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Carnival in Q’eros: Where The Mountains Meet The Jungle 

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The people of Q’eros live isolated in the Andes mountains of Peru. Carnival in Q’eros: Where the Mountains Meet the Jungle is produced and directed by John Cohen, who is the narrator of the film. Juan Núñez del Prado also assisted in the direction of the film. Carnival in Q’eros follows the Q’eros people during the time of year they call Carnival season. In this paper, I will apply Titon’s “Four Components of a Music Culture” to the music culture of the Q’eros people in the film Carnival in Q’eros. The film begins at the start of the Carnival season, when the Q’eros send a despacho, a “message to the gods”. The despacho contains many smaller offerings directed at evil spirits, the Earth, or friendly spirits that dwell in the mountains. One of the offerings contains a red and a white thread which represent the colors of Peru’s flag. 

The Q’eros then chew coca leaves to complete this part of the ritual, waving them at the spirit they are intended for. Alpacas are sacred to the people of Q’eros. Each year, during Carnival season, the Q’eros celebrate alpacas with a ritual called Palcha. Palcha is also the name of a flower that grows in the Andes, which is an important part of this ritual.  This celebration begins with a ritual in which the Q’eros put corn beer, chicha, and statues of animals on a cloth. They then perform the “compeungph”, a ritual song. Following this song, the Q’eros head to the corral to directly celebrate the alpacas. To do this, the Q’eros play songs on a flute, called a pinculu, and throw palcha flowers at the alpacas. These actions are a request to the Gods to ensure the health and fertility of the alpacas. 

Following this ritual in the film, we see a ritual devoted to women. We see the women of Q’eros lament aloud about things that have happened to them in the past year, scattering palcha flowers as they do this. One woman blames herself for the death of her child saying “I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t protect him” while another mourns the Q’eros’ financial situation: “we are poor. Now we are eating our poorness.” This lamentation allows the women to free themselves of past sorrows as the move into the next year. 

The film then continues to the most important of the Carnival season: the gathering of the ayllus at the ceremonial center. Each ayllu is a division of the entire Q’eros population and the families with the ayllus each have their own houses at the ceremonial center, which are only used during the Carnival season. Q’eros authorities greet each other with the playing of conch shells as they arrive on horses, a show of their power. On the night of their arrival, the Q’eros people gather to sing and visit with each other. The Q’eros finish their celebration the next morning with dancing and the consumption of coca leaves and chica. When we first met the Q’eros at the beginning of the film Cohen mentioned that they were in financial trouble with their bank. This was due to the fact that a group of alpacas the Q’eros had purchased was incapable of producing offspring, providing no return on their investment. At the end of the film, Cohen offers to buy alpacas for the Q’eros people to repay them for their cooperation in the film. Each ayllu agreed to pass on the alpacas to another ayllu after a few years. The film ends as the Q’eros people pick up the alpacas in Ocongate, a nearby town, and herd them back to their village. Titon defines a music culture as “a group’s total involvement with music: ideas, actions, institutions, material objects”. These four categories of involvement connect to what Titon considers to be the four components of a music culture: ideas about music, activities involving music, repertoires of music, and the material culture of music. 

“Ideas about music” refers to how music relates to religious practices, what is considered music, how music should be performed, and how music changes over time. An activity involving music is any music event. “Repertoires of music” includes not only genres and specific musical texts but the style of music and how music is composed and transmitted. Lastly, the material culture of music refers to any objects that are a part of a musical event. 

Titon’s first component of music culture, ideas about music, can be seen in the frequent rituals the Q’eros participate in and the interesting nature of their music. The pinculu, a flute, makes a frequent appearance in Q’eros rituals. The pinculu only has four holes, which limits the number of notes it can produce, but its religious significance to the Q’eros is apparent through its frequent use in ritual practices. It appears in the film when the Q’eros women voice their problems from the past year and when they throw palcha flowers in the alpaca pen. The flat sound that both the singers and the pinculu flute produce show the aesthetics of Q’ero culture. Few of their musical performances have a melody comparable to those in Western music. Instead, the Q’eros play and sing repeated, close groupings of notes which sets a spiritual mood for the ritual they are played at, allowing them to connect with the Earth and the spirits around them. This “throbbing sound” can be heard in the film when the ayllus socialize on the first night of the ceremonial gathering. This music isn’t something that is meant to be listened to, as there are no audience members but is meant to allow all present to connect to each other spiritually. Contexts for music in Q’ero society are almost always ritual-based. 

