Bolivian Mission Towns Revive Baroque Legacy

Some centuries-old Baroque manuscripts were discovered in forgotten balconies of mission churches. i i

hide captionSome of the centuries-old Baroque musical manuscripts were discovered in forgotten balconies of mission churches.

Archivo Misional del Vicariato Apostolico de Nuflo de Chavez - Santa Cruz
Some centuries-old Baroque manuscripts were discovered in forgotten balconies of mission churches.

Some of the centuries-old Baroque musical manuscripts were discovered in forgotten balconies of mission churches.

Archivo Misional del Vicariato Apostolico de Nuflo de Chavez - Santa Cruz
Father Piotr Nawrot has reconstructed 27 volumes of music from the Bolivian mission towns. i i

hide captionFather Piotr Nawrot is a Polish priest and musicologist who has reconstructed 27 volumes of music from the Bolivian mission towns.

Patricio Crooker/APAC
Father Piotr Nawrot has reconstructed 27 volumes of music from the Bolivian mission towns.

Father Piotr Nawrot is a Polish priest and musicologist who has reconstructed 27 volumes of music from the Bolivian mission towns.

Patricio Crooker/APAC
Ariel Suarez, a 16-year-old violinist from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos i i

hide captionAriel Suarez, a 16-year-old violinist from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos, carries on the Baroque musical legacy left behind by the Jesuit missionaries and nurtured by successive generations of indigenous populations.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
Ariel Suarez, a 16-year-old violinist from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos

Ariel Suarez, a 16-year-old violinist from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos, carries on the Baroque musical legacy left behind by the Jesuit missionaries and nurtured by successive generations of indigenous populations.

Julie McCarthy, NPR

Hear the Music

Forty-five groups performed at the 2008 international Baroque music festival in Bolivia's mission town region of Chiquitania. Hear a sample of performances:

The Mission Church of Concepcion is the nerve center of the country's Baroque revival. i i

hide captionThe Mission Church of Concepcion in the Chiquitania region is Bolivia's nerve center of the Baroque music revival. The music was introduced by Jesuit missionaries, who first arrived in the area in 1691. The archive is the largest musical collection of the Jesuits in the Americas and Asia.

Patricio Crooker/Asociacion Pro Arte y Cultura de Bolivia (APAC)
The Mission Church of Concepcion is the nerve center of the country's Baroque revival.

The Mission Church of Concepcion in the Chiquitania region is Bolivia's nerve center of the Baroque music revival. The music was introduced by Jesuit missionaries, who first arrived in the area in 1691. The archive is the largest musical collection of the Jesuits in the Americas and Asia.

Patricio Crooker/Asociacion Pro Arte y Cultura de Bolivia (APAC)

Deep in the tropics of Bolivia, a revival of centuries-old music is captivating crowds and creating the next generation of the country's classical musicians.

At an international Baroque music festival this month, strains of Bach and Vivaldi are stirring in the same mission towns that the Jesuits established in the 17th century.

The festival takes place in an area known as the Chiquitania — a World Heritage Site that is home to the Chiquitano Indians, the original inhabitants of the region in eastern Bolivia.

Its eight mission towns not only have restored their original churches but have reconstructed thousands of pages of original musical scores from the Jesuit period that began with the 1691 founding of the San Javier mission.

The towns' children are keeping the musical legacy alive. Over the last decade, youth orchestras have sprung up in every mission in the lush, steamy lowlands, reviving interest in Baroque culture.

Missions Belonged to the People

Father Piotr Nawrot, a Polish priest and musicologist, has painstakingly restored 27 volumes of music, a treasure trove that he calls his "second conversion."

Among his discoveries was that, while the Jesuits used music as a tool of evangelization, the indigenous populations transformed it into their own.

"I believe we should never call these Jesuit missions. They should be called Chiquitano missions....The mission would belong to the people," Nawrot says.

Ariel Suarez, a 16-year-old violinist from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos, is part of that legacy.

Suarez and his fellow orchestra members perform in bare feet and simple garb to express their indigenous lineage. He says the young musicians feel the music of their ancestors "in their heart" and the stormy rhythms of their tropical climate in their playing. Their musical tradition is a cross-pollination of the cultural impulses of Europe and the indigenous traditions of the Chiquitano.

Musicians in the San Jose Orchestra keep a grueling schedule, rehearsing four to five hours a day. But director Santiago Lusardi says they also possess an innate talent, passed down from earlier generations, that startled Europeans when they first learned of the Indians' musical prowess.

"In Europe, they really [were] surprised. They were discussing if the [Indians] were people or animals — but they were playing like people. So that's why they say, 'They can't talk but they can play like people, so they are people.' It's incredible, but it was like this," Lusardi says.

A Treasure Trove of Jesuit Music in the Americas, Asia

The Spanish Crown ordered the Jesuits to quit the South American interior in 1767.

They left behind thousands of manuscripts, now restored, that make up the largest Jesuit collection of music in the Americas and Asia. It's stored in the Mission of Concepcion, the nerve center for Chiquitania's musical restoration.

Project overseer Javier Mendoza says he'd rather not know the value of the archive, which has not been assessed — he gets nervous thinking about theft.

Lusardi, conductor of the San Jose Orchestra, gets goose bumps viewing the archive. "This is the magic of music right here," he says. "You can take a piece of paper from 300 or 400 years ago and bring it alive again by playing the music that's written on it."

The 1986 film The Mission — with Ennio Morricone's soaring score — stirred interest in the missions that stretched from Argentina north to the Chiquitania.

Reviving Lost Musical Manuscripts

Nawrot, the Polish priest, says many of the centuries-old musical manuscripts he reconstructed were in the hands of ordinary people who had stored them alongside precious heirlooms in simple boxes. Other scores turned up in dust bins in forgotten church balconies.

But Nawrot says people more commonly safeguarded the music and would tell him, "Father, if this is lost — if it dies, this tradition — we are all lost. We will die together with this manuscript."

"This music was not just music, it was sacred music," Nawrot says.

Even today, the missions' young musicians say it makes them "feel closer to God."

Each of the 45 groups participating in the music festival performed a piece from the Bolivian archives. Italian cornett master Ricardo Simian sat transfixed, listening to the children of the missions perform Baroque masterpieces.

"Some people say that this place is so exuberant that the Baroque aesthetic fits perfectly well into it. So, for us it's a journey into the Baroque world more than into the jungle," Simian says.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.