December is one long, crazy month of music-making. There is a rendition of Messiah or Nutcracker for every taste, and every single soloist and music group known to humankind puts on some sort of holiday extravaganza.
How to decide among the embarrassment of riches?
Let me suggest one concert in particular that you should attend. It is a completely different kind of concert—one that celebrates the extraordinary Baroque music of Latin America.
Navidad en Cuba: Christmas in Havana Cathedral takes place on December 14 at Orchestra Hall, featuring The Rose Ensemble and Minnesota Orchestra ensemble players. (You can get your tickets here.)
I’d like to provide a bit of background about why this concert, and why this music is so remarkable. And to begin, let me tell a story.
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The year was 1990, and I was attending college in St. Paul. I ran across a listing for a concert by a local early music ensemble named Ex Machina that caught my eye… it was called “Little Anthony and the Imperialists: Baroque Music of the New World.”
I immediately did a cartoon-like double take. Wait… what? Baroque music… of the New World? Was there such a thing?
For someone deeply in love with music and Latin America, I was surprised that this was an entire area that I knew nothing about. Driven by curiosity, I quickly resolved to make my way over to the concert.
And it was a concert that has stayed with me ever since.
The title song, Tarara! Tarara! qui yo soy Anton! (“Tra la la, I am Anthony!”) by Antonio de Salazar served as an introduction to an entirely new world of musical possibilities. Ex Machina, assisted by singers from another famed local group, Sounds of Blackness, presented a dazzling array of songs that showed the complex musical traditions of Latin America—and how they intertwined and enriched each other. European counterpoint and polyphony collided with African rhythms and themes, and played over the sounds of Native American instruments. It was clearly baroque music, but unlike anything I had heard before. It was also Latin dance music, but far more sophisticated than any dance music I had ever experienced.
But the concert wasn’t just a musicological exercise—those songs were absolutely incredible. We listened with rapt joy, joined in the rhythmic clapping, and roared our approval as each song concluded.
And as part of the grand finale, they cut loose with one of the most riveting pieces of the night: Los coflades de la estleya by Juan de Araujo. The deliciously complex rhythms, the asymmetrical melody… it was breathtaking.
Again, this concert was life-changing, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been a vocal proponent of Latin American Baroque music ever since.
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As I said in my preview of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new season, I am sorry to report that most music lovers are woefully uninformed about the wonders of the Baroque music written in the New World between 1600 and 1800. This is most unfortunate, because as I discovered first hand, there is nothing quite like it.
While today we tend to think of Latin America as a series of “developing” or “third-world” countries, the reality is that during this time, cities like Mexico City, Havana, Puebla, and Lima were some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Flush with wealth brought in from the lucrative silver trade, the great churches of the region recruited a steady stream of musicians and composers from Europe. A Chapel Master in Mexico City could make a fortune relative to his peers in Italy or Germany, and many eagerly immigrated to the New World to enjoy a standard of living they could never attain in the Old.
It is also interesting to note that these musicians hailed from diverse backgrounds. The Spanish Empire of the time encompassed Milan, Naples, Belgium, and Portugal in addition to Spain itself, and ties between the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria meant that musicians from Central Europe made their way to the New World as well. As a result, the music of Baroque-Era Latin America is a fascinating fusion of these styles, cheerfully drawing from Spanish, Italian, German, and Flemish traditions to create music that is unexpectedly sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
But there’s more. Once set up in the New World, these musicians discovered the rich, vibrant musical traditions of the native peoples and Africans. These musical stylings hit composers like a thunderclap and led to a revolution in composition. Soon church composers were composing religious motets in native languages, such as the Aztecs’ Nahuatl and the Incas’ Quechua. Moreover, they drew heavily from native and African rhythms and instrumentation. European, Indigenous, and African elements came together in new and fascinating ways.
The result is a stunning musical tradition that crackles with rhythm, drive, and excitement. And better yet, it is so unexpected—for years these manuscripts have been gathering dust in the great churches of Latin America, and only in the last 20 years has this music been uncovered and performed.
Looking over the program listed on the Orchestra’s website, two works in particular stand out for me: the aforementioned Los coflades de la estleya by Juan de Araujo, and Xicochi conetzintle by Gaspar Fernandes. These works are absolute jewels that I never tire of listening to.
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Juan de Araujo has a colorful life story. Born in Extremadura, Spain, he crossed the ocean at an early age with his father, and completed his education at the University of San Marcos in Lima, studying composition with Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.
He was involved in some shenanigans as a student, and as a result was banished from Lima by the Viceroy. He went to Panamá, was ordained to the priesthood, and ultimately secured a pardon that allowed him to return to Lima in 1672 as choirmaster. His wanderings were hardly over, however; he relocated to Cuzco Cathedral (Peru) in 1676, and to the Cathedral of La Plata (present-day Sucre, Bolivia) in 1680, where he lived until his death in 1712. While he certainly composed a fair amount of Latin liturgical music, his real talent was in creating vernacular religious songs known as villancicos.
