Chopin is a French anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, after having traveled to Senegal, he explored Mexico and Guatemala to meet traditional musicians before continuing down to Colombia, where he recorded and edited music inherited from the traditions as well as the colonial era. He set up in Ibarra, Ecuador, in 1973 and started Ñanda Mañachi, an ensemble of traditional music with members from various Quichua communities. Later on, Chopin created Juyungo, an ensemble representing different ethnics from Ecuadorian coast, mountains and Amazon areas. Both bands were pioneers in presenting, for the first time in Ecuador, a multi-ethnic music, and have been acclaimed at festivals across the world.
INTERVIEW – may 2016
How did you get to meet indigenous musicians and to create the Juyungo and Ñanda Mañachi ensembles?
Thanks to my wife, Hermelinda.
At this time she was working with an organization managed by the Ministry of Agriculture within the country. The UN funded the organization, and it was a project that had been suggested by Che Guevara. As they didn’t want it to sound communist, they called it “the Andean mission” (la misión andina), which suggested a religious, catholic aspect… So the Andean mission was to train Quichua-speaking youth to medicine, so that they could help in the countryside, where the doctors would never go. They could help bringing electricity and light in the community for example, as well as curing sickness cases like syphilis – because indigenous people went to work on the coast around Santo Domingo, they had contacts with women who had syphilis, they came back here and passed the illness on to local women. Therefore, there was a medical center and trained women of Quichua language were able to cure or administrate their treatment to sick people. And what was interesting was that they were able to use both modern medicine that was given by the Andean mission, which they didn’t have to buy, and traditional medicine. Modern medicine was a complement to the traditional one because many sicknesses were relatively new, shared with the rest of the world. For example isolated indigenous people cannot have contacts with the rest of the world, because if they do, they die from sicknesses that they’re not able to cure.
So, there was this whole context. And when I met Hermelinda, she was working in this project and therefore she had contacts – or more than contacts, friends – among the people. And everyone played music. Among all the people who played music, I was able to listen, record, and select the best… And little by little a music ensemble was formed with members from different communities. Not only Quichua-speaking people, but also people from other cultures.
What were you hoping to achieve with Juyungo and Ñanda Mañachi?
At this time, my idea was to gather musicians from these communities who had never gathered in a spontaneous and natural way like this, because there were, precisely, traditional impediments. Between those up there who had short hair and those around Peguche and Otavalo who had hair tresses, for example. At this time we would call them the Mochos and the Wangudos. These people would never meet. During the San Juanes festivities, they would fight and break each other’s instruments. But with the Ñanda Mañachi project, they would gather for the first time, both Mochos and Wangudos. I selected the musicians with Hermelinda, choosing the most interesting ones. I had to gather them depending on their personalities, too. Because musicians sometimes can be a little difficult to deal with! So I had to do in way that the gathering wouldn’t end up in a fight, but rather that something would arise from it. By inviting singers from different places, a group was formed that played traditional themes, but which sounded new. Because everyone would bring his or her own way to perform, which was the way of his or her community. At this time in the communities there was no electricity, no running water, the politicians wouldn’t go there to get their votes… All this only developed in the past forty years. Now, in these villages there are cement walls in place of straw roofs, and huge speakers diffusing any commercial music you can buy at the market. Back then it wasn’t possible to do so.
I had a craftwork shop in town to earn a living. And there I played recorded music. When I played the music I had recorded, many people would start coming in front of the shop, without entering because they wouldn’t buy anything: what they were interested in was the music. It was the first time they listened to it. That is how I thought about making discs available to the public.
How different is it to work with traditional musicians today and in the seventies?
At this time there were many different cultures, but today there are less. Nowadays, everything has been planned. The globalization bulldozer has come down here! For example now one writes Quichua in a way that erases the differences. But at this time the differences between a community and another were so strong in terms of clothes, language, customs and in the way to play music, that it was difficult to have them meet. But I wasn’t from any community, and I was with a woman who not only went in all communities in the Ibarra area, but also helped people with their sicknesses in the countryside. People would talk easily and tell me “ah, this person plays music”, so I would go and record that person. If you go alone, you don’t manage to do this. And before it was worse than now.
Also back then there was much more time for everything. There was no stress. So everything was made slowly, and I had all life long in front of me!
How pure, how truly traditional were the cultures you encountered then?
