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Indian World Blends Into Santa Monica : A group of Ecuadorean street musicians travels from country to country to share their culture

<i> Kathleen Kelleher is a frequent contributor to The Times</i>

Six men with waist-length black hair woven into single braids down their backs stand beneath a twilight sky, peaches and lavenders tinting the underside of clouds. Some wear fedoras or Panama hats that hide darkly handsome, chiseled features; the others sweep stray hairs from their eyes. They huddle, pick up unusually shaped instruments and the music begins. What rises is lyrical, dreamy, haunting--like the rise and fall of a wind’s howl as it whips through labyrinthine canyons.

A crowd of about 80 gathers in front of them on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, where artistic anarchy is on the rise but still eons behind the human carnival that is the Venice boardwalk. The men shuffle into a circle, taking up a simple two-step dance to the music’s cross-rhythm. A 2-year-old boy dances freestyle to the mesmerizing beat; a neo-flower child goes into a kinetic, mad dance, and a middle-aged couple pause to do a salsa-esque swish.

The band is Runa Pacha, or Indian World. It consists of Imbaya Indian musicians from Ecuador who are traveling the world playing traditional Ecuadorean, Peruvian and Bolivian folk music. It is the world that is their stage; they are most at home playing under the sky before thousands of passersby in places such as Amsterdam, Paris, Spain, Belgium, New York, Washington and, now, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

“We first went to the East Coast last year, then we decided to come to the West Coast because it started getting pretty cold there,” Cesar Morales says later over coffee at Congo Square, where a waitress recognizes him as “the one who plays the flutes,” swoons, then implores him to play at the suave cafe. “We feel better playing outside on the streets than playing clubs. We have a lot of opportunities to play in clubs and coffeehouses like you just heard. But we’d rather play outside, in front of the crowds of Venice or on the promenade.”

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Playing at festivals, outdoor venues on the Westside and on State Street in Santa Barbara, the six or seven men who make up Runa Pacha have been making enough money to support themselves and their travels since October, both through the pocket change listeners toss into an open guitar case and through the sale of their tapes. Exactly how much is a “professional secret,” Morales says.

A local filmmaker is using their music in a documentary about the Venice Family Clinic and the crisis of national health care. And although Runa Pacha performed at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in 1988, the musicians consistently decline invitations to perform in clubs such as At My Place, Miami Spice and various coffeehouses, preferring the street as stage. Big in Europe, the musicians--who play a repertoire of 35 traditional songs--have dual goals here: to make inroads into Los Angeles and to enculturate Los Angelenos to Ecuadorean music.

“At first we thought we would go country by country to get to know what each one looked like,” says Morales, who learned to play quenas, quenillas, samponas, rondadors and tablas cicus--traditional Ecuadorean flutes and panpipes made of bamboo and oak--when he was 12. “Then we realized that the music we were playing was really like trying to show the world our traditions, our customs and art down in South America, especially in Ecuador.”

Fedora pulled over his eyes, Fabian Chalampuente Morales, who plays the charango, a 10-string instrument made from an armadillo shell, agrees: “That’s our goal. To let the people know us and our way of life.”

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“Somos Indios. Indios seremos . Indios moriremos. We are Indians. Indians we’ll always be. Indians we will die,” adds Jose Muenala, who stands up from a table at Congo Square, swishes his hips to piped-in lambada music, laughs and then sits back down. This is a coffee break for the musicians and, despite a serious discourse on music, comedic posturing is in order.

After seeing them play at Los Angeles’ Olvera Street in 1988, Los Angeles Festival curator Judy Mitoma invited members of Runa Pacha to perform at the festival last year but they were unable to make it because of visa problems. Those problems eventually were worked out and the group traveled here in October after touring the East Coast and San Francisco.

Mitoma, chairwoman of the World Arts and Culture Office at UCLA, says: “The reason I was interested in them is because of the kind of music making they’re doing, bringing it to the people on the street. Their originality and musicianship is astonishing. They’re a particularly entrepreneurial group, extremely independent.

“These guys are smart enough to know that the money they make is not on the pennies and loose change but on the cassettes and CDs they sell. It’s all very straightforward, no-pressure thing. If you want it, you buy it--if you don’t, you don’t.”

