Historical Background to the Music

The Americas have always been a world of immigrants. The first waves arrived perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand years ago to the northern regions of North America. These very first Native Americans, during the last glaciation’s era, migrated slowly southward from Asia, across the Bering stretch into North America.  Other theorists believe that seamen from as far as the Polynesian Islands may have navigated through the Islands of the Pacific Ocean until they reached the Northern Peruvian coasts. Many myths and legends abound from the civilizations of Mochicas and Chimus that lend support to this theory.  There are a good number of visual depictions and cultural artifacts that have been found in archaeological expeditions to the regions inhabited by these two civilizations in northern Peru that illustrate this possibility (such as painted arrival of their God from the ocean scenes found in vases and the rafts of these cultures that resemble many rafts used by the Polynesians). It is very probable though, that our earlier ancestors from Asia were the ones that moved south from Alaska and eventually dispersed into hundreds of bands, clans, tribes, villages and cities first in North America and later in Central and South America.  More recent linguistic studies also lend more credibility to this idea.Quechua language has been found to have primarily Semitic roots as well as Arabic influences.  It is also thought that at one point, more than 400 different nations coexisted in North America.

Mochica Zampoña panpipe players with split pipes
(detail from a Mochica Vase Found in the northern
Pacific Coast in Trujillo, Peru.  About 100 A. D.)

                                                      Nomadic peoples from Asia crossed the Bering stretch into North America

At the time of the Spanish and Portuguese invasion of South America and the Caribbean five hundred years ago as many as 1500 indigenous languages were spoken there, matched by at least that many forms of music.  Much of this music was vocal, commonly heard in religious and ceremonial rituals.  Some cultures had no musical instruments, yet others had literally hundreds, including bull-roarers (a trumpet made from the horn of an animal, elongated empty tree trunks or a conch shell) measuring from a few inches to several feet in length; flutes of gold, silver, cane, human and animal bones; skin drums made from logs, clay or human bodies; wooden gongs fabricated from huge logs.  The list is nearly infinite. It is thought that even string instruments  existed among some of these cultures, but this theory remains largely debated. 

Soldiers of fortune, missionaries and colonists from Spain and Portugal formed the second wave of immigrants to South America, beginning with Columbus' first encounter with the “New” World in 1492.  History and heritage aside, this date symbolizes the colliding of two very unique, richly advanced and complex worlds, which will ultimately bring about the demise of the native civilizations of the Americas.  Demographers have estimated that as many as sixty million native Indians in the Americas died as a consequence of the conquest, war, enslavement and disease of the European Invasion by far the largest – and completely unrecognized - holocaust in history.  No European nation, the Catholic Church or the U.S. have offered an official apology to date. 

 On the positive side, the Iberian musical legacy includes various forms of the ancestor of the guitar which were known then as guitarrillos and other European musical instruments, specially the, violin, and military band instruments: trumpet, saxophone and snare-drum.  The harp was another European instrument introduced to the Andes by Irish Jesuits.  In South America, various regional guitar-like instruments evolved molded by the natives after the small guitar like instruments brought by the European immigrants and colonists of the time.  The diminutive Charango (often made from the shell of the Armadillo) and the Ronroco (a larger Charango-like instrument) in the Andes; the twelve-string Tiple in Colombia, the Cuatro in the plains shared by Venezuela and Colombia; and the Viola Caipira and Cavaquinho of Brazil.  In Chile and Argentina, the Spanish guitar has remained virtually intact as the most common musical instrument.  In the Caribbean as in South America many small string instruments developed too such as the cuatro, Bordonua and Timple in Puerto Rico and the Tres in Cuba. 

All over Latin America, Spanish troubadour singing and European influenced strumming traditions, like its stringed instruments and language, persist to this day, in barely modified form.  As the conquistadors prohibited the Indians to perform their own indigenous instruments and music in hopes to acculturate them more rapidly; as a deterrent for the Indians to rebel and as a way to avoid that the Indians missed their own ways the Spanish quickly forced the natives to assimilate Spanish and other types of European secular and religious music. 

The third wave—African slaves forced from West Africa—also contributed significantly to the culture, religion and music of the Americas.  The enslavement of the African people reached impressive levels during the 1700’ with the support of the European powers of the time and the agreement of the Roman Catholic Church.  Hispanic Roman Catholicism allowed African culture and music in the Americas to continue in ways somewhat reminiscent of the African homeland.  Call-and-respons­e singing was allowed to persist, contributing to group-cohesiveness; in the other hand African people found their Indian counterparts to be culturally and musically closer to their own. Music among the Indians was also used to strengthen group cohesiveness, and was practiced communally as an intrinsic part of life itself.  So integral was music weaved within the life of the Indians that, in Quechua, the most important language of the Andes, a word to designate the concept of music did not exist.  Not only were the social functions of music among Africans and Indians similar, but their dance forms were more reminiscent of each other as well. Both cultures used dance and music for courtship, to celebrate religious fairs and festivals, ceremonies, social events and most importantly as a unique channel to pass on discourses of culture, tradition and history.  

