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Quena or Kena Flute

If the bird-like notes in Andean folk music make your heart soar, you have probably fallen in love with the Quena. This beautiful woodwind, sometimes called the Kena, is considered the flute of the Incas. For more than 500 years, the Quena has been integral to the music of South America, and thanks to its appealing sound, it has become internationally beloved. This article contains photos, videos, maps, detailed information, a flutemaker comparison chart, and more to increase your understanding and appreciation of the Andean Quena.

 
Illustration depicting an ancient Andean Quena Flute

This original illustration depicts an ancient Andean Quena Flute. Early flutes of this type were often made of condor quills or, as in this case, from the bones of llamas - animals sacred to the Indigenous Peoples.

 

This early Quena is currently held by the Museo De Instrumentos Precolombinos De Aguas Calientes in Cuzco, Peru.

 

QUENA PHOTOS

Click Images for Enlarged View

 
Quena Photo

This photo depicts a modern Quena of the type commonly sold today. Note the distinct feature of the notched mouthpiece and its similarity to the above ancient bone Quena.


This old black-and-white photograph depicts an Andean flute player in traditional dress. The Quena is considered the flute of the Incas and it is postulated that the vast length and breadth of the Inca Empire facilitated the introduction of this flute throughout western South America.

Quena Photo
 

QUENA VIDEOS

 

Famous folk song by modern band, featuring Quena flute

 

Tips on Playing the Quena, in Spanish with subtitles

 

A close look at the Quena, in Spanish

 

Energetic Quena flute improvisation

 

Modern Andean band, featuring quena and sicu flutes

HISTORY OF THE QUENA FLUTE

Map of Tawantinsuyu  

Map of Tawantinsuyu, origin of the Quena

To appreciate the origins of the Quena, we must travel back to Tawantinsuyu - the Inca Empire - an empire so powerful that it spanned from Colombia in the north to Chile in the south, incorporating nearly all of western South America into a single tributary system. Between 1442 - 1572 AD, a succession of mighty rulers (called 'Incas') created a remarkable system of government in which widely differing Indigenous groups became the subjects of this single royal house, with all work being done in a system of rotation called mita; farming, processing food, brewing beverages and building the vast complex of roads, temples, cities, bridges and military housing.

 

The organization of food production, from the high mountains to the sea, was especially noteworthy, and during the reign of the Incas, there was such a surplus of food, hunger was virtually eradicated. Apart from their remarkable ability to organize work projects, the Incas and their subjects were highly ritualistic peoples. Festivals, music and dancing were a regular part of life and it is within this context that researchers place the development of the Quena (Kena) flute.

South America is rich in lakes bordered with reeds and canes, and like the Andean Siku Panpipes, many Quenas were made of these plants, but others were made of bone, as shown in the illustration at the beginning of this article. It is interesting to speculate that the stunningly beautiful birdlife of South America, its mountains and forest alive with strange and musical calls, may have inspired the first Indigenous flutemakers to create instruments that would put them on par with the birds. Native Flutes Walking would describe the Quena as the most bird-like woodwind in the world, with its high, light, lyrical tone.

The most distinctive feature of the Quena is the notch in the mouthpiece, called the bisel or muesca. If you are considering purchasing a Quena flute, it is this notch that will make it easy for you to identify this type of woodwind. The notch may be shaped like a U, V, W or a square. The shape has a great deal to do with the timbre produced by the individual instrument.

 

The tradition of using the Quena for specific festivals and events is now more than 500 years old. It is an essential accompaniment to very old dances such as the Quena-Quena, lending its bright sound to these energetic folk customs. From Peru, it is believed that the Quena spread outward to Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and the Norte Grande district of Chile. Today, it is most commonly played in the rural regions of Peru and Bolivia, typically accompanied by the Zampoña Panpipes and the small mandolin-like guitar called the Charango. This is the combination of instruments which typifies the lovely, lively sound of Andean folk music.

