Chapter two.

Music at the time of the Conquest

As far as Mexica12 culture is concerned, music related to religious rites and ceremonies was composed and performed by cuicapiztles, a privileged class of professional musicians, prepared in specific schools for music and dance called cuicacallis ("houses of song"). Being a member of the "caste" of singers and musicians was a great honour and privilege, but also a great responsibility as the music was not only accompanying the ceremony, but it was the core of ceremony itself. A mistake in the musical performance meant a mistake in the observance of the ritual, which compared to an insult to the gods (punishable by death!). It is therefore easy to deduce that the technical and executive level of indigenous musicians and dancers had to be very high. On his return to Spain, Hernan Cortes, the conquistador responsible for the conquest of the territories corresponding to present-day Mexico, will bring with him some natives musicians, singers and dancers — along with some acrobats and jugglers — to exhibit them in front of His Majesty Charles V and the Pope who, according to the reports of the time, were duly impressed.13

For the Incas, a society deeply based on agriculture, music was more integrated into their daily activities, used to celebrate the harvest, sowing, the rainy season, but also for more familiar celebrations. It was not unusual for ordinary citizens to have flutes and percussion instruments for use during agricultural ceremonies and rites, but also for use in any gathering situation.14


12 The word “Aztec” is a neologism introduced in the eighteenth century and thus unknown to the Mexicas, the ancient inhabitants of the Mexican plateau. 

Tess Knighton, Companion to Music in the Age of the Catholic Monarchs, vol. 1, Companions to the Musical Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2017), p. 333.


13 Paul Scolieri, Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest (University of Texas Press, 2013),, p. 9.



14 Mark Brill, Music of Latin America and the Caribbean, op.cit., p. 300.

Musical instruments


Indigenous instrumentation is common to almost the entire geographical extension of Latin America – with the adoption of different terminology among each nation.15 The instruments used can be divided into three main categories: percussion, noise and rattles, and wind instruments.

The most important group, particularly for the people of Mesoamerica,16 was that of percussion, associated with war and festivity. At their arrival in the New World, the Spaniards were fascinated by these instruments capable of producing a music that can invigorate the soul but also intimidate listeners. Although they referred to these instruments with the general terms atabales or atambores, they took care to transcribe, in their writings, their names in the indigenous terminology, in order to better convey the idea of the enormous difference in timbre that characterised each of these instruments.17 In this group, we find instruments such as the huehuetl18 or the teponatzli,19 widely spread in Mexico and Central America, or even the smaller tinya used mainly in the Andean area up to Peru. 


15 The Aztec teponatzli can be found in the Mayan tunkul or the Zapotec tun, or the Aztec huehuetl with the Mayan zacatan. (Miura, La musica precolombianaop. cit., p. 110).


16 In the Andean area the family of flutes was of greater importance.


17 Miura, La música precolombinaop. cit., p. 112.


18 Large wooden cylinder carved into a single block and closed by a membrane on one side, used mainly to accompany the dance, but also to signal dangers or for the call of warriors. 

Marguerite and Raoul D’Harcourt, La música de los Incas y sus supervivencias (Lima: Occidental Petroleum Corporation of Peru, 1990), p. 19.


19 Hollow wooden cylinder with a rectangular opening on one side and an H-shaped opening on the other, capable of producing two different sounds. It always accompanied the huehuetl in the dances. (Marguerite and Raoul D’Harcourt, La música de los Incas y sus supervivenciasop. cit., p. 21).

In the second group, we find instruments such as rattles (chicahuatzli, like a rain stick), and rasps (omichicahuatzli). 

Among the wind instruments probably a later group, given the complexity of the thought behind the operation of these instruments we find trumpets, which could be large shells (atecocoli), pumpkins emptied or pieces of wood machined and drilled at the ends and flutes, mainly in bone, clay (tlapitsali20) or cane (antara or siku21, quenaquena22).

With the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous "instrumentarium" will expand with the adoption of instruments imported from the old world (especially those with strings, plucked and bowed) and, later, with the construction, on-site, of instruments derived from those of the Spanish (remember for example instruments such as the charango, cavaquinho, cuatro). 

