Sirena, Desire and Culture in Cuzco
By David Knowlton
Once the heart of empire, now the draw of tourists, Cuzco carries within it stories and passions unseen by most outsiders. Though some women dress in hats and bright skirts and stand by llamas for tourists to photograph them and though in the city’s fine restaurants indigenous food is reworked to represent place through taste, still there is a vital, living culture in which Quechua sighs and pants, inhales and exhales, as if it were a sirena, a mermaid, who through her song conquers the willing.
In fact, the sirena is part of this culture and she has deep roots. Ethnomusicologist Tom Turino wrote about how in Canas, a province of Cuzco, charango players see her as directly related to their art. She is known for the power of her song which can make people fall in love almost instantly just as the charango is also known for its romantic power. As a result, people hope to attach the sirena’s power to their charango and somehow get her to tune this devilishly difficult instrument of ten individual strings.
It is hard to get all the strings perfectly in tune so that the three different strings with the same pitch of E are together and in good relationship with the others that are G, C, and A so that players cannot only make good sounding chords but can also pick out melodies that work from one string to another.
So they will leave their charangos out by a body of water hoping to entice this womanly fish to make their pitch and tuning perfect and stable. They wrap it in cloth along with offerings of food to the sirena. When you see a charango played in the restaurants of Cuzco’s colonial core, chances are that you are seeing something connected with the sirena, though no one may tell you so.
Sirenas are found in springs, rivers, and lakes throughout the region of Cuzco and the nearby altiplano. Associated with the saqra, sometimes called the devil, but also the erotic powers of water, the sirena has a strong presence that has both indigenous and European roots.
On the one hand she is the European siren of myth who could enchant sailors and cause them to lose their way. But on the other she relates to a powerful mythic cycle in the area that has pre-Inca roots. This is the cycle of the sacred hero Tunupa who traveled all over the highlands performing valiant and symbolically powerful acts. However on Lake Titicaca he was seduced by two fish, quesintu and umantu. who caused him to forget his obligations for awhile and “sin” with them, according to the Spanish chronicler.
Just as Tunupa’s heroic acts are marked and remembered in the landscape, so his lovers are also in that they are names for two native fish once common in highland waterways. They are both from a species of predatory fish called orestes, but their presences has weakened from the introduction of trout. Nevertheless their stories and names continue.
Contemporary Cuzco poet Odi Gonzales writes about them in his ten page book called simply Tunupa, el libro de las sirenas (Tunupa, the Book of Sirens). Like many Latin American writers Gonzales spends much of his time in the United States where he is a lecturer at New York University. Nevertheless he is a leader of a generation of Cuzco writers and artists who whether at home or abroad carry the city and region with them.
Here is an excerpt from Gonzales’s poem about the siren whose name he spell Umantuu where he captures some of the feeling of an exile, far from Cuzco, trying to maintain contact with his culture and people. Originally written in Quechua, Gonzales has taken the poem into Spanish as well as into English. You can hear Gonzales reading the poem here.
|wherever it is you go,
my rainbow siren,
with your tenacious tambourine
call my soul that wanders frightened
since first its hair was cut
lure it, diva of the depths
This is part of the culture that fills the city of Cuzco and which goes far beyond the lairs of Machu Picchu, but which though often unspoken, draws the tourists and Cuzqueños together.
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