Bolivia 86 | Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums

5 08 2009

BOLIVIA (1986)

Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums

Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 (Previously Earth Series Cassette 300)

Note: All of this music was recorded outdoors on basic equipment in “real life” circumstances, under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. It is to provide a small cultural looking glass into a world or worlds barely known to most of us that these recordings are presented. I hope they will encourage you to want to know more, to open your world up more to the many fascinating and diverse worlds around us.

Music from the Fiesta de la Invención de la Santa Cruz May 3, 1986

1. Group One (2:41) 2. Group One (2:25) 3. Group Two (3:22) | 4. Group Three (2:33) 5. Groups One & Three (10:09) | 6. Group Four (1:43) 7. Group One (5:20) | 8. Groups Two, Three & Four (8:30) 9. Groups Three & Four (8:50)

listen to Boliva | Group One

listen to Bolivia | Group Two – Alto Bamboo Flutes

Buy BOLIVIA (1986) Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 here…

Group One plays large single-row panpipes of seven different-length tubes each. Pieces 1 and 2 were recorded on the group’s arrival and departure from the small courtyard. Group Two plays 5-hole straight flutes, each some 2 feet long. Piece 3 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Three plays two sizes of 4-hole straight flutes, one approximately 2 feet long and the other closer to 3 feet. Piece 4 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Four plays relatively small single-row panpipes of different sizes with different-length tubes in groups of 6, 9, and 12. Piece 6 was recorded on the hill overlooking the town, as were all of the remaining pieces featuring all of the different groups.

Various types of drums and snare drums of all shapes and sizes can be heard prominently featured on all of these recordings.

 

The village of Italaque is set alongside a river in a high Andean valley some two to three thousand feet below the Bolivian altiplano (or “high plane”), itself some 12,500 feet above sea level. It is 25 kilometers northeast of Puerto Acosta, not far from the Peruvian border, on the eastern (and less-visited) side of Lake Titicaca. It is reached via an occasional (all day) truck ride from La Paz or by a seven to eight-hour foot path from Puerto Acosta, which is the way I and an Australian friend of mine, Patrick Hanson, arrived.

The native people of the region are Aymara-speaking, and for the feast of the “Discovery of the Holy Cross,” May 3, groups of musicians came to Italaque from several area villages to take part in religious and ritual observances. In Lynn Meisch’s Guide to El Dorado and the Inca Empire, where I first learned of this festival, she refers to the goings-on as a contest of sorts among groups of sikuri (zampona or panpipe) players previously trained in Italaque, but this seems to no longer be the case. At least in 1986, there were only two groups of sikuris— one played quite large panpipes and the other from Italaque played smaller ones— and there were three other groups which played straight wood (bamboo) flutes of varying types and sizes. Although the several groups frequently played their own music at the same time right next to each other, there was no apparent competition between them, at least none that was apparent to an un-acculturated outside observer. Rather, there was only a dizzying and outrageous mix of sound, of varying sorts and in varying chance combinations, never the same twice!

The festival took place on a high hill and precipice that overlooks the town. The hill, known as Calvario, was the site of a very small chapel and courtyard. Early in the day, each of five musical groups (except for the one from Italaque, the event’s organizers) took a place somewhere on the hillside below, performing their own ritual observances (including the drinking of an overpoweringly strong white grape brandy which they continued drinking intermittently throughout the day) and preparing themselves for the hours of playing to come. One by one, they moved rapidly up the hill, playing their panpipes, flutes and drums. Ritual prayers and playing took place in the small courtyard and chapel, the groups forming circularly and moving circularly, first this way and then that, as they played. They then filed out onto the precipice of the hill where they continued to play, with only short breaks, the remainder of the day.

Each of the groups was composed of some fifteen to twenty-five male musicians. They were dressed in different, though similar, costumes, presenting an array of colors. Some wore hats decorated with numbers of tall multi-hued feathers. One group used only flamingo feathers, making for a sea of soft pink. Two of the groups wore as well a type of “woman’s” wig, straight black hair pulled back with a single thick braid behind! The group with the flamingo feathers wore a type of open-front, thin white cassock, nearly dress-like at the bottom, on top of which they wore dark blue suit coats. By way of difference, the group from Italaque wore suits (or coats) and occasionally ties, and dress hats (!), while still another group wore the white cassocks, but without the coats, almost “oriental” looking.

