LOOKING BACK: Festival of Native Music and Dances at Puruchuco

By Peggy Massey

Peruvian Times, March 24, 1967

Puruchuco is one of my museums. This is stated with all the arrogance of the neophyte, and it means that at some time or other I’ve written the place up. So it was with a distinct twinge of proprietary pride that I returned to Puruchuco to see the magnificent spectacle put on there by Dr. Arturo Jimenez Borja, practicing psychiatrist, spare time archaeologist and author, director of the Patronato Nacional de Arqueología, and possessor of a unique collection of Peruvian masks and costumes – only a small selection of which is seen at any one Festival performance.

Now, Dr. Jimenez Borja can in fullness of truth say that Puruchuco is his. He has restored the ancient palace with devotion and expertise, and on summer festival nights when flaming torches line the driveway and hillside back-drop, the buildings rise phoenix-like from the firelight. A carefully planned system of electric illumination is now being installed, using Philips equipment, which will provide subtle lighting and music — a first step in the direction of full-scale son et lumière, the dramatization so successfully employed in Europe.

Behind the fanfare of the festival Puru­chuco is an efficiently-run organization pioneering in Peru with modern museum concepts. Instead of enormous rooms crammed with exhibits, there is a small museum in situ with a periodically renewed selec­tion of pieces. But it is behind the scenes that real work goes on: in the well ordered office and stores (with space for expansion), in the conference room used for lectures and meetings, in the library which is beginning to fill its shelves with fascinating books. The facilities on hand are at the disposal of bona fide investigators, as is customary.

In this historic setting, the fes­tival of native dances and music presents a vivid cross-section of the color, costumes, music and people of Peru, most of which are unknown to Lima’s inhabitants, surrounded as we are by mushrooming urban growth with its corollary of choked traffic and blaring noise.

The night I went to see the show was clear, with a near-full moon. On either side of the driveway were tight lines of parked cars; advertising has to be discreet or there are overflow audiences. Climbing a steep ramp leading to the main patio of the palace, I found it filled with seated spectators while others were ranged along the surrounding walls.

The first number had started and a single Indian dancer was moving about the ready-made stage, shaking a seed rattle and wearing the long cushma tunic and green-feather headdress of the Machiguenga tribe of the southern jungle. After his simple performance, the dancer gradually disappeared down another ramp serving as an exit downstage right.

Next, a row of dancers came up the ramp (Indian file, of course), silhouetted in their round black hats and black jackets and trousers. As the men grouped in the figures of a dance, touches of color showed up: an emerald stripe in the ponchos, vividly tapestried oversleeves, bright woven faja cummerbunds and, under the hats with their small white buckle on the ribbon, multicolored chullos — knitted caps — fitting snugly over head and ears to keep out chill sierra winds. Just visible under the beautifully made jackets (whose white linings are worn turned outside during the feast of Corpus Christi) were tooled leather coca-pouches, their metal studs catching a gleam of light. Coca leaves are chewed with lime to extract the dubious benefits of the cocaine-bearing plant.

Flute Players from Lake Titicaca

Then carne some flute players from the regions of Lake Titicaca, highest navigable lake in the world lying across the Peru-Bolivia boundary. These men wore gaily braided jackets and trousers with flaring ankle-gussets, making a charming picture as they blew on their reed quenas.

After these had disappeared apparently into the bowels of the earth (appropriately enough for descendants of worshippers of Pacha Mama —Mother Earth), a mixed group carne on stage, representing the lush dairyland department of Cajamarca in the northern highlands, famous not only for its milk but as the birthplace of Micaela (or Miquita) Vi­llegas, “La Perricholi”, mistress of Viceroy Amat and heroine of Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey.

These particular costumes were from Chota, the men’s pon­chos a rich burgundy called sangre de toro (bull’s blood), the women’s stoles figured in blue and white with the ends swinging gracefully as the dancers dipped and circled. The printing process used in these shawls is “Ikat” or “Plange”. Known locally as “Amarrado” (tied work), it is a complicated, laborious process that has almost died out and existing examples are cherished heirlooms. A broad band of crochet-work finished off the shawls, characteristic of the lace-making of northern Peru.                      

Following this delightful dance carne a short interpretation on the harp, direct descendant of the stringed instruments brought to the country by the Spanish con­quistadores. These harps are played at in­numerable Indian fiestas throughout the highlands.

The Huaconada

After the harpist came an amusing dance of great antiquity, referred to by the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest as the Huaconada or dance of the Huacones, and still known as such. It comes from the central sierra department of Junín and especially a village called Mito. Two men come out in fantastic disguises complete with weird masks, gaiters, and off-the-face hats over knitted caps. They prance about among the villagers, taking complete charge of affairs and, with much horseplay, give orders, reconcile enemies and even force debtors to pay up. Universally applied, they could cure many a social ill.

