The penetration of European music into the territories recently discovered in America was a sudden phenomenon in many respects. The Spanish colonists took possession of the new world very quickly, replacing its political and administrative system — thanks to a technologically more sophisticated military force — in just over fifty years from the arrival of Columbus in the West Indies and the new continent. The ideological reluctance of the conquerors to consider the value of the indigenous culture, systematically denigrated and essentially compromised by the destruction of the sources, did not allow that the Indian-American musical traditions — traditions to be eradicated as pagan — somehow permeated the music that the Europeans brought with them since the beginning of the colonisation.
Latin American colonial music, at least that liturgical and courtly, was essentially the transplantation of an experienced organ into a new body. Responsible for this transplant were, from the mid-XVI century, musicians born and trained in Catholic Spain, and apart from the individual stylistic features of individual singers and composers, it is difficult if not impossible to draw a clear stylistic distinction between European Spanish music and its equivalent in the American cathedrals. Too strong was the cultural heritage of the motherland, too sudden the overlap with the original cultures of the New World, too brutal the caste distinction even in the cultural sphere, too rigid the need to use music as an instrument of colonization, because the elements proper of the American tradition could filter into the cultured music of the colonies.
If a general difference can be observed between the two musical worlds, it is perhaps a certain technical simplification of American harmony, whose execution had to be entrusted for a long time to ensembles of musicians and singers with less preparation and less virtuosity.
At the same time, on the outskirts of the new Spanish empire, where the monolith of Hispanic culture crumbled into more hybrid outposts, not only did the original music of the American continent partially penetrate the conceptual score of European music, but also served as a bridge for the assumption of totally heterogeneous models, such as those deriving from African traditions imported with enslaved labor. It was precisely where the orthodox apparatus of the Catholic faith could exercise its control less strictly, in the religious outposts of the missions, where a space was opened so that the exchange between the expressive forms could — albeit timidly — give rise to an original musical culture. And it was the natural curiosity of the defeated for the “tools” of Spanish domination, that allowed the flowering of new instrumental forms, disinterested in organological orthodoxy.
It is unfortunately certain in world history that the voice that is preserved is that of the winner, and the Spanish America of the “siglo de oro” was no exception to this rule. It is likely that no one considered that it was worth transcribing the musical “inventions” born spontaneously outside the official channels of art, on the borders of the empire, mestizas and hybrid works as their composers. However, these works have not stopped playing. We can still listen to them in the cheerful sound of the paraguayan harp, in the huayno rhythms of the Peruvian domingacha harp, in the nostalgic melody of the “Cascabel” played with the jarocha harp in Mexico or in the sweet country lyric of the Venezuelan and Colombian arpa llanera.
The Amerindians, African Americans and all the intermediate castes that these groups formed with the conquerors through genetic exchange, were on the other hand very receptive to the Spanish musical traditions — which they incorporated into their own lost rites — and to the new instruments that the Europeans brought with if in the New World.
It is curious to note that, probably due to the absence of prominent harpists among the Spanish musicians who arrived in America, a repertoire for harp was not preserved and developed in the New World, whilst the harp itself triumphed in America to be interpreted into the various forms it assumed — and which still exist — in the Latin American musical geography.
The primary objective of this study — that of following the development of harp music from its landing on the American shores to the creation of a Hispano-American “own language” — was substantially frustrated by the absence of original sources that allow to trace the fundamental stages. Nonetheless, the examination of Spanish music straddling the two worlds — from its Castilian origins to the formation of the first “classical” musicians born in the colonies — has allowed us to see how new currents, influenced by radically different cultures, have in fact given place to basis for the development of a music rich in innovative elements such as that of modern Latin America.
The “angelic music” of the New World was, by vocation, ideologic and religious, it was Castilian music under new skies. Out of necessity and opportunity, however, it gave birth to a completely new music that, if it could not leave irrefutable traces of its becoming, appears instead suddenly “mature”, like Minerva from the head of Zeus, in the rhythms and instruments of the modern Latin American tradition.
The “middle kingdom” of this story is perhaps partially written in some secondary archive of the parishes and colonial buildings, waiting to be discovered and interpreted. I hope this will be a glimpse, however narrow and risky, towards future research.
There is no doubt that the harp was, among the musical instruments that Europeans brought with them to the new overseas lands, one of those that most struck the attention of the Amerindians. Its characteristic “celestial” sound, totally unprecedented among the sounds of indigenous instrumental equipment, perhaps made it the favourite among the plucked instruments adopted by the popular Amerindian cultures, as still testified by the numerous regional versions that have embodied this instrument in all Americas who came into contact with the Spanish world and its musical culture.
Already Garcilaso de la Vega had found a way of amazement at the speed with which the indigenous Americans were able to reproduce, with improvised techniques, the instruments imported by the conquerors. In the specific case of the harp, perhaps precisely the organological difficulties in its construction favoured the birth of autonomous variations in the dimensions, shapes and sounds, which probably formed the basis for modern Latin American harps.
The notation of a specific repertoire for American harps is not known except from the late nineteenth century: too far from the era that interested us in this study to be able to shed light on the musical origins of modern harp in Latin America. It is therefore unlikely the possibility to reconstruct a continuous path that leads directly from the classical instruments arrived from Spain at the end of the XV century to the vernacular versions that defined the non-canonical use of the angelical instrument in America. It is nevertheless of great interest to note that an instrument which, due to its specific sound, seemed to lend itself in a special form to the execution of celestial and liturgical music, was adopted, modifying it for the purpose, to translate a local repertoire that is not sacred but popular, as we can listen today in the music composed for Latin American harps.
As we said, the trait-d’union between the two worlds, that of the recently subjugated cultures that showed an authentic interest in absorbing elements of the new dominant culture and make them their own in a hybrid language, and that of the cultures that finally resulted from this immense experiment of human and cultural hybridisation that is modern Latin America, it was never transcribed. In the absence of sources, it is up to the musicologist, rather than the historian, to “read” the inventions of modern Hispanic-American music and research the sounds that generated them initially.
I believe that this research could be not only musically very fruitful, but able to write at least in part some chapters of a musical history, that of the defeated, of which we know only fragments, but which have given birth to one of the most original and fruitful repertoires of contemporary music.