Indeed, some of the music itself (tracks 3 and 4 e.g.) had a quality, an elegance even, not unlike a type of Japanese or Korean court music — highly stylized, insistent, and nearly trance-like in nature — music, like all of the music heard here, from a dimension far removed from itself as music alone. For here, unlike most native festivals, the music was the main event, it was not an accompaniment to anything other than itself. Its only connection to any ritual outside of itself was that it was this day of ritual that had brought it into being and it was responsible to it, but the music was played and entered into on its own terms. In the first instance, this was a musician’s festival.

The groups were, however, accompanied by various mythological and ritual characters. There were two men costumed in huge black-and-white condor feathers wearing a type of hood over the face with a small, rectangular mirror in the center, representing perhaps Inti, the sun, and also perhaps to ward off evil influences. There were other characters, more like “ritual humorists” (I borrow the term from Victoria Bricker who used it in Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas, University of Texas Press): a couple of masked and hooded personages with a type of ski-mask over their faces, devilish sorts with short rope whips and small bells (heard at various points in the recordings). The function of the “ritual humorist” is to add a certain levity, to poke fun at participants and bystanders, to alleviate or contradict the serious nature or thrust of any event and, frequently, to reinforce (by contrast) accepted community values. These types of characters are common at native festivals throughout the Americas.

When the groups had all paid their respects in the courtyard and chapel and had all finally moved out onto the small precipice, the music really took off. There were hours of interactions of sound, mixes and movements of color (from the musicians’ costumes and feather headpieces and the circular turning of the groups). It was like the wildest dream of sound, a perfect mix of the earthy and the ethereal, the tops of rugged Andean peaks and wisps of high altitude clouds readily visible in the distance. (Henry Kuntz, 1986)

(Note: Although I’ve mentioned that five groups took part in this event, two of the groups appeared to be from the same village and were similarly costumed and played the same music. So only “four” groups are represented on the recording. A sixth group, not represented on tape, appeared somewhat late in the day, playing in a style similar to Group Four, the group from Italaque.)

Recordings and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 1986/2009 – All Rights Reserved

For more photos and to read the complete story of Henry’s Journey to Italaque (Parts 1-4), go to Sax & Stories by clicking here…

The complete Humming Bird Records catalogue is available via Metropolis | The Shop here…




New Humming Bird Earth Series Releases

5 08 2009

JAVA (1997)

Sacred Gamelan Sekati of Yogyakarta
Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 1

Note: This music was recorded in open-air pavilions on basic equipment under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. Earth Series is releasing this material because of its uniqueness and general unavailability on the commercial market.

1. Kyai Gunturmadu July 13, 1997 – 10:30 PM (22:49) | 2. Kyai Nagawilaga July 15, 1997 – 11:00 PM (24:53) | 3. Kyai Gunturmadu July 16, 1997 – 9:00 PM (29:34)

listen to Java | Kyai Gunturmadu July 13, 1997

Buy JAVA (1997) Sacred Gamelan Sekati of Yogyakarta Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 1 – Henry Kuntz here…

Instrumentation – 7 tone pelog tuning Bonang Barung 2 rows of 14 knobbed gongs, plus one on each side of the main seated player: played by1 leading player and 1 or 2 additional players who sit on the opposite side of the instrument adding occasional ornamentation. Saron Demung, 2 Saron Ritjik, Saron Peking Metallophones of graded sizes suspended over wooden trough resonators: Each saron may be played by 1 or 2 players, the players sitting on opposite sides of the instrument.  Kempiang 2 knobbed gongs on a wooden stand: 1 player. 2 Tjempur small suspended gongs: 1 player. 2 Gong Ageng large suspended gongs: 1 player. Bedug large drum: 1 player.

On my initial visit to Yogyakarta, Central Java, in 1987, there was one type of gamelan music I did not hear anywhere. That was the unusual and extraordinary music of the ancient and sacred gamelan sekaten. Prior to my journey, I had heard this music on an LP Java / Historic Gamelans (UNESCO Collection, GREM G1004) recorded in 1970 by Jacques Brunet.

I hadn’t realized at the time that the music of that gamelan – Kyai Gunturmadu (the Venerable Torrent of Honey) – and that of its twin, Kyai Nagawilaga (the Venerable Fighting Serpent) is heard publicly only once each year – on the six days and nights that precede the Javanese celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammad.

On the evening before the public playing begins, the two gamelan sekati are played in the palace compound of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, then carried in procession to the outer courtyard of the royal mosque and placed in opposite pavilions. That is where they are played alternately from morning until late evening for the six days.

