Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Music and Dance > Atacameña

Atacameño music, like that of most indigenous groups in the Americas, is linked to ritual practices. The Atacameño people divided the year into a dry period and a wet one, according to the natural cycle that governs the agricultural and herding calendar. This division is also reflected in the musical instruments and songs of these people, which are played only at specific times of the year and must not be played at other times. For example, in the localities of Ayquina and Toconce during the wet season (January to March), the Atacameño people played only the drum, flute and guitar, while in the dry season they played the harp and those instruments reserved for the patron saint festivals (brass and percussion instruments and laquita pipes).

Even so, it is difficult to speak in general terms about Atacameño music, as each community developed its own musical tradition and instruments and evolved in different ways.

One of the customs most commonly celebrated among the Atacameño people is the cleaning of the irrigation canals. In the ritual surrounding this activity the people pray for fertile soil and abundant rains, and work together to clean out many kilometers of the canals that bring water to each community. Of course, the work parties are also an occasion for celebration. In Ayquina and Toconce, for example, the people play the harp and sing Pa’ atrás pa’ adelante (Go back, go forward) and Ventanas (Windows). While the cleaning is being performed, the trumpet and animal horn are played in accompaniment. This tradition has changed over time, however, as around 50 years ago in Ayquina it was the charango (a small guitar made from the shell of the armadillo) that was played, and before that it was the drum alone that was played during this activity.

Listen to Pa’ tras pa’ adelante in Toconce (recorded version).

Listen to Pa’ tras pa’ adelante, live at the celebrations in Ayquina.

Listen to Ventana, live at the celebrations in Ayquina.

Watch Don Delfín Berna playing the harp in Toconce.

Meanwhile, in Caspana, the canal cleaning celebration is performed to the tunes of Talatur and Cauzulor, ancient songs that contain words in four languages—Kunza, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. Two small drums accompany the singers, symbolizing the male and the female.

Listen to Cauzulor performed in Caspana.

During the same celebration in Peine, the people sing Talatur accompanied by horns and chirimorros—sets of small metals bells that are played like rattles.

Listen to Talatur performed in Peine.

During Carnival, in all the Atacameño communities the people sing coplas (verses in rhyme) to a variety of melodies and accompanying instruments. In one village they play drums and flutes, in others, guitars or accordions. Each village has its own melodies and instrumentation, which are a part of its local identity.

Listen to coplas from Carnival in Ayquina.

At the religious feasts of patron saints and virgins, small bands of laquita or siku (pan flute, also called zampoña) players perform, as well as bands with brass sections and large instruments such as bass and snare drums. Laquita bands are an Andean musical traditional, while brass bands did not appear until the 1940s and 50s, when the townsmen returned from mandatory military service, during which they had learned to play these instruments.

The great festival of the Virgin de Guadalupe, held in Ayquina to this day, brings together countless musical groups, including enormous brass bands that accompany dance groups such as the Pieles rojas, Sioux, Dakotas, Gitanos, Tinkus, Osos and many others. The more traditional laquita bands can also be found at this celebration.

Watch video of the Virgin of Guadalupe Festival in Ayquina.