Villancicos had mixed reputation in the colonial world. In these colorful miniatures, composers tossed aside the strict conventions of formal church music and freely made use of popular rhythms, instruments and stories. In doing so, they pushed the boundaries about what was allowed in a church service. Several ecclesiastical leaders such as Domenico Pietro Cerone, complained that such exuberant songs were scandalous, and “threaten to turn God’s Holy temple into a common theater!” Others wryly noted that the announcement of a service of villancicos all but guaranteed a packed house. “No man is more pious than when he hears villancicos are to be performed. Suddenly, he demands that the whole family be gathered up and bustled off to Church at once,” quipped one Archbishop.
Araujo’s Los coflades de la estleya is a perfect example of a boisterous villancico. This is nothing like a graceful, Christmas motet. In place of a stately Christmas procession, the text imagines a joyous rush of African commoners dancing their way to greet the newly-born Jesus in his manger:
Los coflades de la estleya
vamo turus a Beleya
y velemo a ziola beya
con Siolo en la poltal.
¡Vamo, vamo curendo aya!
Oylemo un viyansico
que lo compondla Flasico ziendo
gayta su fosico y luego
lo cantala Blasico, Pellico, Zuanico y Tomá
y lo estliviyo dila:
Gulumbé, gulumbé, gulumbá
guache, guache molenio de Safala.
Bamo a bel que traen de Angola a ziolo y a ziola
Baltasale con Melchola y mi plimo Gasipar
¡Vamo, vamo curendo aya!
Brothers and sisters of the Brotherhood of the Star,
let’s all go now to Bethlehem,
where we’ll see our lovely Lady
with our little Lord in the stable.
Let’s go, let’s go running there!
We’ll hear a carol
that Francisco will compose,
with a gourd to keep the beat;
then Blas, Pedro, Juan and Tomás will sing it,
and the refrain will go:
Gulumbé, gulumbé, gulumbá.
Guaché, guaché! O blacks from Safala!
Let’s see what Baltasar, Melchor and my cousin Gaspar
are bringing from Angola to Our Lady and our little Lord.
But a reading of the text cannot do this piece justice. In concert, you are blown away by the striking, constantly shifting rhythms, which are a precursor to the rhumba… and are absolutely infectious. Plus, its melody could not be more exuberant. Even though this is technically a Christmas song, I unashamedly listen to it throughout the year. It’s that good.
* * *
And it’s quite different from my other favorite on the program, Xicochi conetzintle.
Xicochi conetzintle is the most famous work by Gaspar Fernandes, who lived from 1565 to 1629. Fernnades, originally from Portugal, immigrated to the New World by 1599, taking a job as an organist at the cathedral of Santiago, Guatemala. From there here moved to the prestigious position of Chapel Master at the great cathedral in Puebla, Mexico, remaining there until his death.
Like Araujo, he created a great deal of Latin ecclesiastical music, but he took equal delight in composing vernacular religious songs, too. Xicochi conetzintle, was done in this style, a deliberate blending of European and Native American traditions. It is a Christmas lullaby, written in the Aztecs’ language of Nahuatl, making it immediately accessible to the large number of congregants who spoke neither Spanish nor Latin.
Xicochi, xicochi conetzintlé
ca ōmitzhuihuixocoh in angelosmeh.
Go to sleep, go to sleep revered baby;
the angels are already rocking you.
As a simply lullaby, it could not be more beautiful. Fernandes creates a lilting rhythm that perfectly captures the natural inflection of the Nahuatl language, but also implies a gentle rocking that underlines the message of the text. It is absolutely stunning, and has enjoyed performances outside of those by period music specialists—a version has even appeared on Linda Ronstadt’s album, A Merry Little Christmas.
These works are not simply musical masterpieces, however—they also are brilliant testimonies to the process of cultural mixing that happened in colonial Latin America. And in fact, while I was teaching Colonial Latin American History at the University of Kansas, I used both songs to illustrate how this cultural transformation took place. In both cases these prestigious composers, whose positions put them in colonial Latin America’s elite, were enthusiastically reaching out across cultures for their inspiration. They freely integrated vernacular languages to make their works immediately understandable to their non-European audiences, and did so with a high degree of skill. Fernandes’ text setting of Nahuatl words, for example, is remarkable in that it is highly unlikely that he ever heard the language until he was in his 40s. The rhythms both composers used come entirely from the African and Native American musical traditions—and are still used in Latin American popular music today. The fact that these and similar works were popular and performed frequently over centuries reveal just how multicultural Latin America’s musical tastes really were.
As an aside, both works are featured on the award-winning album, New World Symphonies—Baroque Music from Latin America, with Jeffrey Skidmore conducting the group Ex Cathedra. You can preview the songs from the album here.
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I cannot recommend this concert enough. While I’ve focused on these two particular pieces, the other works on the program share these same wondrous qualities. At the risk of coming off like tired advertising copy, this concert will both surprise and delight you. Especially under the expert interpretations of the Rose Ensemble, one of the Twin Cities best vocal groups. The Rose Ensemble has already recorded a wonderful album of Latin American Baroque music that I highly recommend.
Do not miss this event—get your tickets here!