The Huayno

As the brisk rhythm of the Huaconada died away, it was replaced by the persistent drumbeats of a huayno (a common sierra dance) and a group of women rose onto the stage, wearing the well-known costume of Puno in the cold Titicaca plateau: brightly colored polleras (multitudinous woolen petticoats), white shawls with silk fringes, and sedate grey bowlers. Others wore red shawls and their bodices had low-cut square necks showing a white “dickey” from the long-sleeved garment worn underneath. Then carne brown shawls and other combinations of colors until the whole whirling stageful of girls looked like a Pantigoso painting come to life.

The Auqui Auqui

In contrast to this very feminine dance carne another with masked figures, accom­panied by “traversa” flutes played on the side like piccolos. The four flutists and single drummer were dressed in black cassocks over broad full pantaloons and had on flat straw hats. The dancers, grunting and exclaiming, wore high-crowned hats with broad brims turned up in front, striped woven ponchos, red chullos and grotesque masks with snouts and beards. They represented the Auqui Auqui who, according to legend, are spirits that send gifts on the backs of alpacas, llamas and vicuñas. An animal with a worn spot on its back is said to have carried many such burdens.

The men who next carne onstage were probably wearing much the same costume as described some four hundred years ago by Garcilaso de la Vega, Peru’s first great literary figure, Inca-Spanish author of The Royal Commentaries and La Florida: black trousers, woven faja sashes, waist-coats, jackets with brightly bound pockets, and tall pampa grass sprouting from the hats. These fronds swayed gently to the slow measure of the dance as the men beat a tattoo on the floor with their varas — tall decorated ceremonial staffs. As a graceful complement to the fronds, long open sleeves of pleated white cotton hung from the men’s shoulders, like ethereal batwings.

Danza de los Negritos

Next came the gorgeous Danza de los Negritos from Junín in the central Sierra. To quote Dr. Jiménez Borja, “this…is an expression of the luxury and pomp so dear to the hearts of the colored people (African slaves) during the days of the Spanish colony.” This dance is accompanied by bell-ringing but it is the visual spectacle that captivates. The men bear small shining anchors in their hands and wear white trousers and mandarin-type hats with long false black hair attached. Their richly embroidered jerkins are worked in arabesques of sequins and gold, silver and colored thread depicting flora and fauna, they caught the light from the torches in hundreds of winking reflections.

Another charming dance from Cajamarca followed, the young girls wearing black overskirts with brilliant green (or yellow) petticoats, embroidered blouses with square necks, and carrying green sheaves. From the back of their hats hung a long triangle of fine white cloth. This headgear is only to be found nowadays in the more remote highland villages of the department. In his fluid, measured Spanish, the m.c. said “. . .coming unexpectedly on a village square with the church steps filled, with seated women all wearing these falls of white on their shoulders was a delectable sight.”

Son de los Diablos

In contrast with the young girls, there followed a virile Son de los Diablos, a Black dance of colonial Lima. The first Africans to come to Peru, incidentally, were with the Spanish soldiery. Three or four musicians appeared, playing guitar, cajón (wooden box beaten with the hands) and a strange white, boomerang-shaped instrument known as a carachacha and which turned out to be the jawbone of an ass. This biblical-sounding instrument gives off different sounds depending on whether a stick is dawn across the teeth or struck on the bone. Three dancers sprang onstage with bare torsos, white trousers tied with colored sashes, and white neckerchiefs and hats. They executed a vigorous zapateo or tap dance while another dancer soloed like a whirling dervish.

Baile de los Cóndores

After a brief interval during which Dr. Jiménez Borja said a few words about the importance of Puruchuco, not merely as a setting for the festival but as a place of historical importance, we saw the Baile de los Cóndores from Junín, a dance whose name varies according to the district and its birds; it is known on the north coast as Los Gavilanes, The Hawks.

Three musicians fiddled accompanied by a curved horn and a drum while an od shepherdess stepped out in front, tapping a little drum and singing a plaintive prologue. She looked like any one of many such women I used to see in and around La Oroya (the smelter town 12,500 feet up in the central sierra), some of them having walked a score of miles from their valleys over the hills to bring trout or flowers to sell to my mother, or sheep’s wool to be spun and knitted into Red Cross garments during the war. As the herder warned of the danger of approaching ”condors,” four of these appear­ed with blue-black wings and bright orange beaks, attacking the other shepherds and the “sheep” who had come onstage in the meantime wearing ponchos of multicolored stripes and hats adorned with stalks of grain. “This dance may be a relic of the many ancient mimes which made up the theatrical repertoire of the Incas.”

