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

April 27, 2017

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Part 01. Introduction


Turtle shells have long been used all around the world for building different types of musical instruments: from the gbóló gbóló of the Vai people in Liberia to the kanhi of the Châm people in Indochina, the rattles of the Hopi people in the USA and the drums of the Dan people in Ivory Coast. South and Central America have not been an exception: used especially as idiophones ―but also as components of certain membranophones and aerophones―, the shells, obtained from different species of turtles and tortoises, have been part of the indigenous music since ancient times; in fact, archaeological evidence indicate their use among the Mexica, the different Maya-speaking societies and other peoples of Classical Mesoamerica. After the European invasion and conquest of America and the introduction of new cultural patterns, shells were also used as the sound box of some string instruments.

The turtle shell consists of two halves ―the upper one, or carapace, and the lower one, or plastron― naturally joined together. When the shell is used for building an idiophone (one of its most common applications), both parts are left together. The resulting musical instrument can be one of three types:

1. Directly struck idiophone: the shell is struck with a stick made of wood, horn or bone, or with a mallet provided with a wooden or rubber head.

2. Indirectly struck idiophone: the shell becomes the body of a rattle (which can be used as an anklet). Several small shells can be tied together in bundles, making a single rattle.

3. Friction idiophone: a small section of the shell is smeared with resin or wax and rubbed with a finger or a rod, producing a squeaking sound. This type often accompanies singing as well as whistles or panpipes ensembles.

Izikowitz (1934) theorized that Latin American idiophones made of turtle shells arrived in the northern half of South America from Central America in ancient times; subsequent research has thrown this hypothesis into doubt, while confirming that these instruments were present in a much larger area, stretching from Canada (e.g. the kanyahte'ka'nowa of the Iroquois and the Seneca peoples) and the USA (the anklets used by the Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee, Seminole, Caddo and Natchez peoples) to northern Chaco, in South America.

According to anthropological and ethno-musicological studies, instruments made of turtle shell are unknown in Patagonia, the Pampas or the Andes, where the shell of different species of armadillo has been used instead for building percussion instruments (e.g. the ápel of the Aonik'enk people) and the sound box of many varieties of charango, the famous Andean chordophone.



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About this article

Text: Edgardo Civallero.

Image: Player of concha from Tecacahuaco (Atlapexco, Hidalgo state, Mexico) [La Jornada].

This is the first part of the digital book Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music, by Edgardo Civallero, which may be read online on Issuu and freely downloaded here.


April 13, 2017

The kamacheña

The kamacheña

Part 03. Performance


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

According to the Andean traditional calendar, which lays down that each musical instrument can only be performed during a specific time of the year and for specific purposes (usually related to agriculture and other traditional practices), the kamacheña is played during the awti pacha or "dry season" (comprising from Carnival to All Saints' Day). Hence, its sound will be heard at winter festivals, e.g. during the feast of San Roque (mid-August) and, of course, All Saints celebrations (early November) and Carnival (February and March).

The music provided by male performers beating the caja and blowing the kamacheña (Andean traditional gender taboos do not allow women to play aerophones) typically accompanies the rondas or round dances. They are performed by a dozen or more male and female dancers in a circle, holding hands and turning around the flutist/percussionist (called quenero in Argentina). While dancing, female dancers may start to sing coplas (short stanzas), sometimes back and forth to each other (contrapunto). In addition, the kamacheña is used to play tonadas or puntos, short instrumental pieces that are performed out of choreographic context, sometimes imitating the melodic lines of the most popular coplas.

Related to the kamacheña ―and probably derived from it― are the flautillas chaquenses ("small flutes from Chaco") found in the hands of several peoples indigenous to the region known as southern Chaco, comprising northeastern Argentina, southern Paraguay and southeastern Bolivia. These wind instruments, made of different materials and using different techniques, are of great variety in structure, size and decoration (they are usually filled with abundance of it). In the past, these flutes used to have 3 fingering holes; today, perhaps influenced by the flutes of the neighboring Ava ("chiriguano") people, they have 6, and therefore they cannot be played with a single hand. Traditionally, they are male instruments, and are devoid of any ceremonial significance. Pérez Bugallo (1996) notes that the Eastern Qom ("toba") and the Pitlaxá ("pilagá") peoples call the flute nashiré koktá; the Western Qom people, nahaidé; the Yofwaja ("chorote") people, wosók sisé; the Nivaklé ("chulupí") people, vat' anjantché sisé; and the Wichi ("mataco") people, kanohí or, more rarely, tanowhós.

The geographic and temporal distribution of the kamacheña is limited to the specific region and period of the year described above. The instrument will neither be found in commercial recordings nor in the hands of urban musicians or ensembles; moreover, photos and videos documenting its construction and use are scarce. While available information is not abundant and there is also a seeming lack of interest in spreading it, the flute continues to sound ―like many others in South America― in those communities where the tradition is kept alive to date.



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About this article

Text: Edgardo Civallero.

Image: Argentinean kamacheña and caja [E. Civallero].

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