Published: September 12, 2013


¡Así Kotama!: The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was co-produced by Ph.D. student Jessie M. Vallejo, with Patricio Maldonado and Daniel E. Sheehy (Ph.D. 1979 M.A. '74 Music, UCLA). Jessie was interviewed on July 31, 2013 by staff member Donna Armstrong about her role in the creation of the CD.

Download Liner Notes by Jessie M. Vallejo

Credits: Produced by Jessie M. Vallejo; Produced by Patricio Maldonado; Produced by Daniel E. Sheehy; Engineered by Pete Reiniger; Engineered by Santiago Chicaiza; Mixed by Pete Reiniger; Mastered by Pete Reiniger; Liner Notes by Jessie M. Vallejo; Translated by Cristina Altamira; Photography by Jessie M. Vallejo; Photography by Daniel E. Sheehy; Edited by Jacob Love; Design by Galen Lawson.


Interview with Jessie Vallejo

 ARMSTRONG: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, Jessie. I want to discuss the CD ¡Así Kotama!: The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador. I see that you are one of the producers. You were also a photographer and you wrote the liner notes. Please describe your role in the creation of this CD.

VALLEJO: In terms of connecting the flute players to the Smithsonian, you could say I had a central role.When I first went to Ecuador, I planned to study string music. I got there and on my first night, my host family showed me this flute, and they said “Since you’re a musician, you may be interested in this flute. It’s just a little thing we do here.”  I didn’t take it too seriously at first, not because I wasn't interested in flute music, but because I’m not a good flute player!

ARMSTRONG: You were down there to do what?

VALLEJO: I was down there in 2010 to study Kichwa. It was a summer abroad program for language study. I would go to the flute classes more to practice Kichwa and to get to know another kind of music that perhaps I’d be interested in. I was sitting in class and they started having these discussions in Kichwa about recording a second album. They had already recorded a CD with the Ministry of Culture there, and they were talking about how they wanted to record another album, but they really didn’t know where else to get the funding. So, I wrote to Tony Seeger, my co-advisor, and asked if he thought this would be something that Smithsonian Folkways would be interested in. He told me to speak with [Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Director] Dan Sheehy (Ph.D. ’79, M.A. ’74 Music, UCLA). So I started emailing Dan and sending him mp3s, trying to make sure he did not forget. Finally I met him at SEM in LA that fall 2010. He said “You’re the woman who has been emailing me all this time.”  He encouraged me to apply to be his intern at the [Smithsonian] Folklife Festival in the summer of 2011.

VALLEJO: I remember when Dan asked me “Jessie would you be interested in going down with us if we did an album with Hatun Kotama?” I said “Sure,” thinking this would be years in advance.  And then it turns out we were leaving in three weeks! It was really exciting.  I helped write the contract, do all the pre-production steps, and plan the interviews for the video that they posted online.

ARMSTRONG: When did you do your major dissertation research?

VALLEJO: That was last year—2012.

ARMSTRONG: Tell me something about the flute tradition. What is the name of the ethnic group or linguistic group who plays the flute? Or is it connected to a geographic area?

VALLEJO: This flute tradition is ritualistic and played by people who are Kichwa Otavalo, from the Imbabura province in northern Ecuador. There are other indigenous groups nearby that have similar flute traditions that could be considered part of an extended family.

ARMSTRONG: When did you record the music for the CD?

VALLEJO: In August 2011 I was invited to go with a team from the Smithsonian to record the album and document a bit about the tradition and life in the Kotama village.

ARMSTRONG : How did you balance doing your fieldwork with working on the CD?

VALLEJO: While I was doing my exams, I was writing the liner notes.  I left for fieldwork in April 2012.  I lived there for six months and I worked with the flute school. I was still working on editing the liner notes until May, more or less. The design team took over after that.

ARMSTRONG: Please tell us about the liner notes and the video and your role in both of those.

VALLEJO: The liner notes are a very short version of one of my dissertation chapters. This flute tradition really hasn’t been written about extensively at all. One local scholar from Ecuador—Segundo Luis Moreno—who they consider to be their first ethnomusicologist, wrote about the flutists and the flute tradition. But usually it was just a paragraph or two, with not much detail. People often overlooked the tradition because they believed the flute looks like a toy instrument; they didn’t take it very seriously.  People would say the music is very repetitive and they found it to be very sad. They had their own biases.

ARMSTRONG: How is your research different?

VALLEJO: I’m looking into how the music works with their spiritual beliefs and how it is a large part of the fabric of their life.  The music is actually happy; people in our society may hear it and to them it often sounds very urgent and dark or minor sounding. So, it is sad-sounding to some people, but it’s actually very happy music. There is a lot of laughing that goes along with this—it is very celebratory.  Sometimes it even gets to the point where people get so hyped up that it can lead to the tinkuy fight, when people throw stones at each other. I’m giving this flute tradition a very careful look. So little has been written about it, but one interesting thing to tie back to UCLA is that one ethnomusicologist who has written a little bit more and has made field recordings of this music is Juniper Hill (Ph.D. ’05, M.A. ’01 Ethnomusicology, UCLA).

