Spectacle, Movement, and Impasse at Inti Raymi

“Inti Raymi,” sings Q-Pop (that is, K-Pop in Quechua) pioneer, Lenin Tamayo: “Vamos a bailar. . . todos a cantar”; “We’re going to dance. . . everyone sing!” And the music video, in which K-Pop takes on Andean scissor dancers, is well worth viewing. . . 

But the Inti Raymi celebrations we saw in Cusco were not much like this, and not only for the lack of K-Pop beats. Above all, where Tamayo presents festivities in which everyone can (and should) take part, a collective, mass celebration that is diverse and hybrid, what we saw instead was much more a show with a clear division between actors and spectators. Whether in the city’s Plaza de Armas, which was first cleared of people early in the morning in preparation for the arrival of the dancers, or later in Sacsayhuaman, Inti Raymi was a spectacle to be seen, rather than a festival of participation.

Moreover, proceedings also followed a program, a script, whose key points or steps were announced in both Spanish and English. There was a plot and direction to the performance, as we prepared for the dramatic arrival of the Inca (preceded by the Inca Queen), leading ultimately to the symbolic sacrifice of the llama, whose entrails were read for what they may say about the coming twelve months. This was a performance of power and continuity: both the impressive display of fealty to the Inca from the various quarters of the Twantinsuyo, as it has been reimagined by twentieth and twenty-first century Indigenists, but also the notion that this sense of territorial unity continues into the present. Downplaying or even erasing the rupture that was the Spanish conquest, Inti Raymi claims a more or less unbroken link to a distant past, replayed now in all its vibrant colour and impressive coordination of exotic difference.

Indeed, it was a show: but what a show! The sheer stamina of the dancers and musicians, who began in the morning at Qorichancha and didn’t finish until almost sunset eight or so hours later, was remarkable, not least as we spectators started to wilt in the heat of the Andean sun. All around, there was movement and motion, albeit ultimately calmed by the hand of the sovereign as the dancers bowed to his authority. And if this is a fiction of state, as it surely is, it certainly has the power to attract and capture the crowds: not simply the foreign tourists who (mainly) were those who, like us, had paid for the privilege of seats as Sacsayhuaman, but also the cusqueños who also traipsed up the hill, and then beyond, to observe the performance from the more distant but elevated perspective of the surrounding outcrops.

As we then made our way back down to the city, via the narrow and uneven path that leads to the highway, the sense of coordination soon fell apart. As tourists and locals merged, there was a logjam of people and much frustration at the fact that we weren’t moving faster, or at times even moving at all. Apart from some who had sped off already in chartered buses (but I doubt the roads were much clearer), here the different audiences were now cheek by jowl, pressed against each other, with a common but frustrated aim of escape. There were a couple of police officers looking on, who received many insults from the crowd for the fact that they seemed unable to bring more order or get the flow going again. It was literally an impasse as the physical contours of the cliffs on either side prevented anyone getting around the crush of people. Eventually the traffic restarted (no thanks to the police), but it felt as though we were once more in a more familiar Peru, and (briefly, at least) all in it more or less together.

Later, there may have been a party, who knows? If so, it wasn’t obvious, and/or we weren’t invited. But we had already felt, in suitably (and literally) dramatic fashion some of the country’s tensions: the spectacular display of coordinated unity, on the one hand, and then a rather different commonality of a delayed and frustrated, but ultimately successful, line of flight, that the authorities could only observe from the sidelines, powerless to intervene.

Machu Picchu at the End of the Line

On arrival at Machu Picchu, we are told that this is a sanctuary, a sacred space. We are also provided with a list of prohibited objects and activities: no tripods or selfie sticks; no musical instruments or high heels; no climbing or jumping; no singing or whistling; no dressing up or running. And upon entering, our movement is carefully regulated: we have to follow a pre-established circuit (which we have chosen in advance), without deviation or turning back. Our guides usher us towards the “best” site for a photograph–though we have not chosen the circuit that includes the “classic” postcard shot, we are taken as close as possible, waiting our turn as the group before us get their pictures in. If this is a sanctuary, we are sharing it with the other four thousand tourists who visit each day.

It is hard not to feel a little bit cynical at Machu Picchu: pushed and prodded at all sides, if visitors feel a sense of their own insignificance it is as much because they recognize that they are simply a small part of a constant tourist stream as because they are confronted with a site of sublime awe and wonder. Or rather, perhaps here the tourist sublime makes itself known in the fleets of buses careening up and down the winding road to the citadel, in the lines snaking through the ruins themselves, and in the brutal (and uncharacteristically Peruvian) efficiency of the whole operation. Moreover, there is a sense that the whole of Peru funnels tourists to this end–Lima to Cusco to the Sacred Valley and then the train to Aguas Calientes–only to dump them out the other side, wondering “What next?” Answer: Puno, or perhaps the Colca Canyon; tourism never really stops. But still, augmented by the fact that there is essentially only one way in or out of Machu Picchu, one gets the feeling that this is the end of the line, the culmination of something. But what?