Photo of Man Playing Quena
 

Musician in traditional Andean dress, playing the Quena.
Source: YouTube

It is a testament to the value of the Quena to Indigenous South Americans that its use has survived the collapse of the Inca empire, the scourge of European disease and the violence of conquest. We are very fortunate to be able to hear the sound of the Quena today.

 

Historic Documentation Of The Quena Flute
Some of our earliest written accounts of South American music come from the amazing 1,189 page illustrated account of Inca life, called Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, written by Indigenous Peruvian, Guoman Puma (Waman Puma in Quechua) in the early 1600s. This invaluable, detailed depiction of the history of the Incas and their mistreatment at the hands of Spanish invaders includes a chapter on music and festivals containing a reference to flute playing:

"Canciones y múcicas del Ynga y de los demás señores deste rreyno y de los yndios llamado haraui [canción de amor] y uanca [canción] a, pingollo [flauta], quena quena [danza aymara] en la lengua general quichiua, aymara."
(Page 317, El Capitulo De Las Fiestas, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, Waman Puma)

"El Inca" Garcilaso de la Vega was a man of mixed Inca and Spanish heritage, and his Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru is incredibly detailed. In this tremendous work, penned in 1609, accounts of both the panpipes and courting flute are included:

"They had flutes with four or five stops, like those of shepherds. These were not for use together in consort, but played separately, for they did not know how to harmonize measured verse and were mostly concerned with the passions of love, its pleasure and pain, and the favor or coldness of the beloved. Every song had its known tune, and they could not sing two different songs to the same tune. This was because the lover who serenaded his lady with his flute at night told her and everybody else of the pleasure or sorrow produced by her favor or coldness by means of the tune he played, and if two different songs had had the same tune, no one would have known which he meant. One might say that he talked with his flute."
(Chapter 26, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, "El Inca" Garcilaso de la Vega, 1609

Illustration from Guoman Poma's Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno
 

Illustration from Guoman Poma's
Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno
See complete text of this amazing chronicle

THE ANDEAN QUENA IN MODERN TIMES
Professional Quena Player
 

Excellent professional Quena players are a common feature of modern Andean music videos.
Source: YouTube

As with other Indigenous flutes of the Americas, such as the Plains Flute, Anasazi Flute, Woodlands Flute or Andean Panpipes, the popularity of the Quena has blossomed over the past few decades. The incorporation of this woodwind into popular and New Age music in the 1970s-1980s, and the increasing distribution of World Music recordings have familiarized the general public with the special sound of the Quena, even if many listeners may not know what the instrument is called. Soundtracks for nature programs frequently include Quena flute music, as do the many documentaries that have been made about Andean life and the Incas. North Americans living in large cities may be able to find a Quena for purchase at a local music store, due to growing admiration for this flute amongst musicians.

 

Modern students of the Quena should understand that the Quena is not simply an instrument of antiquity - it is very much in use today throughout South America, and learning about Andean and Amazonian cultures is an excellent way to gain inspiration for playing the Quena.

Perhaps the best way to learn to play the Quena is to listen closely to the many available recordings, or watch the many music videos showcasing both traditional and popular Andean music. The first video linked to at the opening of this article succinctly summarizes the journey of this special flute out of antiquity and into the 21st century. This video features a talented music group, Gaitan Castro, playing a very old folk song, Adios Pueblo de Ayacucho. Apart from the nice accompaniment of guitars and the traditional charango, the Quena player gives a wonderful, lyrical performance. The singer's lyrics are a combination of Spanish and Quechua and tell a bittersweet story about leaving Huamanga in the Ayacucho region of Peru, with hopes to return one day in better times. Thus, we have here musicians singing in the traditional language and the far more recent Spanish, playing both antique instruments and new ones, recorded with high tech audio and video equipment and distributed across the ultra modern medium of the Internet. Suffice it to say that the Quena has succeeded in securing a place of importance amongst both Native and non-Native musicians in our times.

How Difficult Is It To Play The Quena?
The main challenge facing the beginner is developing the correct mouth position for playing this flute. Place the mouthpiece of the flute against the chin, with the lower lip protruding over the rim of the flute. Form a 'U' with your lips and then blow across the rim. Like the Western Concert flute, it is blowing air across the notch that produces the sound.

