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Anni Latva-Pukkila (BA, Musicology; BA, Music pedagogist) is a student of Musicology at the University of Helsinki.

The Awajún indians, also called Aguaruna or Aents, are the second largest indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon (Regan 2007: 4). However, academic efforts to describe Awajún music are rare. In this article, I will compile the available descriptions of traditional Awajún music, and compare them with the observations I made in the beginning of 2016 in one Awajún community in Northern Peru.

The Awajún, with the neighboring Shiwiar, Shuar, Achuar and Wampis groups, comprise the Jivaroan peoples, that live in certain regions both in Peru and in Ecuador. (Regan 2007: 4.) Literature about Awajún music, or Amazonian music in general, is very limited. Virtually all descriptions of Awajún music are mere side notes in research whose main focus is on other aspects of society, like human relationships, gender, worldview or traditional medicine. However, many well-known researchers who have worked with the Jívaro indigenous peoples mention Awajún music in their studies, some more profoundly than others.

One of the first researchers to enter the Jívaro region was Rafael Karsten (1935), who’s description of Jívaro culture and life is based on four years of travels in Eastern Ecuador. Anthropologist Michael Brown (1986) has studied the belief system of the Awajún, taking the function of music into consideration. More recent information about Awajún music has been gathered by other anthropologists. Shane Greene (2009) analyzes Awajún history and traditions in the light of changes in indigeneity. A brief entry written by Raúl Riol (2010) focuses on traditional Awajún music. It formed a part of a recording project, whose main product is the CD “Musique des Awajún et des Wampis. Amazonie, vallée du Cenepa”. Besides these researchers, the work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Chávez, Leach, Shanks & Young 2008) should be mentioned, since they gathered information about the musical instruments of various Amazonian indigenous groups, including the Awajún, in the 1970s.

It is clear that the Amazonian societies are in flux, but thus far only a few studies indicate the fundamental changes that have recently taken place in the Amazon area. New phenomena such as youth migration, modern technology and increased possibilities of communication have had a strong impact on music as well. However, it seems that these societies still conserve some characters of their traditional culture. Music can play an important role in the process of cultural conservation. Thus, transferring traditional music to a new generation is also a means and an end of the process. Nonetheless, as the society evolves, so do the ways of learning and using traditional music. Here, traditional music refers to the musical styles and the musical instruments that were used amongst the Awajún before western influences became considerable.

My interest in Amazonian music began in 2014, when I, inspired by my lecturer, decided to write a literature review of the subject as my Bachelor’s thesis. The lack of studies addressing the music of this enormous and culturally diverse area was shocking. My student exchange in the School of Anthropology in the Catholic University of Lima in 2015 offered me a great opportunity to study the wide variety of cultures in Peru, to improve my Spanish, and to establish contacts with local students and researchers. After the student exchange I moved to the village of Supayaku in the Amazon rainforest to gather material for my Master’s thesis. The thesis focuses on the music of the Awajún children, and will be published in the beginning of 2017.

Native community of Supayaku

Besides literature, this article utilizes preliminary analysis of my fieldwork, which took place in Cajamarca, Peru from January 8th until April 1st of 2016. The first twelve days were spent in the city of Jaén, and from January 20th on in the native community of Supayaku. Interviews, recordings, videos, observations and informal conversations were the main techniques used during the fieldwork. I stayed with three local families, and most of my key informants are members of these three families.

The Awajún reside in Northern Peru, close to the border with Ecuador, in the geographical regions of Loreto, Amazonas, San Martín and Cajamarca. According to the latest information by Ministry of Culture of Peru (Ministerio de Cultura n.d.), there are 67 772 people belonging to the Awajún group. The community of Supayaku has approximately 690 inhabitants, 76% of which are 30 years of age or under (Comunidad Nativa Awajún de Supayaku, CNAS 2015: 4). All of the inhabitants except for the secondary school teachers, the doctor, the nurse and the midwife and a few other people are of Awajún ethnicity.