Starting with the first expedition of musical instruments by the Catholic Kings in 1497, instruments that were fundamental to music as it was conceived in the Old World were imported from Spain. It is therefore legitimate to speculate that the first instruments imported were harps, guitars and vihuelas and organetti (the four main instruments of the basso continuo in the Iberian peninsula), but also wind instruments such as flutes, chirimias and cornetti. The introduction of stringed instruments into the New World was an incredible novelty given their total absence from the indigenous corpus of instruments.


20 They were clay flutes (more rarely in stone) that could be single but also multiple, able to produce more sounds at the same time. The latter denies the theory of the total absence of harmony within the indigenous music system. Surely the melodies were thought of as monodies, but the sense of harmony (as fullness of sounds, of colour) was certainly there in indigenous populations of Latin America. The construction of this type of instrument, in fact, requires a great deal of knowledge at the acoustic level from the manufacturer, and technical knowledge from the performer. Even today, in the region of Lake Titicaca, there are complexes of tarqas and pincullus. 

Samuel Martí, Music before Columbus - Musica Precolombina, 2nd ed. (Mexico D.F.: Ediciones Euroamericanas Klaus Thiele, 1978), p. 85.


21 These are the names used for the instrument that today is known as the Pan flute, an instrument composed of several pipes of different sizes linked together, able to produce different sounds.


22 Still widely used today, with the name of quena, it is a pierced tube barrel and can produce up to seven different sounds. 

As far as music in the Old World is concerned, it is necessary to remember, as specified in the previous chapter, its importance in the political and spiritual world of the Catholic Kings. It is no coincidence that one of the largest collections of secular songs of the time — the Cancionero de Palacio was compiled for and by the will of the Catholic Kings. This collection, which includes 550 songs by different authors (Juan de Anchieta, Lope Baena, Juan del Encina among others) and dates back to the last third of the XV century, is the largest collection of court songs and includes all sorts of lyrics (chivalrous, picaresque, pastoral, historical, religious, humorous) — mainly in Castilian, but also in Italian, Basque and Portuguese while the prevailing musical form is the villancico.

The villancico was one of the most widespread musical forms in Spain. It has a strophic structure,23 often associated with the Arabic zajal24 and owes its name to the villanos (= villagers, commoners), being a type of composition of a popular nature, used during rural festivities, similar to other musical genres developed simultaneously in other areas of Europe, such as the Italian frottola or the French chanson. Later it will also be introduced into the ecclesiastical environment and from there associated in particular with the Christmas period.


23 “A kind of verse that is composed solely to be sung [...]. In the villancicos there is a head and a feet; the head is a verso of two, or three or four lines [...] which is customary to repeat after the feet. The feet are a stanza of six lines, being a sort of variant of the theme contained in the head”. Juan Díaz Rengifo, Arte Poética Española (Salamanca: 1592).


24 A term associated, in Hispanic-Arabic sources, with a strophic poem with a precise structure and language. Otto Zwartjes, Love Songs from Al-Andalus: History, Structure, and Meaning of the Kharja, vol. 11, Medieval Iberian Peninsula (Leiden: Brill, 1997), p. 95.

In the New World, the villancico was exported only as a religious composition. In the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, in particular, there was an enormous flowering of the kind, used for the liturgical office of holidays.25 It was, in fact, one of the tasks of the chapel masters to compose villancicos that would replace the motets and responsories in Latin.

However, the liturgy was not the only destination of the new villancicos which, while maintaining their sacred character, were used as an indispensable component of festivities and manifestations that took place outside the sacred place.

In the colonies of America, the structural elasticity of the Spanish villancico led, in the colonies of America, to a new and unthinkable outcome: the absorption, under the pressure of the Indian and African-American substratum, of elements foreign to the European tradition, and the flowering, alongside the traditional villancico, of the vernacular villancico in its two main types of indio, in Quechua or Nahuatl, and of guineo, in the Creole dialects. This new American variant of the villancico is more evident in the rhythmic field: in the simplified European schemes syncopes and counter-tempos are inserted, all on the accompaniment of plucked or percussion instruments. These villancicos could be called negrillos or negritos, inditos, guineos depending on which pseudo-language was inserted within the text, generally written in Spanish.

Among the most outstanding New World composers of villancicos are Manuel de Sumaya, Juan de Araujo and Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, which we will discuss in more detail in the next chapters.


25 Remember the fact that the villancico, in the Old World, has a sacred character but not liturgical, never being included in the celebration of masses and other religious rituals.

