Music: Music and Religion in South America

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South America is a remarkably musical and religious continent. All of its countries show vigorous popular and indigenous traditions, which have music and dance as its core. Catholicism is the predominant official religion in all of South America, but the continental religious scenarios are diverse and constantly changing, especially with the recent growth of evangelic churches and with the development of many alternative religions, most of them derived from local and syncretic practices. One common trait in the majority of these South American religious practices is the role of music in religiosity in communicating with spiritual beings.

The centrality of music in South American sacred rituals has been indicated not only by ethnological and ethnohistorical research, but also by archeological evidences of pre-Columbian musical instruments. During the last decades, the knowledge about South American pre-Columbian societies has changed the vision of these groups as simple survivals of Andean complex societies. According to recent archeological research, the settlements around the Amazon River were densely inhabited complex societies, organized in agricultural chieftains with intense ritual life. These findings will change the perceptions of Amazonian societies of the past and also of their music. In Brazil, due to climatic conditions and to the fact that most of the musical instruments were made of perishable materials, few archeological evidences have been found until now. One exception is the deer bone flute found at the Northeastern Zona da Mata's Madre do Brejo site, estimated to be two thousand years old. On the other hand, from the Andes and the Pacific coast there are several archeological records of musical instruments such as pottery rattles, metal cymbals, stone and pottery horns and flutes, and leather and wood membranophones.

Rich ethnographical material comes from the writings of the first voyagers who visited South America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One example is Jean de Léry's description of the religious musical rituals of the Tupi Indians of the Brazilian coast, considered to be the first ethnomusicological account. Voyagers who crossed the continent from the Brazilian coast to Peru through a pre-colonial path named Peabiru provided descriptions of the Guarani Indians' large religious festivals. There are accounts of such musical rituals in various South American lowlands societies, and archeological research reinforces these descriptions with the discovery of enormous pottery vessels used in drinking rituals.

Since the beginning of the invasion of South America by European peoples, missionaries made a systematic and strategic effort to convert indigenous societies to Christianity, trying to make them abandon their beliefs and native cults. The procedures of the missionaries were sometimes violent, involving even the destruction of musical instruments and the demonization of certain music repertoires. European Church music was largely used for this goal, including translation of Christian texts into native languages. Music was largely used to attract indigenous peoples to the missions. A remarkable example of the dimension of these missions is the so-called Sete Povos das Missões (Missions' seven peoples), a conglomerate of Jesuit missions founded in the region of southern Brazil and northern Argentina in the seventeenth century. In these reduções (reductions, as those missions are called), hundreds of Indians were taught to construct and play European early Baroque music. At the end of the seventeenth century, Sepp, a Jesuit missionary especially dedicated to musical activities, wrote a letter in which he reported that music was played daily by the Indian musicians at mass and that if all those musicians were assembled, they would amount to 3,000 people. This strategy was largely employed in South America in general.

During the Brazilian colonial period (15001822), large populations of people were brought from western Africa to work as slaves. The religious practices of these people and their Afro-American descendents are very musical, and this religious musicality influenced much of Brazilian contemporary music and culture. Much historical data about the Afro-Brazilian religious and musical practices was preserved. In contrast, in Peru, the music of African descendents was ignored and emphasis was placed upon the Indigenous musical heritage. However, both cases show that the Colonial period was crucial in the construction of South American popular religiosity. The colonial heritage is usually analysed through the idea of syncretism in all South American popular celebrations, many of them part of the Catholic calendar, though there are notable regional differences.

Many popular contemporary Brazilian festivals have dance and music as their central axis. For example, there is the Festa do Divino Espírito Santo (Holy Spirit's Feast), which occurs seven weeks after Easter, in which several musical genres are represented, such as congadas and catiras. During this ritual, a group of singers visits a villager's house asking for donations. Between Christmas and January 6, hundreds of cities in Brazil celebrate the Folia de Reis (Companies of Kings), their songs recalling the Three Kings' journey to welcome the baby Jesus. Musicians playing viola (five-stringed guitar), pandeiro (tambourine) and cavaquinho (four-stringed mandolin-like guitar) accompany the singers. During the Festas Juninas (June Festivals), which celebrate Saint Peter, Saint Anthony and Saint John, the musical genre played the most is forró, which originated in northeastern Brazil and is usually played by a trio of accordionist-singers, a triangle player, and a zabumba player (the zabumba is a sort of bass drum).