 

The basic Quena is capable of producing three different octaves of notes, and this is achieved through the force of air used across the mouthpiece, with stronger blowing producing higher octaves. If you would like to play a lower-toned flute, the Quenacho or Kenacho is of the same general construction, but a fourth lower in pitch than the Quena.

Quena mouth position
 

Demonstration of Quena mouth position
Source: YouTube

When purchasing your Quena, materials may be listed simply as Bamboo, or be designated by the region from which the materials come, such as Alto Beni, Songo or Quime. The colored bands around the tube of the Quena sometimes correspond to the decorative styles of the regions where the flutes are made. Residents of the United States may find it very challenging to connect directly with an Indigenous South American flutemaker. Though many people make these instruments in the Andes, very few have websites. Because of this, most Americans wishing to purchase a Quena will need to buy through a shop vending world instruments. The following chart will introduce you to some of the sources for purchasing your first Quena/Kena.

GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR ANDEAN QUENA
Company Native Made? Flutemaker Price Range Materials Special Features Additional Offerings Additional Notes
Shakuhachi Unknown Various $45 - $110 Bamboo This shop sells world flutes, including several Andean varieties World flutes, accessories Offers a Made-in-South-American Quena.
Visit Site »
Novica Native-made Benito Tito $30 - $50 Bamboo This shop is selling Quenas and other instruments by flutemaker, Benito Tito Other Andean instruments, such as the Charango and Siku. Pretty styling, nice carrying bags..
Visit Site »
Tiendas Latinas Unknown, but has Made in Peru option Various $150 - $350 Songo, Quime, Bamboo This shop sells both Quenas and Quenachos Numerous South American products A well-stocked shop for Andean music enthusiasts
Visit Site »
Bolivian Mall Unknown Various $25 - $45 Various options This shop offers accessories for quenas, as well as instruments Some unusual options in terms of finishes Offers a Quena instruction booklet
Visit Site »
Erik the Flute Maker Non-Native Erik the Flute Maker $45 - $95 Bamboo Decorative carvings available Quena bags and DVDs Located in the United States.
Visit Site »
QUENA FLUTE CONSTRUCTION

Quena Flute Detail

The Quena is of relatively simple construction, and the above diagram illustrates both the front and back of the instrument. The following is a glossary of terms for the parts of the flute.

 

Tube:
This is the body of the Quena, through which air is blown. Traditional Quenas, made of cane or bamboo, are often slightly tapered, though not always.

 

Notch:
This distinctive sharp notch, sometimes called the bisel or muesca is what the flutist blows across. It splits the puff of air before it enters the tube, producing sound.

 

Mouthpiece:
This is blunt, circular and open-ended.

 

Tone Holes:
These holes, generally 6 plus one thumb hole on the back of the instrument, are what the flutist covers or uncovers with his fingers to control the notes of the Quena. On many Quenas, the first three tone holes (toward the mouthpiece) are of the same diameter and distance from one another, while the fourth and six holes are smaller than the fifth, and sometimes not quite equidistant.

 

Distal End:
The end of the flute, which may be slightly narrower than the mouth piece, is sometimes semi-closed, but not always.

 
PROFILE OF TITO LA ROSA, RESPECTED QUENA MAKER AND HEALER

Tito La Rosa Quechua musician, instrument maker, and healer, Tito La Rosa, has devoted the past twenty years of his life to the research, recording and manufacture of ancient Andean instruments. In addition to making historic performances as places like the Museum of The Lord of Sipan in Peru, La Rosa's work has brought him global recognition and invitations to perform internationally.

 

Senor La Rosa promotes healing via the use of ancestral sounds, and many of his beautiful instruments have a history dating back as much as 3000 years. In our research about Senor La Rosa, we see websites referring to him as a curandero de sonidos - a term that might be loosely translated as a shaman who works with sounds. In his practice, La Rosa enacts healing ceremonies wherein he enters parallel worlds to bring forth sounds. These sounds affect the energy of the patient in a manner that is meant to encourage healing.