In 1997, I returned to Yogyakarta at the time of this celebration to immerse myself in the music of the two ancient gamelans.

What is so special about the music of the gamelan sekati?

It is played on the largest and loudest Javanese instruments, yet it is the slowest, most spacious, and perhaps most internally complex of any Javanese music. It is characterized by odd phrasings and intervals, strange rhythmic markings and interjections, and sharp punctuations both on and off the beat. At the same time, the music is deeply spiritual in intent and is profoundly moving.

Historically, since the 16th century, the gamelan sekati have been associated with religious ritual. This association was allowed by Java’s new Islamic rulers as a concession to indigenous Javanese culture; it was encouraged by them with the hope that the sound of the gamelan might help attract converts to Islam. The word sekaten itself, after which the festivities associated with the gamelans is named, derives from a word meaning a profession of faith in Allah.

Since the gamelans almost certainly existed prior to the arrival of Islam, one would think that music for the ensembles must have existed as well. One wonders if the playing of the gamelans might originally have been associated with the week-long harvest festival that took place in pre-Islamic Java, the timing of which was changed to coincide with the sekaten celebration commemorating Muhammad’s birth.

The origins of the present-day gamelan sekati instruments, however, only partly go back to the (pre?) 16th century. The two sets of gamelan instruments that were used for the first sekaten celebration belonged to what was then the central Javanese kingdom of Mataram. In 1755, under Dutch supervision, that kingdom was split into the two less powerful principalities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. As a result of the division, the Mataram heirlooms – which included the two gamelan sekati – were also split.

So Yogyakarta and Surakarta each inherited one of the original sets of gamelans, each set carrying the same honorific title of Kyai Gunturmadu. Each principality also constructed a second identical sekaten gamelan to go with the first. In Yogyakarta, that was Kyai Nagawilaga which was completed in 1757.

These are the gamelan sekati that are used today in the week-long celebrations that take place in both Yogyakarta and Surakarta.

Until now, the only recordings of the music of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati were made in 1970 – of Gunturmadu, one track on the previously mentioned (and out-of-print) Java / Historic Gamelans – and of Nagawilaga, one track on a CD released in 1995, JAVA, Palais Royal de Yogyakarta 3: Le Spirituel et Le Sacré (Ocura C560069), also recorded by Jacques Brunet.

There are also wonderful recordings from the 2001festival of the two gamelan sekati of Surakarta (one track each) by John Noise Manis. They are included on a CD Gamelan of Central Java II: Ceremonial Music (Dunya/Felmay FY8042). What one hears is that the Surakarta style of playing is different than that of Yogyakarta. It is lighter in tone with a different balance of nuances. Also, to go by one of the photos in the CD booklet, the Surakarta gamelan sekati appear to include some instruments not included in Yogyakarta.

Which leads to the reasons for the present release –

Originally, these were recordings I made for my own use and reference – what one might call basic “field recordings.” My decision to release them is because they reveal something fundamental about the music of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati that the 1970 recordings, as sonically and musically excellent as they are, do not.

These are the first released recordings of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati in ritual use. The 1970 Brunet tracks brilliantly documented the sound, textures, and musical sense of the gamelans, with the compositions standing in high relief. The inherent time restrictions of the LP were perhaps perfect for that, but the tracks (at just over 17 and 13 minutes) are considerably shorter than nearly any of the performances I heard.

Brunet reports that in 1995 there were only fourteen musical compositions in the repertoire of the gamelan sekati. What one realizes on hearing the gamelans in performance is that for all their individual interest, the compositions are only a means, a medium if you will, for attaining and maintaining a finely tuned spiritual state. The compositions may be played for longer or shorter durations depending upon ritual need.

Further, the day-to-day use of the gamelan sekati instruments in performance affects the overall sound of the music. For example, when the bronze keys of the sarons (each key of which fits over two metal posts that jut out of the wooden troughs on which they sit) are continually struck by the players’ heavy lead-weighted buffalo horn mallets, there is a persistent metallic buzz (scarcely audible on the Brunet recordings) that almost begins to sound like the built-in buzz of a marimba.

Also, because until now there has been only one recording each of each Yogyakarta sekaten gamelan (i.e. no comparative recordings), we have not been able to get a sense of what we begin to discern on the present disc – how the character of each piece is determined to a large extent by the playing of the ensemble’s nominal leader, the player of the bonang.

