Alturas de Machu Picchu

by Catalina Jaramillo

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In January of 1981, the Chilean folk-psychedelic-progressive-rock band Los Jaivas, got into a very ambitious project. While living in France, during their political exile, they were encouraged to transform Pablo Neruda’s masterpiece “Alturas de Machu Picchu” into music. The result was one of the best Chilean albums ever made.

The Nobel laureate wrote the poem in 1944, one year after visiting the sacred city built on top of the Peruvian Andes by the Inca civilization in the 15th century. After walking for days across the Amazon jungle and up the mountain, he saw the temples and palaces made for the Inca Empire’s elite and the hundreds of agricultural terraces cut into the hill for plantations. The vastness and the grandiosity of the city touched him deeply. But he was also moved by the human toll of building such wonders without iron, steel or wheels. The poem, included in Canto General the book where he tells the history of Hispanic America, starts as a spiritual journey in search of meaning and transforms into a political hymn on behalf of the oppressed. Neruda becomes the voice of the indigenous, the dead, and the conquered; claiming a definitive Latin American brotherhood based on common ancestors.

The idea of making songs out of such a poem came from Daniel Camino, a Peruvian producer whose vision was to make a cantata, a music concert, in Machu Picchu and to broadcast it in different countries of Latin America as a special television production. His plan also included folk stars Chabuca Granda, from Perú, Mercedes Sosa, from Argentina and the Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa as the host.

When Camino met Los Jaivas in Paris, they didn’t take his proposal seriously; no one had ever done anything on top of Machu Picchu before and the whole idea seemed a little crazy. But Camino insisted and convinced the band’s seven members to read Neruda’s poem and start imagining songs about this place that none of them had ever visited before. Improvising masterfully, Los Jaivas started arranging the 12 cantos of the poem to music, building a complex, layered, multi-dimensional sonic universe for Neruda’s words. The seven tracks of the album, created roughly in three months, are a succession of instrumental progressions that ascend and descend in intensity. Even if you don’t understand the deep lyrics of the poem, the music takes you through Neruda’s journey. The sounds of instruments from the Altiplano—quena, zampoña, trutruca, ocarina, tarka—transport you to the top of the Andes, like an eagle hovering above the ancient city, while the piano narrates a story that sometimes become violent and full of anger with electric guitar solos, drums and distortion (Minimoog).

After the creation of the album—recorded in Germany and France, and edited in 1981 in Chile, Perú, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil and later in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands—the band returned to South America on tour. It was the first big rock show during Pinochet’s dictatorship and the lyrics against oppression were passionately chanted by many. On September 9th they traveled to Machu Picchu, climbed the mountain with all their instruments—the piano was carried by helicopter— and filmed over three days after the tourists left. Canal 13 in Chile and Radio Television Peruana in Perú broadcast the performance on October 8th of 1981 with Mario Vargas Llosa as its host. The rest of Camino’s dream didn’t come true, but his vision inspired an historic record and blew the minds of everyone who watched that film that night and ever after. In 2011, Los Jaivas, who still play out with new and rotating members, repeated the concert celebrating 100 years since the international discovery of Machu Picchu by the American historian Hiram Bingham.

Songs:

1. “Del aire al aire” – 2:17
2. “La poderosa muerte” – 11:12
3. “Amor americano” – 5:28
4. “Aguila sideral” – 5:22
5. “Antigua america” – 5:38
6. “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano” – 4:46
7. Final – 2:37