Nayo Ulloa: Kena virtuoso, composer, and Andean music scholar

To let people know more about the music of the Andes and Peru—that is my big goal. Part of my academic training has to do with that. . . . There was kind of a revival of Andean music that began in the 60s-70s and lasted until about the 90s. Now it has kind of fizzled out. I lived right through that moment and am kind of a product of it. . . . When I go back to Peru the people are not there [who are playing Andean music]. They are my age or older. The younger generation is not doing it. It is kind of lost. So I want to leave documentation through recordings and writing.

-Nayo Ulloa

Where in Peru did you grow up? What was your early musical training and what and who influenced you musically in your youth?

I grew up in Peru, in Comas. I was born in Northern Peru—Trujillo—and my parents moved to Lima—Comas is a district of Lima—when I was about four years old. So, all of my memories of growing up are of Comas, not of Trujillo. I was born there, but I have no memories of it at all. Comas was an area that people moved to and started taking over. This [type of phenomena of taking over an area of land] is very common in Latin America, but I do not see it here. Because they do not have developments that are as organized, people move from the north, south, or from the Andes. Most people go to Lima and in that process, since there are no places that are organized—just some abandoned areas—they start taking over and building up communities. Comas was the big thing at that time. It was a large, large area, but it was completely undeveloped. It was nothing—nothing. It was just dusty hills with absolutely nothing. No water, no sewer—nothing. So I grew up in Comas. Actually, there was no running water or plumbing until I was about 12 years old. It was a big development. Because it was big, it kept growing and growing and growing. When we got there it was at the very beginning of this invasión [the taking over of the land] as they call it . . . When I was about 12 years old the government started developing the area. Everyone participated in doing the digging, putting in water, and all of that. I remember a big celebration. I was about 12 or 13 the first time lights and water went on. But interestingly enough, when I think back I only remember fun times. I had no idea that we were living in such poor conditions—truly. We played a lot. There was no television or refrigerators—nothing, so you do not know any better. You have no idea. You make the best of it.

I always liked music, but the first time I saw somebody perform live was when they were doing some work making roads or something. I was about seven or eight. My father bought me a guitar because I liked music . . . but I did not know what to do with it. It was hanging—I remember that I had it hanging from the ceiling. I would just pluck at it, but did not know what to do. And then one day one of the workers in the streets was doing some roadwork. I was with my guitar just playing with it. He could see that I did not know how to play it or tune it well. He played it—he played very well. I was very impressed with his performance. That was the first time that I saw somebody play live guitar. Besides that I had seen drummers playing. The tamale vendors in Peru, most of them are African-Peruvian, go along playing the drums, dancing, and selling tamales. So when you hear some conga drums and dancing, you know there is a tamale vendor coming by . . .

From a very young age, I wanted to learn more about music. My father found me a guitar teacher when I was about 12 years old and I studied that for about three or four years with him. He was very good and was a classically trained guitarist. So, I had that when I was about 12 or 13. Then in school, that was the first time I began playing the kena. I was about 13. Again, this was a poor area of Peru—very poor—so you did not have any of the Western European instruments. They were way beyond our financial means, but they had kenas. The instructor who was teaching the kena developed a way to make them out of PVC pipes. He got hundreds made for the school, so that was the first time that I started playing the kena. For some reason I started playing it and just had a great ability for it. This first teacher that I had—he is still alive—his name is Freddy Flores. He was my very first musical teacher in high school.

The other major influence in my musical life and it continues even now is Jaime—Jaime Diaz Orihuela. He was my mentor. I met him when I was about 16. I was playing in the streets to get some money. That actually was very good for me—I practiced. I did that through my college years in Peru. I would go to school and then go play music. I met Jaime in the streets. He is a very accomplished musician—one of the best Peruvian musicians. At that time, he was the director of the National Symphony. I knew his name, but I did not know him personally. When I met him in the streets he did not tell me who he was. He just told me that I played well and he asked me if I could read music and I said, “Very poorly.” He said, “You play very well so you should learn how to read music.” At that time, I did not pay much attention. I thought, “Well, I can play.” I was very young and could not see much value in it. Jaime gave me his first name and his phone number. Interestingly enough, just a few months later the opportunity came for me to accompany some dancers, but they had everything written down in music. They ran into me in the streets and said, “Can you read music?” And I said, “Yes!” I could read very slowly. So, I went to see Jaime. He became my mentor. That was a very powerful moment and I will never forget it. His wall was full of awards and diplomas and pictures of the symphony. I could not play I was so nervous. He is 84 now. I talk with him—he is still my mentor. His music is beautiful. One of my goals is to really let people know about his music. He has about 40 songs and he wrote a concerto especially for me that I have performed in Peru. He is the most influential musician in my life. He is one of those nationalistic composers. He composes classical music, but with a national, Peruvian, South American flavor to it.