Of the three pieces presented, we hear three different compositions led by three different players. Each leading player plays a similar introduction in terms of notes, but each one plays those notes with a different cadence and feeling. You would think this difference might be attributable to the compositions themselves, but my experience of hearing the players over several days suggests otherwise.

The peculiar aspects of each composition do not actually begin to assert themselves until several minutes into each piece – at around the 6th minute of the first piece, at around the 7th minute of the second, and at around the 10th minute of the third.

The first piece, played on Kyai Gunturmadu, moves into a heavenly, near ecstatic state of being. The simultaneous striking of various knobbed gongs, not unlike the use of the reong in Balinese music, contributes in no small part to this atmosphere. (Toward the conclusion of a piece played on Kyai Gunturmadu the previous evening, the sound of the gamelan was so incredibly strong yet sweet that the Javanese audience, thickly crowded around the pavilion, was smiling broadly and laughing in recognition of its power and charm.)

The second piece, on Kyai Nagawilaga, sustains a rarefied, near rapturous air, with an unusually high-pitched edge; it descends to earth with a precise, clockwork-like finish.

The third piece, on Kyai Gunturmadu, is the real gem of this collection. It is the final full-length piece of the six days – only an abbreviated 10-minute piece followed – played just prior to the royal attendants showing up to return the gamelan in procession to the Sultan’s palace.

The pavilion, the space between the two pavilions, and the entire surrounding area was dense with people. Many had come from villages near and far away to bathe in the spiritual sounds of the gamelan sekati and to participate in the festival’s grand finale the following day. (On that day, mountains of rice are carried from the Sultan’s palace and given away to the people who believe that partaking of the rice will bring prosperity and happiness.) So there was a pervasive murmuring and excitement in the air as the piece began.

The leader of this piece (pictured on the cover) I considered to be one of the great masters of this genre. He had the ability, as you can hear, to slow the music down to the point of inner stillness – like the stillness in the center of a Buddhist painting. But even as the music slows down – and it seems to slow down more as it moves along – it retains a high degree of complexity.

One keeps thinking that the music is going to settle somewhere, like into an ancient “groove” – but there are unexpected twists and turns, odd rhythmic accents, contrary beats, unusual stops, pauses, punctuations, and breaks in cadence. There is a point somewhere in the piece’s final minutes when the bonang and the sarons seem nearly to be moving in opposite directions. The effect of the whole is both musically masterful and deeply moving.

For me, this piece is the essence of what the music of the gamelan sekati is about. (Henry Kuntz, July 2009)

Recordings and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 2009 – All Rights Reserved

ADDENDUM: Since the release of JAVA (1997), a new CD, Gamelan Of Central Java XIV: Ritual Sound Of Sekaten (Felmay Records), has appeared, featuring comparative recordings from 2004 of the gamelan sekati Gunturmadu of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. There is one recording by each ensemble playing the same composition, Gendhing Sekaten Rangkung, said to be one of only two specifically composed for the sekaten gamelan. The two compositions date from the early Islamic period.

The playing styles and musical approaches of each group are remarkably different. The recordings by John Noise Manis are excellent.

The composition itself seems to be the same as that featured on piece # 2 of JAVA (1997) played by gamelan Nagawilaga.


BOLIVIA (1986)

Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums

Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 (Previously Earth Series Cassette 300)

Note: All of this music was recorded outdoors on basic equipment in “real life” circumstances, under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. It is to provide a small cultural looking glass into a world or worlds barely known to most of us that these recordings are presented. I hope they will encourage you to want to know more, to open your world up more to the many fascinating and diverse worlds around us.

Music from the Fiesta de la Invención de la Santa Cruz May 3, 1986

1. Group One (2:41) 2. Group One (2:25) 3. Group Two (3:22) | 4. Group Three (2:33) 5. Groups One & Three (10:09) | 6. Group Four (1:43) 7. Group One (5:20) | 8. Groups Two, Three & Four (8:30) 9. Groups Three & Four (8:50)

listen to Boliva | Group One

listen to Bolivia | Group Two – Alto Bamboo Flutes

Buy BOLIVIA (1986) Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 here…

Group One plays large single-row panpipes of seven different-length tubes each. Pieces 1 and 2 were recorded on the group’s arrival and departure from the small courtyard. Group Two plays 5-hole straight flutes, each some 2 feet long. Piece 3 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Three plays two sizes of 4-hole straight flutes, one approximately 2 feet long and the other closer to 3 feet. Piece 4 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Four plays relatively small single-row panpipes of different sizes with different-length tubes in groups of 6, 9, and 12. Piece 6 was recorded on the hill overlooking the town, as were all of the remaining pieces featuring all of the different groups.