ARMSTRONG: In the liner notes, you talk about aspects of the music, like dancing, and how they relate to Kichwa cosmology. Can you talk about how this music was adapted for the CD?

VALLEJO: The dancing and the music definitely go hand-in-hand. They’re equally as important, so in the CD you hear the foot stamping in almost all of the tracks.  One of the topics I’m looking at is how relationships are sung into being by the performance of music. When they perform this music, they are creating and maintaining relationships with other people and also with their spiritual and physical worlds.  And part of that is this layering—a mapping of the world through song. Dancing is part of all of that.

ARMSTRONG: What is the motivation of the Otavalen people in recording this album?  Did they want their music to go out to the whole world?

VALLEJO: Yes, they did. That’s one of the things that excites me about my research; that we were able to find some type of partnership where I could give back to the community. The flutists only printed so many copies of their first recording. Publishing in Latin America is tricky because things go out of print really soon and they don’t always make new editions.  The flutists were concerned: “Will we get enough of our music recorded? How can we get more songs recorded? How can we have a way to sustain ourselves financially with this flute school?”  These were all things they were debating.  They were asking flute school members to keep thinking about ways that they could continue with the revival project of this music and finding new spaces to do so.

ARMSTRONG: And this was before you got there?

VALLEJO: Yes. And then during my first month there, after the flute classes, they would debate this issue.  I was just listening—I didn’t say much—but I could finally understand Kichwa enough where I understood that whole meeting.  I was extra excited because I understood what they were saying!  I also felt like, as a friend, I could offer something.  That was before I planned to do research with them.

In our coursework, we talk about ethics in the field: do you go and impose some type of project or idea or not, and if they’re worried about their music dying out, what do you do? I went to Ecuador—they’d just published their first CD and book—and they were looking for another project.  As I see it, I mostly facilitated it, and then had wonderful support from the Smithsonian team, with Dan Sheehy, Pete Reiniger, Charlie Weber, and Cristina Diaz-Carrera. We were also fortunate to have support from the Smithsonian's Latino Initiatives Pool. But it was definitely the flutists' idea.

ARMSTRONG: Can you talk about the CD release and your involvement with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival?

  Hatun Kotama at Smithsonian_2013_reduced
  Jessie M. Vallejo was invited to present at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with the flute masters from Hatun Kotama (the name of the musical group and also the cultural center that they run in Ecuador), and their manager Patricio Maldonado (one of Jessie's Kichwa language teachers). They were part of the "One World, Many Voices" exhibit, concerning endangered languages. The group performed daily at the Folklife Festival and also at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. It was the first time that members of the group visited the United States and it was their first performance of this music outside of Ecuador (2013).

VALLEJO: The CD ¡Así Kotama!: The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador was released on July 2, 2013. To help celebrate the release, I was invited to present with the flute masters from Hatun Kotama (the name of the musical group and also the Cultural Center that they run), and their manager (one of my Kichwa teachers) Patricio Maldonado. We were part of the One World, Many Voices exhibit about endangered languages, and we performed daily at the Folklife Festival. We were also invited to perform at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. It was the first time the flutists had visited the United States, and it was their first time performing this music outside of Ecuador.

ARMSTRONG: One more question – the video – it was a wonderful video. What was your role in the creation of the video?

VALLEJO: There were a few parts to the video. First was preproduction, in D.C., when I sat with Cristina Diaz-Carrera and Charlie Weber to plan interview questions.   Then we went to Ecuador and I was present at most of the interviews.  A few times they had me interview in Kichwa!  After everything had been recorded by Charlie, Cristina, and Pete, they sent me copies on DVDs and a master CD.  What I had to do next was create the story, an introduction to the community and the Hatun Puncha-Inti Raymi festival. I went through and listened to all of the interviews, then I had to transcribe parts of them into Spanish or Kichwa, and then I had to translate them to English. Charlie Weber and his interns in D.C. took over after that, adding B-roll footage, and putting the finishing touches on the video you see.

ARMSTRONG: Anything else you want to say to your fellow students about your process? Any advice you could give?

VALLEJO: I think when you go out to the field, be really open to what you find there. I went to Ecuador thinking that I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on (Otavalan string music) and if I had stuck with that, I could have made a nice dissertation, but I may have overlooked and missed this opportunity. I am glad I was flexible and open to them teaching me. Have patience and be flexible!

ARMSTRONG: That’s wonderful. Thank you, Jessie.