The African slaves and the Indians blended their races and their music over the centuries to create a multitude of rhythms inspired by the African and Indigenous mother lands. African slaves juxtaposed their polyrhythms (layers of rhythms in one song) over the indigenous melodies. At the same time new musical instruments such as skin drums made from logs (like the Andean Bombo), musical bows (like the Brazilian Berimbau), stringed instruments (like the Banjo in the U.S.), and xylophones (like the Guatemalan Gourds Marimba) were created in the New World from those that were collectively recalled from West Africa.  These new musical forms and instruments can still be discerned today.  From the mixture of Indian, African and European bloods new races and sentiments came about.  From Indian and European bloods came the Mestizo and from the blend of African and European the Mulatto was born.  Nowadays the music, food, clothes, culture and religion from the area reflect these diversely rich heritages.  Many aspects of each of these three and subsequent blends survived through the ensuing centuries permeating the fabric of what is identified as Hispanic, Latino or Latino American. 

Even after the independence wars from Spain, France, Portugal and England in which the European crowns lost almost all of their territories and colonies in the Americas, their influence on the culture, music and traditions of South America continued well into the beginning of the 1900’s.  Many musical forms and dances were imported into the Americas towards the end of the 1800’s such as the Waltz from Austria, the Mazurka from Hungary, the Minuet and Bouree from France, the Pasodoble from Spain and the Country Dance from England.  These musics and their respective dances had at first caused an scandal and raised many eyebrows in the European courts due to the fact that earlier types of music required their dancers to barely hold hands and bow respectively to their dance partner.  The newer musical forms demanded that the couple held closer together on an embrace or that they held hands together for longer periods of time.  Such characteristics were unseen in previous musical European forms.  As these made their way into the Americas they were taken at heart and latter creolized by the locals.  The descendants of the African slaves and the Indians aided into the creolization of these musics due to the fact that they resembled more closely their own musics originating in the African or Native motherlands where dances and music were more interacting and held couples closer. 

During the early 1900’s as Europe fell into the tragedy of two consecutive world wars the Americas saw the birth of a superpower and the beginnings of a fourth wave of influence.  Caused by the wars, the political and economic crisis lasted for over 30 years and “civilized” Europe suffered a social, cultural and economic set back.  These events caused the Americas to stop importing cultural and musical influences from the old world and facilitated the world balance of power to gravitate towards the United States.  Thanks to its role in the second world war and latter, by virtue of its political-economic power and its involvement in the Cold War, the U.S. encumbered itself into the world dominant ideology and emerged as the mainstream culture exporting society.  

The fourth wave of cultural and musical influence took shape as the modern-day infusion of popular and folkloric culture from the United States.  Some of the elements of this cultural invasion came in the form of black music (such as jazz, rock and Funk); electric instruments, and modernized interpretations of North American musical folklore by such artists as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  The wave of United States black music and youth culture of the sixties inspired the young revolutionary troubadours of first Cuba and Puerto Rico, and then Chile and Argentina.  This fusion became the Nueva Trova: the anti-authoritarian youth-music movement of the seventies. 

The new genre of the Nueva Trova gained wide acceptance in South America, giving process to the birth of yet another music form that resembled it.  In Chile and Argentina the overthrown democratically elected governments became an inspiration for a new breed of nationalist musicians.  The vindication of all that was native, national and aboriginal was the main goal and thus the New Song Movement saw its birth during the very early seventies as a product of very anti imperialistic feelings. In the other hand, the New Song movement in Chile and Argentina simply replicated the process of modernizing and electrifying ethnic folkloric music, as it have been previously done in the United States during the Folk Boom of the sixties.  The New Song movement became then a potent weapon in the struggle against the cruel authoritarian military regimes backed by the U.S. government and its anti-leftist cold war sentiment of the time. 

These voices, mixed with the themes, sentiments and rhythms of fading indigenous cultures, evolved into the electric/acoustic “Inca-Rock” of South American bands such as Los Jaivas, Illapu and Charlie Garcia, or the more ensemble oriented such as Inti Illimani and Quilapayun or even the popular city sound bands such as Carlos Vibes and Maná who now use these hybrid bicultural musical artifacts to alert enormous Latin American stadium audiences of the outrages perpetrated against the rain-forest, the plains, the highlands and its inhabitants.  

In recent years the United States has received a steady influx of cultural and musical influences from south of the Rio Grande which have inundated the music industry of Latino American, South American, Spanish Influenced, Cuban or Caribbean inspired music.   Newest trends on the popular music scene of the United States have weaved elements from North American pop music with elements of Latin American music and Spanish musical forms to ultimately allow for the emergence of that which is currently known as the Latin Music Genre.  Such artists as Santana, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Stefan and Marc Anthony share this interesting distinction.  The new Latino wave has also influenced the world of Jazz, World Beat, New Age and Dance musics where the timbres of Latin American and Andean instruments with their unique musical moods and blends are mainstays of newer inspirations as well as obligated elements of the western music sonic repertoire. 

                  Today, many South American tribal groups are extinct, and much of the aboriginal music, like parts of the rain forest, has slowly disappeared.  In place of the silenced traditional musical expressions there are many new ones, themselves art forms, attentively responding to the voices of their cultural, social and economic needs.  Some are joyful, some sad or contemplative, but they are always expressively reminiscent of a rich past and vibrantly young as the hopes of their present.



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