“In ten hours, I can teach you how to play any instrument, not in the classical way, but in the Andean way,” and with these words begins my fascination with Alfonso Cachiguango, the director of the world-renowned Andean music group, Ñanda Mañachi. I had the privilege of interviewing Alfonso a few days ago and we discussed a great many things: music that holds the heart captive, a musician’s decision to be political or not, traveling the world to collaborate and learn, founding schools of music in other countries. To talk with Alfonso was, for me, like sitting down and talking with my Grandpa- there was instant comfort, full laughter, and smiles passed between generations.
At age 4, he picked up his first instrument, a small guitar. At age 7, he had made his first flauta, a typical Andean flute. By age 12, he had become the founding director of Ñanda Mañachi, a group of indigenous musicians devoted to playing and singing Andean music. “It was durísimo, so hard,” Alfonso explained, talking about leading this group of musicians. But the difficulty wasn’t in the age difference; the real difficulty lay in the pervasive racism against indigenous people.
“In the past, the mestizo didn’t accept the indigenous; being indigenous was prohibited. I was thrown in jail for 15 days because of this racism. I was thrown in jail just for playing- solo para tocar– when I was 12 years old.”
Racism has changed, Alfonso explained, but it still exists; the belief that mestizos know more than the indigenous is not at all true. The indigenous is the national culture of this country. After Alfonso left jail, he became even more determined to fight against this stigma in the one way he was learning- through preserving the music, the indigenous voice. He decided that he had to learn to play every single instrument he possibly could. “I was born with music in my heart,” Alfonso explained, almost apologetically. There is nothing he could do except play.
By the age of 18, Alfonso had mastered 20 instruments. By age 25, he could play 25. By age 30, he could play 28 instruments, which is still the number that holds today. As he learned, as other musicians practiced, the group Ñanda Mañachi grew, embodying the indigenous traditions of the Otavalos. It wouldn’t be long before the world noticed.
Ñanda Mañachi, a Quechua word, in Spanish means “préstame el camino,” or lend me the path. In English, this concept translates slightly differently. Imagine two neighbors on either side of their properties, split by an invisible or visible fence. One neighbor asks the other if he can pass through the property; the neighbor allows it. This act of passing is ñanda mañachi– it is an act of connecting, “just like the connection in music with the spirit,” Alfonso explains. This theme of bridging barriers, moving through fences, has been carried out in the dozens and dozens of concerts that the group has performed, in countries all around the world. Ñanda Mañachi became a symbol for the indigenous life of Ecuadoreans.
The pallas and rondadores (panpipes), flautas (flutes), gaitas (cane flutes), pinkillu (one-handed flute) and pifanos (a duct flute with six finger holes) are the most traditional instruments. Though there are many genres of indigenous Otavalo music, one of the most common genres is from the sanjuanitos. The sanjuanito sound is nearly trance-like, an obsessive two-beat rhythm that is accompanied with traditional dance. Alfonso is one of the founding influences on this genre. For him, growing up in Otavalo was like growing up in a small world; the city has always been an international hub, attracting artisans, artists, and musicians alike. Perhaps that international influence is what helped grow Ñanda Mañachi’s reputation abroad.
Alfonso claims he has now traveled through 80% of the world. He is well traveled around Europe, Asia, and the Americas. His favorite country is France, where he lived for a time in the early 1980s. Wherever the group goes, it performs the traditional Otavalo music and teaches musicians in the area how to make and play the indigenous instruments themselves. Performing, for Alfonso, is one of the reasons why he loves what he does.
“I don’t have fear of anything. Even though I know I’m representing my country, no estoy nervioso para nada.”
His joy for playing is currently bringing him to Cuenca, Ecuador, a city in his home country. However, Alfonso says that many Ecuadoreans don’t know the work of Ñanda Mañachi. “We are more known in other countries,” he explains. It’s interesting, but the Ecuadorian government hasn’t given hardly any support to the group, even though it has labeled the music as patrimonial. But the group is incredibly well-known in France, in Bolivia, in Brazil, in Germany. Ñanda Mañachi videos on YouTube have hundreds of thousands of views, and wherever the group has traveled, it has left its mark.
There are now schools of indigenous Andean music set up in Japan, in Chicago, Illinois, in Brooklyn, New York, and in Perth, Australia. These schools have the indigenous instruments on display; they are centers of collaboration where teachers who have learned from Alfonso now teach other musicians how to play traditional indigenous Andean music. These schools are considered part of Ñanda Mañachi. Alfonso estimates there are 60 musicians who now make up the group; it is a true, global collaboration. The groups have produced over 55 discs, more than a disc a year since it began in 1969. The goal, Alfonso explains, is simple.
“Collaborate with musicians and teach others the indigenous ways, from rondadores to mandolina to guitars. We won’t change the style of music, but we will improve it with new introductions, new instrumentaciones, known and made by the musicians themselves. To make, and play, and teach- that is the goal.”
This Friday, June 2, that goal will be lived out here in Cuenca. Alfonso is performing at Teatro Casa de la Cultura at 7:00pm. Earlier in the day, Alfonso will teach the curious, those who also have music in their hearts, how to make their own indigenous instruments. The concert, which will feature 6-7 musicians, costs $10, and it is in part to celebrate the release of their most recent album.
“For me, to play music is a way of helping the people, my people, to remind them and the government that we, the indigenous, exist in the traditions, in the clothes and dance. We exist in the music.”
*Photos by John Keeble