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.