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  • UNESCO Collection Week 22: Seeking Identity in Hispanic Music Tradition

    Week 22 of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States (September 15–October 15) with the previously unreleased two-volume set Venezuela: Afro-Venezuelan Music, volumes I and II and a reissue of the 1988 album Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music.


    By Francisco Lara

    As an Ecuadorian-American of mixed racial/ethnic heritage, I am drawn to the rich diversity of musical and other cultural expressions found throughout the Americas. The result of five hundred plus years of cross-cultural encounters (albeit not always welcomed or friendly) mediated through individual and collective musical resistance, accommodation, appropriation, and innovation, musical life in the Americas is a dynamic and vibrant testament to the human capacity for creative adaptation.

    Latin America in particular is home to various musical traditions exemplary of this “roots” and “routes” phenomenon, and perhaps no two albums in the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music better exemplify the rich diversity of musical expression evident in South America than Venezuela: Afro-Venezuelan Music, Volumes I and II, and Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music. From the northeast Caribbean to the southwest Pacific coast of South America, these two records collectively provide listeners with an excellent cross-section of the continent’s cultural and musical diversity and an illustration of the various types of musical/cultural retentions, adaptations, and fusions that are ongoing to this day in Latin America.

    Enslaved Africans taken primarily from the Congo-Angola region to Venezuela during the colonial period brought with them cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and practices. These included musical instruments such as the cumaco and mina drums as well as the mungongo (a mouth-resonated monochord), complex rhythms and dances, song forms, and deities. Over time, these developed in dialogue with the musical traditions and religious practices of the local Amerindian and dominant criollo (people of Iberian descent) and mestizo (people of Iberian and Amerindian descent) populations to constitute the cultural traditions we today identify as Afro-Venezuelan. To speak of Afro-Venezuelan music is to consider an astonishing variety of musical instruments, genres, and practices ranging the full gamut of cultural retentions and fusions.

    Venezuela: Afro-Venezuelan Music, Volumes I and II
    Capturing the roots and routes of Afro-Venezuelan music, the previously unreleased two-volume set Venezuela: Afro-Venezuelan Music, Volumes I and II, meticulously surveys and documents the incredible diversity of music practiced among Venezuela’s Afro-descendant population. Curated by Afro-Venezuelan scholar Jesús Garcia, the collection covers five different Afro-Venezuelan communities—La Sabana, Bobures, Barlovento, El Tocuyo, and Veroes—and an impressive array of musical genres and instrumental ensembles associated with various ritual and festive socio-religious occasions (e.g., saint feast celebrations).

    As a result, this collection treats listening audiences to haunting a capella songs such as the sirenas (“Cantos a San Juan” disc 2, track 13), animated percussion based song and dance genres like cumaco (“Mono-Perra” disc 1, track 2) and tambor mina (“Cantos a Barlovento” disc 2, track 6), and other rhythmically scintillating string accompanied genres such as the joropo de bandola barloventeña (“Gallina no tiene teta”/”Adiós puebla cantadores” disc 2, track 7 & 8). Collectively, these tracks illustrate the complete range of musical retentions, adaptations, and fusions commonly heard throughout the Afro-Hispanic world, from the driving rhythm of the luango golpeao (“Rajuñao” disc 2, track 11) and hybrid fulias (“Décima al muchacho” disc 2, track 4) to the predominantly string-based genres of the joropo (“Gallina no tiene teta” disk 2, track 7) and tamunangue (“La Bella” disc 1, track 10).

    While the music alone makes acquiring Venezuela, worthwhile, listening audiences will undoubtedly also appreciate the wealth of knowledge contained in the project’s thorough liner notes (bilingual,in Spanish and English). Garcia brings to bear his extensive research experience on the specific African origins of Afro-Venezuelan culture in contextualizing the musical selections. In particular, his explanation of the sources of specific musical instruments such as the mina drum (originating with the Mina ethnic group in the Republic of Benin) and of the syncretic “Afro-Catholic” celebration of Ajé Benito will most certainly be of interest to listeners concerned with both the roots and routes of Afro-Venezuelan culture.

    Just as with Afro-Hispanic culture, the rich and varied musical expressions of Latin America’s criollo and mestizo populations are likewise the result of centuries of complex social processes and musical cross-fertilizations. Europeans brought with them stringed instruments such as the vihuela, harp, and violin; popular dances such as the fandango; poetic genres like the copla and décima; and, perhaps most significantly, the Roman Catholic faith and its myriad of musico-ritual practices. Infused over time with elements of Amerindian and Afro-descendant cultural traditions, the resultant musical hybrids today identified with Chile embody the very dynamism reflected in the term mestizo. It is precisely this spirit and aspect of mestizo identity and culture that Chilean music scholar Manuel Dannemann portrays in the album Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music.

    Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music
    Though not quite as comprehensive and ambitious in scope as the Venezuelan album, Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music nonetheless similarly provides listeners with an overview of the main Iberian derived musical traditions emblematic of the Chilean mestizo. The album thus introduces listeners to the spirited rhythms of the cueca (a nationally celebrated genre of song and dance), the solemn poetic song forms of the tonada and the canto a lo poeta, as well as the diverse and discordant sounds of the ritual music of the provinces of Coquimbo, Valparaiso, Tarapaca, Atacoma, and Aconcagua.

    The album’s focus on the routes of Hispanic music are underscored in Dannemann’s excellent contextualization of the selections in the album’s liner notes (in French andEnglish), which thoroughly speculate on the exact origins of certain musical genres such as cueca. The first track in particular, “Songs of the Alféreces and Dances of the Chinos,” which features a ritual song and dance born of Amerindian and European religious beliefs, musico-religious practices, and pre-Columbian musical instruments, best illustrates the dynamic social and musical processes conceptualized in this album.

    In sum, the albums Venezuela: Afro-Venezuelan Music, Volumes I and II, and Chile: Hispano-Chilean Metisse Traditional Music are a celebration of the roots and routes of Latin America’s diverse cultures and musical expressions. They will surely appeal to those interested in exploring questions of cultural origins and processes of musical change as well as to those who enjoy reveling in the poetry, sounds, and rhythms of new music. For those already familiar with the music of Latin America and the African diaspora, these albums offer a well-conceptualized, thoroughly researched, and carefully selected and recorded package certain to satisfy and enrich. And, lastly, for those of Hispanic descent and/or of mixed racial/ethnic heritage such as myself, these albums serve as a source of pride and wonder as to the richness and complexity of America's cultural heritage and the myriad ways in which it is expressed through music.

    Francisco Lara, Ph.D.
    Library Assistant, University of Memphis Music Library

    UNESCO Collection Week 22: Seeking Identity in Hispanic Music Tradition | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings