A Story of Lineage from Peru
It was a rainy afternoon in Aguas Calientes, Peru. This is the small town that ushers tourists of all walks of life to the gates of Macchu Picchu. I'd visited the main ruins site already and was getting ready to head back to Ollantaytambo, where, nestled in the Incan's Sacred Valley, was a farmhouse that we called home for this leg of our trip. Peru is home to street markets of all shapes and sizes, where local artisans sell their handmade llama sweaters, rock collections, trinkets, or instruments - everything native to the Andean landscape for generations. I'd become particularly fond of the quena in my travels - an Andean flute that echoes through the mountain valleys with a fierce, pure tone.
This day took us to a market that wasn't particularly pleasant to walk through. Being that Macchu Picchu is one of the most touristy locations on planet earth, the Aguas Calientes market is one of the most touristy locations on planet earth. And following a cramped bus ride back to town, the only way back to the train station is through a crowded, meandering market. The Peruvians knew how to funnel the foot traffic... So it was - rainy and packed with people; though the stands were well prepared with a makeshift ceiling rigged together by tarps.
Yet as we waded through the crowd I heard a beautiful flute cutting through the chatter. I followed the sound until I saw a heavy-set Peruvian man playing at his flute stand. His skin looked like an old baseball glove and his hair was tied back in a ponytail; meanwhile, his rugged hands transmitted a rich song full of melody and grace. His playing struck me deep. He paused for a moment to welcome us to his stand and motioned toward the rack of flutes arranged on the wall, as well as the others he'd laid across the table. I tried a few of them, but I couldn't get my mind past the tone of the one he was playing. I asked him if I could try it and again he pointed to the flutes displayed. I persisted. I told him how beautiful he made that flute sound and that I'd love to try it.
This particular flute is known as a mama quena, meaning it's the biggest of the quena flute variety and thus more difficult to play. The mama quena's tone is deep, resonant, and woody. He passed it over to me and I checked out the instrument up close. It's rugged and worn, looking like it was carved out of these surrounding mountains; a native instrument that embodied the energy of this place I'd grown to love. I put it to my lips and struggled to get a sound out of it at first. Then, after some finagling with the embouchure, I managed to squeeze out some of those deep tones first hand. Once I felt the sound of this flute resonating through me I wanted to learn to make it truly sing.
So I asked him how much it'd cost. With that he looked at me with poised tiger eyes, seemingly assessing whether I was a musician familiar with the energy of creation. We hung there in space together until he said, "You will play a song for the wind, then I will play a song for the wind. The flute will let us know if it is right."
The man put me on the spot! Now I felt like I had to prove myself before he'd let me buy the flute. Regardless, I disregarded my nerves and told him I'd be happy to. I took a deep breath and played the most worthy windsong I could muster. Then I passed the flute back to him and he played a few gorgeous, captivating lines of melody. My song didn't hold a candle to the river of music he effortlessly played. After he was done he fell silent for a moment, looking down at the flute in his hands. Finally, he said "Ok."
As he began to wrap up the flute for transport I saw his eyes beginning to water. He held the flute close to his chest and spoke to me as the tears started streaking down his face, "I've been playing this flute for 10 years. It was my personal flute. More beautiful and pure than all the others. You must take good care of it. Always play from the heart. From your experience... You must clean it like this." He proceeded to show me a dowel with a nub of paper towels wrapped on the end. "Olive oil. To coat the inside."
He placed the final touches on the wrapping and I paid him, thanking him dearly and telling him that I'll always treat it with the respect it deserves. I was touched by his emotion and willingness to say goodbye to his favorite instrument. Those ten years he spent in communion with this flute honing his skills, playing from his heart, have embedded themselves in the fibers of the flute's wood. This is a living representation of lineage. Any musician knows it when they pick up an old instrument. You can tell right away that it's traveled and told many stories. It's hard to explain, but it has a different feel to it. Like wisdom, or grandma's pasta sauce.
And this lineage exists all around us. In the air left behind by our ancestors, our physical bodies, habits, interests... in the feeling you get when you walk in to a new friend's house for the first time. Everything - sentient or not - sings a song that carries its history along with it. Opening my eyes to these roots helped me learn the gift of gratitude and embrace the continuum of life.