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

March 30, 2017

The kamacheña

The kamacheña

Part 02. The caja


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The geographical area where the kamacheña is built and used comprises northwestern Argentina (the eastern portion of the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, especially the departments of Iruya, Santa Victoria and Orán; Vega, 1946; Pérez Bugallo, 1996), and southern Bolivia (the northwest of the department of Tarija; Cavour, 1994; Goyena, 1997). In Argentina, the flute receives many names: from flautilla de Pascua (Spanish for "Easter small flute") and cuello de llama ("lama's neck") to quenilla ("small quena") or flautilla jujeña ("Jujuy's small flute"), although the preferred is quena. Pérez Bugallo (1996) points out that, in Argentina, it would be related to a number of archaeological wind instruments (e.g. those found at the site of Inca Cueva, Jujuy, dating to 2130 BC), and that it would be the only native flute with a quena-like, notched mouthpiece. This author also explains that the flute which is currently known as "standard quena", very popular nowadays in northwestern Argentina, was introduced in the country from Bolivia in recent times (mid-twentieth century). Likewise, the denominations quena and quenilla are also used in Bolivia, although the instrument is best known as kamacheña or camacheña, a name probably derived from Camacho, one of the most important rivers of Tarija's central valleys.

The caja, which provides the beat to the melody of the kamacheña, is a very popular membranophone in the Andes. It has a long tradition among indigenous societies, and it is documented in the early Hispanic vocabularies and documents printed in Peru under its Quechua name tinya, still in use. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, in his famous El Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno ("The First New Chronicle and Good Government", ca. 1615) draws it in the hands of some of the inhabitants of the Tawantinsuyu, the old "Inca Empire". Throughout the Andean range, the caja receives different names, having also different sizes and proportions. Although the materials and manufacturing may change from place to place, it is generally made of a wooden frame (about 40 cm in diameter and 10 cm high) over which two hairless skins (usually from two different animals or two different parts of the same animal) are stretched. Each head is sewn to a willow rod or to a wire, and both rods are joined together and fastened to the drum's body by a string that zigzags from one to the other all around the frame. The tension of the skins is either increased or decreased by several leather loops attached to the string. Like most of the drums of pre-Hispanic origin, the caja has neither over-loops nor a decompression hole. Finally, a snare (bordona or chirlera) is stretched across one of the skins: traditionally made of horsehair, it has nowadays been replaced by a simple guitar wound string. As the head is struck, the skin vibrates against the chirlera, adding a very distinctive buzz to the deep sound of the instrument. When performed together with the kamacheña, the caja is usually fastened by a loop of leather to the right wrist of the musician, who holds the waqtana or guastána, the stick or mace, in the same hand.



Cavour Aramayo, Ernesto (1994). Instrumentos musicales de Bolivia. La Paz. CIMA.

Goyena, Héctor Luis (1997). La música tradicional criolla del Departamento de Tarija (Bolivia). Música e investigación, 1 (1), pp. 59-98.

Instituto Nacional de Cultura (1978). Mapa de los instrumentos musicales de uso popular en el Perú: clasificación y ubicación geográfica. Lima: Oficina de Música y Danza.

Pérez Bugallo, Rubén (1996). Catálogo ilustrado de instrumentos musicales argentinos. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Sol.

Vega, Carlos (1946). Los instrumentos musicales aborígenes y criollos de la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Ed. Centurión.


About this article

Text: Edgardo Civallero.

Image: Argentinean kamacheña [E. Civallero].

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