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And ethnomusicologists and arts curators say that although South American music in Europe has become stratospherically popular, it is only slowly on the rise here.

Attesting to that was the presence of two new South American bands performing a couple of storefronts down from Runa Pacha on the promenade a few weeks ago.

Dolf Geldolf, a musical engineer in the Netherlands who recorded Runa Pacha’s compact disc, “ Quechua Marka ,” or “Music of the Quechua,” says: “There’s a lot of those types of musicians here now. They sell their CDs and tapes on the streets. I think they are very good and there are an awful lot of them here. I think they are the best though. Their CD sells quite nicely in Holland.”

One of the more unusual aspects of the group is that it comprises a variety of rotating musicians, allowing performers to travel back to Ecuador to satisfy visa requirements. Even more astounding is that despite the interchangeability of musicians, the fluidity and the integrity of the music is never betrayed, Mitoma says.

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“They maintain their own orchestration and instrumentation of the music, but they incorporate new melodies into their music, melodies that feel comfortable to their own Indian selves,” she says. “Those instruments are very difficult to play, especially at high altitudes” because of the greater difficulty of breathing there.

Otavalo, the musicians’ hometown, has an elevation of about 8,000 feet and is nestled among the looming snowcapped peaks of the Andes mountains 40 miles from the Ecuadorean capital, Quito. The cultural arts center of Ecuador, Otavalo is most renowned for its weavers, some of whom are among the most prominent craftsmen of Latin America. Cesar Morales and the other musicians, who range from 17 to 25 years old, speak Spanish; Quechua, a language introduced by the Incas, and some English. The majority of the songs are sung in Quechua, a few in Spanish.

“It is a tradition in Ecuador to start playing the flute really young,” says Morales, whose good looks and braided hair draw many a female eye. “Because there are lot of instruments from Otavalo, a lot of young men really get into the traditions and then get out of Ecuador to Europe when they are like 16 or 17. We play all music traditional to Otavalo and Ecuador--some of the songs are the traditional rhythm like sanjuanito , the traditional rhythm of our town. These songs were played in ceremonies and Indian festivals, and that’s how we started with our first tape with all these kinds of songs. There are more native and traditional songs we are trying to put on a CD now.”

Steve Loza, an expert on Latin American music and UCLA ethnomusicologist, says: “Andean music has an almost hypnotizing effect that people radar into. There’s actually a lot of rhythms like the sanjuanito "--which derives its name from Ecuador’s patron saint, John the Baptist--"a three-four beat played simultaneously with a six-eight beat rhythm. These are very provincial songs and dance music from regions in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and parts of Chile.

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“There’s a number of variations of the rhythm, but they’re all generically the same. It’s played in a cross-rhythm very characteristic of folk music in Latin America. However, in the Andean region, it became very Indian-ized.”

The Quechua-speaking Indians “really transformed this kind of music. Some people call it melancholy or sad music, but that is a very Western interpretation. The vocal style is an adaptation to the high altitude of the Andes. It’s a very unique kind of music that is part of their everyday life.”

Ecuadorean groups “are really fantastic. This group is bringing their musical style here because there is a market here for it,” but as time goes by, it changes as it becomes more commercial, he says.

That is something that the members of Runa Pacha deny will ever happen. Full of cultural pride, Morales and the other musicians maintain the Otavalo tradition of wearing a long single braid, fedoras or Panama hats; in colder climates, they also wear dark-blue wool ponchos. Their music, of course, is a deeper point of pride--Runa Pacha will not compromise the traditional integrity or professional expertise of their music, Morales says.

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It’s nearing midnight this now cold Saturday on the promenade. It has been busy. The crowds have been big and generous. The musicians of Runa Pacha are weary, their legs tired from dancing, their fingers cramped from playing for nearly four hours. Back into the cases go a charango, a 10-string diablo, a mandolin, a guitar, a drum, two tablas cicus’, a quena, quenillas, rondadors and a sampona. The men talk among themselves, turn and walk to their Ford Aerostar van. They pile into the charcoal-gray vehicle, break into soft laughter and drive off into the early morning stillness.


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