Supayaku is divided between the main village (in which I resided during my fieldwork) and eight smaller units. The main village has about 150 inhabitants, and three educative institutes for children from 3 to 16 years of age: initial, primary and secondary. Some years ago a road to Supayaku was built. This makes it considerably easier to visit near-by villages and cities. The journey between the smaller units and the main village still has to be made by foot. The main village has electricity, and one national phone operator finds a signal in some parts of it.

Picture 1. Location of the native community of Supayaku (map generated with Google Maps, 2016).

The native language of almost all the inhabitants of Supayaku, and the most commonly used language in everyday life, is Awajún. Even though many in the Supayaku community can speak Spanish, most of them are not very confident in speaking it. Thus, one of the biggest challenges during my fieldwork was finding a common language with the people. I had to convince people that their language skills were good enough, and in some cases I had to rely on an interpreter. Understanding and being understood was an issue in some of the interviews I made. Working with an interpreter was sometimes the best option, even though these interviews had to be inspected with special care. There were no professional interpreters in Supayaku, so I mostly worked with a few young people who spoke both Awajún and Spanish fluently. All the citations originally in Spanish have been translated into English by me. Those originally in Awajún I translated with help from the interpreters.

Awajún worldview

As society and its music are in constant dialogue, it is necessary to take a look at the Awajún culture, life and worldview in general. Not unlike many Amazonian cultures, the Awajún traditionally have a deep respect towards nature. They also have a wide variety of myths and a worldview that differs in many aspects from the western one. The Awajún believe in spirits of plants, animals, and so on, and they have ways to communicate with these spirits. The close contact with nature can be seen in all aspects of life including arts, education, concepts of wisdom and spiritual life. (See for example Regan 2007 and CNAS 2015.)

According to an Awajún myth, originally all the animals and plants used to be human beings. These animals and plants still retain some of their ”humanity”, and it is possible to communicate with them during visions. (Regan 2007: 15.) This kind of belief in shared origins of human beings, animals and plant life is common in other Amazonian cultures as well. Here the division between nature and culture or human beings and animals is much less clear than in many western societies. (Aparicio & Bodmer 2009: 83–85.) A good life includes a deep understanding of the spiritual world and the ways of communicating with it and managing it. The Awajún belief system is based on different spirits, for example spirits of the forest, lakes, rivers, ground, plants and animals. These spirits can, for example, protect nature and help cure sick people. (Regan 2007: 16.)

Another Awajún myth says that the feminine divinity Nugkui brought civilization to the Awajún people. Nugkui especially taught the Awajún women to cultivate manioc and nuts among other skills exclusive to women. In contrast, the masculine divinity Etsa (the sun) taught the men to perform masculine activities. Traditionally, the Awajún believe that there is a creator, but that this creator does not take part in the life of the people. (Regan 2007: 15.)

In the Awajún worldview the world is divided into three parts. In heaven, among Apajuí (God), Etsa (the sun) and the stars, live the souls of the warriors. These souls can appear to the world of humans in animal form during visions and advise the people. In the underworld with Nugkui (the feminine divinity) lives Tsugki, which takes the form of a boa and is the shamans’ source of power. Between these two worlds is the world of human beings, animals, plants and some supernatural beings. (Regan 2007: 15–16.)

It is believed that a human being has two souls. Brown (1986: 55) found that according to a myth, one of the souls goes to heaven when a person dies, and the other stays in the world of humans. The soul that remains on earth is called iwanch. It is a demonic soul, which can attack living people. However, the Christian influences and contact with other cultures have led to the diversification of the opinions about the number of human souls and the essence of the human soul in general. To some, Iwanch has come to mean Satan. (Ibid.) Similarly the word Apajuí is used to refer to the Christian God.

Life in an Awajún village

The beliefs mentioned in the previous chapter are traditionally present in daily life and activities. In Awajún villages agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering of forest products form the base of the subsistence. Therefore, especially spirits of the forest, animals and plants are significant. By far the most consumed food is manioc, but banana, corn and nuts are also widely used. These days many families cultivate coffee, which is not consumed in the household, but sold to the cities. Both men and women take part in farming and fishing, but only men go hunting.

