If you had to choose the most unlikely place on earth to take in a Baroque concert, one with musical instruments, scores, and settings completely faithful to its seventeenth-century origins, where would you choose to go? Chances are you couldnâ€™t possibly top the remote jungles and plains of eastern Bolivia. Yet this is exactly what youâ€™ll find if you are fortunate enough to travel to the mission settlements of the distant Oriente.
There are 15 of these idyllic settlements, each founded by peripatetic Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries and nearly lost in Boliviaâ€™s vast, largely unexplored Amazonian basin. Each location offers a stunning display of musical virtuosity every other year in late April, with concerts held in the townsâ€™ beautiful colonial-era churches (six of which were named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1990).
These festivals, painstakingly organized by the Santa Cruz-based non-profit group AsociaciĂłn Pro Arte y Cultura, last for 11 days and are collectively known as â€śFestivales de Misiones de Chiquitos.â€ť They are perhaps Boliviaâ€™s finest attraction for the culturally minded traveler. Since their quiet beginnings in 1996, they have consistently attracted world-class performers and are now numbered amongst the most important classical musical festivals anywhere in the world. In the 2004 festival alone, nearly 1,000 performers from 22 countries performed more than 120 concerts in these timeless communities.
The location for these festivals is not as strange as it may seem at first. The Oriente is a travelerâ€™s paradiseâ€”the finest of many within Boliviaâ€”and the regions where these festivals take place, the Moxos, Guarayos, and Chiquitos mission towns, have some of the richest cultural traditions in all of Latin America. Here and here alone, European tastes merged with local indigenous traditions to create a hybrid culture that for a time bordered on the utopian. To the amazement of the few visitors who make it as far as the Oriente, this polyglot culture has survived in an essentially unchanged form to this day. And thereâ€™s nowhere better to see, hear, and experience it than at these festivals.
The festivals are a remarkable revival of a centuries-old musical phenomenon: missionaries trained their native â€śchargesâ€ť to become phenomenal craftsmen in several fields, but especially so in music. The Chiquitano tribes in particular had an amazing ability to adapt to and incorporate European motifs into their artistic output. Complex European musical instruments and scores were effortlessly assimilated in the depths of the Bolivian forests by the Chiquitano under the tutelage of the missionaries.
This output eventually led to each mission having not just a truly world-class church (courtesy of the missionaries), but also an orchestra staffed entirely by indigenous peoples. Often these tiny settlements also had schools of music and instrument making as well. Imagine this, in a town of about a thousand inhabitants, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement of any size, and you begin to get a vague idea of what the Jesuits and Franciscans, in partnership with these indigenous peoples, managed to create â€¦ and what is still preserved intact to this day in these festivals.