We’re familiar with many of the precious names of God, such as El Elyon (Most High God) and Adonai (Lord), because of their use in some contemporary Christian songs. El Shaddai–All-Sufficient God–is another of these, and in its complex Hebrew meanings of both “mountain” and “breast,” we discover the majestic protection and tender provision of the Creator of mountain music.
Music certainly rates as one of the most wonderful things in the universe. After people and the Word of God, it’s perhaps God’s greatest gift to humanity. The Bible tells us “the morning stars sang together” (Job 38:7) at the moment of creation. Wouldn’t you like to have attended that concert? Who knows, maybe we’ll get to hear the next one.
“The earth has music for those who listen.” –Shakespeare
In the meantime, the people of God have always rejoiced in music. Israel’s greatest king, David, was a versatile musician, poet, and songwriter, so he personally organized the tabernacle choir ministry in one of the early initiatives of his reign. The Psalms and the Epistles of Paul urge us time and again to SING. So I do! I’m no soloist–except in the shower–but musical communion in church can carry us to the mountaintops.
“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.” ―J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Though we don’t all appreciate the same kind of music, have you ever met anyone who didn’t like music at all? Can’t say that I have. Perhaps that’s why the music theme slips into the background of most of my books. Sometimes it even bursts into the foreground.
During a months-long storytelling competition on the coast of Chile, 15-year-old Marina Serrano picks a round clay flute as her prompt for The Quarantine Tales. Her story, “The Ocarina Meets the Accordion,” begins by sharing Marina’s enchantment with the Andean instruments and the Altiplano (highlands) mountain music she encounters when her naval father is posted to the northern desert port of Iquique.
In a country where nearly everyone is musical and half the people one knows can play the guitar, Marina and her older brother Nach easily learn the 10-stringed charango, the quena (a bamboo Incan flute), the bombo drum, and even the “rain stick,” a hollow tube of cactus filled with seeds that when shaken resembles the ethereal trickle of falling rain.
Marina finds the zampoña (pan pipes) and the ocarina more challenging, but she’s determined to master them. The ocarina is an ancient wind instrument, a type of “vessel” flute with a sound similar to the recorder or tin whistle. Generally made of clay, often painted with geometric designs, ocarinas vary in size, number of holes (4-12), and shape. Maybe oval, elongated, pendant, or even a rustic figurine featuring an Andean peasant family or a nativity scene.
The effect of Andean mountain music on me personally goes beyond words. In the deep-throated whistle, the piercing wind, the high-pitched lilt… I hear the Celtic music of the Cape Breton Highlands. Or perhaps the Irish flute and Nordic hardanger fiddle of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings. I still remember the busking pan-piper who transported me straight to Machu-Picchu…from the Santiago subway.
“Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.” ―Johnny Depp
Like stories, like nature, music evokes our emotions. Sample this mix of pop and old-as-the-hills on the pan pipes.
Marina’s story moves back to her school in the Chiloé Islands. Instead of the desert plateaus, here in Chile’s evergreen south we find the songs of dolphins, the barks of sea lions, the whisper of the tides, the crash of surf. Along with the eagle and condor, you’ll see and hear gulls and cormorants, pelicans and penguins.
Instead of the “high” civilization of the former Inca Empire and its mountain music inherited through the Quechuas and Aymaras of Altiplano Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, you’ll discover a totally different culture in Chiloé. Even their style of folkloric music takes us to another world.
Chilote music traditionally uses the guitar, accordion, perhaps some type of drum or other easily-held percussion instrument. Rather than haunting, the tunes are cheerful and upbeat, the tempo quick, and the rhythm light and vibrant. In local ensembles such as Llauquil or Chilhué, the cantor (a singer who often adds a narrative voice) tells stories of farming and fishing life as well as island myths and memories.
Music has played a crucial role in recovering and strengthening traditional language, crafts, and culture in the islands. Sounds and Color blog has an article on the Music of Chiloé if you’re interested in listening or reading more.
“Without music, life would be a blank to me.” ―Jane Austen
In my novel Destiny at Dolphin Bay, the students in Melissa Travis’s school form a music group called Choros y Locos. This name plays on the double meaning of “feisty and crazy” and two kinds of shellfish (mussels and abalone). Years later, her friend Cristina writes an award-winning musical based on island legends, which helps her own students understand the value of their identity (Legacy of the Linnebrink Light).
