The folk music of the Andean mountains seems to embody both the winds that whistle past the tall peaks and the patient rhythms of life that have remained largely unchanged for centuries. The breathy melodies of the zamponas (cane panpipe) and the steady beat of the bombo (a tree trunk drum) remain much the same as they were before Europeans ever visited South America.
"The people of the Andes have been called the testimonial people," says Bolivian musician Carlos Arrien, "because they're the one people on the continent whose cultural expression had not been totally disrupted by the colonial period. They are our link to the pre-Columbian culture of the continent. They provide a continuity with the historical essence of our people."
Arrien is the founder of the Washington-based Andean folk group Rumisonko, whose first album, "El Huerto," will be released next month. Rumisonko will join poets Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Amina Baraka and Roberto Vargas and folk groups Nuevo Continente, In Process and Folkworks at Kilimanjaro's Heritage Hall tomorrow night for a cultural celebration of the sixth anniversary of Nicaragua's July 19 liberation.
In Quechua, the language of the Incan empire, rumisonko means "heart of stone." "The idea," Arrien explains, "was to convey the strength and endurance of native cultures that have persisted through 500 years of colonization and are still alive and vibrant today. Even if they sometimes give different kinds of fruits, it always comes from the same roots.
"In my songs, I try to combine that traditional culture with the events that Latin American peoples are going through today. I draw on the contributions of both the musica folklorica movement and the nueva cancion, or new song, movement."
Ironically, it wasn't until he came to the United States that Arrien fell in love with Andean music. He grew up in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, which sits on a mountainous plateau and is full of Indians who play the traditional music. Arrien, though, was an apolitical rock fan who studied architecture at the university.
When the military staged a coup d'e'tat in 1971, it closed the university for three years. Arrien, like many students, fled the country and went to study in Spain. With his money running out, he came to work in America and never left.
"Before I came," he recalls, "I had only a very idealized conception of what the United States was all about. I had only seen the polished images in the magazines and movies -- I didn't have a clear conception of what was behind those images in the hallways, factories and fields.
"It was working in a toy factory in New York that really turned my head around. It was like a concentration camp, with broken windows, loudspeakers shouting orders and the manager's office in the middle like a watchtower. I was shocked to find a 60-year-old woman who had been putting arms onto dolls for 30 years."
Arrien soon moved to Washington to live with Bolivian friends. Disillusioned by the United States and homesick for Bolivia but reluctant to return to the junta-ruled country, Arrien developed a consuming hunger for Latin American music. Friends back home sent records and tapes from the burgeoning musica folklorica and nueva cancion movements, and Arrien and his friends taught themselves how to play the songs.
"Thanks to these movements," he says, "I was able to recuperate my identity as a Latin American. When I was growing up, it seemed that all the street signs were pointing in outward directions, saying, 'Forget what you are, forget what you have -- you can become an American or a European.'
"These movements put up new street signs that say, 'Look at what's around you. There's nothing wrong with looking at America or Europe, but first look behind you and see what's viable there.' "
After numerous personnel shifts, Arrien finally found the right partner in guitarist Alvaro Encinas, who had played in Bolivia with such folklorist groups as Khonlaya and Tierra. "I value him not only for his expertise and virtuosity," Arrien says, "but even more for the musical language he controls, which is a treasure of the tradition."
Together Arrien and Encinas recorded the album "El Huerto" earlier this year. "El huerto can mean a fruit garden," Arrien explains, "but it can also mean a backyard, in terms of being a possession. So the title reflects this dual reality of Latin America -- it could be a paradise, but at the same time it's the plundering yard of the United States."
The first side of the album ends with "Song of a Death Foretold." As Encinas picks out his delicate melody on the guitar, Arrien sings his lyrics of an old way dying and a new way being born: The time of birth approaches/ A grave is being dug/ The fields are in bloom/ They've woven a shroud of thorns for you.
To play all the multitracked parts from the album in concert, Rumisonko has added two members: Bolivian Alberto Lora and Salvadoran Omar Martinez. They will play a free concert in the National Museum of History and Technology's Instruments Room on Saturday, Aug. 3, at noon.
"We are proud to play this concert for Nicaragua," Arrien says, "because we have always followed events there very closely. Nicaragua is the great hope of the Latin American people, because it offers a space where, for the first time, people will be able to realize their potential, where children will be able to go to school without dying by the hundreds because they didn't get vaccination or they didn't have shoes.
"We hope that some day all people in Latin America will have such a space. If the people of the Andes can suffer such terrible economic hardship and still produce music of such beauty, just imagine what they could do if they lived in a decent society."