Latin American Classical Notes

by John Walker

Segment 3: Indigenism, Part 2


     As we learned in the previous segment, what the conquistadors and the missionaries wrote about the indigenous music that they heard doesn’t give us a much of an idea as to the shape, length or contour of a melody, or the pattern of a particular rhythm. The same can be said for the many illustrations that were produced during that period.

     Although it’s true that there are thousands of indigenous instruments made of clay and other natural materials that have survived, the normal process of deterioration means that we can’t really tell what the instruments would have sounded like or what notes they might have played moments after being created.

     Even if these instruments were still playable today, none of the Mesoamerican cultures developed music notation, so there’s no written music or any other sort of indication that we could look at. In other words, even if blowing into some clay flute that’s been sitting in a museum could produce a musical sound, we’re still left not knowing the sequence of what holes to close or open.

     So what about the music that was written down by the researchers referred to in the previous segment? Doesn’t that help?

     No, it doesn’t. Just imagine, Mesoamerican children, born before the arrival of the Europeans, might have heard their parents singing their traditional songs. Later, the children of these children, and so on over the centuries, would hear these songs as they were passed down from generation to generation, and with each re-singing, the possibility that little changes would occur. Like a game of telephone, a note might be held a little longer, or it’s a little higher, and soon, it could be a substantially different song than when it was first sung centuries ago. And then, when it was written down by researchers, it was with our regular notes, clefs and rhythms, that is, in the notational system that was developed in Europe. But trying to write indigenous music within the context of European rules is simply the wrong way to frame it. It would be akin to spelling English words but with the thirty-three letters of the Russian alphabet. You could do it, but would someone else know how to read them?

     We’re ready for the next segment, in which we’ll learn exactly how the early to mid-20th century Latin American composers constructed an indigenist style.