A guided tour through the sounds of Latin American traditional music, its instruments and performers. By Edgardo Civallero

February 2, 2017

The erkencho

The erkencho

Part 01. The instrument


[Please download the set of audio tracks accompanying these posts]

The erkencho or erke (also written erquencho, erque, irqi or erqe) is an aerophone traditionally built and played in northwestern Argentina and southern Bolivia, in the Southern Andes cultural region, which belonged to the ancient Qullasuyu: the southern quarter of the Tawantinsuyu or Inkan Empire.

It basically consists of a pipe (called boquilla or pajuela in Spanish), between 4 and 6 inches long and up to 0.5 inch in diameter, made out of a piece of common reed (Arundo donax) or sokhosa/suqusa (different Bambuseae from the Bolivian rainforests). In this tube, a single reed is cut at the proximal end ―which is closed by a natural septum of the cane― while a huge bell is attached at the distal end, which is open.

The erkencho is an idioglottal clarinet ― the only single reed instrument in the traditional Andean organology. It has a thin, short and substantially cylindrical body ―the boquilla―, which sometimes may also include part of the bell, and which is provided with a single reed, variable in size. When blown, this reed becomes a vibrating lamella and produces the sound. In idioglottal instruments, such tongues are made out of the body itself, making a difference with heteroglottal ones, such as the European/orchestra clarinet, whose reeds are an independent element that may even be made of a different material from that of the body to which it will be later attached.

The reed is cut downwards, with its free end pointing towards the player. This lamella is sometimes secured with cotton thread; the binding prevents the incisions from extending too far, while also allows adjusting the length of the vibrating tongue and, thus, lowering or increasing the pitch of the sound it produces. Between the reed and the body of the instrument, a very thin thread is placed (usually a human hair or an animal one, like a horsehair or a cat's whisker), preventing the reed from being stuck to the pipe with the condensed moisture from breath and remaining motionless.


The erkencho


Due to its small size, the body of this particular clarinet does not have fingering holes to permit selective variation of the length of the air column and, therefore, the production of different notes. However, this does not mean that the performer cannot alter and modify the pitch. Combining a series of fairly complex techniques (which include varying the blow intensity, the pressure of the lips or the incisor teeth over the reed, the position where the blow is applied, etc.), a wide and interesting range of sounds can be obtained, and actual melodies can be played.

At the distal end of the pipe, a flared bell is added for amplification. It may be made of horn, gourd, metal, plastic, or a combination of any of these materials. These bells are usually carved, engraved, painted in bright colors and/or lined with ribbons, braided cords and wool tassels.

Bells are huge compared to the body of the instrument; such a disproportion in size has led some musicians to refer to the erkencho as a "horn with a mouthpiece", and/or to call it using names reserved to Andean traditional, indigenous lip concussion aerophones, such as pututo or asta. This fact provoked some confusion about the nature of the instrument in the past; as a matter of fact, many chronicles and reports quote the erkencho as being a "trumpet" or a "horn".

Its current, popular name seems to originate from the Quechua term irqi, "child", although the reason of giving such name to the instrument remains unknown.



Cavour, Ernesto (1994). Instrumentos musicales de Bolivia. La Paz: E. Cavour.

Izikowitz, Karl Gustav (1934). Musical and other sound instruments of the South American Indians. A comparative ethnographical study. Gotemburgo: S.R. Publishers.

Pérez Bugallo, Rubén (1996). Catálogo ilustrado de instrumentos musicales argentinos. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Sol [Biblioteca de Cultura Popular : 19].

Szarán, Luis (1997). Diccionario de la música en el Paraguay. [Online].



Martínez, Rosalía (1992). Bolivie: Musiques calendaires des vallées centrales. [CD]. París: CNRS/Musée de l'Homme.

Parejo, Rafael (s.f.). Argentina: Tritonic musics of the North-West / Argentine: Musiques tritoniques du Nord-ouest. [CD]. UNESCO / International Music Council.

Valladares, Leda (s.f.). Documental folklórico, vol. I. Quebrada de Humahuaca. Serie Mapa Musical de la Argentina. [CD]. Disc Jockey SCA.



Player of erke and caja, Bolivia [link].

Chango Tejerina playing coplas with erkencho, Argentina [link].

Erke and caja played during the Carnival in Tarija, Bolivia [link].

Erke and caja played during the Carnival in Tarija, Bolivia [link].

Mariana Carrizo (Argentina) in the Argentinean folk music festival of Cosquín, 2014 [link].


About this article

Text: Edgardo Civallero.

Images: Argentinean erkencho (ensemble and parts) [E. Civallero].

This is the first part of the digital book The erkencho, by Edgardo Civallero, which may be read online on Issuu and freely downloaded here.