 

Most recently, he and his son, Dr. Gabriel La Rosa, have been focusing on the Mama Quena, shown below. This large form of the Quena, with its deep, breathy tone, truly transports the listener back to distant times. Modern students of the Quena flute quickly learn that this wind instrument has many different forms, and its many names refer to the instrument's different tones.

 

Mama Quena

 

Native Flutes Walking was honored to be contacted by the La Rosa family about the Mama Quena. Of greatest interest to us has been learning about the spiritual role this instrument is playing in the therapeutic work of Andean healers like Sr. La Rosa. This is very much in keeping with our own beliefs about the power of Indigenous instruments to improve the balance and psychological well-being of the musician or listener. If you would like to listen to some of Tito La Rosa's music, MP3 downloads are available here.

 
THE SPIRITUAL VALUE OF THE ANDEAN QUENA TODAY RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING

There are regions of the Andes so remote, so inaccessible, that any visitor who should reach these small villages is generously welcomed as an honored guest. In crowded North America, it may be hard for us to imagine places so out-of-the-way, or hospitality so instantaneous and inclusive. The staff of NativeFlutesWalking.com finds travelers' accounts of their time spent among Indigenous Andeans particularly meaningful and poignant because the scenarios described are near-mirror images of the way in which most early non-Native visitors were greeted by the original inhabitants of North, Central and South America, centuries ago. It is the undying shame of Americans with European roots that these forebears most frequently repaid Native overtures of friendship with betrayal and violence, and this is a subject modern admirers of Indigenous music must, in fairness, confront.

 

Perhaps you have a collection of Peruvian folk music CDs in your car, and this music carries you back and forth to work every day, brightening your commute. Perhaps you've downloaded some wonderfully energetic Andean tunes on your iPod and they give you the vitality to take your weekly jog. Maybe you've been to a live South American music concert, or even own a Quena, Siku or Charango and have learned to play this special music yourself. Your appreciation of this gift of music can be a bridge between you and the poorly-understood lives of Andean Peoples today. With a little time spent reading on this subject, you will quickly learn that the Indigenous population of South America has faced, and continues to face, hardships nearly identical to those of the Native Americans and First Nations Peoples of the North. These continents have been their land since time beyond recall, and their traditions, customs and beautiful arts have so much to teach the world. If you find you are receptive to the heart-stirring music of the Quena, you can let those feelings grow into genuine, conscious good will towards modern Andean peoples who have survived so many difficulties and are still giving so generously of their music to all who will listen.

 

The Quena encapsulates for us the very best of the people who once lived under Inca rule - people who must have placed tremendous value on beauty to have developed an instrument with such a spiritual sound. In playing your Quena, you can quiet down, slow down and take a good look at what is beautiful in your part of the world. Perhaps you will begin to listen more closely to the songs of birds and try to capture their feeling. Perhaps, like the ancestral Andeans, you will play the Quena to win someone's heart, or to win a friend who wants to play music with you. Indigenous music is powerful music, and once you begin to play it, whole new vistas may begin to open in your life.

Recommended Books and Films on Andean History

  • Music in the Andes: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, Thomas Torino
  • Moving Away from Silence: Music of the Peruvian Altiplano and the Experience of Urban Migration, Thomas Torino
  • 1491, Charles C. Mann
  • On VHS: The Incas: The Wonders of the Inca Civilization, (Odyssey) 1980

Recommended Books on the Andean Quena

  • Kena - Ancient Flute of the Andes, Andrew Taher

Recommended Websites about Native American Music

 
 

The Quena May Be Right For You If...

  • You have Indigenous ancestry
  • You respect and admire Andean culture
  • You have the patience to learn the correct mouth position
  • You want an instrument on which you can improve with practice
  • You enjoy bright, lyrical tones
  • You love Andean folk music
  • You feel you have music inside you waiting to come out
 
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