounds are welcome, and all people are too. Here, it is normal for prehispanic flutes to accompany Christmas songs. Likewise, the European acoustic guitar is strummed alongside the Andean charango. Over the course of our trip, we tried our hands at the quena, zampona, bandoneon, and caja.
Despite their differences, all the region’s musical styles are united in their ability to bring people together, to celebrate life, and to help people connect with their environment.
“It’s a special part of this place, that almost anyone, it doesn’t matter their age or profession, knows how to play a traditional instrument of some kind,” Lucas Gordillo, a musician from Tilcara, explains to his audience midway through a performance. “And that in turn makes people here aware of the importance of our music and our culture.”
During our travels through northwest Argentina, one musical style in particular challenged our preconceived notions of what music can be.
Just outside the town of San Carlos, Hernàn Perata welcomes us to his outdoor workshop where he handcrafts instruments using local materials. It is here that he and his wife, Julieta Yañez, perform a copla for us. A style of music native to the area, coplas combine singing with the caja drum for the purpose of connecting people to the land, celebrating the human experience, and performing rituals. There are coplas for everything ranging from love to philosophy to sorrow, but all are performed with the intention of unifying people and connecting to Pachamama, the Andean word for Mother Earth. As Hernàn explains it, singing along to the beat of the caja drum is the earth singing.
Hernàn and Julieta’s daughter, Catalina, visits us in the workshop and performs a copla for us. Her beautiful voice emanates throughout the property. Shyly, she hands her parents the caja and heads off to school.
“When I see my children and I singing together, it makes me feel a sense of unity because that’s what music does,” Hernàn says. “I also feel that seeing my children sing is the seed planted so that this cultural platform can continue.”
After saying our goodbyes, we reflect on the integral role coplas play in the area. Catalina, for example, has grown up with the understanding that music is more than just entertainment: it is an integral part of everyday life and spirituality. Witnessing this firsthand makes us ponder the role music plays in our lives back home. How do we experience music differently? Do we focus too much on critiquing it, rather than on enjoying it for what it is? Can we take what we’ve learned here in Argentina and apply it to our own musical practices back home?
We don’t have immediate answers, but it’s fun to think about. After all, what is the point of traveling if it doesn’t challenge your own perspective and worldview?