When did you come to California? Was it your musical career that brought you here?

I came to California in 1982. At that time I was going to college in Peru. I was studying language and literature. I wanted to study music actually, but there was no music in college. They just began offering it a few years ago. There was no musical training possible except for going to the conservatory, which was extremely exclusive. It was prohibited for my family—there was no way that I could get in. They had no programs with grants, you had to pay. Some academies were very expensive. So music education in college exists now, but it did not exist in my time. I studied literature. To support myself through college I would play music. I would play in the streets. Also when I came to college, Andean music became very popular for tourists, so there were a lot of clubs started called peñas. I played in those just about every night, Wednesday through Saturday. In one of those peñas I met three American women doing a tour doing a tour of Peru and Bolivia learning more about Andean music. One of them was doing a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology at Berkeley. I met them and they brought me here mostly with the assistance of the ethnomusicologist.

So that is why I came, I was brought here and taught music at different places. I played a lot. Andean music was very popular at that time, so up to three to five years of my life I did nothing but travel . . . performing concerts all over the United States.

[Originally,] I had no intention to come here. I wanted to go to Europe. A lot of people were going to France . . . In Latin America you do not see the best part of the United States. You really do not see it—you see only the ugly side. When you live here you see that there is a lot of good. But in Latin America sometimes you do not see that good part. You see the companies coming exploiting the villagers—you only see the bully.

Where do the types of flute that you play originate from and what are their basic characteristics?

One of flutes is called a kena. It is a pre-Columbian flute. The kena and pan flutes that have been found go back to about 200-300 A.D. Those are the oldest that have been found at archaeological sites. It [the kena] is an instrument that has been around for a long, long time—not exactly the way that it is now. The instruments that have been found have two, three, and four tones—up to five tones, rarely more than that. This instrument that I am playing has seven tones, so it has a European scale. It definitely has a European influence—not the instrument, but the scale that we use.

In the project [composing the music for the film Mi Chacra] that I just did I purposely stayed away from that [European] scale. I used mostly pentatonic (five tones), and sometimes less—four-note or three-note scales—which seemed to be more common at that [pre-Columbian] time. Nobody knows because the music was not recorded or notated, but the instruments say that they were using about three or four tones. A lot of the Andean music that you hear even now, when you get deeper into areas where people have not had contact with the rest of the world, tends to be kind of like that too. [It is] simpler, but the rhythm is nice and complex.

Kenas are in all of the Andean areas: Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. That is the area of most of the indigenous cultures. Actually, older than the Incas were the Aymaras and another group, the Quitos. Because the Incas were the power of the time, we tend to say “Incan” music. They kind of get the glory of it. The Incas were a little bit like the Romans in Europe. They were the dominant culture for about 300 years, but they were not necessarily the creators of the art and music. A lot of it comes from the Aymaras actually—and Quitos too. The Incas, like the Romans, conquered a lot of people and left them alone to do their own thing. They encouraged people to preserve their own cultures, so they kept them happy. They just collected taxes and tribute. The Incas were more like warriors, organizers, and politicians. They improved the religion and language. They did not do as much musically. As far as we can go back, they had music but it seemed to be more like hymns, rituals, and dances. Some of the more romantic music comes from the Aymaras, from Bolivia around the Titicaca Lake. But, the kena was common to all of those areas around the lake. The Aymara played the kena as well, but mostly they played the sikus (pan flute). That is the instrument even now that the Aymara are extremely good at. They play the music in big troupes and dance around.

