Latin American Classical Notes

by John Walker

Segment 2: Indigenism, Part 1


    This segment is about indigenism, the musical re-imaginations of Latin America’s ancient civilizations.

    Unlike in the U.S. or Canada, there were sophisticated cultures in what is now known as Latin America. I’m referring to the Aztecs, who occupied the highlands of central Mexico, the Mayans, who lived in southeast Mexico and Guatemala, and the Incans, whose empire expanded along the Andes mountains. The inhabitants of these areas built cities, cultivated the land, organized armies and established trade routes that connected people both within and outside of their territories. They even spoke languages that are still in use today.

    The Mayans, perhaps due to their poorly structured system of leadership, began to abandon their cities during the tenth century and were widely scattered when the Spanish conquerors arrived about 500 years later. In Mexico and Peru, however, the Europeans found civilizations more highly developed than they had even anticipated.

    Music was very important to these indigenes, but in ways that are very different than how we think about music’s role in our culture today. For instance, written by one of the first missionaries to arrive in Incan territory there is a description of a sacrificial ceremony, in which two rows of hundreds of high-ranking Incan officials sing across from each other throughout an entire day, from sunrise to sunset. But here is the problem: although there were plenty of conquistadors, missionaries, and others who wrote about Aztec and Incan music, they couldn’t help but write about it in European terms. Besides, even the most uneducated conquistador—many of whom could not read or write—saw himself as vastly superior to the people they were busy conquering. Take Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who, for example, wrote very dramatic descriptions about the Aztec music that accompanied the sacrificial offerings of Spanish war prisoners to the Aztec war god, Huitzilopochtli:  he found their music to be "horrible and dismal," and their instruments, "demonic."

    Later, after the Spanish colonies had become independent countries, people went out into the countryside to write down songs as they were being sung by the descendants of the Aztecs and Incans. And composers, to reject European colonialism, looked for ways for their music to be not so European.

    So by the early 20th century, an indigenist movement in music began to take shape, but based on what? This is the path we will follow in my next segment.