Various types of drums and snare drums of all shapes and sizes can be heard prominently featured on all of these recordings.

 

The village of Italaque is set alongside a river in a high Andean valley some two to three thousand feet below the Bolivian altiplano (or “high plane”), itself some 12,500 feet above sea level. It is 25 kilometers northeast of Puerto Acosta, not far from the Peruvian border, on the eastern (and less-visited) side of Lake Titicaca. It is reached via an occasional (all day) truck ride from La Paz or by a seven to eight-hour foot path from Puerto Acosta, which is the way I and an Australian friend of mine, Patrick Hanson, arrived.

The native people of the region are Aymara-speaking, and for the feast of the “Discovery of the Holy Cross,” May 3, groups of musicians came to Italaque from several area villages to take part in religious and ritual observances. In Lynn Meisch’s Guide to El Dorado and the Inca Empire, where I first learned of this festival, she refers to the goings-on as a contest of sorts among groups of sikuri (zampona or panpipe) players previously trained in Italaque, but this seems to no longer be the case. At least in 1986, there were only two groups of sikuris— one played quite large panpipes and the other from Italaque played smaller ones— and there were three other groups which played straight wood (bamboo) flutes of varying types and sizes. Although the several groups frequently played their own music at the same time right next to each other, there was no apparent competition between them, at least none that was apparent to an un-acculturated outside observer. Rather, there was only a dizzying and outrageous mix of sound, of varying sorts and in varying chance combinations, never the same twice!

The festival took place on a high hill and precipice that overlooks the town. The hill, known as Calvario, was the site of a very small chapel and courtyard. Early in the day, each of five musical groups (except for the one from Italaque, the event’s organizers) took a place somewhere on the hillside below, performing their own ritual observances (including the drinking of an overpoweringly strong white grape brandy which they continued drinking intermittently throughout the day) and preparing themselves for the hours of playing to come. One by one, they moved rapidly up the hill, playing their panpipes, flutes and drums. Ritual prayers and playing took place in the small courtyard and chapel, the groups forming circularly and moving circularly, first this way and then that, as they played. They then filed out onto the precipice of the hill where they continued to play, with only short breaks, the remainder of the day.

Each of the groups was composed of some fifteen to twenty-five male musicians. They were dressed in different, though similar, costumes, presenting an array of colors. Some wore hats decorated with numbers of tall multi-hued feathers. One group used only flamingo feathers, making for a sea of soft pink. Two of the groups wore as well a type of “woman’s” wig, straight black hair pulled back with a single thick braid behind! The group with the flamingo feathers wore a type of open-front, thin white cassock, nearly dress-like at the bottom, on top of which they wore dark blue suit coats. By way of difference, the group from Italaque wore suits (or coats) and occasionally ties, and dress hats (!), while still another group wore the white cassocks, but without the coats, almost “oriental” looking.

Indeed, some of the music itself (tracks 3 and 4 e.g.) had a quality, an elegance even, not unlike a type of Japanese or Korean court music — highly stylized, insistent, and nearly trance-like in nature — music, like all of the music heard here, from a dimension far removed from itself as music alone. For here, unlike most native festivals, the music was the main event, it was not an accompaniment to anything other than itself. Its only connection to any ritual outside of itself was that it was this day of ritual that had brought it into being and it was responsible to it, but the music was played and entered into on its own terms. In the first instance, this was a musician’s festival.

The groups were, however, accompanied by various mythological and ritual characters. There were two men costumed in huge black-and-white condor feathers wearing a type of hood over the face with a small, rectangular mirror in the center, representing perhaps Inti, the sun, and also perhaps to ward off evil influences. There were other characters, more like “ritual humorists” (I borrow the term from Victoria Bricker who used it in Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas, University of Texas Press): a couple of masked and hooded personages with a type of ski-mask over their faces, devilish sorts with short rope whips and small bells (heard at various points in the recordings). The function of the “ritual humorist” is to add a certain levity, to poke fun at participants and bystanders, to alleviate or contradict the serious nature or thrust of any event and, frequently, to reinforce (by contrast) accepted community values. These types of characters are common at native festivals throughout the Americas.

