Keeping alive the culture of Ecuador’s indigenous Cañari [video]

Singing and marching through town at the annual Carnaval festival in the southern highlands of Ecuador, the indigenous Cañari are determined to sustain a way of life some fear is disappearing.

They sing in a mix of Quechua and Spanish, since the original Cañari language was lost when their ancestors were first conquered by the Inca and later subjected to Spanish colonial rule.

Two brightly dressed women in hats holding flowers and guinea pigs (© Judy Blankenship/Archivo Cultural de Cañar)
Cañari “madrinas” (godmothers) of the Fiesta de Pawkar Raymi hold flowers and guinea pigs, a traditional source of protein for Andean peoples and symbol of abundance. (© Judy Blankenship/Archivo Cultural de Cañar)

While young and old join the colorful festival processions, elders worry that the old songs about the hardship of labor on haciendas and struggles of subsistence farming don’t speak to younger generations as they once did.

Fulbright scholars are trying to help the Cañari keep their traditions alive.

Judy Blankenship, a documentary photographer from Oregon and three-time Fulbright scholar who lives half the year in the Ecuadorian province of Cañar, has written two books about her experiences. She’s creating a digital photo archive and website on Cañari culture.

Two years ago Blankenship put out a call for an ethnomusicologist to help capture the music of the Cañari, many of them living in small hamlets across the mountainous countryside. Allison Adrian, a professor at St. Catherine University, a women’s college in St. Paul, Minnesota, fit the bill perfectly.

Two people in elaborate headdress playing music on hillside (© Judy Blankenship/Archivo Cultural de Cañar)
Two drum-beating “Taita Carnavales” (© Judy Blankenship/Archivo Cultural de Cañar)

Adrian, who describes ethnomusicology as a “mashup” of anthropology and the study of music, secured a Fulbright grant to film Cañari festivals and interview 60 musicians and indigenous leaders.

She encountered initial reticence and skepticism, but an agreement with indigenous leaders at Instituto Quilloac, a bilingual school in Cañar, to share ownership of her work and archive the recordings helped open doors.

“They’re proud. They want to share their traditions,” says Adrian, who is making educational videos.

While tourist videos of Cañari festivals can be found on YouTube, Blankenship says, there’s nothing as well documented and organized as the growing digital archive.

While some “lalays” (songs) tell of hardships, “we’re also happy,” musician Santiago Guaman told Adrian. Occupiers “wanted to extinguish us, but we, the indigenous people, continue to live. … We are now recovering our history and culture.”

Learn more about the Fulbright program, which supports research and teaching abroad by hundreds of American scholars each year and brings hundreds of scholars from other countries to study and teach on U.S. campuses.