Ritter Reveals Power of Peruvian Music

By Loren Michael Mortimer - In times of oppression, folk songs can be performed both in protest and in memorial. On November 17, 2015, as part of the UC Davis Hemispheric Institute on the Americas (HIA) Fall Memory Lecture Series, Jonathan Ritter explored this notion in a talk entitled "We Bear Witness with Our Song: The Politics of Music and Violence in the Peruvian Andes."

For most of the 1980s, Peru’s Ayacucho Region was the epicenter of a guerilla war, notable for its atrocities against non-combatants. Ayacucho was a stronghold for the Shining Path—communist militants whom the United States and Peru still collectively categorize as a terrorist organization. The region’s indigenous, Quechua-speaking population bore the brunt of this violence as both government forces and Shining Path fighters brutalized, murdered, or “disappeared” at least 69,280 people.  

Tracing the social history of musical responses to violence, Ritter—currently an associate professor of music and director of Latin American studies at UC Riverside—has been conducting fieldwork in Peru for the last fifteen years. He explained that music is a “sonic portal into past experience” that “triggers memory in specific ways.”

Technologies of memory

Harawi, for example, is an Andean mode of singing that predates European contact. During the violence of the 1980s, these songs—which women typically sang while working in the fields—became a means of warning villagers of an impending attack.

Following the capture and incarceration in 1991 of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán, Quechua villagers, in testament to the violence they had endured, repurposed harawis as indigenous technologies of memory.

Ritter dedicated his talk to the memory of his friend Alejandro Mendoza Alca, an informant and survivor of the Shining Path’s violence. As part of his presentation, he performed a rendition of Alca’s song “Desparido”—originally composed as an act of defiance when the Shining Path, as part of a failed cultural revolution, outlawed indigenous festivals and songs. Ritter was accompanied by his former student, Renzo Aroni, who is currently completing a Ph.D in History at UC Davis.

Learn more about Jonathan Ritter at his UC Riverside faculty webpage.

Since the mid-1980s, but particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, Latin American societies that lived through brutal dictatorships and civil conflicts have been dealing with the consequences of extreme political violence. Along with calls for justice, the ideas of truth and memory have been central to the project of consolidating healthy democracies. The Memory Lecture seeks to understand the ongoing nature of this process, particularly in societies in which truth and justice still remain very much works in progress. The Memory Lectures are sponsored by the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas (HIA) Program at UC Davis.