Under the impulse of a powerful and ambitious aristocracy, and under the guidance of a clerical apparatus committed to evangelise an entire continent, not only the capitals of the Vice-kingdoms and of the principal Capitaincies, but soon others among the most conspicuous Spanish settlements of the New World, equipped themselves with important cathedrals, symbols of the new earthly power and the new religious universe. Urchueguía traces the early stages of the diocesan colonisation and the consequent architectural colonisation represented by the erection of the cathedrals across all the territories of the New Spain and the Vice-kingdom of Peru, beginning with the cathedral of Santo Domingo in 1511, followed by Panama in 1515, Jamaica (1515), Baracoa in Cuba (1518), Mexico City (1530), and then León, Oaxaca, Honduras, Lima and Quito.

By the mid-XVI century, at least twenty-five cathedrals of the Roman church were shining under the American sun, and these cathedrals had to resound with music.4

The year of 1537 marks the first official establishment of a professionally trained musician in America, with the arrival at Cartagena of the maestro de capilla Juan Perez Materano. In 1539, Juan Xuárez is appointed as the first chapel master of the cathedral of Mexico, soon followed by Hernando Franco. Before the end of the XVI century, the figure of the New Spain composer Juan de Lienas emerges.


Cristina Urchueguía, “La colonización musical de Hispanoamérica,” op. cit., p. 482.

These musicians, chapel masters and composers were finally able to leave a corpus of works that testify to the development of music by the American colonies during the first two centuries that followed the conquest, a set of scores and styles that, as said, rival the pomp of European contemporary music from which they derive directly.

Certainly, the Neo-American music of which we possess tangible evidences is essentially the ecclesiastic one, because this was considered as the most important among the musical forms and, for this reason, it was transcribed, copied, conserved, and sometimes printed. This musical practice has undoubtedly left us masterpieces in the figures of the chapel masters who travelled from Spain before, and then from their criollos followers, born and trained in American soil, and some of whom we will deal with individually in the following chapters of this discussion. I then will present work devoted to these emerging figures in the history of colonial music.

Due to the nature of courtly pomp in the centres of colonial power, as handed down to us in the paintings that illustrate the life in the Hispano-American courts, as well as the presence on the American soil of professional musicians since the early decade of the XVI century, there is no doubt that music must have played a significant role in secular life. Unfortunately, we do not possess either direct sources — scores, manuscripts and other documents — nor indirect, in the form of detailed reports, which allow us to document with certainty the development of secular music in the American colonies. Nevertheless, if one looks at the Viceroyal palace of Mexico City in the XVII century, as depicted by an unknown artist on a room divider now at the Museo de América in Madrid; the painting by an artist from Cuzco of the marriages between the Loyola and Borja houses and the descendants of the Incas (now at the Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima); the splendid and detailed view of the arrival in Potosí on the new Vice–King Morcillo, painted by Melchor Pérez Holguín (Museo de América, Madrid); and, most of all, the splendid portrait of María Luisa de Toledo, daughter of the Vice-King of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, Marquis of Mancera; it is absolutely clear how the grandeur of architecture, the style and richness of the costumes, the elaboration and the magnificence of the processions, as well as the individual care of the person, were typical of a feudal aristocracy not dissimilar in its uses from that which constituted its European roots. The palaces of the American colonies were surely equally enlivened by a rich courtly musical practice. 

In the same way, we do not possess tangible documents of the other great current of colonial music, represented by the veritable melting pot of styles, ethnic and cultural traditions that took shape in the Catholic missions in charge of opening new routes of evangelisation. It is here, where Spanish dogmatism left room for a more fruitful relationship of teaching and learning with the native population and with the new Afro-American inhabitants, where the premises were created for the development of an “own” New World music, whose unique features are still visible today. The música de las misiones will be the theme of the next chapter of this work.

Pre-columbian music


The large number of different ethnic and cultural lineages that have populated pre-Columbian Americas surely accounts for a vast, rich and articulated musical landscape. This is true despite the direct sources on the American music that preceded the arrival of European conquerors being scant, and in large measure biased by the general attitude with which the Spanish used to denigrate and diminish the indigenous Amerindian cultures. For the specific aim of this introduction to the musical aspects of the American cultures, as they were known by the conquistadores and as they in some way marginally influenced the early colonial music, I will limit my overview to the two most important civilisations that the conquerors found in America, namely the Aztecs and the Incas.

