Half-caste melodies and songs from
Sierra Norte

Ecuador’s economic and social track record is decidedly more healthy than that of many neighbouring Andean countries. Even so, shocking social disparities still exist, and every so often, tensions between the communities shake up, sometimes violently, the political life of the country.

As in other Andean countries, the rural population of Ecuador, Indian and largely in the majority, still does not enjoy a political position proportional to its importance. Here, as in Bolivia and Peru, the class struggle for greater social justice is also the struggle for recognition of identity, setting the Indians, poor and rural, against the Whites, who live in the city and are generally rich. The half-castes constitute an intermediate buffer group. In times of economic stability, they are lulled into believing the pipe dream of rapid social rise. In times of recession, they identify more closely with the underprivileged classes with whom they have more in common on a social and cultural level. In its more radical expression, the neo-liberal model encourages privatisation and individualism, which can only be achieved to the detriment of the communities and solidarity in general. In a country where the majority of the population experiences economic difficulties, the role played by the new and fragile middle class is determinant. For beyond these caricatured divisions, which are partly a legacy from the colonial era, Ecuador, like so many other Latin American countries today, is confronted with the aggression of unbridled, ultraliberal globalisation which imposes consumerist development based on the North American model. In poor countries this “development” only truly benefits a small affluent minority, which prospers precisely because of these social inequalities.

Rural areas always move to a different rhythm to that of cities and big towns. The little town of Catacachi, where reigns an old-time provincial tranquillity not without a certain charm, owes its prosperity to its tanners and to the trade in leather goods. It has a half-caste and Indian population, quite representative of the social fabric in the Sierra, and its evolution.

Ima livret la jora 115

Unto those who have not, shall more be given
The Cantavicos group is the result of the merging of two local musical groups. All its members are users and direct beneficiaries of a local alternative financing co-operative (Cooperative de ahorro y credito “El Ejido”). Access to financial mechanisms such as staggered personal loans or very low-interest investment loans allows members of the co-operative to pursue their economic development. This would be impossible for them in the classical banking system, as they would be unable to provide the required guarantees.

The members of this group are all half-castes in various degrees. Their Indian origins are not the focus of any particular demands, as is sometimes the case elsewhere in the Andes 1. They enjoy a relatively good level of development and general standard of living compared to other regions, and they have access to education. This contributes to reducing tensions and social divisions between the communities and limits struggles and the search for recognition.

Yet the repertoire of the Grupo Cantavicos also expresses the ambiguity of their social position. They make many references to Indian culture in a non-political, non-protesting manner as is demonstrated by the choice of title for this album 2. All the pieces, even the “traditional” ones, have undergone, often a long time ago, a strong “hybridisation”. The original Indian and Spanish instruments are used indiscriminately in practically all the pieces, and Quechua, the indigenous language par excellence, is only present through the use of a few expressions. Moreover, as far as the traditional repertoire is concerned, instrumental versions, perfectly mastered musically and often “arranged”, are much more common than the sung versions. Nowadays, nobody speaks Quechua well enough or can remember the words. A new repertoire by national composers, sung exclusively in Castilian, is gradually replacing the traditional community repertoire, which is collective and anonymous.


  1. In the same collection, the record Wayra – Music of the Yampara and Charkas Indians (Col.CD 109) illustrates the cultural resistance of a group of young half-castes (Comunidad Pachamama) of the Sucre region, in the Chuquisaca, in Bolivia.
    The record Mink’a – Songs of the Earth and Youth (Col.CD 114) by the Takiy Huayna, illustrates the search for Indian roots in the Cuzco region, in Peru.
  2. The traditional beer, called “chicha”, is made by fermenting maize. When the fermented maize germinates it gives “jora”, or “chicha de jora”. 
CD tracks
  1. Chinchinal (fox incaico)
    Name of a mountain
    These days, this slow and instrumental version from Mira, near the Colombian border, is only played during local celebrations. It evokes lost love and the suffering of the lover mourning the separation.

  2. Longuita (sanjuanito alegre)
    Affectionate term from the Quechua “longuo” designating an adolescent girl.
    This ancient indigenous rhythm, syncretism between the Christian and “pagan” worlds, expresses both a religious sentiment and the feelings young men have towards young girls during the harvest season.