“Tell me what you listen to, and I’ll tell you who you are.” ―Tiffanie DeBartolo
In my most recent series, Winds of Andalucía, Valeria’s friend Nathán reminds her of their home back in Chile when he plays an old song on a mandolin. The truth is, our music connects us to our personal and national identities. It ties us closely to our hearts and best selves. Why else won’t the Chilean soccer team shut up when the music of the national anthem stops?
“How is it that music can, without words, evoke our laughter, our fears, our highest aspirations?” ―Jane Swan
So when Marina tries to introduce some elements of Andean music into the traditional Chilote melodies, her friends resist. “Traitor”–that’s not too strong a word for how they take her attempts to reinterpret their repertoire favorites. The smoother key…“foreign” instruments… not wanted. To them, it sounds like the windy plains of an alien planet rather than the swirling rains of their Chiloé.
“But it’s from the Altiplano of Chile,” Marina says. “We could enjoy the music from both north and south, you know.”
To convince them, she’s written some of her own songs over the summer. She’s infused the liveliness of Chiloé with the calming influence of Andean instruments. She’s enriched the melancholy of the mountain plains with the wild joy of an island storm. And in this hybridized genre, she’s managed to keep the lyrics attached to her island heritage.
“Sometimes I need the music and sometimes I need the lyrics.” –TheRandomVibez.com
The Soundtracks of Our Lives
Many years ago, I was privileged to see this balanced beauty in a BaFoNa (National Folkloric Ballet) performance at our daughters’ school in Linares. Their weaving of classic ballet, folk dances, and a musical score drawn from every region of the country not only impressed–it appealed in a memorable way.
Each memory, even each book I write, seems to have a soundtrack of its own. During our 20-year stint in Santiago, we frequently attended classical concerts thanks to tickets from a young violinist friend in our church. For our Silver Anniversary celebration, he prepared a special presentation combining our original wedding music and traditional Jewish music.
“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” ―Leo Tolstoy
I will never forget the afternoon a group of Santiago pastors’ wives (including myself) ran from a meeting at a moment’s notice, all the way downtown to hear Handel’s Messiah. We never regretted that mad dash! And then, my daughter’s Christmas gift of The Nutcracker one holiday season in Santiago: the summer-hot balcony, the magnificent music, and the feeling of extraordinary wealth.
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ―Plato
Going back further in time to our bucolic island life in Chiloé, La Bella Lola (The Beautiful Girl) stands out in my mind. Our oldest daughter learned this iconic song of the sea along with her Chilote classmates in 3rd grade.
It was one of my top choices too, a love song by a sailor who longs to get home to the girl he left behind on the dock. Here’s the version we loved by Llauquil of Quellón, though Choros y Locos also sang it in Destiny at Dolphin Bay. How astonished I was to learn that “Lola” was born in Spain and traveled to Chile via a Mexican mariachi! She’s known internationally by entire navies, and her praises are sung in the languages of 5 continents.
So, go ahead, Marina, mix it up. If that sweetest of “Chilote” songs didn’t even start life in the islands, it seems acceptable to import from just up the coast.
“Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” –Anonymous
Because in reality, there’s hardly any place in the country where you can’t catch a glimpse, more or less, of mountains. Whether the coastals or the Andes, we live in our own South American “Sound of Music” set. The hills are alive… and mountain music pervades.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ―Albert Einstein
“Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.” ―Kurt Vonnegut
That said, we remember that men once worshiped those mountains as gods. Because we live in a fallen world, even God’s blessed gifts can be used as powerful instruments of evil. In the hands of rebel hearts, music too can turn–and turn us–to the dark side.
The glory of creation should lead us to the good Creator. We don’t worship nature–either the mountains or the music–but El Shaddai who made both and adorned our planet with such rich sources of creativity and joy.
“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” ―Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In that name of God, El Shaddai, we find strength and sustenance for our souls. Awe and wonder… nourishment and comfort.
My daughter and I never did get to attend Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but I imagined it in my Swan Island Secrets. In that series, music–from hymns to folk songs–keeps popping up to transform the protagonist Coni Belmar from an ugly duckling to a swan. At the finale of Swan Song, a song literally saves her life.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” ―Hans Christian Andersen
As Beethoven once said, music can change the world. Like medicine, it heals. And it often heals the wounds that pills and plasters can never touch. Like a miracle of comforting balm, music from the All-Sufficient Mountain God soothes our pain and satisfies our need.
“My heart… has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.” ―Martin Luther
Music nurtures our hearts. It opens our mouths…to fill us again. Want to share a soundtrack from your life?
“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” ―Maria Augusta von Trapp