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Humans · Arts

How Michael Jackson helped to pull Quechua out of the darkness

May 02nd, 2016
in:Humans, Arts
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
located in:Peru
tags:Bob Marley, Internationa Monetary Fund, Michael Jackson, minorities, Peru, Quechua, World Bank

In Peru, Quechua has been for many years a language identified with poverty and underdevelopment. But recent Quechua versions of English pop song have proved major hits online. Is Quechua becoming cool?

Quechua is the most spoken Andean indigenous language. It was the lingua franca in the Inca Empire and it’s  spoken by around 10 million people across South America. About third of them, 3,36 million, are from Peru, numbering 12,3% of its population, mainly in the rural areas.

Even so, in this country many people are ashamed of speaking Quechua, especially Quechua-speakers who have migrated to the big cities. If they use it, it’s only at home with their families. Some of them would rather their children learned Spanish. They want to avoid the long-suffered stigma for being the descendants of indigenous people or peasants in a country deeply racist against their own people.

Quechua is non-existent in  national mass media, and very often doctors, teachers and other public workers allocated to Quechuan areas don’t know the local language. But lately some campaigners have appeared in the cities to vindicate it. Politics, sports and, especially, cultural personalities are trying to boost it and return the prestige every language deserves.

Nevertheless, when the Andean cultural association Surca posted Quechua versions of pop songs like Michael Jackson’s The way you make me feel and Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ sung by local teenager Renate Flores on Youtube, they could not have predicted the extent of the videos' success.

First Fallin’ got 50,000 views. Then The house of the rising sun exceeded 200,000. But the biggest hit was the tune from King of Pop. “20 days after it was posted, it had hit one million views”, says Patricia Flores, head of the Surca association and Renata’s mother.

Surca’s aim is to “turn children and youngsters into social change agents through  art” and Renata, 15, who sings and plays piano as a professional, explains that this project's purpose was to commemorate the last Peruvian Independence Days, on 28th and 29th July. The idea, states her mother, “was to show the language as something that is ours and at the same time valuable, something nice to hear”.

The videos were recorded in Ayacucho’s typical landscapes, like the Inca ruins of Vilcashuamán. And the songs have Peruvian music arrangements, while keeping a contemporary style.

The impact was immediate. “Michael Jackson’s one was broadcast on TV news and had a big rebound, not only in Peru but also in other Andean countries like Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, and even in the United States”.

Renata was invited to make a performance at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meeting that took place in Lima last October. And this year she has sung also in a design exhibition with a Peruvian delegation in Italy.

Wilfredo Ardito, an expert in ethnic minorities issues and an activist against racial discrimination in Peru, explains that in Peru  racism is still far-reaching. “It is a discrimination through comparison: those who feel themselves more white discriminate against the ones who have some indigenous features and especially ones whose indigenous characteristics are even more marked. So, the Quechua-speaker is discriminated against because he is seen as inferior in everybody’s eyes”.

“This is precisely what makes Quechua speakers want to avoid using the language in public."

There have been attempts to improve the standing of the Quechua language in several moments of recent Peruvian  history. One them was in the 1920s, with the emergence of an illustrated indigenous movement. And again in the seventies, when dictator Juan Velasco declared Quechua an official language and television stations and newspapers gave it some space, says Ardito.

But in the eighties, this policy was abandoned following the appearance of a violent guerrilla, Lighting Path, considered in Peru as a terrorist organization. This only deepened “the racism towards migrants from that region, who spoke Quechua, as they were seen as possible terrorists”.

Ardito contextualized the new reevaluation of Quechua in the frame of a governmental policy to offer  citizens public services in their own language, from health care to justice.

This has caused  many people to become interested professionally and with social curiosity in Quechua and has also worked to reduce the shameful stigma that some of Quechua-speakers.

In the word of music, there many examples beyond teenager Renata Flores. There is the soprano Sylvia Falcón, who has sung the Peruvian anthem in Quechua, and Magaly Solier, a singer and the most internationally-known actress in the country. In spite of the racist abuse she has received on social media because of her indigenous origin, Solier has released two records in Quechua.

Until recently Renata hardly understood Quechua, despite living in the capital of an Andean region where most of the people are Quechua-speakers . “Now, I’m learning it. In Ayacucho people of my age don’t speak it”, she explains. In her school, being private, she only knows one girl who can speak Quechua, “but she doesn’t want to do it, she’s embarrassed”.

Renata’s parents are peasants’ grandchildren and they can speak Quechua, often mixed with Spanish expressions. But, as many other people of their generation, they didn’t teach it to their children. “We used to wonder: ‘Why should we teach them if is not used here anymore?’”, Patricia says. But now they have changed their minds: “It’s our heritage, our identity. Indigenous blood is running through our veins and we are forgetting our language”.

“Now we speak Quechua at home more often. And there are many people who are doing the same, they are becoming increasingly conscious of its importance. We can make it trendy, it’s the quechuacool”.

Now, she explains, they are preparing new versions of other popular songs: Bob Marley’s Is this love, Ben E. King’s Stand by me, and another one of Michael Jackson's hits, Earth song, whose video will be recorded in the Peruvian Amazon to denounce a recent oil spill.

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Article written by:
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Author
Current Map: Our coverage
Nevertheless, when last year the cultural association Surca, in the Andean city of Ayacucho, produced and posted on Youtube some videos of Michael Jackson’s The way you make me feel, Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ and The Animals’ The house of the rising sun Quechua versions song by a talented but so far unknown teenager, Renata Flores, they didn’t expect the success they had.
The impact was immediate. “Michael Jackson’s one was broadcast in TV news and had a big rebound, not only in Peru but also in other Andean countries as Bolivia, Argentina or Chile and even in the United States”.
“Now we use to speak Quechua at home more often. And there are many people who are doing the same, they are becoming increasingly conscious of its importance. We can make it trendy, it’s the quechuacool”.

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