The Chonguinada

Next carne a harvest dance from Huancayo (in the wide and beautiful Mantaro valley in the central highlands and easily reached by road or rail from Lima). For this Chonguinada dance the men wore very Spanish looking costumes of white hats, embroidered waistcoats over long-sleeved white blouses, bright cummerbunds atop trousers with flaring ankle-gussets in contrasting colors. Others carne on in cinnamon trousers, darker waistcoats and soft orange hats.

Next, in contrast to the men’s bright dance, carne some women beating small tinya drums and dressed in sober greys, blacks and whites except for the broad fajas on the round hats, the rich embroidery on sleeves, and bands of color on white woolen shawls or mantas on their backs.

The Quenachos

There followed the dramatic dance of the Quenachos with five flutists and a big drum. It comes from Puno, the only place where flutes are played in groups rather than solo. Matching the impressive music, musicians and dancers wore costumes that included jaguar skins, and some had curious stiff convex collars on their shoulders, like split cylinders with a neck-hole in the middle.

Even louder drum music was heard next, accompanied by the thin voice of a flute, the players wearing tall brown hats and dark brown ponchos with a green stripe. Then, in enchanting feminine contrast, carne the Pallas de Huari (Virgins of Huari, a yillage in the lovely department of Ancash in the north central highlands). The quartette of girls wore white hats, chartreuse petticoats, colored kerchiefs, and blouses with a deep white ruffle round the neck, while cape sleeves floated out like swans’ wings.

The Marinera

A dance more familiar to the audience was the Marinera that followed, with two guitarists dressed in the typical north coastal dress of white poncho, shirt, trousers and neckcloth. They played a couple of popular songs, including the one about the Caballito de Totora (little horse of reeds, the name given to the narrow boats of bound reeds that are skillfully maneuvered through the shore surf). A couple danced, the man’s white costume a foil to his partner’s plain black dress. As she went through the provocative movements of the mari­nera, she waved a scarf in time to the broken, infectious rhythm.

Danzas de Apurimac

The Danza de Apurimac (southern sierra) was as different from the Marinera as the rugged highlands are from the coast­al plain. This is a dance of classic European steps and costumes, probably a legacy from the unsophisticated soldiers of the conquest who brought little of 16th century European manners with them but, rather, the mores of the middle ages.

Known also as La Danza de las Tijeras (of the Scissors), it is an exquisite spectacle with the dancers arrayed in velvet costumes of old rose and beige, glittering with bits of mirror, and white straw hats with enormous brims turned off the face and dipping down at the back. Some of the steps would not look out of place in a Scottish highland dance. A harp and fiddle played accom­panied by the metallic ringing of the large scissors carried in the dancers’ hands. These scissors have a tradition all of their own involving a Spring birth, godparents, a night vigil and a marriage of the blades.

A gay Shay-Shay dance followed, the name sounding like the seed-rattles attached to the men’s shins after the manner of Morris bells. Their costumes were geranium pink ponchos, white hats and black trousers, while their female counterparts wore a vivid combination of white hat, tangerine petti­coats, and black ponchos edged with matching orange. Yet another delightful combi­nation of pure bright colors in costumes of simple flowing lines, from the land of Cajamarca.

Another number from Lake Titicaca — the Tarka flutes that make an exotic sound like oriental music. Six musicians played a long drum and five thick flutes and had St. Andrew’s crosses of sea-green and silver straps on their chests. Over the customary warm chullo caps were wide-brimmed hats like improbable gardens planted with small banners and plumes.

The second-to-last item on the program was costumes and music from Tinta, Cusco. The men’s dress included pink waistcoats and lovely cream and striped woolen mantas folded over the shoulder. The women followed in black skirts and pink petticoats, with pink braidwork on their blouses and a long black veil attached to the back of their felt hats. The musicians brought up the rear, playing a harp, two flutes, two guitars and two fiddles and wearing little saucer-shaped hats and bright green jackets bound with woven fajas, and the same striped mantas as before. As the repetitive music played on, a couple danced a rousing huayno with its foot-stamping, catchy beat.


The twenty-fourth and last item was announced the better part of two hours after the first number had come on, but time had flown. Five pairs of Sicuris from the Titicaca plateau carne on dressed in white trousers, shirt and a sort of tunic, the monotone relieved by pink and purple scarves and, on their heads, large hats with nodding grey plumes. A devil dancer pranced about, accompanied by a drummer dressed completely in white, including his magnificent tall feathered headgear. The virtuosity of the number lay in the music: the Sicu flutes have to be played in pairs, the natural scale of music being divided equally between the two performers, who play alternate notes, requiring a considerable degree of musical technique.

At this point the illuminating flares had nearly died down, except for a big one lit for the finale. As the delicate notes of the flute music drew to a close, the big drum beat louder and louder, the thundering crescendo matched by a last flare-up of the single torch. Then the music died, the sparks floated down and the show was over.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *