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Tarka Flute

If you ever encounter an Andean flute that reminds you of a totem pole and sounds as dry and raspy as desert air, chances are, you are looking at a Tarka Flute. Alternatively spelled Tarca, Tharq'a, Taraka, and sometimes called Anata, this powerful and stunningly-beautiful duct flute is believed to have originated in Bolivia. With its gorgeous carvings and unique hexagonal mid-section, the Tarka's chief claim to fame is its central role in the tarqueada dance of the lavishly festive Carnaval celebration in Oruro, Bolivia! This article contains photos, videos, maps, detailed information, a flutemaker comparison chart, and more to increase your understanding and appreciation of the Tarka Flute.

 

Tarka Flute

 

This original illustration depicts a wonderfully carved Tarka Flute, complete with a charming llama - an animal sacred to Indigenous Andeans. Cut from a single block of wood, tarkas typically measure between 20 and 60 centimeters in length. Beautiful enough to be displayed simply as work of art, the Tarka delights flutists with its unique, energetic sound.

Believed to have originated in Bolivia, Tarkas came to be played throughout the Andes in countries like Peru and Chile and have a starring role in the world-famous celebration of Carnaval.

 
 

TARKA PHOTOS

Click Images for Enlarged View

 
Tarka Flute Photo

This photograph depicts the varying sizes of Tarkas commonly made today. These are plainly carved Tarkas, and during festivals, it is not uncommon to see them embellished with brightly-hued strips of fabric. The tarka is typically played in ensembles, creating the music called tarqueada and competitions are held to determine the finest compositions.

Photo Credit: YouTube


Road between Cochabamba and Oruro, Bolivia

The road between Cochabamba and Oruro, Bolivia in a valley of the Andes mountains, home to the fabulous annual Carnaval de Oruro, in which the Tarka Flute plays a crucial role.
Photo Credit: Jim McIntosh

 

TARKA VIDEOS

 

Center for Andean Music and Art video on the Tarka

 

Augustin Portillo, a musician from La Paz plays Tarka

 

Gentleman playing beautiful carved tarka flute

 

Musician creating unique sounds with his tarka flute

HISTORY OF THE TARKA FLUTE

Photo of Andean Potatoes  

When you eat a potato, you are eating Andean food. At least 3000 varieties of potatoes are grown today in the Andes, and this wonderful tuber is closely associated with the Tarka Flute and its historic designation as a musical instrument of the dry season of the agricultural year.

Some people say that the hoarse voice of the Tarka Flute has a warlike sound, but its use in Andean cultures points to war's polar opposite: the settled peace of agriculture. To understand this unique and beautiful wind instrument, you must understand the centrality of the potato in the story of South American civilizations.

 

For at least 10,000 years, the nutritious potato, with its ability to flourish even on near-vertical mountain slopes, has been the treasure and ballast of the Andean diet. Many researchers are amazed to discover that ancestral Andeans not only grew countless varieties of these tubers in tremendous abundance, but they discovered the practice of freeze drying. By exposing the potatoes to an alternating pattern of sunny days and freezing nights, the potatoes would become preserved and ready to be re-constituted with water in stews and other hearty fare. These freeze dried stores were capable of bringing the people through times of poor harvests, keeping the spectre of famine at bay.

The next time you eat a potato, it would be nice to give thanks to the Andean Ancestors, without whom, the potato would never have come to fill the world's food basket the way it has from pole to pole.

 

Potatoes will tolerate nearly all soil types, but there is one factor they cannot survive and that is too much water. Enter the Tarka Flute - utilized by pre-Hispanic Andeans to ward off rain and maintain the aridity of the dry season (June - August). The Tarka had it's opposite in the Pinquillo flute which was used to bring rain when this was needed for other crops. Some scholars assert that the word 'Tarka' has its roots in the Aymara word 'tara', meaning 'hoarse voice' and this certainly describes the dryness of the flute's sound, but a more plausible explanation of this word's etymology is that it is derived from 'tarqo' - the name of a type of wood commonly used in the manufacture of this wind instrument. Whatever the case may be, the inextricable link between the Tarka Flute and dry weather caused early cultures to forbid the playing of it at the wrong time of year. This is a flute with a specific spiritual significance and deep historic roots in Peru and Bolivia that should add value to the experience of anyone who plays it.

Special Notes On the Construction Of The Tarka
Three sizes of Tarka flutes are typically made, and they are meant to be played in concert with one another. The first flute will play a base note, the second will play a fifth above this and the third will play the octave. The flutes are played together in parallel fifths and octaves to make the form of music known as tarqueada. Sometimes much larger related instruments called Tokoros or Tukuruas may be added.

 

The tarka is a duct flute with a whistle-like fipple window that cuts the puff of air, producing sound. It is blown through a very small hole in the mouthpiece element and typically features six front tone holes and no thumb hole.

Photo of Man Playing Tarka
 

Andean boys playing the ensemble Tarka music known as Tarqueada.
Source: La Leyla

Tarkas are traditionally cut from a single, solid block of wood, and the woods most commonly used are tarquo, mara, naranjo or granadilla. Though some Tarka flutes are very simply carved, others feature stunning carvings of llamas, birds, faces, mountains and more. Some are colorfully painted and the distinctive feature that unites all tarkas is the very unique hexagonal shape of the element of the flute where the tone holes are bored. Once you know to look for this unusual form, you will always be able to recognize a tarka when you see one.

THE TARKA FLUTE IN MODERN TIMES
Carnaval de Oruro Photo
 

Participants in the Carnaval of Oruro don splendid costumes for this biggest event of the Andean year.
Source: OVRL

In North America, many modern people from all walks of life have learned from Northern Indigenous traditions to speak with reverence and love of Mother Earth. In the Andes, this ancient tradition is present in the form of Pachamama, the great Earth Mother, central to the cherished spiritual beliefs of agricultural Peoples. When you consider the absolute necessity of food for life, and its dependence on periods of rainfall and aridity, it is not hard to imagine the great relief and joy ancestral Andeans felt when the first flowers appeared on the lush green, leafy bushes of their potato plants.

 

In gratitude, a festival known as Anata would be held in which thanks were given to Pachamama for this sign of life-giving food to come. Songs and dances and the ritual of pouring some of the beverage called chicha to the four cardinal directions would be performed in honor of this happy occasion.

 

Thanks to the endurance of the Indigenous Andeans, this ancient celebration survived the cataclysmic disaster of the 16th century Spanish invasion. It is a near-global phenomenon that wherever Christianity was introduced, the formerly non-Christian religious celebrations were incorporated into the Christian ones.

This is not as odd as it may seem, when one understands that the dates and seasons of Christian holidays are based upon the festivals of older agricultural religions; thus the festivals of Andean peoples were already organized in some ways along similar lines as those of the incoming Spaniards. With the significant exchange of Pachamama for Blessed Mother, the Anata festival continued, and evolved into the colorful event we know today as the Carnaval de Oruro, celebrated with such vivid panache in Oruro, Bolivia.

This largest cultural Bolivian festival takes place forty days before Easter, as a farewell to Roman Catholic Ordinary Time and a gateway into Lent. One of the chief components of the Carnaval (Carnival) is the tarqueada competition. Musicians from each participating community are tasked with the composition of a brand new song for the event and they are supposed to draw inspiration from the natural world. The Tarka flute ensembles are accompanied by percussion and are judged on their originality, musicianship, volume and the length of time they spend performing in the public plazas. A parade of some 40,000 musicians and dancers and the performance of cultural and religious plays climax the grand Carnaval.

Map of Oruro, Bolivia
 

Map of Oruro, Bolivia, where the annual Carnaval festival features Tarka flute music competitions.

It is important to add here that, while many South Americans have incorporated Christian teachings into their world view, Pachamama's connection to the Tarka Flute and the Indigenous People has definitely not been forgotten. Many Andean peoples have managed to incorporate these side-by-side Christian and Indigenous religious elements into a single system with which they feel comfortable. Visitors to Oruro are very lucky that the strength of Andean Peoples' has kept traditions like the Tarka alive.

 

The Tarka Flute does not deliver the mellow tone of the Plains Flute, the deep resonance of the Anasazi Flute nor the lyrical lilt of the Quena Flute, but its raw, honest and powerful sound comes from the gut and tells its own story of the human condition. As a work of art, it is unsurpassed in its creative craftsmanship, worthy of being displayed at the center of your flute collection.

 

Tarka flutes are generally inexpensive to purchase - frankly, at Native Flutes Walking we feel they may be under-priced considering the exceptional hand carving and painting many of them feature. North American flute shoppers may have difficulty connecting one-on-one with an Indigenous Tarka flute maker. Though there are many of these crafts people in Bolivia, few of them have websites. In lieu of this, your best bet is to go through an importer and this chart will introduce you to some fine resources for purchasing your first Tarka flute!

GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR TARKA FLUTE
Company Native Made? Flutemaker Price Range Materials Special Features Additional Offerings Additional Notes
Bolivia Mall Unknown but Made in South America Various $12 - $60 Wood Individual Tarka flutes as well as sets of all sizes of the these flutes Numerous Andean Instruments This shop offers a great selection of tarkas, from the simplest to beautifully carved ones.
Visit Site »
Bolivian Llama Flutes Unknown but made in Bolivia Various $12.50 Wood Offering one hand painted and hand carved Tarka flute This shop specializes in llama-themed gifts Nice little llama carving at the end of the flute.
Visit Site »
The Latin Store Unknown Various $15 Wood This Australian company offers a colorful painted Tarka flute Many Andean arts and crafts for sale A good place for Australian flutists to buy a Tarka.
Visit Site »
African Treasures Unknown but Made in Bolivia Various $8 - $12 Wood Handpainted Tarka flutes in 2 sizes Though this store specializes in African instruments, it's nice to see they include other types of flutes, too A very reasonable price to get your hands on a Tarka of your own.
Visit Site »
THE SPIRITUAL VALUE OF THE TARKA FLUTE TODAY RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING

In addition to its importance to a celebration as big and vibrant as Carnaval, the Tarka Flute has also traditionally been played solo by Andean shepherds, out in the lonely places of the mountains and valleys, to add color to quiet days. The historic meaning of the Tarka as a festival instrument and a solo one has a common bond and this is a deeply-felt connection to the Earth and its cycles. The ancient farmers of the Andes deserve to be recognized as the best the world has ever known - their crops of maize, beans, potatoes, squashes, peppers and more becoming foods that now feed the whole world - and no one better understands the rhythms of life than expert farmers.

 

While the Tarka has maintained its original spiritual significance amongst Andean Peoples for centuries, Native Flutes Walking feels that this flute has something special to offer beyond the borders of countries like Bolivia, Peru and Chile. In North America, with a changed economy facilitating a new spirit of inquiry and reflection into how to live well without so many of the material trappings of capitalism, many people are beginning to look away from man-made cities and toward the land for help and security. Lawns are being ploughed under to plant food gardens and a growing homesteading movement is making farms more desirable than urban abodes to many. With every passing year, these new generations of farmers will begin to cycle backwards to the lost understanding of seasons, weather and soil that was the common knowledge of their ancestors. No matter what your roots, chances are, you come from a tradition of farming people at some point in your family's history and the Earth is still ready to teach you the skills you need to turn seeds into abundant good eating for yourself and your loved ones.

 

We would speculate that this trend towards reclaiming agrarian knowledge may re-awaken the spiritual senses that go hand in hand with the rhythm of tending soil, sowing seeds, tending plants, harvesting and a time of rest. Perhaps new ceremonies may even arise amongst families for blessings on their work and thanksgiving for the harvest. For many Americans, the charming veneer of 'progress' is wearing thin as we continue to be subjected to corruption within government and commerce and we are looking elsewhere for experiences that affirm the dignity of honest work and the goodness of life. In developing our own customs and rituals, music can play a rich and important role, lending beauty to our toil and festivity to our successes.

 

What better flute than the Tarka to add a note of raw manpower to our environment as we are about to break sod or weed the cornfield? Farming is hard work and getting into the right mind set so that it isn't just grunt work but a series of positive and life-affirming tasks makes a big difference in your feelings about your life story.

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 Tarka

Recommended Websites about Native American Music

 
 

The Tarka May Be Right For You If...

  • You have Indigenous ancestry
  • You respect and admire Andean cultures
  • You want to add a really different sound to your flute collection
  • You want an instrument on which you can improve with practice
  • You enjoy powerful, unusual tones
  • You love Andean folk music
  • You feel you have music inside you waiting to come out

Imagine a country neighborhood in which you know your nearest neighbor's potatoes have begun to flower because you have heard his flute music. Of course, you'd run right outside to see if those white and lavender blossoms have opened up on your own plants, and play your flute in return when you see them. In this call and response of agricultural music, community could be formed in ways that are currently absent in industrial lands. Music is powerful, and your Tarka may hold hidden potentials to empower you, empower your community and heal the Earth.

 
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Native Flutes Walking wishes you joy through music, and a good journey along the Native flute path.