Lakitas Matriasaya, a feminist musical group breaking the patriarchal hold on Andean music

Lakitas Matriasaya en teatro de Chillan

Lakitas Matriasaya is an independent Andean musical band that consists mainly of Andean panpipes and two drums –a bass and snare drum (and a third percussionist by way of hand-held cymbals). Fifteen members make up the band at present. Twelve pipers sing and play the pipes, while three play percussion. The band formed in Valparaíso, Chile, six years ago –consisting of members from all parts of Chile which have encompassed (at one time or another), Vivi, Jime, Mariela, Vale, Cata, Pame, Nicole, Claudia, Nati, Anita, Marcel, Ange, Mapa, Anto, Leo, Marcia, Lore, Paloma, and Javi.

On November 22, 2009, I had the chance to see them perform at the Teatro Municipal de Chillán (municipal theater of Chillán), Chile –after which I was invited to tag along to a pizzeria with them. The following article is a compilation of that night.

Physically, their presentation consists of a few dances done in pairs but members usually rotate in circles, while alternating between playing and singing –quite often in a frenzy-like fashion with heads bobbing back and fro, while a few members add to the other-worldish effect by slouching into their pipes, all wearing traditional Aymara clothing, made up of black dress and stockings– accompanied by colorful scarfs, solid bright long sleeve shirts, topped with braided hair and colorful headbands of varying colors and patterns. When not in movement, the band stands still in a semi-circle open to the audience with the percussionists facing the public head on. The very first member on the left plays a bell as well as pipes.

Vocally, the group is outstanding. Not one out-of-tune note was heard. Vocal projection is impressive, as they are more than audible –despite that few microphones, and ambient ones at that, were used that night. I was later told microphones are hardly –if ever– used, and they were dead set against using them for that performance. I assume they were used mainly for recording purposes –a camera man wandering about recording and an abundance of light fixtures was a sure clue.

Percussion-wise, the band is quite rhythmical, even to the point of incorporating a few sambas into its repertoire. (One samba was reminiscent of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ “El Matador”, in terms of percussion due to use of whistles.) The bass drum drives the pulse of the band, holding the beat with a steady and forceful hand. The snare drummer alternates between clean and snare settings. Oddly, this player doesn’t hold her sticks with the traditional side grip, as most marching and jazz drummers do –not affecting performance one bit. The cymbal work varies from the normative sharp crashes one is accustomed to hearing from band music. For instance, she makes use of prolonged sizzles that blend well into the traditional framework. The cymbal player –with whom I spoke– confided that she and other members were self-taught –perhaps explaining technique variation.

The show ended with the troupe making their exit via the center aisle. Once out of the main auditorium, music unexpectedly ensued forth from the foyer –where the public embraced each other arm in arm in circular dance. Most dervishers were teenagers, but all age groups participated –from teenagers to the middle-aged. Children –on the other hand– ran around and through the gathered crowd in a haphazard, giddy state –as if enchanted and living a fairy tale.

While we waited for the band to regroup post-recital, I was surprised to note that about a quarter of the troupe smoke –although from their stamina demonstrated just prior, no one would have guessed. Rain started to sprinkle down on us, as we started to make our way to dinner by foot. As we meandered down seven street blocks towards our awaiting restaurant, I noticed people on the street looked with particular interest. It suddenly dawned on me. Traditional Aymara dress must stand out, especially considering that (historically) there have been no Aymara in Chillán (only Chiquillanes), nor do local native groups survive –although remnants of this forgotten past are present in many local’s faces.

During the walk, I learned the one piper doubling duty as the bell ringer was –no less than– the director. My suspicion that the bell ringing signals changes in progression –similar to how a drummer marks musical passages with a fill-in or a symphony director signals changes with a baton– was confirmed. I also learned the group is concerned with the concept of pairs –which appears throughout the group’s performance, not just in dance but also with their pipe playing. I was told this technique is non-traditional –as is the use of the call and response technique. As we neared our destination, members described their struggle to maintain a delicate equilibrium between remaining loyal to tradition and contributing something original –not only with standards but– with new compositions (their new focus).

The group has a few ideological foundations. First, there is the use of the Aymara term to denote their principal instrument, consequently rejecting the corresponding Spanish equivalent. The term “lakitas” (after which the group is named) is the plural diminutive for “lakas” –the Aymara word for “panpipes”. Lakas or lakitas is consciously used instead of the Spanish equivalent “zampoña”. The socio-cultural implications are obvious, but I was told the (conscious) reason for not using the Spanish term is that the zampoña (or European panpipe) is –technically speaking– a different instrument –although these differences were not (or could not be) expanded upon.

The troupe also holds to feminist philosophy. Contrary to most folk groups — Lakitas Matriasaya consists entirely of females. Not only is this unusual, it goes against traditional Aymara culture. Pertinent tradition claims infertility ensues women that play pipes. Members are quick to point out and jest, playing the pipes leads to increased fertility, if anything –as about six members have had children during their membership. Despite tradition, thee band feels accepted by the Aymara public –as they’ve been invited back to play at Andean festivals.

The music of Lakitas Matriasaya is catchy and appealing to all age groups –but especially to youth. To those unfamiliar with Andean music, the melodies may sound a little repetitive after a bit (somewhat like Celtic music), but the group adds variety with sambas to maintain interest. I would have liked to have seen costume changes, more dance work in pairs, and some solo (vocal) work. Backup percussion would seem necessary, too, as the snare piece jammed delaying the presentation midway through the act. A short recess, allowing the group and public to refreshen would also be ideal.

The juxtaposition between feminist ideology and traditional culture is striking. It can’t be ignored because of the visual impact of women dressed in indigenous garb, which one associates with submissive roles, is placed in center stage. I believe this is well planned and serves the feminist agenda astutely avoiding ad nauseam. Technically, the band is an excellent example of experimentation while remaining loyal to tradition and –perhaps most important for a folklore group– sounding authentically rootsy (the “pulling it off” aspect) all at the same time. I believe Lakitas Matriasaya has much more to contribute in the years to come and it’ll be interesting to see how this comes about.

You can see clips and audio files at the following links.

by Maurice Cepeda

Lakitas Matriasaya weren’t available for further comments prior to publishing.

All rights reserved, both photograph and article. All brands mentioned are properties of their respective owners. By reading this article, the reader forgoes any accountability of the writer. The reading of this article implies acceptance of the above stipulations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s