Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bolivian Baroque?

I was intrigued by the title of a BBC news report: 'Why Bolivian Baroque Rocks'.

With the Bible in one hand and a flute in the other, Jesuit missionaries played a unique role in bringing not only Roman Catholicism to South America but also baroque music.

And in the nearly 250 years since the Jesuits were expelled from the region, it seems the tradition of baroque is still thriving.

The musical legacy is tangible in the small town of San Ignacio de Moxos, located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest where the heat is sweltering, the roads muddy and the mosquitoes are huge.

. . .

This place was one of the very last Jesuit missions in South America, and home to thousands of local people. As well as religion, the Jesuits also taught European music and how to make instruments, such as the cello, harp and violin.

After the Spanish expelled the Jesuits in 1767, the indigenous population preserved the music and re-wrote the scores with lyrics i their own language.

Yet it was not until a few years ago that much of this music came to wider notice, when a cache of 10,000 baroque music scores were found in a number of mission churches. They have now been restored and archived by the local music school.

"Religion and music helped each other survive to the present day. The instruments, the dances survived thanks to the path opened up by the Jesuits; it is deeply embedded among the local indigenous people," explains Raquel Maldonado, director of the San Ignacio School of Music.

"Some of the Jesuits came with a deep knowledge of musical arts and others with a more popular knowledge. All of that musical influence started to flow... mixing with local languages, dances and music," Ms Maldonado adds.

"Musical scores were copied numerous times," she says.

Inspired by a Basque nun, the local indigenous population has now created a school. As well as schoolrooms, there is a concert hall built with murals depicting monks playing instruments and local people copying them.

The school is thriving, with some 200 students.

"We teach and play the music that is still alive here, 'missional baroque' as we call it," says Edgar Vela, a very talented violinist and one of the school's teachers.

"Basically, European Baroque was taken by indigenous people, who then made it their own, and it is what now identifies us."

There is a natural, joyful allure to this native Bolivian baroque and the school's San Ignacio ensemble has become famous, travelling all over Latin America and Europe.

As Celsa Callau, a soprano and soloist at the ensemble explains, it was important for the music to "go native".

"If this music managed to survive it is because we are isolated, in the middle of the jungle," she says.

"Moxos has always been off the beaten track, so we were free of slavery, of the white people. That is why this music has been preserved and why it is still alive - and we will keep it alive."

There's more at the link.

Fascinated, I searched for more information. I found this three-part video documentary (in Spanish, with English sub-titles) on YouTube, describing the genesis of this 'colony' of Baroque musical influence in Bolivia, and how it's survived for hundreds of years, being adopted and 'indigenized' by the locals. Don't be put off by the discordant violin tones in the beginning of the first part - it gets much, much better! All three parts are very interesting viewing, if you're a music-lover like me.

Having watched the documentary, I searched for some examples of Bolivian Baroque music. I found three on YouTube that particularly took my fancy, and I'd like to share them with you.

The first is a promotional video for a past Baroque Music Festival in Bolivia (which has become an annual occurrence, I understand). The pictures show the area and people involved, with a background of music from the festival. Note the combination of traditional European instruments and Bolivian instruments.

Next is an improvisation by a Bolivian musician, Henry Villca, on a Baroque theme.

Finally, here's 'La Folia', a piece by an anonymous Bolivian composer, for two violins. It's in three movements, each having its own video clip below: 1 - Allegro, 2 - Largo, and 3 - Allegro. This performance is by the Florilegium Musicum Ensemble of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Wonderful music! I had a most enjoyable evening, researching Bolivian Baroque, and discovering all this information and these performances. I hope you've enjoyed the journey as much as I have.


1 comment:

Michael W. said...

Hello Peter,

Strangely enough, the movie The Mission touched on this subject. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look.