If Brazilian popular religiosity expresses itself through musical practices, one may say the same happens in all of South America, considering its common cultural heritage from the indigenous peoples and the colonizers and immigrants from Europe. Other examples are the Señor de los temblores (Cuzco, Peru), the Señor de los Milagros (Lima, Peru) and the Cuasimodo (Chile), this last example a religious procession that takes place on the Sunday after Easter. There is great variability concerning the musical instruments employed and their repertoires.

In Peru, Catholic and agricultural popular festivals are the center of community life in Andean villages like Conima, where they occur at least once a month. In the rituals of t'inka and ch'alla, Aymara Peruvians worship local deities and also sacred places, such as certain rivers that are conceived as animate and powerful. The maker of the musical instruments is a community member who is considered to be the owner of esoteric knowledge. Recent investigations of similar rites have identified symbols of Indian identity and subversion codified in music, choreography and mask styles.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, ethnological research has shown that shamanism constitutes not only a curing system but a fundamentally religious practice, facilitating the interaction between humans and supernatural beings. South American lowlands indigenous societies' worldviews reveal simultaneously a deep religious sense and a musical hearing of the world. In all these peoples, there is a central role of the shaman both as curer and mediator between human and spiritual beings. The connection between mythic beliefs and everyday life makes it possible to think of these cosmologies as native systems of thought about the universe, or, in other words, as religions.

The indigenous peoples who live in central Brazil's Upper Xingu Park believe their cosmos is populated by spiritual beings that severely interfere in human lives. They are monstrous invisible spirits, related to certain animals, plants, and other natural beings, and can only be seen by the shaman through his tobacco-induced trance. For the Xinguanos, all human sicknesses originate from these spirits' actions on the body, into which they throw an invisible object in order to provoke sickness and death and steal the precious human souls. The cure of a sick person is highly related to the aesthetic dimension in such a way that the restoration of health may be equated with the restoration of the original condition of beauty. A ritual must be performed in which the music of the specific spirit causing the sickness is played. All native music belongs to these spirits, and it is played in curing rituals in order to please the spirits and to transform them from the sick person's enemy to his life-enduring ally.

The Guarani compose one of the largest indigenous societies of South America, the total population amounting to about 150,000 people living in Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. After more than five hundred years of contact with European colonizers, of submission to forced labor by Portuguese and Spanish invaders and of threats to eradicate their religious beliefs by Jesuit missionaries, the Guarani continue to speak their language and perform their music in daily rituals. In daily shamanistic rituals, as the Sun, the creator hero, sets in the horizon, the Guarani sing, play and dance, for music is the path to reach the divinities. The communication with the spiritual beings is a means for the Guarani to express their orphaned state, for their ancestors were abandoned by the Gods as they left this earth. Guarani rituals serve to ward off sadness and exercise the body, and at the same time serve to care for the health of the entire earth. The Kaiowa Guarani use maraca rattles and rhythmic sticks, and the Mbyá Guarani use also guitar, fiddle and drum. The Chiriguano Guarani from Bolivia, adorned with leather or wooden masks, play the quena flute during the extended festival calendar. The Mbyá use of guitar and violin is an example of how musical instruments introduced by the European colonizers in the early years of contact were appropriated by the Indians into their native mythology. As early as the seventeenth century, a dictionary of Guarani language, elaborated by the Jesuits, presents a definition of mbaraka that includes, beside the rattle, string instruments such as the guitar and fiddle. Currently the Guarani in southeastern Brazil and Argentina use in their rituals a five-stringed guitar that is tuned in a special way.

All indigenous rituals show a central role of music, and in fact they may be considered music rituals. At the same time, these ritual activities concern spiritual or supernatural beings, myths and mythic beliefs, or in other words, their cosmology. Ethnologists have been studying Amerindian cosmologies as essentially shamanic, arguing that the figure of the shaman centers all ritual and mythic thought, for he is the subject who can perceive different perspectives to the universe. Several ethnographies emphasize the shamanic practice as both healing and musical, such as the Shipibo-Conibo of the Peruvian Amazon, whose shamanic songs are transformed into invisible drawings that are printed on the patient's skin.

In the last few decades, South American indigenous societies have experienced the reinforcement of native identities and, at the same time, faced the increasing presence of various protestant churches in their villages. In this scenario, in which native cosmologies reveal both adaptation and appropriation of elements of these churches, the role of music remains strategic, as has been shown for the Wichi of Argentina.