When the groups had all paid their respects in the courtyard and chapel and had all finally moved out onto the small precipice, the music really took off. There were hours of interactions of sound, mixes and movements of color (from the musicians’ costumes and feather headpieces and the circular turning of the groups). It was like the wildest dream of sound, a perfect mix of the earthy and the ethereal, the tops of rugged Andean peaks and wisps of high altitude clouds readily visible in the distance. (Henry Kuntz, 1986)

(Note: Although I’ve mentioned that five groups took part in this event, two of the groups appeared to be from the same village and were similarly costumed and played the same music. So only “four” groups are represented on the recording. A sixth group, not represented on tape, appeared somewhat late in the day, playing in a style similar to Group Four, the group from Italaque.)

Recordings and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 1986/2009 – All Rights Reserved

For more photos and to read the complete story of Henry’s Journey to Italaque (Parts 1-4), go to Sax & Stories by clicking here…

The complete Humming Bird Records catalogue is available in my Record Shop here… and also via Metropolis | The Shop here…




Journey to Italaque Part IV.

10 10 2008

JOURNEY TO ITALAQUE Part IV.

An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Final Part: Our Strange Journey Back

(Synopsis: With the Italaque festival winding down, afternoon of May 3rd, Patrick and I began our trek back to Puerto Acosta. As night fell, we lost our trail. A light rain began, then snow flurries. Unable to put our sleeping bags down on the wet ground, and unable to see our way forward, we walked back and forth on a single stretch of road the entire night, waiting endlessly for daybreak.)

Almost imperceptibly, the first faint gray light appeared. We now began to move with purpose, seeking to find the trail back to Puerto Acosta. We had scarcely begun our search when snow began falling in earnest. In only a few minutes, the countryside was blanketed in white. It was beautiful to gaze on, even in our weariness, but everything around us became instantly unrecognizable, unfamiliar.

We knew the trail we were looking for wound out of the extensive plain and valley we had hiked through two days earlier. If we could locate the valley, we could get back on the trail. For a while, we thought we had found it. With snow blowing about, clinging to my beard and to our clothes, we wandered far down into a spacious, mountain-ringed flatland that resembled the area we had come through. Our shoes and feet, already wet from the rainy night, became soaked and heavy as we sloshed through the frosty groundcover. We seemed to have uncovered a portion of a trail here or maybe over there, but all paths came to a dead end; there was no way out of this valley save for the way we had walked in.

By the time we had trudged back to the road, three long hours had passed. We had been on that out-of-way rut for fifteen hours. We were exhausted and trying to fend off a feeling of hopelessness. But at least the snow had stopped; slivers of sun poked through the clouds. Since we had camped in this place the night before, we had not seen a single person, a single dwelling, nor any passing vehicle. Then, just as we were beginning to silently ponder the unthinkable, that we might actually not be able find our way out of this place, a big bouncing open bed truck came rattling up the lonesome corridor. We were as much astonished as elated and relieved.

The vehicle, packed with human cargo, was plying the route from Italaque to Escoma, the town we had passed through on our way from La Paz to Puerto Acosta. We climbed aboard while the riders, mostly Indian men on their way to some rough job, stared at the embarrassed and foolish pair of us with amusement. We took it in stride, aware of how ridiculous we appeared in the eyes of those accustomed to the mountains’ ways. Underneath, we felt happy to be alive; because while we had not exactly stared Death in the face, we had caught a fearful glimpse of the Grim One dancing excitedly in the distance.

Less comprehensible and more strange was the treatment we got once we arrived in Escoma.

It was mid-morning when we stepped off the truck into the town square. The sky had cleared; we stood beneath an immense blue dome. A blazing sun was perfect for drying out our shoes, clothes and sleeping bags. We laid our things at the plaza’s edge, then sat and ate the last bit of bread and sardines we had. The humble fare tasted heavenly, whetting our appetite for the proper meal we hoped to have.

We also dreamed of getting some sleep.

As a clock struck twelve, high noon, we roamed the square in search of a room; by chance, we wandered into the town’s only restaurant. A boy began to seat us, but we declined his invitation momentarily to gather our belongings. When we returned, no more than ten minutes later, the establishment’s owner, a taut, broad-shouldered woman of Spanish and Indian descent, stopped us at the door. Flailing her arms and head about, so as not to look at us directly, she haughtily announced that there was no food: “No hay comida, señores!”