As explained earlier in this discussion, at the time of the first encounter with the Amerindian cultures, the Spaniards often adopted, in their chronicles and diaries, an attitude of disdain for those populations that they considered barbaric (a concept that was recurrent until the XVII century, when Pérez de Ribas entitled his book Historia de los Triunfos de nuestra Santa Fe entre gentes las mas bárbaras y fieras del Nuevo Orbe, stating that the natives were "much inferior in quality”).5 The emphasis on some aspects of the American cultures that resulted ethically and religiously unacceptable to the  European man of the Renaissance, like the ritual human sacrifice and, in some cases, the practise of cannibalism, must have partly influenced the negative approach that the conquistadores reserved to the inhabitants of the New World and their traditions. The Spaniards could not deny the magnificence of the cities, the richness of the jewels or the opulence of the festivities of some of the indigenous peoples. Music, however, was not one of the indigenous arts praised and appreciated by the conquerors. Undoubtedly, the fact that they were suddenly faced with a sound for which they were not prepared and that they initially associated with fighting,6 did not encourage the appreciation of the music played by the American natives, a form of art that had to sound quite rudimentary to a European ear. Nevertheless, in many of the early Spanish chronicles, we can find an irrefutable recognition of the natural musicality of the inhabitants of the New World.7


5 Enrique Martínez Miura, La música precolombina (Barcelona: Paidós Iberica, 2004), p. 30.


6 Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes the use of music to inculcate fear and uncertainty, saying that the natives “[…] played their damned atambor and other trumpets and atabales and snails and gave many cries and screams […]”, (Miura, La música precolombinaop. cit., p. 33).



7 In this regard Geronimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica indiana tells us that "One of the main things that in all that land was, were the songs and dances [...]. And for this reason, and because it was a thing of which they did much, in every town and every lord in his house had a chapel with his singers […]". (Miura, La música precolombinaop. cit., p. 39).

Despite the almost total absence of original written music sources, there is still a body of iconographic and written evidence transmitted by the Spanish historians who visited the New World during the Conquest, that inform us that the natives had their own musical culture and that, although varying from tribe to tribe, that culture had common general characteristics.8

As with most cultures based on mythical thought, those who lived in the New World also believed that music, as well as some of their musical instruments,9 had been given to them by their gods. For the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl10 extracted music from the Sun and then handed it over to men, so that they were not sad and had a suitable way to worship the gods. The Incas believed that was the god Tambo who had gifted the music to humans. For the Maya, the god Hunhunahpu "[...] taught his two sons [...] to play the flute, to sing […]”).11 Being so closely linked to the mythical-religious world, it is therefore understandable that the whole indigenous musical world was directed and organised by the priestly caste, which was responsible for the rituals and the education of musicians, as well as for the custody of the musical instruments. 


8 Shirley M. Smith, “The History and Use of Music in Colonial Spanish America 1500-1750” (Loyola University Chicago, 1948).

9 According to the myth, for example, the Sun gave the huehuetl and the teponatzli to Texcatlipoca, who in turn passed they on to humans (the two Aztec names are linked to those of the two deities who, against the will of the Sun, brought music to humans and for this reason were banned on earth in the form of musical instruments).

10 Deity from the Mesoamerican culture whose name means “feathered serpent”; god of wind, air and learning.



11Miura, La música precolombinaop. cit., pp. 49-51.

“Music […] was never a sideshow on life but part of the great emotions, religion and love: voice of the first language, that of the heart.” 

John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America, 1st ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: The Country Life Press, 1946), p. 316.


Considering the importance American aborigines gave to music for their social and religious life, the scarce amount of documentation made by the Spanish must be assumed to be only a pale representation of American indigenous music. Notwithstanding the efforts made by ethnomusicologists to shed light on the reality of ancient American music, the lack of any single original document on Central and Southern American music has been an insurmountable impediment to present knowledge — this was largely a result of the Conquistadores’ destruction of the written sources of the New World civilisations. Even referring to “Hispano-American” music implies the existence of a false assumption of cultural homogeneity that is thought to have existed during the XVI and XVII centuries within Northern and Southern American territories — extending from modern-day New Mexico all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

On the other hand, the influence of indigenous music of the Americas on the Spanish had little to no effect on the musical performance of Spaniards during the XVI and early XVII centuries. For instance, the apparatus of the American conquest was for a long time essentially a military, administrative, and religious force, which only allowed for a marginal amount of artistic and musical participation. For almost fifty years since the “discovery”, America had no formally trained European musicians and instead indigenous players, perhaps with their own instruments, had to be employed in religious and secular acts.

