Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Music transforms kids and towns in remote area of Bolivia

Inspired by a biannual baroque festival and the legacy of missionaries, young people join choirs and take up the violin and Vivaldi in parishes across the country's eastern lowlands.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2008

Two students from a parish in San Ignacio de Velasco participated in the event, the Chiquitos Missions Festival.

Sarah Miller Llana

Enlarge Photos

San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia

Life moves slowly in this town deep in the jungle of Bolivia, 280 miles from the nearest city, where most streets are swaths of red earth, money is made off the land, and TV, for those who own one, is not an after-dinner ritual.

Skip to next paragraph

It is not the kind of place one would normally seek out high culture.

But on a recent evening, off the neatly manicured central plaza, the sonatas of Vivaldi and Haydn pour from the town's imposing cathedral. Even more unusual is who is crowding many of the pews: sneaker-clad youths. They are not here under the duress of some imperious teacher. They're eagerly absorbing the sounds of string and wind instruments redounding through the wood-beamed church.

Their rapt attention is one of the most visible legacies of the International Festival of Renaissance and American Baroque Music, which may be leaving as big a mark on the small towns of eastern Bolivia as anything since the Jesuit missionaries 300 years ago. Perhaps in few places on earth is music transforming the lives of a new generation more than in this remote low-land section of South America.

The biennial baroque festival, which wrapped up last week, draws artists from across the globe who perform a repertoire of classical music that always includes at least one piece from the impressive, sacred archive, begun by the missionaries in the 17th century. The festival also attracts well-heeled tourists from Argentina, Chile, the US, and Europe.

But, more important, it has spurred many of the region's kids to gravitate toward the world of Bach and bass clefs. In recent years, some 2,500 youths from area towns, many of them indigenous, have enrolled in music schools, choruses, and orchestras. Some orchestras are fledgling, set up in church basements with members who still can't read notes. Others have begun to produce first-rate musicians.

Music has brought a sense of hope and revival here the way sports do in inner-city America. While American kids might dream of being the next LeBron James, here it is Boccherini and the anonymous 17th century composers who touched the lives of their ancestors.

"There has been a boom in orchestras in all of these mission towns," says Father Andreas Holl, a Franciscan priest originally from Austria whose church in San Ignacio de Velasco started a 35-member chorus for the community's neediest children last year. "It's not just to pass the time, it is to fill them with something more. If we teach them to be mechanics, they can learn to be good mechanics. But music teaches them to express themselves, and perhaps that way, they learn to be nonviolent."

• • •

On a Thursday afternoon, Adelina Anori Cunanguira rushes to rehearsal with the children's orchestra she conducts, ahead of their performance in the festival. The kids, who range in age from 7 to late teens, run through the church grounds in sandals, their instruments dangling at their sides. But as Ms. Anori Cunanguira directs them through a piece by Italian composer G.B. Bassani, recovered from the archives in the nearby town of Santa Ana, they settle down. "Don't forget to be here at 1 p.m. tomorrow," she reminds them after practice. "I want you to concentrate, and look at the director. Good luck."

Anori Cunanguira epitomizes the success that music has brought to the mission towns. A demure woman in her late 20s, she comes from the indigenous town of Urubicha, where a music school was set up in the mid-1990s as the Chiquitos Missions Festival, as the baroque event is known, was born.