We were taken aback. Through an open door, we could see half-empty soup bowls on the tables, patrons dining, and slabs of meat on a long table in the kitchen. It was mid-day, after all, when Bolivians eat their main meal. “Perhaps later?” we inquired. “Sí, tal vez,” she replied, but her voice trailed off, her tone was noncommittal.

We went back to searching for a place to sleep. We discovered the town’s only hotel, a rich red-brown brick and wood edifice two stories tall with an indeterminate number of rooms. The establishment’s proprietor, a slim, pale mestizo with shiny white hair, couldn’t say for sure if anything was available. We should check around 3:00 o’clock, he said.

We hung out in the square for a while; later we tried at the restaurant again. It was the same story.

While we might have chalked our situation up to bad luck or circumstance, the writing on the wall soon became clear. When a small señora in a dank little sundry shop refused to sell us even a roll of toilet paper, claiming she was “out,” while a supply sat clearly in view on an upper bare-plank shelf, we began to get the message.

Why we were being given this message, we had no idea. Several Israelis who had stayed in Escoma and who had boarded the truck we were on a few days earlier going to Puerto Acosta, had not related any bizarre tales of the place. So what could have happened since then? Perhaps we had been mistaken for someone, or taken for U.S. government agents working to eradicate the popular indigenous coca crop. More likely, we were shouldering the blame for some recent social transgression attributed to one or another testy foreigner who had passed through the area ahead of us. Who knew?

Admittedly, we could hardly have looked our best after weathering a night in the mountains, but the town was not big on appearances, and we had not forgotten our manners.

Dutifully, we approached the innkeeper again about a room; the response was a predictable “No hay.”

An hour later, 4:00 o’clock, a truck showed up going in the direction of Puerto Acosta. Almost simultaneously, and with an underlying sense of “Eureka,” Patrick and I exclaimed, “Let’s get out of here!”

But there was a catch. The driver would not risk taking his vehicle over the usual route to the town, portions of which were sunk under three or four feet of water from Lake Titicaca, swollen and expanded beyond its bounds by the season’s ill-fated torrential rains. He would drive a quarter of the way. We would have to walk the rest, a distance of twenty kilometers.

We didn’t think about it; we climbed aboard.

Our fellow travelers were an amenable lot, young and old, men and women, who generously included us in their circle and offered to steer us toward our destination. Patrick and I clung to the wooden railing that enclosed the back of the truck. The clattery rig bumped along a beaten up road until, in the early evening dark, it came to an unsteady halt at the edge of a nameless village. The bunch of us, forty or so, came piling off the truck; people began rapidly moving in the direction of the trail to Puerto Acosta. Most people were not actually going there, but they were able to reach their villages by means of the same path.

A muddy byway skirted the little pueblo. Several houses on its perimeter emitted just enough light for us to avoid stepping into the deep pools of water that were about. From somewhere, we could hear high wispy flute tones; and we could see little decorative touches, colored lanterns and streamers, inside the windows of the houses. As Patrick and I passed by one of the adobe casas, two large Indian women, their hair undone, came straggling out, sobbing uncontrollably. A day’s festivities, and no doubt a bit of strong liquor, had unloosed some long-buried sorrow, attested to now by their wet, streaming tears.

We kept moving, not wanting to separate ourselves from the group going toward Puerto Acosta. We stayed close to two young Bolivian men who were leading the way. The two set a fast but steady pace. Considering the altitude we were at (more than 12,000 feet), the ease with which they maintained their momentum was amazing. Patrick and I pushed hard to keep up with them; the four of us were soon walking alone, having outdistanced everyone behind us. We tried to literally follow in their footsteps. They skipped over rocks and picked their way through the trails’ ubiquitous puddles with a sixth sense, faster and more surefooted in the dark than either of us might have been in the day. All the while, they were smoking cigarettes and carrying on conversation!

For a long time, we hiked the gradual slope of a high ridge that dropped down into a canyon on our left; then, the ridge disappeared, the trail narrowed and became rougher. The night was clear, punctuated by occasional moving clouds.

In our worn state, Patrick and I were hallucinating. We would see distant flashes of what appeared to be mammoth snow-covered Andean mountain ranges.

When we had gotten about three quarters of the way to Puerto Acosta, three hours on, the young men bid us adios and disappeared down a hidden footpath that led to where they lived. Before they left, they pointed us in the direction we needed to go. But we were unsure of ourselves in the dark and waited to see if anyone else might be coming along who was going our way.