In some parts of the Amazon, hunting and fishing have become difficult due to deforestation, pollution and closeness to the roads among other things. This has led to some changes in the diet. For example in Supayaku, some food products from the cities, such as eggs, chicken, tuna, rice and pasta, are consumed. The traditional drinks made of manioc and bananas are still prepared and appreciated, even though in many places soft drinks, beer and other beverages from the cities are available. Women are responsible for preparing the food and the drinks.

According to Brown (1986: 43) the main political authority in the Awajún villages is called apu or kakájam. The apu represents the village and works as a conciliator in conflictive situations both within the community and with external actors. In Supayaku, the apu is selected every two years. Besides the apu, a great number of regional, national and international organisations work in the Awajún regions nowadays, affecting the village life and decision making.

Traditionally, the Awajún houses were made of materials available in the forest: reed and palm leaves. The houses were round, and they were divided into two parts, one for the men and one for the women (Regan 2007: 38). Today there is no division inside the house, and most of the houses are rectangular. Some families have wooden houses, and most of the roofs are made of calamine. In Supayaku, many families have a separate kitchen next to the main house built in more traditional ways.


Picture 2. A traditionally built kitchen in Supayaku.

The people of Supayaku want to conserve their cultural identity, including the mythology, worldview and traditions, but they admit that, for example, contact with other cultures and Christianity have led to some changes in this area. Also, there are less situations in which the elders impart their knowledge to the next generation. Although the Awajún language and many traditions are still alive and well, people are concerned that these might be lost in the future. (CNAS 2015: 4–5, 17.)

Awajún music

Similar to the belief system, Awajún music is also strongly related to nature, for example to the forest, mountains, rivers and waterfalls and the spirits that live in these places (Riol 2010). This type of relationship between nature and music is common in many Amazonian cultures. The sounds of nature are imitated with musical instruments, and also the lyrics often address aspects of daily life and its relation with nature. (Aparicio & Bodmer 2009: 16.)

In addition to the lyrics related to nature, Awajún songs can include stories of love, jokes about the opposite sex and descriptions of important events. Regan (2007: 20) states that the lyrics are important, since singing is a way to show literary talent. The songs are sung most often during the masateos (celebrations where fermented yuca drink called masato is drunk) or important events. Masateos also include traditional dances. (Ibid.: 19–20.)

As in many other Amazonian music cultures, traditional Awajún music is mostly vocal. However, Riol (2010) mentions that some instruments, such as different kinds of flutes and string instruments, are sometimes used. Also in my experience, it seems that the most commonly known forms of traditional music are interpreted without accompaniment. Nevertheless, people proudly speak about their traditional instruments even though they are not used very much.

In Supayaku, the Awajún themselves usually tend not to refer to traditional music with the Spanish word música, but instead as canto típico, typical singing. I was many times told “Before we didn’t have music”. Music for many people in Supayaku means popular music from other parts of Peru and the world.

The traditional songs of the Awajún can be divided into two groups: songs with magical character called anen and songs with profane character called nampeg (Riol 2010). Both men and women can sing both types of songs, but there is a difference between men’s songs and women’s songs.

The magical songs or anen

In general, the use of magical songs is very common in the Amazonian societies. These are commonly called icaro, which is a word that the people of Supayaku also know and use when discussing with non-Awajún speakers. Singing the magical songs usually involves consuming plants such as ayahuasca, toé or tabacco. In many Amazonian cultures, it is believed that the spirit of the plant, mineral or stone teaches an icaro to a shaman. The shaman can later communicate with the spirit by singing or whistling the icaro and use the strength of the spirit thus healing his patients (Luna 1986: 103–105). However, the Awajún usually learn the magical songs from their relatives of the same sex. According to Greene (2009: 86) one can also learn anen from people from outside the family. In this case, there might be some compensation in the form of money or goods (ibid.).

To the Awajún, anen are powerful songs that can be used to guide thoughts and feelings. They are also used, for example, in hunting to attract prey and in farming to ensure that the crops grow well (Brown 1986: 75, 107.) Anen create real specific changes in the surrounding world in favor of the person using them (Greene 2009: 86). In a way, anen can be considered tools.

