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Day #14: La Montaña que Canta, Part I

A version of this content was originally published in Music, Memory (2014). Names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy.

Huaraz, Ancash Region, Peru

He holds up three leaves, the green teardrops overlapping like a fan between his thumb and index finger. The first one, he explains, is for that which is outside, the transcendental. The second, sandwiched in the middle, is the surface, the present moment. The last leaf represents that which is inside of everything. The condor, the puma, and the serpent, respectively, are tied to each of these layers, and kintu brings them all together. He tells us we should invoke an entity or energy, for example pachamama, and focus on what it is we are asking.

We sit in a circle at the foot of the altar, the ten of us, eyes tracking as Miguel breathes out onto the coca, his exhale a soft whistle that gently ruffles the leaves, a sonority not unlike that of the vasijas silbadoras we sounded during the initiation earlier this afternoon. We have each placed a small possession on the square of cloth that serves as an altar. Mine is a stuffed monkey, the kind you get free in a little plastic bag with a Burger King kid’s meal in the States. I don’t have many material possessions with me, so the gift my mother handed me in the airport parking lot was the most appropriate vessel I could think of with which to absorb the weekend’s energies. Maria steps elegantly from one windowsill to the next, lighting tea candles against the night. It is no longer possible to see Huascaran through the eastern window, but the apu’s presence feeds the air solemnity and serenity.

Miguel gestures toward the coca to indicate that it is our turn. I run my hand through the contents of the plastic bag in front of Nikolas in search of leaves without folds or tears, selecting them one by one and intently aligning the stems between the pads of my fingers. Without hesitation I know it is the sunset, that painted orgasm over the Andes, whom I will implore for an answer: How can I both love and let go? I walk over and lay the leaves down like children to bed at the monkey’s feet. The flames whisper with the temporary breeze as we each softly settle back into the circle.

I will sonar three times, Miguel says. Those of you who choose to lie down should place your heads in toward the circle’s center.

I can feel the exhaustion of the past few days’ visa tribulations in the muscles of my shoulders and eyelids, so I hope I will not drift off. Shifting the pillow on which I had been seated inward, I lie on my back and do allow my eyes to close as Miguel and Maria begin their sounds. A flute murmurs its pentatones, soon joined by the beating of a drum, and a trance descends over each of us, alone and together.

There is no telling how much time has passed when the murmurs become a call, the assertive command of the pututu. The sound seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, from outside and inside of everything. My blood trembles with the vibration as it sweeps from cell to cell. Miguel told us earlier that the conch shell horn is used to open portals into different worlds, different levels of consciousness. I am more familiar with its ram’s-horn brother, the shofar. Though these instruments are separated by thousands of kilometers, their only ritual difference seems to be that the High Holy Day t’qiah g’dolah announces that gates are opening or closing but does not cause them to open or close like the pututu does.

I can imagine tens of generations of men standing on these peaks, blowing calls to the apus and to one another as the sun hits the horizon and explodes in the west, sending fragments of color and shadow and sound to the earth. My mind drifts back to my earlier invocation. It is at moments like sunrise and sunset that we can observe how quickly time passes, but really it runs away just as fast always. I pause as the muscles of my chest stiffen and I feel like crying. Or should I laugh? Is this where the anxiety comes from? This urge to take it all in, to hold it all close, before I run out of time? I allow the shadows of the room to filter in through my eyelashes. A single sunset, a friendship, a minor six chord, a life, my life. Is this the fear and longing that unites them all?

Maria shakes a bundle of dried leaves up and down above the length of my body. I can tell from the echoes in the space around me that most of my companions are now once again sitting, but I am not ready. Shivers race between my toes and crown and I feel disoriented, drifting both numbly and hyper-sensitively through a parallel universe.


Maybe I am a musician because the world is so beautiful and life is so short.


Slowly, I pull myself to sitting and the music gently fades. I do not meet anyone’s gaze, not even Miguel’s as he begins to speak.

It is now time, if you choose, to join and sonar. His voice is barely above a whisper.

There are blankets on either side of the altar for the instruments. The one to the left has quenas of various sizes, antaras of cane and of condor quill, and many other flutes whose names I do not know. To the other side are drums, shakers of assorted materials, a charango, a thumb harp, the pututu, a vasija silbadora, and a long rhomboid device that sings eerily as you swing it through the air. Enrique is the first to walk over. He carefully selects a transverse cane flute before returning to his seat and beginning to play a lonely improvisation that sounds of those open spaces that are just too big. I still cannot move, but my stupor begins to melt into wakefulness as percussion instruments join in around me like nocturnal crickets announcing the coming of dusk. An urge takes hold and slowly I stand. I am not sure which instrument to use to add my voice to the chorus, and I pause to consider a quenacho before closing my grasp around a long, vertical flute that lacks finger holes. I return to my place in the circle and position the bamboo between my lips, releasing a slow exhale. It is pleasing to hear the consonance of my pitch against Enrique’s; I am glad we have instruments in the same key. By changing the speed of my air, I can move up or down to different partials in the harmonic series. I experiment with fitting my hoarse longtones into the folds of the glassy melody sounding across the room. And so our duet begins.

The boy plays and I respond, making our sounds weave and dance around one another. Miguel used the metaphor of a tapestry when we met over breakfast this morning to describe how sounds come together, and the current ensemble is sending thread this way and that, coarse thread, thin, light, bright, wiry, soft threads, in all the colors of a sunset and more. The fabric is constantly metamorphosing, sometimes dark in hue, sometimes nearly transparent, never pausing before the beating of the drum pushes it and us forward into the next phase.

It is not abrupt – we have been tapering for a long time – that silence settles in, ringing with the past. Miguel begins to speak, and I realize I have forgotten we are not speaking my native tongue.