I am an anthropologist and an ethno-musicologist who has traveled a lot. First in Senegal, Africa, which is also a highlight in terms of music on the continent. Then I came back to France, worked with Michel Portal, who was a dear friend from the 1968 period. And then Mexico, Guatemala, where I spent some time, and then I came down. So for someone who was precisely looking for the purest, the most traditional element, without much involvement of outside components, this area was interesting. I arrived in Mocoa, Colombia, and I walked to the Yunguillo community, where people were speaking Quichua – they had been teaching me the language. And when they finally were willing to have me listen to music, they made me listen to a vinyl! I discovered they had already recorded their music. And so I recorded their recordings! All this to say there has always been influence, but these were influences they were looking for.
There were here the Mochos, who are offspring from Peru and Bolivia. The Incas had displaced them when they did the conquista here, and already at that time the traditions changed. For example now we call the big June festival Inti Raymi, but Inti Raymi is Inca, and the solstice celebrations existed here long before it. And then the Church came in and started calling it San Juan. But whether we call it San Juan or Inti Raymi, it is a fest imposed by conquerors, who replaced former celebrations with their own. But at least, San Juan has been able to evolve and the indigenous people have made it their own. On the contrary Inti Raymi is really Inca, and actually it is restricting the celebration traditions more than San Juan. When we talk about Inti Raymi, it becomes cultural; and when it is about culture, it isn’t about tradition anymore. It’s when tradition is disappearing that culture intervenes, to “rescue” the tradition, as they call it. But actually nothing gets rescued.
In Peru, yes, they now recreate the actual Inti Raymi celebration, including all the rituals of the Inca. The Inca was a human but deified character. But here, this didn’t exist. Here there were only communities without any State. While the Incas were under a State, a conqueror State. Here, people didn’t have any concept like this. So it was a great chock when the Incas arrived. In addition, the Incas were a patriarchal State, while from here up to Colombia it was matriarchal. With the matriarchal society comes the cult to the moon, while the other had a cult to the sun. Therefore this was a huge cultural chock when the Inca arrived.
Anyway, at this time, the San Juanes’ tradition and music were much more natural, precise and traditional than today.
I didn’t know where I would set up. And when I set up here in Ibarra, I didn’t really want it, but that’s how life is! I arrived here on May 31st, 1973, which was less than a month before the solstice festivities. People would go from house to house, that was the tradition. Now the celebration gets mixed with a whole bunch of things, and it becomes difficult for good music bands to continue because people follow them and they don’t know what it is for. They drink, they get drunk. Originally the purpose wasn’t to get drunk but to pay respect to the earth.
How do you envision the future of the traditional music you have been recording?
That’s the purpose of my recording of this music. I recorded elderly people, and the new generation didn’t pay attention to these older musicians and recordings, because of the process of modernization and change. That was the case in many places, like Otavalo for example. But when they started to travel, then they started paying attention. From the 1980’s onwards, indigenous people from all Ecuador started travelling. And by travelling they realized that people in Europe or in the US were interested in their music, and so they wanted to show that they knew about it! But actually they did not have any interest before then, and contact with elderly people was already lost. And these old people very often had passed away along with their knowledge. Therefore, from the discs were created new melodies. That’s why my work is well acknowledged here. But what remains unknown is its history: how and why this work was done. Precisely, I knew the music would disappear, that is the reason why I recorded it.
The music that is being played nowadays isn’t anymore the music that was recorded on those discs. That is why any time we have the possibility to do so, we gather the traditional musicians. We did so in 2014 in Peguche for example. There were three generations: the elderly, their children and their grandchildren. And we managed to organize a whole show that was acclaimed by specialists. It was a reinterpretation of antique music: it is true that we are not in the ancient times any longer, but thanks to texts and History that gets better and better known, we can reinterpret the music as it was recorded on the discs. The elderly musicians were able to show the younger ones how they used to perform, and this was a very interesting experience.
And the other reason why I recorded the music was also to make new music. That is important. Traditional music is music of the traditions. But the traditions aren’t fixed; rather they are evolving. During the few years when I have been recording music, the traditions changed and also the music changed. I wanted to restrain these changes, as they were bringing much disorder.
PORTFOLIO – ENCOUNTERS WITH MUSIC MASTERS FROM THE PAST
All pictures displayed here with Chopin Thermes’ authorization. Most of these pictures date from 1973.