In order to have a powerful anen, the person has to be a deanentin. This status is acquired through a deep knowledge about magic and a fertile relationship with spirits (Riol 2010). The learning process requires the use of tobacco, isolation, a restricted diet and sexual abstinence (Brown 1986: 72). In the following citation, a man from Supayaku explains the learning of anen compared with learning popular music. He refers to popular music with the word cancion (song) or música (music). He does not use these words for the traditional Awajún music.

Because more easily they [the young people] practice the [popular] songs. They learn straight away. Yes, straight away. They listen to the sound, boom! But ours, the tradition (costumbre), for example canto amoroso. They have to practice for three days. With tobacco so that it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, you will forget. It’s a gift that it sticks and that you have it in your mind, in your heart. For example, to have effect, you have to diet. Because music [non-traditional] sometimes doesn’t have an effect. But with this canto, before it had an effect. But for that one has to practice for many days, diet, to learn. In change music is not like that. Quickly. So the tradition was more difficult.
— Man, 51 years.

The people of Supayaku use the Spanish word costumbre when speaking about traditional ways of doing things. Costumbre can be translated as tradition, habit or custom. Like the man cited above stated, many people consider singing or playing popular music easier than singing or playing anen. Learning anen is a time-consuming process, something which young people often prefer not to do. In my interviews, it became clear that nowadays young people tend to concentrate on their studies and on learning Spanish and, therefore, they do not have time to learn anen.

One specific category of anen are the love songs, canto amoroso, also mentioned above. An Awajún man uses these songs to communicate with his wife while away from her. The song is used to “hacerla sentir” (“make her feel”). In other words, it ensures that the woman will not forget him and will still love him when he returns. The use of magical songs for this and other practical reasons such as gardening or warfare seems to be more common amongst the Awajún that in other Amazonian groups, even though Luna (1986: 104, 108–109) mentions that also other groups sometimes use icaros for hunting or fishing. Anen of the Awajún are songs with highly magical character, but the uses of these songs are extremely practical and related to everyday activities (Riol 2010).

Anen are usually sung, but according to Riol (2010) the Awajún men sometimes interpret the melodies with their favorite instruments such as tumag or kitag, while singing the song silently in their heads at the same time. Anen is not to be sung publicly, only in private places and situations. Using tobacco during anen will strengthen it (Brown 1986: 73).

The profane songs or nampeg

Nampeg or nampet are songs with a strong social meaning. The word itself does not only refer to music, but also to dancing and drinking. In order to learn nampeg, no specific preparations are required. This is because nampeg does not have a ritual aspect similar to anen. Anyone can sing these songs, and all the men can also use certain musical instruments to play them. As a contrast to anen, nampeg are performed in public. Many of these songs are created spontaneously in situ by the person playing or singing them. A really catchy nampeg might stay in the repertoire for some time, and in some cases they can even be passed down to other family members. (Greene 2009: 130.)

Riol (2010) lists three reasons for using nampeg. The first use is to express feelings or tell stories at home, the garden or the forest. The things narrated in this type of nampeg can be emotional memories or spontaneous expressions. The second use consists of performances during celebrations. These types of nampeg usually deal with themes of community. These songs include improvised conversations, in which all the singers have to keep the same rhythm, intonation and structure. In this type of nampeg, the singer brings his or her thoughts into the public, usually as a joke. The third type of nampeg are songs performed together with a dance called namsemamu. In these performances, both the singers and the dancers tend to use traditional dress. (Ibid.)

Traditional instruments

In Awajún culture, only men are allowed to play musical instruments. Traditional Awajún instruments consist of three flutes: pinkui, peem and pijun; two string instruments: tumag and kitag; and two percussion instruments: tampug and tuntui. These are all of the traditional instruments that I have come across either in my literary research or during my fieldwork, but it is possible that there are others.

Pinkui is a transverse flute made of a reed called kugki. The structure of pinkui is very simple, with one embouchure hole on one end, and two finger holes on the other. The holes are burnt to the reed with a hot nail. Pinkui is used in every-day situations, for example at home for personal pleasure or in celebrations to accompany traditional dancing. During the 1970s, when the study of the Summer Institute of Linguistics was realized, pinkui was the most commonly used instrument amongst the Awajún indians (Chávez et al. 2008: 6).

