Deep in the tropics of Bolivia, you can hear music as lush as the jungle itself.

(Soundbite of Music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: This music is centuries old. And when you ask why it's being played in the jungle today, you learn something about the history of South America. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church established missions in some of the most remote corners of the new world. Music came with those missions, and now that music has been recovered and painstakingly restored. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on an international Baroque music festival in the missions.

(Soundbite of music, "The Four Seasons")

NANCY McCARTHY: "Four Seasons," by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, leaps from the strings of the young musicians from the Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos. Of the eight mission towns known collectively as the Chiquitania, each has spawned a youth orchestra.

(Soundbite of music, "The Four Seasons")

McCARTHY: Tiny toes curl around chair rungs as the musicians, some as young as eight, play. They perform barefoot and wear simple garb to express their Indian heritage. Their musical tradition is a cross-pollination of the cultural impulses of Europe and the indigenous traditions of the Chiquitano, the original inhabitants of this steamy, lush lowlands.

Sixteen-year-old violinist Ariel Suarez says this Vivaldi piece, evoking a summer storm, is uniquely interpreted in the hands of musicians from this tropical spot. As if on cue, the rains begin.

(Soundbite of rain)

(Soundbite of music, "The Four Seasons")

Mr. ARIEL SUAREZ (Violinist, Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: Here in Chiquitania, we have these intense downpours that suddenly let up. Then you'll hear this crackling bolt of lightning, he says. And those accents are what we think of when we play this piece.

(Soundbite of music, "The Four Seasons")

Mr. SANTIAGO LUSARDI (Director, Orchestra of the Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos): The way they play here is different. We rehearse like four or five hours per day. That's why you have kids eight years old playing Bach.

McCARTHY: Director Santiago Lusardi of Argentina says besides a grueling schedule, the 30 members of his orchestra possess an innate talent passed down from earlier generations who first startled Europeans with their musical prowess.

Mr. LUSARDI: In Europe, they really got surprised. They were discussing if they were people or they were 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, it was like…

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Guarani)

McCARTHY: The Choir and Orchestra of the Mission of San Javier, established in 1691, the oldest of the Jesuit of the circuit, they perform beneath an altar alive with rose-cheeked cherubs both ornate and innocent. The composer of this choral work is anonymous. The language is Guarani.

(Soundbite of Music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Guarani)

McCARTHY: Piotr Nawrot is a Polish priest and musicologist who meticulously reconstructed 27 volumes of the music here. He says much of the work is anonymous, and that the six original musicians brought here by the first Jesuits spoke Guarani, which is how the language got memorialized. Nawrot says the Jesuits used music as a tool of evangelization, but he says the indigenous populations themselves promoted the music once the Jesuits introduced it.

Father PIOTR NAWROT (Musicologist): I believe we should never call these Jesuit missions. We should call it Guarani mission, Chiquito mission. The mission would belong to the people.

McCARTHY: The Spanish Crown ordered the Jesuits to quit the South American interior in 1767, less than 100 years after they arrived. Their musical legacy is housed here, in a sweltering room inside the Mission of Concepcion. Restorer Juan Vaca(ph) flips through a reconstructed religious opera. The thousands of pages restored on Japanese parchments make up the largest musical archive of the Jesuits in the Americas and Asia.

Project overseer Javier Mendoza says he gets nervous thinking about theft. Conductor Santiago Lusardi simply gets goose bumps looking at the archives.

Mr. LUSARDI: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: This is the magic of music right here, he says. You can take a piece of paper from 300 years ago and bring it alive again by playing the music that's written on it. You can relive what was happening in the past.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: The 1986 film "The Mission," with Ennio Morricone's soaring score, stirred interest in the missions that stretched from Argentina up to the Chiquitania, a World Heritage site today. Father Nawrot says many of the centuries-old musical manuscripts he reconstructed were in the hands of ordinary people who stored them alongside precious heirlooms in simple boxes. Other scores turned up in dust bins in the back of forgotten church balconies.

But Nawrot says more commonly, people safeguarded the music and would tell him…

Father NAWROT: Father, if this is lost, if it dies, this tradition, we are all lost. We will die together with this manuscript. You see, this music was not just music. It was sacred music.

McCARTHY: Each of the 45 groups in this year's festival performed a piece from the Bolivia's archives. Audiences sit rapt for the Italian maestros.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: Italian Ricardo Simian plays cornet in the Milan-based ensemble.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: As the children of the missions perform Baroque masters, he's transfixed.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RICARDO SIMIAN (Cornet Player): Some people say that this place is so exuberant, that the Baroque aesthetic fits perfectly well into it. For us, it's a journey into the Baroque world more than into the jungle.

McCARTHY: Seventy-thousand visitors were drawn to this year's Baroque festival in Bolivia's missions, relishing in the music that this remote corner of the world is reclaiming.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Concepcion.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music, "The Four Seasons")

INSKEEP: You can journey to the Baroque world without going all the way to the jungle. Just mount an expedition to This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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