American University Radio reports:
From Europe To Bolivia To D.C.: ‘Mission Baroque’ Finds New Life In Georgetown
By: Lauren Landau
When you think of locals adapting music to make it their own, you might think of a recent example: Backyard Band’s popular cover of Adele’s “Hello.” The D.C. group’s twist on the international hit brought national attention to go-go earlier this year.
But what if we turn back the clock 300 years and go to the jungles of South America? What popular music were people there covering then? At Georgetown University, a student singing group is bringing centuries-old covers back to life — and back to the villages where they were written.
What the heck is ‘Mission Baroque?’
The Georgetown University Chamber Singers have been busy rehearsing music from the early 18th century. It’s not uncommon to sing Baroque music. They do it all the time. But this particular variation on baroque has an unusual backstory. Composed hundreds of years ago in Europe, it found its way to South America in the hands of Jesuit missionaries who taught it to the indigenous people.
Professor Frederick Binkholder directs the Georgetown University Chamber Singers. He says music proved to be a useful tool in the missionaries’ attempts to convert the locals.
“They didn’t really care about religion, because they already had gods. They had a system of government,” he says. “They already had everything they needed, but they didn’t have the European music that the Jesuits brought with them, and it transformed them.”
Hooked on the music, indigenous people made it their own. They started writing music in the Baroque style — but using their native languages. They’d also incorporate their own instruments into the compositions alongside the violins, cellos, and other European instruments.
“It has a little bit more rhythmic interest. There’s lots of syncopation in it,” Binkholder says. “In fact, it would be traditional for some of these pieces to have like an instrumental accompaniment with some sort of percussion instruments, shakers or wood blocks.”
That kind of cover is called “Mission Baroque.” It was popular all over South America — thanks to the Jesuit missionaries. But the only repository of this music has been found in Bolivia.
“For some odd reason in the other countries it wasn’t preserved,” Binkholder says, “And so, this is the one, well it’s like a gold mine of all of these pieces that were found specifically in Bolivia.
Finding and preserving this rare music
That gold mine was found and preserved by musicologist, Peter Nawrot. Father Nawrot wrote his dissertation on Mission Baroque. He says there are probably many reasons why this music was lost in places like Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. It’s much easier to address why it was saved in Bolivia.
“This music was not considered by the Indians as something imposed on them by the missionaries or Spanish community,” he says. “They would consider this music as their own music.”
The music is highly valued by the communities that have kept it safe all these years. When Father Nawrot arrived in one village to inspect the manuscripts, he was met with suspicion and interrogated for hours about his religious views and plans for the precious, handwritten documents.
“At the end, the person who conducted this conversation… he said, ‘Father, such a unique thing that you are coming here, because if this will get lost, we all will get lost.’ This music for them was something essential to understand their own history,” Nawrot says.
Since then, Father Nawrot has worked to bring this music back to life and to share it. He directs the International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque Music in Bolivia. That’s where the Georgetown chamber singers are performing this week. They’ll sing in mission villages, backed up by local musicians.
Upbeat tempo, a rosy tone, and indigenous languages
Senior Luke Schafer, is co-president of the group. “I think out of the eight or so [songs] that we’re singing, I think three of them are in Nahuatl, which is a Mexican native language,” he says. “One of them is from Peru, and then we’ll be singing, I think four of the other songs are in Latin.”
A government major, Schafer also studies Spanish. He says that linguistic background has been really helpful.
“The way that the languages were written for the music is actually kind of a mixture of the native language and the Spanish,” he says, “So it’s been kind of a mix of learning where to include the Spanish pronunciation and where not to include the Spanish pronunciation.”
The lyrics are one element that sets some examples of mission Baroque apart from traditional European numbers. Schafer says another is the energy and percussive nature of the songs. They may not sound so lively to the untrained ear, but Schafer says in a lot of European masses, the music is much more somber.
“The mass that we’ll be singing in Bolivia is performed in an extremely upbeat, joyful way,” he says. So instead of asking God for mercy in a very somber and sad way, there’s a life in the way that the music appeals to this nature of mercy.”
The Georgetown University Chamber Singers depart this week.
Bolivia holds the International Baroque Festival every two other years, I hope you can come this year!