Yascapi, Bolivia August 2008
I am in a home that could hardly be more remote from my own: an adobe brick, single-storey abode that has as much accommodation – a room – for the family I have come to visit as it has space for the family’s pigs. This is Demetrio’s home: the 12-year old Bolivian boy whom I sponsor. I have known Demetrio for three years through the photographs I have in my home back in England (courtesy of the charity acting as intermediary) and the letters and crayon drawings that I have received from him. Today is special: today I find myself in his home, with his mother, and sister Norma.
The journey here has emphasised just how far apart we live. Not one, but four aeroplanes brought me from England to the old university city of Sucre, Bolivia. This morning Andrés, the charity’s local man on the ground, met me in his jeep at my hotel and we have driven for some four hours to reach the hamlet of Yascapi, setting out before sunrise. The first hour was on a tarmac road; thereafter we were on rough tracks across an uncompromising landscape, passing through only one village along the way. Finally, on the wide, barren plateau of the altiplano, we spied the few roofs of Yascapi where approximately 200 people live. To our eyes, spoilt by first world excess, it is not immediately apparent how. There is a beauty here: the purity of mountain-top air and lack of modern intrusions briefly tease the mind. The beauty does not make life here comfortable though; it does not hide the utter desolation. There are no mains utilities: Demetrio’s daily routine starts with a walk before dawn to collect water for his family. The nights at this altitude are bitterly cold, and the climate not conducive to agriculture. Any entertainment, should life offer any time for such trivialities, will have to be homespun.
Demetrio’s home is not even in the main hamlet but out the other side by half a mile or so. Here I talk in my broken Spanish to him, and Andrés talks in Quechua to Demetrio’s mother who has no Spanish. Remarkably we are treated to a cooked lunch, after which I try to teach Demetrio how to play with the frisbee I have taken with me: quite a challenge in the thin air that comes with being 4km above sea level. Andrés soon tells me that we should go back to the main hamlet and we all climb aboard his jeep, leaving Norma alone tending her pigs.
A little way down the track we are greeted by the women of Yascapi. They have dressed in their best – a local costume – and are waving white flags as part of a traditional dance. Where there is dancing there will be music. Sure enough Yascapi’s local band are there: a group of four men. It becomes apparent that word of our visit preceded our arrival, and for the people of Yascapi, not used to seeing visitors, still less one with a pale skin, that is reason enough to party. Parties are not so different continent to continent: music, dancing, laughter. I do as I am bidden: climb out of the jeep and join the dance.
These musicians are a remarkable quartet. They play homemade instruments, for where would they possibly go to buy them? One plays a large, booming drum, made from an old oil drum covered with a skin, most likely llama. This is strung over his shoulder. He beats it with a single crudely constructed beater: just the one because his other arm has been amputated above the elbow. His three fellow musicians play various types of pipe: variants of notched recorders, two straight and one curiously curved.
It occurs to me that there is a lot about this music-making that I should find appalling. All four men have been in the party mood for some time and copious amounts of the local brew – a maize beer called chicha – have been imbibed. Whether this is taking its toll is hard to say, but the drum beating is irregular both in rhythm and tone: the full-blooded hits boom, other more glancing blows provide unpredictable variations. Meanwhile, though it is apparent that the pipers are all intending to play the same melody over and over again, there appears to be failure to agree on exactly how it goes, no matter how many times it is played. Each of the three players fades out from time to time – perhaps even for them the lack of oxygen is a challenge when it comes to blowing a pipe – but after a moment they resume with renewed vigour, though not necessarily from the same point as the other musicians have reached. These three pipes can be really rather shrill when a new burst of energy seizes the player, and it is not readily apparent that all three share the same equal temperament when it comes to their tuning scale.
And here I am, a professional musician, who regularly encounters live performances in churches and concert halls around Britain. What do I make of this extraordinary cacophonous din? A strange thing happens. Perhaps it is the altitude, or the spinning around in circles on the arm of a local lady in a dance whose steps are completely baffling to a novice, or the effects of increasing amounts of the, frankly, foul chicha that is frequently urged into my hand for immediate dispatch: I have no time to analyse the situation. Whatever it is, I am starting to realise something. This music, for all its unrefined qualities, is true, genuine, authentic and joyous music-making. It is not music to be recorded and sold, or to be touted round the touristic hotspots of Latin America, or to be recreated in front of a ticket-buying audience. It is of the moment, of the place, of these people. It is being played to unite the residents of Yascapi on this unique day in their hamlet’s history, to capture and express their excitement, to create the best atmosphere possible among the locals, and to honour their visitor: me.
No other music would convey all this here and now. A polished, meticulously prepared performance would not capture the moment or be shared by the locals as representing their world. These four musicians, inebriated though they are, are offering us a remarkable amount of themselves: the time they spent making their instruments, the way they treasure musical sounds that have accompanied them and their forbears in this remote landscape for generations, the warmth of their personalities in the fervour with which they play. All this they communicate through rather unpredictable thuds of the drum and squeals of the pipes where their Quechua mother tongue and my phrasebook Spanish fall short.
It dawns on me that little I have experienced in all my musical life has got me so close to the heart of the musical instinct in mankind.
This day was indeed a long journey: not just the four flights and hours bumping around inside Andrés’s trusty jeep (it was most certainly worth the puncture on the way back that evening). It is the best part of four decades since my musical education started with a first piano lesson. Through school, university and my professional life I have pursued and held dear the great music of our western world and its potential for profound utterance about the human condition. Now in my 40s, here I am in remote, high Andean Bolivia finding a new sense of wonder in a music that would seem to contradict much of my musical heritage and its values. There was no musical colossus of the stature of a Bach or a Beethoven in Yascapi today. Nonetheless, I have been deeply affected by the music I experienced.
Back in Sucre that evening, sitting in a bar, the sounds of the Yascapi band still circle inside my head. I resolve to return home and share my experience of this music, and to explore the world’s kaleidoscopic traditions of music with a more open and enquiring mind