Desert Sounds: The Andean Orchestra in the Atacama Desert

The Orquesta Andina recently played for packed pews at the quaint, whitewashed Iglesia de San Pedro as part of their nationwide tour celebrating Chile’s bicentennial. Crowds of Chileans and visitors filed in, drawn by the hypnotic tones of the reedy panpipes and flutes played by orchestra members dressed entirely in white scattered throughout the congregation.

Santiago Chile
Photo courtesy Félix Cárdenas, Orquesta Andina

The concert began with a surprising entrance. The orchestra, who had integrated themselves into the audience, was suddenly upon us as men and women bopped down the aisle. Featuring a diverse array of instruments, the orchestra featured wooden panpipes, flutes and violins.

Santiago Chile
Photo courtesy Félix Cárdenas, Orquesta Andina

Locals sat together with their families while their children danced excitedly to the music. Tourists and backpackers had their cameras poised to snap away. Not only the human inhabitants of San Pedro came to listen; a stray dog lay peacefully under the pew, enjoying the warmth the church afforded him on this cold desert night.

The conductor, Félix Cárdenas, stood before the congregation and spoke passionately of the orchestra’s mission: To help people rediscover the cultural diversity of their country, “to recognize, accept and value Chile’s rich cultural heritage,” through their music. He also emphasized that the tour was not only about recognizing Chile’s 200 years as an independent republic, but about appreciating the country’s diverse history before 1810 when indigenous tradition played a major role in modern Chilean culture.

What better place to celebrate this rich history than in San Pedro de Atacama? The region was populated in 2000 to 1000 BC by the Kunza-speaking Atacameños who were known for their intricate basket-weaving and pottery. The area was subsequently occupied by the Bolivian Tiwanaku Empire and later still, the mighty empire of the Incas.

As the beautiful music shook the thatched roof and wooden beams, one couldn’t help but feel the rich and noble history of the town, played out in every note.

From the pre-Colombian era to the recent past, the story of Chile echoed through the orchestra’s rendition of Victor Jara’s “Charagua” - a dramatic crescendo of a song complete with lilting soft panpipes and low thunder-rumble drums.

The song was reminiscent of a courageous call to battle, yet was also tinged with sadness. Jara, a Chilean musician, theatre-director and political activist, was shot to death in the National Stadium and his body dumped in the street days after the military coup of September 11th, 1973.

The Orquestra Andina played a mixed set that not only included songs about their homeland, but some inspired by neighboring countries. “Verano Porteño” (Port Summer) conjured up vivid images of balmy Buenos Aires days. The song was sensual and romantic like the city itself. “Tango y Fuga” (Tango and Escape) was dramatic and staccato, featuring notable violinist Cristian González, whose moving solo resonated throughout the church.

Many people were lucky enough to stumble upon this concert and if you too ever hear the sound of panpipes on the breeze - follow them. You might just get the chance to hear the mesmerizing music of the Orquesta Andina and discover a newfound appreciation for Chilean history.

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