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Why Bolivian baroque rocks

San Ignacio ensemble performs
San Ignacio's baroque ensemble performs at home and abroad

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

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.

Raquel Maldonado
The instruments, the dances, survived thanks to the path opened up by the Jesuits; it is deeply embedded among the local indigenous people
Raquel Maldonado
Director, San Ignacio School of Music

The only way to arrive is by a road that would have been familiar to the Jesuits, who began establishing their missions across parts of what is now modern-day Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia in the 17th Century.

Today, among the shoeless children sucking on tangerines, there are indigenous youngsters carrying violins, cellos and flutes.

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 in 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.

Edgar Vela
Basically, European baroque was taken by indigenous people, who then made it their own, this is what now identifies us
Edgar Vela
Music teacher

"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."

Cultural empowerment

The pride in their music is evident and spans the whole ensemble, whose members are all indigenous.

Local indigenous people outside a church in San Ignacio de Moxos
Local people's identity is bound up with the music

"What we play is music that has been kept in the dark for a long time... we are bringing that back to life, we are bringing the language of our ancestors back to this world," explains Jesus Nuni, a young cellist, while rehearsing a piece by the 17th Century Italian composer, Arcangelo Corelli.

In Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest countries, the indigenous people were for centuries an under-class banished to the margins of society.

In recent years, however, they appear increasingly to be finding a voice, political as well as cultural.

"This [musical] project is not about trying to colonise the indigenous people... that is a thing of the past. Also, it is not about baroque... it is about giving importance to the local music, so the local people can identify with this music," says Raquel Maldonado.



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