Ten minutes later, an Indian man and his son showed up. Their loose white clothing stood out in the night and was girded skirt-like around their waists, leaving their lower legs exposed. They were stooped over due to the heavy burdens they bore on their backs. Each, with their arms behind them, carried a rectangular wooden box, as wide as their bodies and more than half their height, which was secured by means of a thick leather strap that went around the boxes, then over their foreheads. The man’s son was only a boy, but he was uncomplaining, as stoic in demeanor as his father.

Their destination was Puerto Acosta; they didn’t mind us accompanying them. The trail became rocky, went up a little, down a little. Their philosophy of travel was the opposite of that of the young men we had been with. They avoided small puddles, but they walked straight through wide mountain streams or any standing water. We had little choice but to follow, once again saturating our shoes, socks and feet.

An hour and a half later, we arrived in Puerto Acosta. Its normally quiet pitch black streets gave evidence of the town’s ongoing fiesta, with strains of drunken crooning coming from some of the houses.

We thanked the man and his son for guiding us. Then we found our way to the unnamed pension we were staying at. We pushed open the door to our room and stumbled through. Josh sat on a bed reading. Seeing us, he bolted up and stared in disbelief. “Holy Jesus!” he declared. “What’s happened to you?” Before we could utter a word, he left and returned with a large beer and three glasses. That gold sparkling brew was a divine elixir! Then, though we were barely able to string together intelligible sentences, we told him our story – of our trek to Italaque, of the wild native festival, of getting lost in the mountains and the tale of our return. He listened silently, intently, gaping incredulously.

Then he related to us what had gone on in Puerto Acosta. On the first day of the festival, a riotous procession, complete with siku, or panpipe, ensembles, had charged to the summit of the nearby hills. A group of men bore on their shoulders a heavy platform graced with a dazzlingly decorated statue of the Virgin. In the midst of the foray, one of the bearers spontaneously handed his privileged cargo to Josh, an honor which, despite the protest of his aching back, he dared not refuse. God knows, if the Virgin were to have tumbled from her place of glory, there could only have been hell to pay! For two days, the bands had been playing their music on the hilltops and simultaneously shooting off sticks of dynamite! Josh himself had been invited to rehearse with and play in one of the bands. Tomorrow, the festivities would continue with private house parties, to which we were invited.

Splashing ice cold water on myself from a tiny sink that night was never so pleasing. And to actually sleep in a bed again was luxurious.

The next morning, brass bands and panpipe ensembles marched boisterously around the town and the square. They were bound for the inner courtyards of residences where the festival parties were being hosted.

By afternoon, the affairs were in full swing. We hung out where Josh’s band was playing.

The group consisted of over twenty players of small single-row sikus. That made for a big sound coming from the little instruments. Resonance was added by the players simultaneously directing their measured blowing into the center of the band’s round, if ragged, circle. People danced to the fast, syncopated music. Someone beat out time on a great drum to propel the sound along, and two men strutted about, each crashing together a pair of lively handheld cymbals.

There was plenty of beer to drink. Dressy waiters in starched white shirts and black bow ties brought around silver trays spread with glasses of translucent red and green liqueurs whose syrupy ingredients perhaps best remained a mystery. Sadly, there was little to eat that was appetizing, only some bony chicken with the seemingly always dirt-flavored Andean freeze-dried potatoes, or chuño, and white rice of the driest sort.

The following day, May 6, we boarded an early morning truck out of Puerto Acosta to begin making our way toward Peru. It was night when we reached the strait of Tiquina, a narrow stretch of Lake Titicaca where one could cross the lake on a barge, continue to the Bolivian town of Copacabana, then on to Peru. As we reached the strait, enveloped by the consummate darkness we had become accustomed to, we were struck by the glare of bright electric bulbs strung over market stalls on the other side of the water. What a revelation to see the light! Strange and wondrous and so liberating!

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text, photos, and recorded sound Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

References

Meisch, Lynn: A Traveler’s Guide to El Dorado & the Inca Empire: Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. Penguin Books. 1977.
(While reflective of the period in which it was written, Lynn Meisch’s guide remains an extensive and valuable one-of-a-kind cultural resource.)

Bricker, Victoria: Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas. Texas Pan American Series. 1973.
(The concept of “ritual humorist” comes from this engaging ethnographic study by Victoria Bricker.)