The Significance of Fiestas, Dances, and Music in the Andes

Zoila S. Mendoza

Music, dance, and festival performance in the Andes have been sites of confrontation and negotiation of identities since the beginning of the Andean colonial period in the 16th century, if not earlier certainly. From the time that dance-dramas became part of Andean Catholic celebrations, they entered a dialectic emerging from the ruling elite’s efforts to curb and control the innovative, sometimes subversive, expressive forms of subordinated groups. This dynamic has rendered these dance-dramas and festivals highly meaningful for performers and audiences alike, as it has shaped their individual and group identities. In the 20th century, the process of “folkorization” of Andean music and dance, by which some of these practices are put on stage and as being representative of a region or nation, added a new and powerful dimension to this dialectic.

Andean Popular Catholicism

When the Spaniards invaded and settled in the Andes to colonize the area, they encountered a rich tradition of public and private ceremonies, most of which included a variety of music and dance. Among these forms, the taqui, a song/dance genre, attracted the most attention from chroniclers as well as from the civil and church administration. This was because the taquis were associated with important public ceremonies in honor of local superior forces (such as mountains), ancestors, or Inca elites and authorities. Pilgrimage to regional sanctuaries was another deeply rooted practice in the Andean region. The attitude of the Church in the face of these ubiquitous practices varied during the colonial period depending on the religious order in charge of evangelizing as well as the political situation. Nevertheless, the equivalence with certain European devotional traditions that considered dance an important form of worshiping God, combined with the possibility that these forms could become the media for the incorporation of the indigenous population into Catholic rituals, allowed negotiation between local symbolic practices and the imposed frameworks into which they should be incorporated.

The most widespread form of public celebrations in the Andes today are the multiday festivals known as patron-saint festivals that honor a Catholic image that has been designated as the protector of a particular town. Complex structures emerged from the imposition of this Catholic practice as they intertwined with political and economic conflicts within local populations. Early on in the colonial period an institution brought by the Spaniards became very important in the Andean context, the cofradía, or religious brotherhood. These brotherhoods were in charge of financing and organizing festivals in honor of the Catholic images and of presenting dances for that occasion. The cofradía is the clearest historical antecedent of today’s comparsas (dance troupes), which are the main institutions behind the making of Andean festivals today.

The Spanish Catholicism (both missionary and lay) brought to the Americas was heterodox. Elements of local religion that flourished in 16th-century Spain, such as the cult of saints in local chapels and shrines, were re-created in America. In Europe, the anecdotes and legends about the lives and miracles of saints were collected in books of exempla, hagiographies, and prayer (often re-told in sermon stories) and became powerful and enduring encapsulations of moral theological, and mystical messages. People in the Andes consider as saints not only the martyrs or other salient personages of Christian history canonized by the Catholic Church but also various representations of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The physical embodiments (icons) of these “saints”—that is, crosses, paintings, and statues—first brought from Europe and subsequently produced in America have become associated with local distinctions and identities.

The Creative Space of Fiestas

Among the many aspects of the multifaceted experience of festivals and dances in the Andes, these public performances are powerful ways to immerse participants in a history told from within. They offer occasions when musicians, dancers, and other performers make visible, audible, and palpable stories about the local and regional past and present while also envisioning a future. During these festivals, the participants shape, learn, and remember many concept-feelings(1) that are central to their individual, local, regional, national and even transnational identities. This is a particularly powerful form of social action for Andeans because of a predominant form of knowledge and memory that has existed in the region for thousands of years. At the core of this form of knowledge and memory is the unity of hearing, sight, and felt bodily movement (kinesthesia).(2)

In the Quechua-speaking community of Pomacanchi, Acomayo, Cuzco, once a year, during a festival in honor of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on June 29, an archetypical ancestor comes to life, the Qanchi Machu. Many pomacanchinos (people from Pomacanchi) I worked with while researching their participation in the greatest pilgrimage of the Andean region were excited and proud to tell me stories about the powerful, rebellious, and mischievous Qanchi Machu, whom they call their grandfather. In those stories, as he traveled through many historical periods, he always outsmarted his opponents. While this character only appears in the flesh during the festival in honor of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, his persona is re-created through elements present in the dances considered traditional to the community: K’achampa and Qanchi. These dances are performed throughout the year in different festivals; K’achampa was the one that the comparsa members chose to embody the three times we traveled together to the sanctuary of the Lord of the Shiny Snow (Señor de Qoyllor Rit’i) at almost 16,000 feet above sea level. This group had taken the Qanchi dance to the sanctuary in the past, and dancers insisted that in both dances they embodied their pre-Hispanic archetypal ancestor, the Qanchi Machu.

In the town of San Jerónimo in Cuzco, as in many towns of the region, the masked and costumed dances performed during their patron-saint festival for Saint Jerome define and redefine ethnic/racial categories such as mestizo and Indigenous. The comparsas, through their institutional life during the year and their performances during the festival, define and redefine a series of categories such as “decency,” “autochthony,” “genuineness,” and “modernity” which rework and defy the mestizo/Indian dichotomy perpetuated by regional and national institutions that promote “folklore.”(3) The dances performed in the town of Paucartambo in honor of their patron saint, the Virgin of Carmen, some of which were photographed by Pierre Verger, shape similar categories and have had a strong influence on what has since the 1970s been considered “traditional” in Cuzco.

“K’achampa” (traditional) performed by the ensemble Centro Qosqo. Courtesy of Zoila S. Mendoza
Festivals, music, and dances in the Andes are omnipresent and represent a very important form of social action. Multiple themes and stories are brought together to be constantly defined and redefined by performers and audiences alike. A strong tradition of this kind of public performance since pre-Hispanic times continued and transformed the one imposed by evangelization in the 16th century to become a contentious and vital arena of identity definition. New factors in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the process of folklorization, tourism, and mass media, have continued to bring dynamism to this creative realm.