Moving to the Indigenous Beat

Moving to the Indigenous Beat

As she returns to the Andes, Professor Allison Adrian finds festival music that is alive but changing.
By Beth Hawkins; Photos by Alex Kennedy '15

ALLISON ADRIAN was already a passionate musician when her high school band traveled to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to visit their sister high school. It was her sophomore year, just 10 days of playing for Bolivian audiences and of being treated to local performers. Yet the experience dramatically changed Adrian’s understanding of music.

As a student in the United States, she had been taught that striking a note should produce a single clear tone. But Andean music was made up of notes that contained multiple airy tones. Like everything else about Bolivia, it was unlike anything Adrian had ever encountered.

By way of illustration, Adrian, now an assistant professor of music at St. Kate’s, pulls a panpipe from a cupboard in her office and breathes it to life. The instrument consists of two chevrons of flutes of different lengths and pitches. No matter which one she blows into, air slips into adjacent pipes and creates not harmony or symphony, but a mélange wholly anchored in a place and tradition.

“I loved the Andes in particular,” Adrian says. “It was the timbre of the instruments. I felt like it mirrored the altiplano, the Andean highlands, where music plays an essential role in traditional celebrations. It felt so closely tied to the landscape. I found it really incredible.”

After high school, Adrian’s studies shifted course, culminating in a Ph.D. Her passion for multilayered sounds remained.

This fall, Adrian will return to the highlands as a Fulbright scholar. She will spend the academic year in southern Ecuador documenting the music of two indigenous communities, one of which has never been studied before. Additionally, she will partner with the Museo Pumapungo, a museum in Cuenca, Ecuador, with extensive collections documenting the region’s ancient cultures, to create the first audio and video record of the music.


As is true throughout the region, residents of Cañar and Saraguro have marked the changing of the seasons for centuries with festivals held near each solstice and equinox. For example, during the June Festival of the Sun — Inti Raymi — celebrants play music that represents the sun’s life-giving powers. And just as celestial bodies orbit the sun, dancers circle the musicians.

The intricate relationships between these rituals and their music — ranging from which instruments can be played in which season to who may play them — varies from one place to another. Traditionally, women rarely occupy a musical role or are the musicians.

As Adrian was planning for this upcoming year of study, she came across an online post by Judy Blankenship, a writer and photographer who has lived in one of the remote communities, Cañar, for 20 years. Blankenship noted that the music she heard in the community was changing quickly. Why? Large numbers of adults — and in particular men — have left Cañar and Saraguro in search of jobs in cities across Ecuador, as well as the United States. In fact, the diaspora has resulted in indigenous Andean communities throughout the upper Midwest.

What did it mean that in Cañar and Saraguro the women and children were being left behind to stage the celebrations?

“What happens to music when the primary music-makers are no longer there?” asks Adrian, who recalls standing out in Bolivia as a teenager because she was a percussionist. “How are musical practices, performances and indigenous identity impacted when a community that relies primarily on oral tradition to pass on skills and knowledge, is scattered geographically?”


There are very few answers, Adrian learned as her research continued. In part because Latin America’s dominant mestizo society often still looks down on indigenous cultures. There is no scholarly record of Cañari musical traditions.

At the same time, there is growing concern that popular music from abroad will engulf the culture. Ecuadorean radio is now flooded with American hits, which has impacted the local youth who are increasingly expected to keep the indigenous rites alive. Adrian’s intent with her Fulbright project is to leave an annotated record for future scholars.

“I’m not trying to preserve their music,” she says. “No one can stop a culture’s music from changing. Musical changes reflect changes in culture. If music stops changing, it will die.”

To aid in her documentation, Adrian went in search of a Katie who had experience in filmmaking as well as Spanish language skills. A colleague pointed her to Alex Kennedy ’15, a biology major with double minors in Spanish and psychology. Serendipitously, Kennedy was headed to Ecuador for a study abroad course.

While there in January, she filmed a well-known indigenous musical group, Ñanda Mañachi, and interviewed the musicians about their instruments. This spring, she and Adrian attended and filmed celebrations by Cañar and Saraguro immigrants living in northeast Minneapolis and western Wisconsin.

“It’s great how the project came together with both of our interests playing into it,” says Kennedy. “I’m learning a lot. The musicians and families we’ve met so far have been very willing to discuss on camera and describe in such detail what they’re doing. We’ve felt extremely welcomed at their events.”

Back in her office Adrian tucks away the panpipe, its mellifluous notes still lingering in the air. Adrian’s work in the coming year is vital. She will create not only a more robust record of music-making in Ecuador, but help others better understand — and maybe love, like her — one region’s timeless sounds.


Canari musicians in Minneapolis

Canari musicians in Minneapolis

Canari musician

Canari musician


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