Groups leader adds touch of theater to sound of
the Andes. Sukay, purveyor of high energy music of the Andes, has traveled the globe
spreading its traditional Bolivian panpipe melodies. Still, founder and lead vocalist
Quentin Howard remembers Idaho well. "The first time we played in Boise was in
84," she says. "Its funny, because you come from New York from one
end of the country to the other, and you think Boise, wow, do you think the people
will like the music we play? "And that night, the people gave us a standing
ovation during the first intermission. I said to the guys, "This is one of the
warmest audiences weve ever had. It was wonderful." Sure, Quentin. Nice
try. "No, no, no," she insists, then adds a story too bizarre to be fiction:
"We played in Idaho Falls, too, and there was square dance. A square dance and then
Sukay in the community center, with all those beautiful quilts. The costumes of the women
were competitive to ours. They were great. We felt right at home."
Adaptation has always been a key to Sukays success. A native of Brooklyn, Howard
first stumbled upon Andean music at a folk festival. She was dazzled by the art form,
learned to play the kena (a notched flute), and took it upon herself to share the
beautiful music with her own country. She formed Sukay in 1978. The groups initial
performances were much like a showcase of ethnomusicologists. But as Howards
knowledge and abilities grew, so did her aspirations. While Sukays early work seldom
left the confines of traditional South American music, the group now blends multitudes of
instrumentseven bongos and electric mandolinwith traditional Bolivian song.
Much credit, Howard says, goes to Eddy Navia, a neo-folk musician who joined in 1989
after releasing three gold albums in Bolivia with his previous group, Savia Andina. As
Sukays new artistic director, Navia brought sweeping musical and composing skills.
He also brought his 15 year old son, Gabriel, who plays the charangoa 10 string,
guitar like instrument made from the shell of an armadillo.
Sukays tremendous success in both North and South America has opened many doors.
A few, Howard says, may have been better off left closed. "Its a funny
challenge we have now," she says. "What I see in the citiesand not in
Boise, because you dont have groups on street cornersbut after being so
spoiled and the only Andean group in a decade, we saw this influx of Andean groups in
cities, usually pirating material and bringing the Andean music down from a constant level
to a level thats almost mediocre. So that challenged us. How do you face that?"
Sukays answer has been to form a second multimedia group, Pachamama (which means
"Mother Earth"). The group, which performed for the first time at the end of
last year, combines music, dance, symphony and singers into a spiritual event. Much of the
theatrical performance focusses on legends of Andean culture. "The Pachamama is a
very sacred concept in the Andes because unlike people here, where we feel we have to
conquer nature and conquer the elements, people really honestly feel that the earth is the
mother and they do everything while feeling her energy," Howard says. "...People
only use wooden tools so they wont scar the Mother Earth." Howard hopes to take
Pachamama on tour soon, but that could be a challenge; this is Sukays first West
Coast tour in three years.