Centres of Polyphony

South America

It became a commonplace in ethnomusicological publications to note that South American Indians’ singing traditions contain much more polyphony than those of their North American counterparts. “In spite of the dearth of polyphony in North America, it has often been taken for granted that Central and South American Indians had complex polyphonic styles” (Nettl, 1961:354). According to Alan Lomax, “Polyphonic singing, which is frequently diffusely organized counterpoint, occurs in South America especially along the eastern slopes of the Andes. In this area too one encounters an unemphatic, soft-voiced, subdued, feminine-sounding style, with a frequent use of harmony. Such singing can be heard in the backwoods of highland Peru (Q’eros) and from the Campa of the eastern Andean slopes, through Venezuela and Colombia, into southern Mexico among the Tzotzil” (Lomax, 1968:85).

Probably one of the most interesting surviving musical traditions comes from the small tribe of Q’ero (about four hundred people only left), who live in the Cusco region of the Andes in Peru. Although some consider Q’ero to be Inca survivals, scholars think that Q’ero musical culture “probable reflects an even earlier diversity with an Inka overlay” (Cohen, 1998:225). Most importantly for our topic, the Q’ero have interesting and sometimes unique traditions of polyphonic singing. According to Cohen: “The general Q’ero musical aesthetics allows different pitches, texts, and rhythms to sound at the same time. Though the Q’ero sometimes sing in perfect unison, their songs are structures to be sung individually. There is no sense of choral singing or harmony. A family, aullu, or community may be singing and playing the same songs at the point of starting and stopping. Yet the melodies sung at communal occasions have a sustained note at the end of a phrase, permitting the other singers to catch up and share this prolonged duration, which serves as a drone. When the new verse starts, the heterophony begins anew” (Cohen, 1998:230).
Cohen describes the singing of women during the Palchasqa festival among Q’eros (held during February or March): “… several families join together outside and throw flowers (palcha) at the alpacas while singing and playing pinculu. Five or more women sing at the same time, interspersing ritual phrases with complaints about their daily lives. Each tells her own story in song. At times, the musical texture consists of different people singing personalized songs simultaneously. Only occasionally do they meet on ritual phrases or on final notes” (Cohen, 1998:228). Another interesting tradition is the big family singing sessions with the elements of drone polyphony: “twenty people may be packed together inside, drinking, singing heterophonically, with conch trumpets blasting. Sometimes, late in the night, the individual qualities become less apparent as people find accord between them, reaching a degree of musical consensus. At this point, the sustained final note of a phrase provides a drone beneath the individual voices. Occasional multi-part texture occurs, and the whole event takes on a choral sound” (Ibid, 229). Another interesting tradition of big communal singing happens during the carnival, where few groups of women sing in disregard of each other, together, while men play the musical instrument pinucllu. Cohen notes the closeness of this tradition to the celebration singing tradition of Amazonian Indians (ibid, 229).
The Warao from the eastern Venezuelan tropical forests of the Orinoco River Delta have very important ritual singing by shamans for curing. In particular, if the patient is an important person, singing in small ensembles (duets or trios of shamans) is required and it “results in a complex, multi-part texture like a free round.” (Olsen, 1998:184).
Indians from the Amazonian region of Peru are known for heterophonic singing. “Two-voice polyphony in intervals of fourths and canonic singing have also been observed” (Pinilla, 1980:384, cited from Romero, 1998:482). Rounding off the tropical-forest region of South America, A. Seeger notes that “most Indian music is associated with ritual; it has little harmony or polyphony, and what polyphony it has is unfamiliar to unaccustomed ears” (Seeger, 1998:135).
Interaction between the Christian missionaries and the Native American cultures was quite unidirectional – the missionaries “forbade traditional music and ceremonies and restricted musical activities” (ibid, 131). Later, missionaries of certain protestant sects intensified the process, some with such success that hymns are the only music performed today in certain tropical-forest Indian communities. Singing hymns may take unusual directions, however, as among the Waiwai, where communities compete by composing hymns.
With few exceptions, the music of the Christian church and traditional music of the Indians have apparently not mixed: the tunes for Christian services are hymns, and the Indian melodies continue without harmony where they are sung at all. In unusual cases, Indian communities employ some form of harmony that may have its origins in Christian music, as among the Kayabi (strict parallel fifths) and the Javae of Brazil, and the Moxo of Bolivia (Olsen, 1976). In Guyana, among the Akawaio, the Makushi, and the Patamona, unusual music was developed for the syncretic religion known as Hallelujah (Butt Colson, 1971)” (Seeger, 1998:131).
The influence of European classical music, including the wide use of parallel thirds, is particularly evident in the singing traditions of the Europeanized Mestizo (Romero, 1998:483). Heterophonic and canonic singing is mentioned among the Venezuelan Indians. Free rhythm is quite common in solo songs, but polyphonic songs (particularly accompanying dances) have a strict rhythm and metre (Brandt, 1998:525).
In Venezuela, “In the plains and surrounding areas, especially in the states of Apure, Carobobo, Cojodes, Guarico, Lara, Portuguesa, and Yaracuy, the Holy Cross is venerated by performances of three-part polyphonic pieces (tonos) usually sung by men, sometimes unaccompanied, but more often accompanied by one or more cuatros. The music and texts came from Spain during the early days of the colony. Most harmonic singing in Venezuela is in two parts (usually at interval of a third), but plains wakes use more complex polyphony, unique in Latin America. The lead singer (guia ‘guide’) usually sings a solo phrase and is then joined by two other men improvising a harmonic response – a higher part (falsa, and contrato and other names), and a lower part (tenor, also tenorete)” (Brandt, 1998:534).
The profound influence of colonial Spanish music on highland Maya is felt in the survival of the “late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century style ‘falsobordone’ settings, in which a plainchant melody is transposed to a higher octave and harmonized below in three or four parallel parts – a texture still cultivated in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala” (O’Brien-Rothe, 1998:652).
The influence of the African population on the musical traditions of South America was truly profound. Africans were brought from different regions of Africa as slaves to South American plantations, and they usually spoke different African languages, but they “shared general musical traits that transcended particular African communities – among them collective participation in making music, call-and-response singing, and dense, often interlocking, rhythms played on drums” (Seeger, 1998a:47).
Another very interesting feature of the musical cultures of South America is that archaeological records are full of references to polyphonic blown instruments. Panpipes, played in interlocking style, as well as double, triple and even quadruple flutes suggest that the peoples of the central and northern parts of South America were familiar with certain forms of instrumental polyphony before their contact with European civilization. In one of the most important written sources from 1609, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega speaks about the Qollas, an Aymara-speaking people from the Titicaca region, that they “played double-unit panpipes in interlocking fashion. His reference to different vocal parts (tiple, tenor, contralto, contrabajo) in Qolla panpipe performance may suggest that different-sized panpipes created polyphony (as they do today)” (Turino, 1998:207). We will discuss the problem of polyphony in a pre-contact Mesoamerica in a special “case study”, dedecated to the the possibility of the presence of polyphony in ancient civilizations.

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