  3. Cotacacheñita (pasacalle alegre)
    From the name given to women originating from Cotacachi
    The particle “nita” expresses both youth and great tenderness. This song, praising the women of Cotacachi, was composed, naturally enough, by a son of the region, the poet, violinist and chansonnier Armando Hidrobo who lived and died in Cotacachi (? – 1884).

    "Who can equal you, Cotacacheñita?
    You who keeps your heart pure.
    Not the women from the Sierra,
    nor the ones from the coast."

  4. Jumbo
    From the name of a dancing rhythm
    This instrumental piece comes from Catacachi. It is generally played for the patronal celebration of the Santa Ana district of Catacachi, on August 1st.

  5. Albazo
    From the name of a rhythm
    This tune, typical of the Ecuadorian Sierra, is played to honour and thank the donors (prioste) during patronal celebrations. Starting at dawn, the fanfare visits the notables’ houses. Here, the musicians are generally offered a drink.

  6. Taita amito de mi vida (sanjuanito indigena)
    Father and lord of my life, by Armando Hidrobo.
    In Quechua, “Taita” means “father” and in Castilian “amo” designates a lord. This song evokes a young Indian worker as he travels away from his father’s house: “Father and lord of my life, I must leave you to go to work very early this morning” (madrugada).

  7. Canchano vago (capishca – alegre)
    A canchano is a sort of tramp, a vagabond (vago), who is sometimes used to carry messages. This song was also known under the title of “Sombrarito” (little hat) or “José-Maria”.

  8. Aires de mi tierra (albazo)
    This song praises the town of Cotacachi and was also composed by Armando Hidrobo.

  9. San Juan de los toros (sanjuanito alegre)
    Saint John of the Bulls
    In the Sierra Norte these melodies accompany the popular bullfights. These are bullfights where the bull is not killed and where no banderillas are used.

  10. Runaucho (tonada)
    This Quechua word designates both a pepper-based dish and a banquet.
    The sung version of this piece describes the various dishes which usually make up a wedding feast in the Sierra Norte.

  11. La bocina (fox incaico)
    From the name of a big horn used to herd the cattle in the mountain.
    Composed during the first half of the 20th century by José Rudecindo
    Ingavelez, la bocina symbolises the suffering and social demands of the native peoples who were forced to work like slaves in a particularly harsh environment (climate and altitude).
    Just like “the wind that blows down from the mountain”, this song, from the province of Cañar in the south, has spread throughout the Ecuadorian cordillera, and even beyond.

  12. Toro barroso (bomba alegre)
    This very popular melody celebrates bullfighting. It is the “toro  barroso”, which literally translated means ‘earth-coloured bull’, that leads the herd in the mountains.

  13. Rondador (albaso alegre)
    From the name of the instrument.
    This song, the origins of which are unknown, is very much appreciated in the Sierra Norte.

    "Ronda, ronda, rondador,
    Is all I have left
    To ease my pain…"

  14. Lejos de mi madre (fox-trot)
    Far from my mother, by Arnando Hidrobo.
    The author dedicated this piece, well known in the region of Cotocachi, to his mother.

  15. Rosario de besos (pasillo)
    This romantic rosary of kisses immortalises love and was composed by the master of the Ecuadorian pasillo, Francisco Paredes (1891 – 1952).

    "You will not forget
    That warm evening
    When you left on my lips
    A rosary of kisses."

  16. Chimbalito (sanjuanito)
    Little round yellow fruit found in the North
    This melody, very popular in the Sierra, also exists in a sung version, in Quechua.

  17. Vasija de barro (danzante)
    The earthenware jar.
    This is probably one of the most popular songs in the whole of Ecuador. Today, the story of its origin is part of national legend. This song was born during a night of drinking (January 7th, 1950) between friends and artists, most of whom were national stars. Gathered together were the painters Oswaldo Guayasamin and Jaime Valencia, the writers Jorge Carrerea Andrade and Hugo Alemán, the poet Jorge Enrique Adoum, the composers Luis Valencia Córdova (nicknamed “Ptolo”) and Gonzalo Benítez Gómez, and a few other close friends. Although each individual’s role in the composing and writing of the Vasija de barro is inevitably subject to various interpretations, there can be no doubt about the origin and function of the famous jar, or the fact that it symbolises identity.

    "I want to be buried
    Like my ancestors,
    In the dark cool belly
    Of an earthenware jar."