In The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Pablo Neruda claims to have experienced some kind of epiphany here: the realization that behind or beneath the spectacular stonework of the Inca ruins is the back-breaking labour of those who built it, who stand in for all those exploited over the ages up and down the continent; “Stone within stone, and man, where was he? / Air within air, and man, where was he? / Time within time, and man, where was he? [. . .] Let me have back the slave you buried here! / Wrench from these lands the stale bread / of the poor, prove me the tatters / on the serf, point out his window. / Tell me how he slept when alive,” (14). In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara presents a similar reflection, inflected through a sense of Indigeneity:

“Here we found the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas–untouched by a conquering civilization and full of immensely evocative treasures between its walls. The walls themselves have died from the tedium of having no life between them. The spectacular landscape circling the fortress supplies an essential backdrop, inspiring dreamers to wander its ruins for the sake of it; North American tourists, constrained by their practical world view, are able to place those members of the disintegrating tribes they may have seen in their travels among these once-living walls, unaware of the moral distance separating them, since only the semi-indigenous spirit of the South American can grasp the subtle differences.” (111)

Claiming special access to the meaning of the site thanks to his “semi-indigenous spirit,” Guevara inscribes upon it a double resistance to colonialism: Machu Picchu as fortification, untouched armed redoubt against the Spanish; and now its ruins resist also the North American gaze today, providing a lesson that only Latin Americans can read.

I wonder if such epiphanies are available in Machu Picchu today. It’s certainly not possible for visitors to “wander its ruins for the sake of it” as they could in Guevara’s time (and indeed, when I first visited, twenty-five years or so ago). I wonder if our guide had a better idea, when he constantly (and perhaps surprisingly) insisted that Machu Picchu was not such a big deal: the stonework is finer in Cusco, he kept on telling us; there are grander and more significant ruins elsewhere. Maybe these days, Machu Picchu is mostly distraction. Anything it once said, whether to locals or to visitors from South or North America alike, is now irreversibly drowned out or overwhelmed by the tourist sublime. It is the end of the line, but also a dead end. It’s time to look elsewhere.

Crashing Amaru

There had been some disquiet about our planned visit to the Amaru community, one of twelve that ring Pisac on the slopes of the mountains above the valley floor. It wasn’t clear to some of the students why we were going, and for others, why we were paying to go. 

I tried to explain, and even went so far as to suggest that it could be in some ways the most important day of our time here in Peru: our one chance to visit a more or less self-governing Indigenous community, recognized by the state as such. By some measures, this was perhaps our only opportunity to see and interact with “real,” Indigenous campesino life. And of course we couldn’t simply barge in to such a place, certainly not as twenty foreigners, many of whose Spanish is basic at best. This would have to be a curated, and even to some extent commodified experience. I warned that it could well be disappointing (“rubbish” was the word I used). But it was worth trying.

My worst fear was that it would be undignified: not for us, but for our hosts. But our experience so far of the Kusi Kawsay Association, who helped organize the trip (and whose school we had visited earlier in the week), has been generally positive, so I hoped for the best. In fact, it turned out that we were visiting families involved with the Association up in Amaru.

In the end, if anyone lost any of their dignity, it was me. I had been a bit sick in the morning before breakfast (almost everyone in the group has had minor stomach upsets or possible flu-like symptoms over the past few days), and then once in the field in which we were rather unceremoniously dumped upon arrival, I started to feel a little faint and dizzy. I felt even more uncertain of myself when, after being asked to put on a poncho and cap then take some ceremonial coca, I contributed some frankly risibly token efforts (even more token than everyone else’s) to work the chacra with hand-plough and pickaxe. So when we then moved on, and once we had been greeted by members of the Association for lunch, I promptly crashed out on the ground in the Andean sun. For the next little while I was more or less aware of little boys making fun of me and poking my face with bits of straw, while weaving demonstrations and the like went on around and about. The students were amused, I think, at my wholesale uselessness. I only gathered myself together once it was time to go, and finally on return to the hotel I promptly threw up again. The only saving grace was that I had managed to hold onto myself sufficiently not to despoil the community with gringo vomit.

Yet the fact that I felt able to crash out was a sign that I felt comfortable: comfortable enough to give in to my physical discomfort, at least. And I would say that that was the prevailing tenor of the visit. We visitors were gently challenged, even to do a little physical labour in unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting garb. But we were also made to feel welcome, with quite elaborate rituals of greeting and farewell that involved rounds of embraces and kisses. We were put at our ease and yet our hosts, I felt, had the upper hand, helped no doubt by the fact that there was not too much effort put into explaining or justifying the proceedings. We were asked simply to let fate take its course. It was no doubt performative (so much for the “real”), but the Amaru performers were happy and able to take charge, and perhaps smile at how badly their guests, myself above all, performed our own roles.