The kena was kind of an unaccompanied instrument. One of the reasons why I am doing this project is that a lot of the surviving documents that were mostly done by the Spaniards—the colonialists (they have drawings of the culture that are the closest that you can get to what it was like)—depict people playing the kena usually by themselves or maybe with a little drum next to them. You do not see ensembles of kenas and definitely not string instruments—they did not exist—just percussion and kenas.

What is your overall vision or mission for your musical work?

To let people know more about the music of the Andes and Peru—that is my big goal. Part of my academic training has to do with that. I want to communicate some of that knowledge by writing books and articles about the music. Even though I knew quite a bit before [going to graduate school] now I have the academic tools. I am learning through history that this moment will never repeat itself. My experience is unique and will never repeat. There was kind of a revival of Andean music that began in the 60s-70s and lasted until about the 90s. Now it has kind of fizzled out. I lived right through that moment and am kind of a product of it. If I had been born 10 years before or even 10 years later I would have missed it. When I go back to Peru the people are not there [who are playing Andean music]. They are my age or older. The younger generation is not doing it. It is kind of lost. So I want to leave documentation through recordings and writing. That is my big goal in terms of Peru.

One of my other goals is just to encourage people to play and listen to music—children and adults.

What is your experience as a musician in San Jose?

San Jose is big, of course. There are opportunities, you just have to look for and find the right places. For musicians like me who do not play commercial music there is a small area [of opportunity]. There are people who are interested it is just that it is a smaller group. In some ways it is better because they are a little more focused and a little more loyal when they find you. The opportunities are there to be created. They are not calling you necessarily, but you can create a lot of opportunities.

In terms of major advertising [or publicity] in the newspapers, that does not happen often. You have to do something big and dramatic, like presenting the music for this documentary because it is news. They want something dramatic. When I first came to the United States I got a lot of attention. One of the “best kena players in the world” showing up—people liked that. Some people will say “he is the best” and I get more attention. Honestly, I do not like that publicity as much because I play, but I am the product of what other people have created over hundreds of years. I do not like that accolade as much. I just play an instrument that has been around for 1000 years and a lot of the music that I play has been created by anonymous people, not by me, but there seems to be a fascination with individual accomplishment. It may be universal, but in the United States it is probably more so than in other societies. You want to see who the best is—the second best, who cares? You almost have to inflate yourself; you have to create an aura.

The opportunities are there to be created, but they are not knocking on the door for us. The internet has helped a lot—even with sales. A lot of my record sales are digital sales. It is not a lot of money, but every month I receive some money from digital sales. Interestingly enough, on the first CD that I did the songs that sell the most are the quiet ones. There are three quiet ones on the entire album and those sell the most. So this new album [of the music from Mi Chacra] may sell well [laughs].

Are there many other Peruvian musicians or other people who play and study Peruvian music here in California?

There are many, many Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadorians—many, many people. But it is a tradition that you learn by ear—very few have academic training. For the ones who came from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador the opportunities are not there [to study music]. Most of them would like to study I am sure. It is a tradition that until lately in the last 15 to 20 years was just considered a folk art, there was no training. Even now, there is very little training. But there are many players that play very well and that are very accomplished. The thing about academic training is to be able to expand. Without the training you get to a point where you are kind of just going in circles. You need to see something else, to look in other places.

So there are many, many musicians and also other styles. For kena itself, there are a lot of players. But the market has diminished—most of it has to do with finance because the government does not have a lot of money. There used to be a lot of grants when I first came in the 80s. Grants from [the State of] California for what they would call artist-in-residence programs. They would pay you; they would match the fees. I had that for a few years. Now that is gone. And with money being tight, people do not want to spend money on entertainment.

There are a lot of players worldwide. I see fewer and fewer younger people. When you have been playing for a while you need training. For as much ability as you may have you need guidance and training. I am lucky that I met some great musicians who pushed me and opened my eyes at a younger age. Some people do not have that.

Nayo Ulloa’s Web site,, contains samples of his music and information about a scholarship foundation that he and his family established for primary- and secondary-school students in Comas.

He is working on releasing the music for Mi Chacra,, in the coming year.

Interview Details: August 30, 2009. San Jose, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Images courtesy Nayo Ulloa.

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