The second flute, peem, is not mentioned in the literature about Awajún instruments, but some people in Supayaku are familiar with it. Peem is used at home. By playing peem, a man can communicate with his wife. An old man in Supayaku mentioned that often a husband plays peem to ask his wife if the dinner is ready or not. The third type of flute, pijun, is a deer bone with three holes. Pijun is usually not played in public events, but a man can play it with his family or close friends (Chávez et al. 2008: 7). All the flutes are used especially for nampeg. The flutes can be played any time and in several situations. All the men are allowed to play them, and the user usually constructs his own instruments.


Picture 3. An Awajún man playing tumag.

Tumag is a plucked instrument with one string tightened between two ends of a flexible wooden stick. The string is traditionally made from a fiber of a certain palm tree, but nowadays also a nylon string can be used. (Riol 2010.) In my experience, it seems that people prefer the sound of the instrument when the traditional palm tree string is being used. When playing, the player puts one end of the instrument into his mouth, with the mouth only touching the wooden part. The string is plucked with the index finger. The pitch can be changed by varying the posture of the mouth. Tumag is used for anen, and in order to learn to play it, one has to follow the rituals mentioned before (for example the use of tobacco).

According to an elder in Supayaku, tumag is used to send messages or communicate emotions to people who are far away, mostly to a wife or to one’s enemies. A man gives a message to an animal, for example to a bird or a monkey, in the form of a song. When the person receiving the message hears that particular type of bird singing or monkey howling, he or she will feel the thoughts sent by the man. Tumag is a sacred instrument that cannot be played in celebrations or other public events.

The other string instrument, kitag, is also traditionally used for anen. Kitag is an instrument remotely similar to the violin. Kitag has two strings, and it is played with a bow (Riol 2010). There is very little information about kitag in literature. In Supayaku, some elders remember the kitag, but none are left.

Tampug is a small drum used at celebrations to accompany singing and dancing. It is made of wood and animal skin. The other percussion instrument, tuntui or tundui, is a big drum made of a tree trunk. To build a tuntui that is strong and sonorous enough, the builder has to diet and live in solitude for several days (Karsten 1935: 110). Tuntui is used to send messages to faraway places such as neighboring villages. For each occasion, there is a particular rhythm: one to announce the death of a person, one for preparing ayahuasca, one for war or conflict, and so on (Riol 2010). According to Karsten (1935: 110, 434), tuntui can also be used in celebrations to invite spirits to participate. Thus, it is not merely a signaling instrument, but it also offers a way to communicate with the spiritual world (ibid.).


Picture 4. An Awajún woman with rattles around her arms.

As mentioned before, the musical instruments are played by men only. However, the women do use rattles around their arms and waist. The rattles are made of snail shells or seeds, and they create a rhythmic sound when the women are dancing.

Awajún music today

During the past decades, many things have changed in the Awajún communities. Perhaps the biggest change has been in technology, but also the rise of nationalism and the national education system affect the music. In schools of Supayaku all the children learn to sing the national anthem of Peru, and other songs with themes of nationality. The recently built road also makes it easier to visit other parts of the district and the country. There is a new kind of indigenous identification amongst the Awajún, which Greene (2009: 26) divides into three layers. First of all, the Awajún are part of the Peruvian Amazon, and thus share a pan-Amazonian identity. Secondly, they belong to the Jívaro group. The third layer of identification is being an Awajún. According to Greene (ibid.), this last layer includes the strongest feelings of social belonging, emotional attachment and political commitment.

From a practical point of view, the electrification of the village in Supayaku has brought new ways of listening to and performing music. Today, the most common way to listen to music in Supayaku is from a cellphone. People download music to their cellphones when visiting cities, and then pass the music to others via Bluetooth or memory cards. Many of them do not know how to use the internet, but for example in Jaén, the closest city to Supayaku, there are several shops where one can ask the staff to download music to a memory card for a small fee. Many people also have radios, and some have CD- or DVD-players.