Still, I was left with many questions, and if I hadn’t been laid low I would probably have tried to ask them. Above all, I wonder about the relationship between the members of the Association and other members of the community. We didn’t really get a sense of the community as a whole, and I wonder whether there are frictions or even rivalries within it, not least because the Association seems to be doing such a good (and perhaps profitable) job hosting such instances of experiential tourism. Moreover, our guide did tell me (while I was still more or less compus mentis) that the Association’s goals of “reinvigorating, promoting, protecting and celebrating the Andean Culture” are driven in part by fears about the encroachment of Protestant sects, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that we passed on the way through the village. I wonder how such differences are negotiated in the everyday life of the broader community.

But perhaps such questions are too much to ask over the span of just a few hours, even if I had been feeling more myself. We were only going to see (and feel) a small facet of things, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise, but that was plenty for the time being. At least it wasn’t rubbish.

Punk Indigenism

Yesterday, I broke a chair. I’m not particularly proud of the fact, but I’m also sorry / not sorry. If by any chance the owners of Sapos pizza bar are reading this, then I will indeed pay for the damage. But I suspect the chair must have been pretty flimsy in the first place. And it was part of a performance that is perhaps symptomatic of my feelings about this place, and even of a couple of other things, too.

I can’t sing. When I was at primary school, I was asked simply to mouth the words of collective songs and hymns, as the noise I was emitting was deemed to be putting everyone else off. But I do like performing. So when, years ago, in Lima, I was taken by some friends to the karaoke bar at the Centro Cultural Peruano Japonés, I couldn’t resist putting myself forward. And the only song they had available (probably by some kind of mistake) that seemed to fit my style, and which didn’t involve any actual singing–rather, shouting–was the Sid Vicious version of “My Way.” Which duly became my karaoke party piece, although only in Peru. Elsewhere, I tend (with only very occasional exceptions) to avoid karaoke. But in Peru, I sing. And I sing Sid Vicious.

So when the students excitedly wanted to go to a makeshift karaoke bar here in Pisac, I duly trundled along, and after an introductory rendition of “Piano Man” (for which I was helpfully drowned out by their own enthusiastic participation) and a rather less successful attempt at “So Long Marianne” (which I thought they would also turn into a sing-along, but I guess these days young Canadians don’t know their Leonard Cohen), I ended the night as Sid. And when it came to the line “I shot it up or kicked it out,” somewhat carried away by the occasion I kicked at the nearest unoffending article of domestic furniture, which turned out not to be quite as robust as I had imagined.

But a bit of punk in Pisac seems appropriate. Because this is a town riddled with New Age tourists, neo-hippies, and of course the punks hated hippies: “Never trust a hippy,” as they used to say. And to be honest, the posters plastered on Pisac doors featuring white-bearded gringos advertising such things as “Sacred Healing Ceremony and Musical Oracle” or “Psychedelic Counseling” and “Authentic Yoga” were getting me down. So the chair paid the price, in what was no doubt a bit of personal catharsis.

To be honest, though, I do have hippy friends. Yes, the old cliché: “Some of my best friends are hippies.” I’m thinking of one in particular, Steve, who I last saw on a very brief trip to London in March, who is very unwell, and who I fear I will not see again. Indeed, I could no doubt go on at length (also in clichéd fashion) as to why these Pisac neo-hippies are so unlike and different from the “real” hippies that I love back in Penge and Beckenham.

But I think the main thing here is that the New Age business is a distraction. As a group, we’ve almost begun to see and think about it more than about the issues of Indigeneity that we are actually here to consider and reflect on. Not that the two are easily entangled: obviously, the New Age Spiritualism feeds on a construction of Indigeneity that is specific to highland Peru and the Sacred Valley (the very notion of a “sacred” valley). It is not for nothing that they are here, as well as other places (Pisac reminds me for instance of Antigua, Guatemala) where Indigenous culture remains strongly embedded. And of course, for the locals, though there may well be grumbling about some of their ways and their impact on the town, they also contribute to the economy, and the guides for instance willingly play up to the image of spirituality and peace, much in fact as way back in the 1600s Garcilaso de la Vega portrayed Inca imperialism as a process of smothering the subjugated in peace, love, and understanding, “so that however brutish and barbarous they had been they were subdued by affection and attached to [the Inca’s] service by a bond so strong that no province ever dreamed of rebelling” (33). Arguably, the neo-hippies are similarly neo-colonists but preaching wellness, breathwork, and organic veggies. Still, I’m not sure I want much to do with it.

