Norberto’s band at rehearsal. Norberto is third from left.

Time spent in the Andes always brings home to the traveler the importance that traditional music enjoys there.

In indigenous homes and communities, making music together and dancing is thought of as completely natural, with everyone participating at their own level of skill.

Neither praise nor criticism is handed out for what is thought of as something as normal to a shared life as eating and talking. Norberto Oyagata, a young man who takes that impulse to sharing even further, playing traditional instruments in a band that has recorded professionally and performs at indigenous ceremonies and celebrations, also serves in responsible jobs within community government.

Born and raised in a village that had no school until he was 8, his early education stopped when he completed sixth grade. His future was shaped during this time, however, by gifts of musical instruments by his father, though without a teacher he was unable to learn how to play them. But clearly the seed of a desire to play, which would later grow into his mastery of several instruments, was planted at this time.

At 15 he went to work on a hacienda doing low paid farm work. Fortunately, when he turned 17, a high school opened for a while in the town of Panecillo, although it closed later due to low enrollments.

He didn’t give up his love of learning, though, and finished the studies he had begun by attending a school in Otavalo, graduating at age 20. During these years, he broadened his cultural horizons, participating enthusiastically in community activities, including teaching himself English by talking with American volunteers who came to town, and learning to play quena, an Andean flute, from a Bolivian musician who also was visiting Panecillo.

He bought a cousin’s guitar, then taught himself to play it, moving on to a similar instrument, a charango, for a church festival.

For the love of music

Never has he received instruction in music theory or reading sheet music. But his love of traditional Andean music and his self-taught skills were so good that at 18 he was taken on a musical tour of Europe, where he learned many aspects of performance, including how to perform on stage.

Deported from Spain for working illegally, he went home, married and gave up music for some years. But his friends drew him back into performing, and he learned to play two more instruments (panpipes and violin), began composing songs and formed a seven-person group that includes a female vocalist. They have recorded two CDs, the first titled “Ilusiones” (day dreams) and now play at traditional ceremonial events, particularly betrothals.

His motivation has not been earning a living, something that until recently he, like his father, did as a building contractor. But, as he emphasizes, “This music is to strengthen our indigenous identity, to keep it from dying, to keep young people on a path built on healthy interests.” He has named the band “Jataris RM,” kichwa for “lift up, support and be aware.”

“Jataris” might well be his political creed, as well. Although until he reached age 28 he was suspicious of institutionalized intrusion into the life of the people, he then became convinced that he could do more good and bring about more change by becoming part of local government. In 2013 he joined the indigenous political party and took on the unpaid duties of a si’ndico, a person who closely follows local government’s actions, to make sure they are legal.

“Indigenous life must include justice, not just folklore,” he said.

But before he could play a bigger role in that process, he needed further education. On his own, at age 30, he studied for a business administration degree in Quito, but the university closed and he lost several semesters of study. But he was not to be defeated by these misfortunes. He took the college board test, scoring very high. He entered another university, this time to earn a degree in sustainable social development, the area he knew and cared about the most.

But then he ran out of money, so at that point turned to Tandana Foundation for a scholarship. He is now almost finished, with his thesis in the final stage.

With these credentials he has been elected to the regional parish council, a non-religious governing body equivalent to a county board of supervisors. He draws a modest salary, no longer has to do construction and is working to strengthen the region’s economic base.

To offset migration out to other provinces and urban areas generated by unfairly low prices for local agricultural products, he proposes the development of natural resources in the area.

His proposals are bold and creative: support for spas at natural hot springs, which in Ecuador are a strong tourist draw; the mountainous volcanic terrain lends itself to hang gliding; there are beautiful places to build cycling and horseback riding trails; the raising of natural fibers specific to the region used to make much- sought-after traditional craft products.

Also, unusual regional gastronomy, which varies from community to community, including, but far from limited to, traditional dishes made with home-raised guinea pigs.

Norberto emphasizes the emotional bonds within a community music brings. It makes us recall what the great German philosopher Goethe wrote at the end of his life: “There is no greater happiness in life than working together joined with others.”

Barbara Coddington is a former director of Sheehan Art Gallery at Whitman College and former curator of the Museum of Art at WSU. She worked for 10 years to bring about the first exhibit of pieces by Native American women artists from the inland Northwest. Clark Colahan is a retired professor of Spanish and former Anderson Professor of Humanities at Whitman College.