Most of the music listened to is popular music from the Andes or in some cases from the Amazon. Especially cumbia sanjuanera is really popular. There are also some groups formed by the Awajún people who sing cumbia in the Awajún language. Some people have cumbia Awajún or traditional Awajún music, such as canto típico, in their cellphones. However, in Supayaku this kind of music is listened to considerably less than music in Spanish. In Supayaku there are no cumbia groups nor other music groups, and most of the children I got to know have never played any kind of musical instrument, traditional or non-traditional.

Nevertheless, many people think that it is extremely important to conserve the traditional Awajún music. The traditional music seems to have gotten new significance as well. When asked why it is important to conserve the traditional music, in almost all the cases the first answer was ”because it is our tradition”. The Awajún consider it as something of their own, and also as something that differentiates them from other people. I was told that if there were no traditions, the Awajún would become mestizos (people with mixed ethnicity), or at least they would be just like mestizos. Below, a primary school teacher explains that children have to learn traditional music in order for them to be able to perform it for non-Awajún people.

Our ancestors were like that. And our ancestors sang that. We have to maintain it always, because it’s our tradition… So if we lose it all, we are going to be equal [like mestizos]. And they are not going to consider us as Awajún. Because of that we cannot forget. At any moment they [the Awajún children] are going to be leaders, some of them, and go to the city. And they will learn there. There people will say them: ´Let’s see, Awajún, dance your traditional dance’. If we don’t teach them, how can they dance.
A primary school teacher, 37 years old.

Virtanen (2012: 160) mentions that after the rise of awareness of ethnic origins in the 1990s, the respect towards the knowledge of the elders has increased. The elders are seen as ”libraries”, and young people are keen to learn traditional ways of doing things, such as singing. The young people also know that the knowledge of the elderly can have economical potential as well. (Ibid.: 160–162.) This can be seen also in Supayaku. Traditional music has a new function when the Awajún people go to the cities, or when non-Awajún people visit the village. Currently there is no tourism in Supayaku, but many people think of tourism as something desirable and see it as a possible way to improve their living conditions. To create a successful tourism economy, it is important not to forget the traditional music.

In Supayaku, the most common of the traditional instruments is pinkui. During my time in Supayaku I met a few people who can play pinkui and pijun, but only one man who told me he can play tumag, kitag and peem. There are not many musical instruments in the village, and most of the families do not have any kind of instruments, traditional or non-traditional, in their homes. Playing musical instruments is still considered masculine, and all the people I met who had played an instrument, including western instruments such as keyboard or guitar, were men. This mindset is rooted in the people. For example, a 12-year-old girl told me that she would like to play the guitar, but that she is not sure if it is possible for a girl to play.

The use of traditional music is limited to celebrations, such as Peru’s Independence Day, Mother’s Day and school anniversaries. For these situations the children and the youth of Supayaku practice performances with the help of their teachers. All of the schools, initial, primary and secondary, participate in these. The performances include wide variety of music from traditional Awajún music to other Peruvian styles such as huaynos, cumbias and marineros. The children and the youth sing and dance, but no musical instruments are used.

When speaking of the situation of the traditional Awajún music, the role of the evangelical church has to be taken into consideration. Iglesia del Nazareno (The Church of the Nazarene) was founded in Supayaku in 1989. There were some evangelical and adventist churches before that, but none of them lasted very long. Now Iglesia del Nazareno is the only church in the village. Iglesia del Nazareno has an important role in many other Awajún communities as well. According to the church doctrine, a person who wants to be Christian and to save his or her soul, should not listen to profane music, to which they refer with the Spanish expression música mundanal (worldly music) or música del mundo (music from the world). If the lyrics of a song are not based on the Bible, it belongs to música mundanal. Thus also the traditional Awajún music is prohibited.

Here in the church we use only what is evangelical. What can be used to praise our Lord Jesus. We use that and nothing else. Not the Awajún dancing songs, those we don’t use here. Look, sister. Música del mundo is what they dance. It confuses the people. They are not able to have just one way of thinking. They think about the world. About the world, you know? It’s a sin. A sin… I don’t care if I lose the traditional Awajún music. It is better to think and to prepare ourselves from the Bible.
Pastor of the Evangelical Church of Supayaku.

