Music from the Missions – Bolivia

Nordic Brass Ensemble visited Bolivia in 2008, 2010 and 2014 with some unforgettable memories. When the Jesuits arrived in Bolivia in 1691, they immediately began to assemble the indigenous Chiquitano people into Christian “reservations” or “reductions” where they were converted to Christianity and taught the principles of Western culture including economics, politics, agriculture, crafts and music. The Festival Internacional de Música Renacentista y Barroca Americana “Misiones de Chiquitos” celebrates the musical heritage that started with the missionaries, mixed with Bolivian folk music tradition and that is still alive today.

The following is a travel blog from our latest tour of the Chiquitania.

Music from the Missions

Sunday 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 Salomon, as well as an orchestra of baroque musicians from Santa Cruz, Urubichá, Oruro and from the Royal College of Music London, where Salomon 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 1700s 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 Rafael and Santa Ana, also in the Misiones, with our festival programme of European renaissance and baroque music.

Urubicha – where it all begun

Our visit to Urubichá was like a journey back to the last century. Although, the future is approaching fast here as well. No more than 6-7 years ago, Urubichá had no electric lighting. Only five years ago, roads usable by cars were built to the indigenous village, with bridges across rivers and swamps. Consequently, the village is teeming with motorbikes; helmets though, are an unknown accessory. About half of the population, those over a certain age, all ride bikes. 

In this village, abbess Hanna Ludmilla Wolf have single-handedly established the music institute “Instituto de Formación Integral – Coro y Orquesta Urubichá”, where local children learn to play instruments and play together in orchestras of different sizes and levels. She was one of the first, possibly the very first, to set up this kind of cultural and social venture in Bolivia. Today, about 800 children and youth attend the school. An impressive number, considering the village has a population of only 5000. In Urubichá, they seem to have a special fondness for trumpet; 76 pupils play the instrument, whereas french horns only count one and a half… We believe a special delivery to amend this unbalance is in order….

We stayed in the convent adjacent to the Urubichá cathedral, enjoying the warm-hearted hospitality of sister Ludmilla  This far away from the Alps, we were surprsed to be served proper german sausagess. The abbess hails from Tirol, and broought part of her own culture with her when she moved to Bolivia 41 years ago. (Many of the children we meet from Urubichá are fluent in German.) Her passion lies with music and crafts. Local wood is used to make high looms on which beautiful textiles, tablecloths, scarves and clothes are produced in her workshop and put on sale in the cathedral shop. She happily recieves visitors who want to play concerts in the fabulous cathredral, teach the children of the orchestra or help out in the workshop. She guarantees free accomodation and meals so long as she is alive and kicking, and in her 77th year she looks 20 years younger and shows no sign of fatigue. Ourselves, we gurarantee meeting with young music students more receptive, engaged and inspiring than any other we have met. We’d be more than happy to return to Urubichá!

In music we are all equal

wednesday 30th april

Before the (long) return journey towards Santa Cruz, this early morning we visit the third music school during  our two days in an Ignacio, FASSIV, which is impressive in a very special way.

In FASSIV – Fundacion de Ayuda Social San Ignacio de Velasco; “Foundation for social aid”, children with physical and mental handicaps sit next to non-handicapped children in an orchestra. This is part of the care FASSIV provides for people with special need, and like at the schools for the children of poor families, playing violin, cello, clarinet or percussion, or even conducting the orchestra, gives these children an opportunity to be equal with everybody else. As the administrator of FASSIV quite rightly puts it: “In music, we are all equal”. As usual, we set up a concert with NBE and the orchestra, each playing some of their own repertorie, before joining forces in a traditional Bolivan folk tune that all the children in this region knows. The concert ends with the orchestra, for the occation enforced with a 10 piece brass section and one extra percussionist, performing the choral from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, conducted by a young man with Cerebral XXXXXXX

Yesterday was an eventful day, with visits to the orchestra of San Fransisco church’s brass department and later  the strings of Santa Ana, before our festival concert in the magical setting of the gorgeous Santa Ana Cathedral.

Music in your Veins

friday 2. May

We are heading back to Europe after over two intense weeks packed with impressions and inspiring encounters. Before returning to our hometowns, we’re spending an extra day in Madrid to play a showcase concert in the studio of Juan Alberto García de Cubas, founder and director of the non-profit association Música en Vena (Music in Your Veins). He organizes concerts in hospitals for cancer-patients and others undergoing treatment for serious illness. The concert will feature a wide scope of our repertorie, from jazz trio to full ensemble. We look forward to discussing the possibilities of future projects in collaboration with Señor Cubas.

Music has a great influence on people. It is present in all cultures and accompanies us throughout our lives, even when we are in the womb, through the rhythmic beating of our mother’s heart. We are all able to hear and appreciate melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Who has never been moved when listening to a piece of music?

Music in Your Veins is a non-profit-making association which was initially aimed at cancer patients. This is still the main target, although the demand in hos- pitals from other patients, as well as the availability of certain infrastructures which can hold more than 300 people, have seen MiYV broaden their field of operations.

The association’s key work is aimed at patients and relatives, although it also seeks to promote live music and the creation of new environments for the development of musical activities.