Choir of PalmaritoSunday 27. April
“The Missions”, or Misiones de Chiquitos is the name of the area where the Spanish jesuit missionaries operated in Bolivia from the end of the 17th century. In this indigenous area, they used music as a way to make contact and create trust with the population. They built churches, and initiated the building of villages after the spanish model of city planning, with everything growing out from a plaza in front of the church. The traditional indigenous houses of the rainforest were small and low, and with remarkably low doors. This was done to keep wild animals at bay. Observing this, the first Europeans to arrive named the area Chiquitania, “the land of the little people”.

The last few days we have had the great pleasure of spending in the company of the Arakaendar Choir of Santa Cruz and their conductor and director Ashley Solomon, as well as an orchestra of baroque musicians from Santa Cruz, Urubichá, Oruro and from the Royal College of Music London, where Solomon is a professor. Leading the orchestra is Chilean Raul Orellana, a first-class violinist and a specialist in baroque music performance. Also singing with us is the marvellous choir of the Palmarito music school. Palmarito is a tiny indigenous village, and several of these youths only speak the local language Guarani, in which the programmes’s songs’ lyrics are written. Their sound is absolutely amazing and truly unique, with an angelic, almost mystical character.

The Bolivians of the 1600s learned how to play string instruments from the missionaries, and also to sing in latin, to build instruments on their own, and to compose in the style of European baroque. This knowledge was mixed with traditional songs of the folklore. Thousands of manuscripts are stored in the churches’ archives, some of them reduced to mere scraps with only fragments of the original music still readable. Musicologist and director of the Misiones de Chiquitos festival Piotr Nowrat of APAC, originally a trained jazz clarinettist from Poland, has worked for over 10 years restoring the music from these fragments. His first challenge, though, when he first came Bolivia to investigate this unique musical heritage, was to actually get his hands on the manuscripts. The locals of Chiquitania were afraid that the European cleric would take the music away with him and bereave them of part of their culture, and hid the manuscripts in the woods. We are very proud to take part in the performance of these beautiful songs, which is a major feature in this year’s festival and a huge boost for the indigenous culture of Bolivia.

Also in the concert programme are some Guarani folk songs, and a mass by italian Giovanni Battista Bassini; one of the many pieces the missionaries brought from Europe and adapted to the musicians they had at their disposal in their villages in Bolivia. This Bassani score requests choir, string orchestra and three trombones (!). Originally, the piece was quite possibly written for a larger orchestra, but reduced due to the lack of woodwind instruments. We have performed our programme in Camiri and Santa Cruz, and are presently en route to San Jose de Chiquitos, one of the towns in the Misiones, for the ultimate concert. Tomorrow we continue to San Ignacio and Santa Ana, also in the Misiones, with our festival programme of European renaissance and baroque music.