Picture 5. Iglesia del Nazareno.

There is a big variation in religious people’s opinions about conserving traditional music. The most conservative members of the church would like traditional music to be forgotten. However, others think that it should be conserved in some way. They justify the conservation the same way as non-Christians, telling that it is their tradition and part of the Awajún culture. On the other hand, none of them want to practice traditional music themselves.

When I was young, I sang, but now when I’m part of the church I have stopped playing. Also, everything is prohibited in the church. Those who attend have to stop playing tumag, pinkui and other instruments. They should not continue to practice it.
— An old man (age not known)

All música mundanal is seen to affect one’s thoughts making it impossible to follow Christ. When speaking with Christians, música mundanal is almost always related to drinking and dancing, both prohibited by the church. It seems that many people find it difficult to imagine the traditional music without the context of dancing, drinking or using tobacco.


Picture 6. Father with his children gathered around a cellphone to watch a Christian music video.

Most of the Christian parents allow their children to participate in the performances of traditional music at school, as long as the practice does not go any further than that. A Christian, be it a child or an adult, should listen to choruses or songs from the hymnal. The ways of listening to music are not remarkably different from those of the non-Christians. Many church members have religious music or music videos in their cellphones, and some have DVDs as well. Sometimes people gather to the church to watch music videos of the Christian singer-songwriter José Cristobal. The children as well as the adults enjoy watching these videos, and the video evenings seem to also attract children from non-Christian families. Many church members still talk about the visit of José Cristobal in Supayaku from a few years ago.

The music used in the services is mostly hymns, choruses and praise songs, both in Awajún and in Spanish. In addition to these songs, some people say that they have learned songs directly from God during dreams. Most of the songs used in the church are stylistically western, but there are clear influences from traditional music in some people’s ways of singing. Nasality in singing voice and the use of high pitch are common especially amongst the elders. The songs people claim to have learned in dreams have clear influences from western style music normally used in the church, but some of them have more traditional elements. For example, they can be rhythmically more complex than other Christian songs.

The hymns and the choruses are sung without accompaniment, and the praise songs are accompanied by a keyboard and a playback track from it. The playback usually has totally different timing (and sometimes also a different time signature) than the melody. The chord progressions can also be very different from the ones in the western tradition. The church musician has rehearsed various praise songs, but it is not uncommon for him to sometimes play the melody a second higher or lower, the chords remaining the same. However, these harmonic and rhythmic peculiarities do not seem to bother anyone in the church.


The Awajún have a unique and rich musical tradition, that is deeply related to other aspects of life. With the musical instruments one can imitate sounds of the animals and the forest, send messages to other people and affect the behavior of others. Music has a strong social function as well, and it is an important marker of identity. Concurrently with large-scale changes in the Awajún society, both the use and the meaning of this music have transformed during the past decades.

The will to conserve traditional music is strong. However, in everyday situations traditional music is often replaced by popular music from all over Peru and Latin America. New possibilities provided by technology, transformed aesthetic views, influences from the city and the doctrine of the evangelical church have all weakened the role of traditional music in the life of the Awajún people. Mastery of the urban lifestyle and good Spanish skills are known to be useful. Thus they are highly valued. Many young people desire to study more and move to the cities, and they do not devote much time to learning traditional music.

Music making in Supayaku is rapidly changing. According to my observations, people do not sing or play traditional music in their everyday lives anymore. However, there are not many western musical instruments either. Music making is limited to singing and dancing. Moreover, there is a clear dichotomy between the musical preferences of the Christian and the non-Christian families. The latter are more open to the practice of traditional music. Nonetheless, both groups find it important to conserve the Awajún culture in some form. The reasons for the conservation, however, are not yet very profoundly rationalized by the Awajún themselves.

The music of the Awajún deserves fully focused academic research. This kind of research can also increase the understanding of the Amazonian societies in a much broader sense, and help us see the intricacy of these cultures. In respect of exploring the relation between tradition and modernity, this subject has global implications, since the impacts of modernization are not only visible in the Amazonian societies, but in societies all over the world.


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Cover photo and other photographs: Anni Latva-Pukkila.