If I were to choose (though I’m not sure I can), I’d rather a punk Indigeneity or Indigenism. This might be along the lines of the graphic artist Cherman Quino, whose work I love. In my office I have a poster of his, which features an image of César Vallejo and the text: “Hay Hermanos muchísimo que hacer. . . y no has hecho ni mierda.” But I think there’s something of the punk spirit in the rebellion of the chicheras in Arguedas’s Los ríos profundos, or even in the multitudinous arrival of the colonos in Abancay at the end of the same book, where they are described as “crawl[ing] around like big lice, bigger than merino sheep; they’d eat up the little animals alive, finishing the people off first” (226). Arguedas is always aware of the dark side, of the threat of Indigeneity. What else is “yawar mayu,” the bloody river that he constantly predicts and fears, but the ultimate in punk? Or, further back, if Garcilaso is hippy, isn’t Guaman Poma the first punk (even before Los Saicos and “Demolición”). Doesn’t his handwritten artwork have something of the aesthetic of Jamie Reid? Or his self-staged interview with the King of Spain something of the sheer chutzpah of the Sex Pistols on TV with Bill Grundy?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this is as much of an imposition or fantasy as that of the neo-hippies. But it’s one I prefer.

Music and Dance in the Plaza de Armas

Music is important in the Andes, and we have certainly heard plenty over the last few days. As I write, outside in the Plaza de Armas is some kind of “battle of the bands,” which has been going on for hours and, we are told, will continue for many more. There is a wide variety of styles and content: from a cover of Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” to a kind of Andean Rock featuring pipes alongside guitars, glorifying the city of Cusco.

Late last night, also in the Plaza, was a rather more impromptu musical performance that gathered up a crowd in the central park singing and no doubt drinking until late. In the streets around the Plaza are bars and restaurants aimed mostly at tourists, some of which feature live bands, but all of which have music blaring until the early hours. During the day, there are also buskers, not least a guy just outside our hotel who sings his heart out from a wheelchair.

A couple of days ago, many of us went to a concert in the Municipal Theatre, featuring upcoming “Q Pop” star Lenin Tamayo, whose fusion of Andean music (and Quechua lyrics) with K Pop beats and extraordinary dancing was quite something. On the same bill was Lenin’s mother, Yolanda Pinares, a veteran singer whose speciality seems to be torch songs that express the struggles and triumphs of Andean womanhood: she sang for her Warmi, even when life was hard and they felt they couldn’t go on.

It is festival season–we are in the midst of Corpus Christi–and so perhaps the music we have heard most has been the marching music, less drum and bass than drum and brass (no band is complete without a couple of tubas, if not half a dozen), that accompanies the parades that thread through the city streets and circle the Plaza. This is the music that accompanied the transport of the saints from the parishes that constitutes the essence of Corpus Christi. But it is also the music of the school parade that we saw the first morning we were here, accompanying a wide variety of Indigenous dance troupes as well as students marching along in their school uniforms. It is repetitive and insistent; it keeps threatening to stop, only to be picked up and continue on. The stamina of marchers, dancers, and musicians is impressive.

Then there was the music of the sung mass held outdoors before the saints paraded around the square. Music and chants drive home the liturgy of the church, not least for a society that historically has had high rates of illiteracy. It adds to the pomp and splendour of the occasion. But even the church music is subject to hybridity and fusion of various kinds: for us, there was a strange recollection of home to hear a Spanish interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” broadcast around the plaza.

Finally, I want to mention the performance I stumbled across in the Plaza yesterday evening, which was not simply music and dance but also a form of narrative theatre that reminded me of everything from pantomime to (what I have read about) the European Commedia dell’arte of the late Middle Ages and beyond. There was no dialogue or lyrics, and there were more or less formal dances but also much play-acting and drama. 

This, one of the audience told me, was specifically a performance called “Los majeños” (put on in this instance by the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo), which features a whole set of stock types such as a Harlequin-style clown and satirical portraits (with masks) of the mestizo merchants who once trafficked liquor through the southern highlands, introducing the vice of alcohol. Only a turn to the church and the cross (and the representation of a procession much like those we had seen in the Corpus Christi celebrations) finally saves the day. 

The message was no doubt intensely moralistic, combining nationalism with religion in a version of the Peruvian flag with a cross in the middle panel. But along the way the audience laughed most at the comic consequences of the portrayed drunkenness, oohing and aahing at the physical comedy of bodies falling over or slumped on the ground, or the fights that broke out between women and men alike. The carnivalesque disruption required a moralizing resolution, of course, but that same resolution also enabled the carnival that preceded it, which provided most of the draw and all the entertainment.