It was not until 1497, five years after Columbus’ first voyage to America, that the Catholic Kings ordered the shipment of some “musical instruments and music for pasatiempo of the people who have to stay there” (Instrucción of July 15, 1497, in Urchueguía 2012).1 Even though the same ship brought to America the first group of friars committed to evangelising the New World, it is easy to speculate that the instrumental repertoire was not intended for liturgical use. The first European music that the native Americans heard was a secular sound.


1 Cristina Urchueguía, “La colonización musical de Hispanoamérica,” in Historia de la música en España e Hispano América - De los reyes catolicos a Felipe II, ed. Maricarmen Gómez, Fondo de Cultura Economica, vol. 2, 8 vols. (Madrid, 2012), p. 479.

The advent of European music in the newly discovered continent was a gradual, nonlinear, and “imperfect” process, in a large way driven by forces that were not, in essence, of a musical nature. One century after the arrival of Columbus on the American soil, there were grossly one hundred thousand Spaniards who migrated to the New World and established themselves in the West Indies, New Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru. The brutality of the conquest and the epidemic illnesses brought to America by the Europeans severely transformed the demographic structure of the New World, and Spanish colonies soon felt obliged to hire new workmen through a broad use of slavery.
According to the musicologist Cristina Urchueguía, by 1570 the number of black slaves brought from Africa almost tripled that of their white “owners”.2 By the end of the century, the ethnic and cultural composition of Hispano-American society was completely different from what the Spaniards had found when they first arrived in the New World.  The society and the culture created by European colonisers was now a pyramid headed by a minority of Spaniards and their descendants of Hispanic origins born in America (the criollos), followed by the mestizos generated by the mixing of Spaniards with the indigenous population, to whom were extended certain rights and had access to instruction (musical and writing). Finally, at the bottom of the social scale and without any rights, were the indigenous and black slaves and Afro-descendants. An unexpected result of this social context was that the music in the New World, due to the lower population of the Spaniards, obliged them to depend on neo-Hispanic musicians, and it was among the lowest castes that the white colonisers mostly recruited musicians.


2 Cfr. ibidem, p. 470.

In 1535 and 1542, respectively, the Spanish crown organised its American possessions in two Viceroyalties, the Viceroyalty of New Spain, including the Spanish possessions in North America and Central America, excluding Panama, and the Viceroyalty of Peru, including Panama and the South American continent, with exception of the Portuguese possessions. In 1542 the crown created the General Captaincy of Yucatan, followed in 1564 by that of New Granada. This is the political and administrative background which now frames my overall research, as the partition of the Viceroyalty of Peru into the new Viceroyalties of New Granada and Rio de la Plata, as well as the creation of the General Capitaincies of Chile and Venezuela,  did not take place until the XVIII century, and mostly in the late decades of that century.

It is true that the original dream of Isabella and Ferdinand was to avoid the development in the New World of a powerful aristocracy reproducing the feudal tendencies that had hindered the power of the crown in Castile. However, this was a short-lived hope. The administrative model of the encomiendas, or the temporary assignation of rights over a given quantity of indigenous people who had to pay tributes, was soon superseded by a true monarchic organisation.3 The appointment of Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco, heir of a family from the first Castilian aristocracy, as the first Vice-King of New Spain in 1535, opened in effect the doors to the creation of a courtly environment in the American colonies that would have important consequences also on the cultural life of the Spanish overseas territories. Even though the material conditions of the New World, as well as the lack of human resources trained for music, slowed the process, both the secular and religious forces pushed towards the creation of a cultural and musical environment that was considered crucial for the effective control of the overseas possessions. In a steady process, during the XVI and XVII centuries, New Spain before, and the Viceroyalty of Peru later, developed an autochthonous music that can be considered as splendid and colourful as the European music of the time.


3  John H. Elliott, La Spagna Imperiale: 1469-1716 (Bologna: il Mulino, 1982), p. 80.