Video of the week: Quechua Musicians Urge Coronavirus Precaution Through Traditional Song

This week’s Video of the Week is filmed in the Callejon de Huaylas, located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca in the north central highlands of Peru, and features a song about coronavirus that is performed in the region’s native Quechua language. 

The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range and aside from Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, it is the most glacier-rich region in the Andes. Because it encompasses the largest area of glaciers in the Central Andes, glacier meltwater is a critical resource for agriculture, livestock and human consumption in this region. During this time of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the region is fortunate to be relatively well-supplied with water for handwashing. The song emphasizes instructions for people to wash their hands and not to ignore advice with “the ears of a pig.”

Note minute 3:45 where an older villager washes her hands as the song tells us to use water and soap to kill the dirty disease.

Quechua predates the Incan Empire, but once the Inca made it the official language of the domain, its use spread across the Andean highlands. When the Spanish arrived, they used the Latin alphabet to create the written version of Quechua. Today, many regional variations — approximately 45 distinct dialects — are still spoken by the indigenous Quechua peoples living throughout the highlands of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, and the second most spoken language in Peru (where it originated) after Spanish. 

The video was produced by Heraldos Producciones, an audio and video recording studio of Andean music based in the city of Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash Department.

Huaraz sits in the Callejon de Huaylas valley, approximately 3,000 meters above sea level and to the west of the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca (in the background). Credit: G. D. Vicente Torres/Flickr

Joshua Shapero, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who conducts research with Quechua speakers in this area, noted a number of specific elements about the video. As for the pigs ears, he noted “’kuchi rinriqa ama kashunnatsu’ translates as ‘let’s not be pig’s ears now;’ in parallel with ‘wiyakushunna yarpakushunna,’ ‘let’s listen up now, let’s remember well now;’ and ‘callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu,’ ‘Let’s not go about in the streets now.’ So, I think it’s safe to assume that the relevant idea here is that a pig’s ear doesn’t obey human language!” he wrote.

Wiyakushunna yarpakushunna 

Let’s listen now, let’s remember now

Callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu 

Let’s not go about in the streets now

Shapero emphasized the song’s use of paired elements, found in both the lines and verses, that complement each other and form a whole. The song tells “chuulukuna chiinakuna” (young men, young women) to take care. In the scene showing a woman purchasing fish at a market (starting at 3:25), it tells people to cover “sinqantsikta simintsikta” (our noses, our mouths). Then, some verses contain two lines that offer two words which are similar, but are not full synonyms, with the second being slightly stronger than the first. In this way, the musicians suggest a range of meaning. The singer, starting at 2:00, tells people to stay at home if they care for (kuya) their families, if they love (muna) their families. 

We do not forget to cover our nose and our mouth.” Credit: Prevención contra el coronavirus/YouTube

“If there is one relevant thing to emphasize here, it’s that the song repeatedly employs a parallel verse structure that creates an analogy between Coronavirus and raqcha qishya (the dirty sickness),” Shapero said. “I am not sure if ‘raqcha qishya’ is a phrase that’s been commonly used for other diseases in the past. If so, this seems like just a means of getting the listener to put Coronavirus in this disgusting category of illnesses. If it has not been used for other things in the past, then it might be an attempt to establish a Quechua neologism for the disease,” he wrote to GlacierHub.

The final verses, starting at 5:18, combine these elements. The final message is ominous: “Watch out, disobedient young woman, or coronavirus will pursue you (qatishunkimá), watch out, disobedient young man, or the dirty sickness will take you away (apashunkimá).” This stern warning reinforces the importance of handwashing and social distancing.

In a comment about the video, artist Michel Trejo wrote: “This audiovisual work is a contribution in this difficult conjuncture, for the dissemination of information and prevention against coronavirus, especially for my Andean brothers, Quechua speakers.” As Shapero’s comments show, Trejo not only speaks fluent Quechua, but has made use of traditional Quechua forms to communicate powerfully the need to protect communities from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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