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Folk Music Radio in Lima, Peru

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the January, 1991 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.

Hola amigos! Welcome to a "special edition" of Latin Destinations! If you've read John Bryant's and my 'DX and the Library' article in 1990 Proceedings, you'll know that there are a lot of interesting books out there by broadcasting professionals. One of my favorites is a Spanish book, Radio Y Comunicacion Popular en el Peru, edited by Eduardo Ballon. Published by a social-agency branch of the Peruvian Catholic Church (with financial aid from Dutch Catholics), this book looks into the background of Peruvian radio, its role in Peruvian culture, and at the history of some specific Catholic radio stations in Peru. If this book were only in English, I bet the SW book vendors like Tiare and Universal would make a mint off it, hi! In this column we're going to dive into an article by Jose Antonio Llorens and Reynaldo Tamayo on folk music radio programs in Lima, which I will condense, paraphrase, and loosely translate, as well as work in a few of my own thoughts.

Listening to international folk music is one of the priviledges of being a shortwave hobbyist, and most hobbyists who have heard it would agree that Peruvian folk music is some of the best. But has anyone ever stopped to realize that what we hear is local radio stations playing local folk music to local listeners? If that doesn't seem odd, think of how many of your local radio stations play American folk music. Except for a few weekend spots on public radio stations, American folk music has disappeared from the airwaves and sadly been relegated to a very small minority status in the U.S. music industry. Modern influences, including modern music, from the city have replaced our folk music heritage.

Peru, however, is a very interesting contrast. Not only is folk music alive and well in the Andes Mountains, where it has its roots, but Peruvian folk music has invaded cosmopolitan Lima and become a significant force in the Lima radio scene. It would be sort of like if West Virginia dulcimer music took a big chunk of the New York City radio market. Llorens and Tamayo's article tells how this came about, thanks to the inspiration of one man forty years ago.

Peru is composed of two major ethno-geographic regions. The Sierra , or Andes mountains, run down the middle of the country, and are home to several million Indians. These people are descendents of the ancient Incas, and still speak the Quechua language and follow many of the same customs that their ancestors have for hundreds of years. The second region is the narrow coastal desert plain along the Pacific ocean. Except for a few oasises where irrigation has caused the desert to bloom, this is one of the driest most inhospitable regions on earth. The Indians had little interest in living there, but when Spain conquered Peru, the conquistadores promptly built their capital, present-day Lima, along the coast. Other Spanish cities were founded up and down the coast, and Peru's coastal desert, focusing on Lima, became one of the strongest centers of creole Spanish culture in the New World, and remained so well after independence.

After World War II, a large migration from the Sierra into Lima began. The migrants were principally peasants and small landowners looking for work in the city's expanding economy. Once in Lima, many of these people formed a subclass of street vendors, cheap domestic help, artesans, and lower-end service workers. They clustered together in marginal urban slums on the then-outskirts of Lima. But, although the serranos were at the bottom of the economic ladder, there were so many of them that they gradually brought about a sort of ruralification of certain elements of city culture. And, because the serranos were primarily illiterate and came from a strong oral culture, it was only natural that they would eventually influence radio in Lima.

Into this scene stepped a man with a vision, Luis Pizarro C. Pizarro was an entrepreneur and a big fan of Andean folk music. In the 1940s he had arranged numerous folk-festivals in Lima, bringing in provincial groups to play. Early in 1951, Pizarro visited Radio El Sol, Lima's youngest station, and asked for a time slot for an Andean music show. The station decided to give him 6-7am daily at no cost, because they saw no use in such early hours when they assumed no one would be listening. The creole establishment that controlled Lima radio didn't attach any importance to the fact that the serranos, true to their rural roots, rose every morning with the sun. Thus, a few days later, Lima's first folk music program, El Sol de los Andes (Sun of the Andes) was born. In the first years, most of the music was performed live since there were few commercial recordings of Andean music in those days. From his days as a promoter, Pizarro had lots of contacts and easily arranged for both Lima-based groups and traveling provincial folk bands to play on his show. The show had no income; the time was free, so Pizarro didn't bother to sell ads and thus the bands were not paid. But, the bands willingly played for prestige and recognition, and because they were allowed to publicize their future activities.

Initially there was some criticism of El Sol de los Andes by people who were ashamed of the music or thought it not good enough to be given airtime. But gradually the program was accepted by both the Andean migrants in Lima and by Andean musicians, so it didn't matter what uppity city-folks felt. Pizarro, however, wanted to expand his audience and reach into the country's interior. Again, Pizarro saw a need and filled it. The serranos in the city had long needed a way to send urgent messages into the interior faster than the post office could deliver them, especially to areas where the telegraph service didn't reach. Pizarro began reading such urgent personal messages on the air. Word of this spread throughout the highlands, and gradually El Sol de los Andes built up a loyal audience in the interior.

Not only was Pizarro's reading of personal messages on the air an important base of the program's increasing popularity, but Pizarro may actually have initiated the practice of advisos or comunicados (selling time for personal messages) that is widespread in Peruvian radio today. Regardless, to this day, the function of sending messages into the interior has remained one of the most important functions of folk music programs in Lima radio and their increasing audiences in the interior.

As Pizarro's program became more popular, Radio El Sol decided to begin charging him 5000 soles a month for airtime, forcing Pizarro to look for commercial sponsors. Despite the program's popularity, at first few advertisers wanted to buy time on such an early morning show until, fortuitously, it unexpectedly won a local radio popularity contest. Soon small businesses in both Lima and in provincial towns began advertising on the show. El Sol de los Andes was now an established part of the Lima radio scene.

By the mid-1950s, other stations had noted the popularity of El Sol de los Andes and started their own folk music programs. The principal imitators were on Radio San Cristobal, Radio Restauracion, Radio Expreso, Radio Continental, and Radio Luz. Pizarro himself started other folk music programs on Radio Nacional and Radio Santa Rosa in the mid-50s. An important first came in 1962 with the founding of Lima's first all-folk station, Radio Agricultura. As its names implies, Radio Agricultura appealed to the peasant roots of serranos residing in Lima, and to the peasants still farming in the interior. Besides the nine hours of folk music daily, Radio Agricultura broadcast technical and educational programs on agriculture with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy and the local Ministry of Agriculture.

The increase in popularity of folk music radio programs had encouraged Peruvian record companies to issue more folk music records, which in turn encouraged more folk music programs, since it was no longer necessary to book live performances. By the the mid-60s, on-air performances were rare, except for special events. By 1966 there were 27 hours daily of folk music on Lima's 34 stations, half the time on Radio Agricultura which had expanded to 12-14 hours of folk music daily. Folk music radio had become the main force of the Andean people in maintaining their own culture in Lima, despite the city's strong cosmopolitan and international influences.

Today, folk music programming in Lima is still clearly directed at provincials residing in Lima by, of course, the music, but also by the types of ads and announcements and by the Andean cultural references made by the announcers. The number of these programs has continued to grow since their inception in 1951; a recent study counted more than 80 daily radio spaces of one hour duration. More than half of these were via four stations: Radio Folklore, Radio Inca, Radio San Isidro, and Radio Agricultura. Furthermore, criolla music, the Spanish-based traditional music of the coast, counted no more than 10-12 hours a day on Lima stations.

Here lies the great irony of the story. In the 1540s, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and a band of adventurers subdued the Inca empire and established Spanish cultural domination in Peru. Four hundred years later another Pizarro started a radio program, and in just a few decades the Andean peasants and their music pushed Spanish culture off the airwaves right there in its very heart, the city of Lima. History works in strange ways.

This article is copyright 1991 by Don Moore.


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