Writing an article about the history of this generous instrument would be extremely redundant, considering the times we live in: There’s plenty of accurate information offered by professional musicologists and ethnologists on the Internet. That’s why—as a sort of introduction—I’ve decided to tell my own story with the quena, and share how I’ve got to know this instrument.
Sixteen years ago, I started this endless journey called music, visiting the most diverse instruments on the way—guitar, double bass, piano, drums—and choosing the electric bass as the main one. I could go back to the day I would never forget, seven years ago, when almost by chance a first quena fell on my hands. I was already playing jazz mostly and several Latin genres on the other instruments, but not Andean folk music. I was definitely surprised when I managed to get my first sounds out of that borrowed pipe. The connection I felt between my breathing and the music was magic. Since that day, my hands have touched more than 40 quenas, and I’ve been practicing unceasingly. Despite being the simplest instrument I’ve come across, its possibilities were—and still are—unlimited, and that’s what struck me the most. I am yet to discover a whole universe. Its portability has astonished me. “It’s a stick with holes in it,” used to be—and still is—my most repeated phrase. Wherever I was—a bus stop, train, subway, or even while walking down the street—I would grab my quena and start practicing. I became “the quena fanatic.”
It was extremely difficult to find THE right method to play it, something that doesn’t happen with Western instruments, which have centuries-old studies and techniques. Although it came before them all, the quena lacks a clear main school—it could be said that Raymond Thevenot’s is the only one. Each instrumentalist has his or her own technique—not only for the fingering, but also to produce the sound. That’s why I’ve come to develop my own personal technique, which I’ll share and describe in subsequent articles. Almost since my very first practice, when trying to play melodies I had already learned on the other instruments, or when playing different scales in improvisation—added to my lack of knowledge about the existence of the differently-pitched quenas—I approached the instrument as if it were chromatic, i.e., playing the 12 semitones established by the Western equal temperament system. I looked for different horquillados (alternative or indirect fingering methods), but I wasn’t able to meet my needs due to the “tuning” problems they create—a rather artificial, Western, and relative notion, but still the one I’ve learned, and which characterizes most of the music we’ve been listening to for more than 400 years. I’ve always chosen the “half-hole” (half-covered hole), which despite being more difficult to do, ensures the correct tuning of the notes that “aren’t on the quena.” Besides, given the instrument’s handcrafted joint, no matter how well it’s built, no two quenas are alike, and the same goes for the luthiers who make them. The “half-hole” ensures correct tuning on all instruments. The third octave was a one-way trip. For several years, I’ve been part of the wind section of a Cumbia orchestra called La Cresta de la Olga, where I played the part of the piccolo—the flute’s highest-pitched relative, whose register is a perfect fourth higher than the traditional quena—and I had to refine my skills on the third octave, and even the fourth octave.
I must clarify that there was a key moment on this path which happened about five years ago, when I met luthier Ángel Sampedro del Río, through electric bass luthier Daniel Fernández—who, upon learning about mi incursion, gave me a beautiful B-flat quena as a present. There I discovered a range of quenas I had never seen before—with superior quality sound, tuning, and finish—and which inspired me to intensify practice even more. Currently, I have around 15 quenas built by him.
I still have a whole life to follow this irreverent path, trying to play new music on the quena.
Until the next article! or You can take online Quena Lessons with me.
Ángel Sampedro (flute maker)
Daniel Fernández (bass maker)
Photography: Manu Mora