The two most notable rituals from the film are Palcha, the annual ritual for the alpacas, and the ceremonial gathering, including the nighttime musical gathering and the ceremonial dance the following morning (Cohen 6:10, 15:25). As for the history of Q’ero music, most of their music seems to be traditional ritual practices passed down through generations. The Q’eros people live mostly isolated from the outside world so it is unlikely that their musical traditions have shifted significantly over time. Similar to the contexts for Q’ero music, the activities involving music in Q’ero society all have ritual characteristics. The main focus of these activities is to connect to the Earth and to ask something of the spirits that live among and around the people of Q’eros. The activities shown in the film include the ritual for the alpacas, the women lamenting the past year’s problems, and the carnival gathering and dance. 

The first characteristic of the component of a music culture “repertoires of music” is style, which Cohen defines as “everything related to the organization of musical sound itself”. The style of Q’ero music is unique in that it is an ambient sound meant to represent something instead of a melodic piece of music for entertainment. Cohen says that the ambient sound Q’ero music produces “resembles the sound of celebrations in the jungle”. This style of music falls into a genre not surprisingly named “ambient music”. The people of Q’eros do not keep written copies of their music but instead, compose and transmit it entirely orally. Most of the music we hear in the film does not even have a clear start, end, or name, except for the Carnival song “Serena”. The physical movement of performers of Q’ero music matches up with the throbbing, spiritual nature of the music, with the participants rocking back and forth, almost as if they were in a trance. This can be seen when the women lament their problems and when the ayllus gather on the first evening of the carnival celebration. 

The material culture of the Q’eros people is just as unique as their musical style. The clothing they wear at the ceremonial gathering has colorful patterns seen only in their culture. The palcha flower is native to their region and is used extensively in Q’ero rituals. The pinkulu flute creates the close-knit drone tones heard throughout the film. 

Carnival in Q’eros: Where the Mountains Meet the Jungle explores the Carnival season of the Q’eros culture including its music and ritual practices. Titon’s four components of music culture, ideas about music, activities involving music, repertories of music, and material culture of music, are all visible in the film. The Q’eros people are highly religious and incorporate rituals into their daily life. This is most evident during the Carnival season when they have rituals for their alpacas, their women, and general rituals intended to help them connect with the Earth, mountain spirits, and each other. Almost all of the contexts for music in Q’ero society are ritual-based, with the pinculu flute playing a key musical role in each ritual. The flute produces flat tones and when combined with nearby pitches from other flutes and vocalists creates a “throbbing”, ambient sound. This style shows that Q’ero music is not intended to be listened to by an audience but, instead, is a way for the Q’eros to connect with each other. 

The colorful, detailed designs on clothing the Q’eros wear during the Carnival season and the palcha flower they use in their rituals are both pieces of material culture attributed to the people of Q’eros. The unexpected dissonance of Q’ero music as well as the beauty of their clothing and physical surroundings makes the music culture of the Q’eros people unique among world music. 

Works Cited

  1. Cohen, John. 1998. “Q’ero.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 2, South America, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean. Edited by Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy, p. 226. 
  2. New York: Garland Publishing. Del Prado, J., & Cohen, J. (Directors), & Cohen, J. (Producer). (1991). 
  3. Carnival in Q’eros: Where the Mountains Meet the Jungle [Video file]. Berkeley Media. Retrieved from Ethnographic Video Online: Volume III database.
  4. Random House Inc. (2019). Ambient music. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ambient-music. Titon, John Todd. 2009.
  5. “Four Components of a Music-Culture”. In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples (5th ed.). pp. 18-32. Belmont: Schirmer Centage Learning. Titon, John Todd. 2009. 
  6. “Music-Culture”. In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples (5th ed.). pp. 1-8, 14-18. Belmont: Schirmer Centage Learning.  

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