In fact, since the 1990s there has been a noticeable growth of evangelic churchesespecially the Pentacostal movementthroughout all South America. This growth parallels the retraction of Catholicism, even in Brazil, which is considered the largest Catholic country in the world. A reaction of the Catholic Church has been its so-called Movimento Carismático (Charismatic Movement), which largely employs typically evangelic strategies directly related to music. In this sense, there is a stimulation of musical practices and an opening to a variety of musical genres, particularly those appreciated by the younger generations, such as rock and rap music. This is a model imported from North American protestant churches, widely adopted in Brazil and all South American countries. American black music, like gospel, has been a fundamental influence on this popularization of the evangelic music movement. The Catholic charismatic movement has been trying to adopt the use of popular music genres, but the church's conservative leadership does not approve of this modification. For example, the Vatican released a document ordering the return to the earlier mass ceremony, condemning the use of popular music.

In Brazilian culture, the official and the popular, as much as the religious and the superstitious, intermingle in such a way that there is a generative process that is constantly re-elaborated. Brazilian religiosity is a composite of distinct approaches to the sacred that is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, moving towards syncretism. New religious centers develop alongside the official religions, creating an ever changing and growing religious field, especially among the poorest classes. A similar movement happens in Brazilian music in general, constantly and creatively transforming itself and generating new musical genres, as if religion and music constitute a means of expressing both the protest for the social condition and the meaning of existence. Recent studies show that, instead of over-emphasizing the African components in South American black musical traditions, one should envision all the rich dialectics of these practices.

A famous example of Brazilian syncretism is Candomblé, an African American religion organized around the cult of African mythic ancestors called orixás, but also with reference to indigenous figures (the so-called caboclas ) and to Catholic saints. The music of its cults, understood as a fundamental element of Candomblé, is the only means of getting in touch with these ancestor spirits through trance and possession. Candomblé cults have been growing in Argentina and Uruguay. In Uruguay, African descendent populations take to the streets of the capital, Montevideo, many times per year with their drum orchestras. These are rituals of renewing the cultural identity that are marked by a warrior ethos, all these meanings being generated through music.

In South American cities, young generations following the New Age movement of the eighties are still searching for new ways of developing their religiosity. Due to this, there has been an important growth of practitioners of oriental religions, like Buddhism. However, there is also a vigorous valorization of local and regional identities which points to more authentic local practices, for example, those that mix spirituality and the indigenous world. One example in this direction is the recent psychotropic plants-based religions, like União do Vegetal (Union of the Vegetal) and Santo Daime (Saint Daime), which largely use ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi ). The former religion has in its musical repertoire the master's hinos (hymns), which are sung for the purpose of teaching and leading the collective hallucinogenic experience. Santo Daime and União do Vegetal churches, as well as the practice of mestizo shamans and vegetalistas (vegetalists), have been spreading in many locations all over Brazil and neighboring countries, not only around the Amazonian villages from where they originated, but also in large cities. According to Peruvian Amazon vegetalistas, the power of curing and traveling through time and space is acquired through the memorization of magical melodies and songs called icaros. These songs are learned from plant, animal and stone spirits during dreams or visions.

In northeastern Brazil, the toadas and cantigas lead the religious rituals in which the participants drink a psychotropic plant called Jurema. Amongst indigenous peoples of this region, similar rituals are called toré. The toré rituals exhibit different configurations according to the group. During the drinking of jurema, the Xukurú Indians sing the toré songs accompanied by rattle and flutes made of plastic. In the African-indigenous ritual called catimbó-jurema, the singers are accompanied by drums. Both of these jurema drinking rituals reveal striking Catholic elements.

All the musical performances mentioned here, and others like Carnaval, are expanding the connotations of the religious field to other social and political domains. Though they may not be seen by its agents as instruments to make politics, these rituals reinforce the bonds of social identity by joining religious and ethnic symbols. Thus, many groups that have suffered social prejudice throughout their history recognize that their culture was preserved through the performance of their religious rituals, as the case of Brazilian northeastern Indians, for whom these practices function today as an affirmation of their emerging ethnicity. This particular mixture of the ethnic and the religious is certainly a characteristic of the relationship between music and religion in South America.


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Music: Music and Religion in South America

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