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

February 16, 2017

The erkencho

The erkencho

Part 02. The sound and the music


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

The sound of the erkencho may be described as a hoarse and plaintive buzz, and its main features (height, timbre, power) depend on the material, the length and the diameter of the boquilla on the one side, and on the size of the vibrating reed and the bell, on the other.

Traditional performers rarely produce well-defined notes: they prefer to emit a continuous, fluctuating sound (within a range limited by the physical possibilities of the instrument) interrupted here and there, seeking to imitate the particular singing style of the region from which the instrument is native. Tarija and northwestern Argentina share a common musical culture, labeled by Argentinean musicologist C. Vega as "tritonic music" (although that name may be debatable). The main expression of that regional culture is the singing of coplas: short stanzas, in local Spanish, performed a capella both by male and female soloists or by community ensembles. It is a very distinctive style, with many indigenous traits that may be found in other areas of the Andes. One of its most frequently used vocal techniques is the kenko (from Quechua qinqu, "ripple"): a beautiful combination of portamento and falsetto. The erkenchos try to (and do) replicate the melodies produced by the copleros (coplas' singers).

Erkenchos are intended to be played with the accompaniment of one of the many caja variants existing in this region, such as the cajita chapaca, the caja chayera or the caja puneña. Also known as tinya in Quechua, the caja is a type of double-headed Andean drum made up of a wooden ring about 4-6 inches high and 10-18 inches in diameter, over which two bare skins are stretched without hoops ― they are bound together by means of a string or a leather cord that zigzags from one to the other. The cajas are beaten with a single stick, the huajtana or guastana (from Quechua waqtana, "a thing that hits/beats"). The erkencho and the caja are played by the same musician, who holds the bell of the wind instrument with the left hand while with the other hits the membranophone, hanging from his right wrist.


The erkencho


According to the traditional classification of Andean musical instruments by the year's seasons when they can be played, the erkencho is a "summer" instrument or, more specifically, a "wet season" instrument. The Andean "wet season" (Aymara jallu pacha, Quechua paray tiempu) stretches between All Saints's Day and Easter Sunday (the end of the Carnival). Also, and according to the taboos set in Andean societies about the performance of musical instruments, erkenchos have to be played only by men, although some exceptions are granted.

In Argentina, the erkencho is used to perform different toques ―instrumental pieces attached to a particular moment and place― or to accompany the singing of coplas and the rondas (dance rounds). In the latter case, the player or erkenchero stands in the center of the circle of dancers and singers. During Carnival, traditional erkenchadas are celebrated, with several performers playing together, subjected to the same rhythm (but not the melody, not to say the tuning), and producing an impressive heterophony.

In Bolivia, erkes accompany Carnival's rondas de erke (as they do in Argentina) and the songs sung during religious festivals, like the one devoted to the Virgin of Chaguaya, in Tarija. Among the Jalq'a people of Chuquisaca, these instruments appear at different festivities, and do so in two sizes: a small and sharp-sounding instrument, the warmi erqe (in Quechua, "woman/female erke"), usually found in feminine hands (being one of the few Andean wind instruments women are allowed to play), and a large one, the qhari erqe (in Quechua, "man/male erke"), in masculine hands. As it happens with many other traditional Andean aerophones, the melody is developed by combining the sounds of both instruments (hocket/interlocking technique).



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: Bernabé Montellanos playing an erkencho made of goat horn for the CD "Huellas del tiempo", music for the film "Pallca" [link] | Detail of Argentinean erkencho (bell) [E. Civallero].

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