It became a commonplace in ethnomusicological publications to note that South American Indians’ singing traditions contain much more polyphony than those of their North American counterparts. “In spite of the dearth of polyphony in North America, it has often been taken for granted that Central and South American Indians had complex polyphonic styles” (Nettl, 1961:354). According to Alan Lomax, “Polyphonic singing, which is frequently diffusely organized counterpoint, occurs in South America especially along the eastern slopes of the Andes. In this area too one encounters an unemphatic, soft-voiced, subdued, feminine-sounding style, with a frequent use of harmony. Such singing can be heard in the backwoods of highland Peru (Q’eros) and from the Campa of the eastern Andean slopes, through Venezuela and Colombia, into southern Mexico among the Tzotzil” (Lomax, 1968:85).
Probably one of the most interesting surviving musical traditions comes from the small tribe of Q’ero (about four hundred people only left), who live in the Cusco region of the Andes in Peru. Although some consider Q’ero to be Inca survivals, scholars think that Q’ero musical culture “probable reflects an even earlier diversity with an Inka overlay” (Cohen, 1998:225). Most importantly for our topic, the Q’ero have interesting and sometimes unique traditions of polyphonic singing. According to Cohen: “The general Q’ero musical aesthetics allows different pitches, texts, and rhythms to sound at the same time. Though the Q’ero sometimes sing in perfect unison, their songs are structures to be sung individually. There is no sense of choral singing or harmony. A family, aullu, or community may be singing and playing the same songs at the point of starting and stopping. Yet the melodies sung at communal occasions have a sustained note at the end of a phrase, permitting the other singers to catch up and share this prolonged duration, which serves as a drone. When the new verse starts, the heterophony begins anew” (Cohen, 1998:230).
Cohen describes the singing of women during the Palchasqa festival among Q’eros (held during February or March): “… several families join together outside and throw flowers (palcha) at the alpacas while singing and playing pinculu. Five or more women sing at the same time, interspersing ritual phrases with complaints about their daily lives. Each tells her own story in song. At times, the musical texture consists of different people singing personalized songs simultaneously. Only occasionally do they meet on ritual phrases or on final notes” (Cohen, 1998:228). Another interesting tradition is the big family singing sessions with the elements of drone polyphony: “twenty people may be packed together inside, drinking, singing heterophonically, with conch trumpets blasting. Sometimes, late in the night, the individual qualities become less apparent as people find accord between them, reaching a degree of musical consensus. At this point, the sustained final note of a phrase provides a drone beneath the individual voices. Occasional multi-part texture occurs, and the whole event takes on a choral sound” (Ibid, 229). Another interesting tradition of big communal singing happens during the carnival, where few groups of women sing in disregard of each other, together, while men play the musical instrument pinucllu. Cohen notes the closeness of this tradition to the celebration singing tradition of Amazonian Indians (ibid, 229).