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THE CIRCULATION OF SACRALITY: LATIN AMERICAN MASSES

IN FOLK MUSICAL IDIOMS

In several Latin American countries, the reform and renewal of liturgical


practices sanctioned and promoted by the Second Vatican Council took place more or
less simultaneously with the re-valuation and canonization (in a cultural sense) of
certain traditional musics. One result of this coincidence was the composition of a
number of religious musical works (most of them Masses) that employed folk
rhythms, melodic gestures, and instrumentations. One of the results of this upsurge,
possibly unforeseen by the Council legislators, was a multipolar transference of
sacrality: the new masses served not only to bring Catholic contents closer to the
people, but also to confer a cloak of holiness to various enterprises and ideas in the
secular sphere. (The sacred, in the context of this short paper, is understood as that
which possesses value that cannot or needs not to be justified by rational or utilitarian
considerations).

Beginning with the Misa criolla of Ariel Ramrez (Buenos Aires, 1964),
composers and musicians from all over the continent took advantage of the new
emphasis on the vernacular advocated by the Council in order to "raise" local musical
traditions to the level of spirituality epitomized by the hallowed texts of the Catholic
Mass. The phenomenon was to some extent a continuation of two African masses that
had achieved high audibility in the 1950s: the Messe des savanes and especially the
Missa Luba. The first of those was the product of the early activities of Robert
Oudraogo (Wedraogho) in what today is Burkina Fasso. Abb Robert, as he was
affectionately called, composed it in 1956 for his choir at the Petit Seminaire in the
village of Pabr, utilizing local melodies, performance styles and percussion
instruments (tam-tam). He went on to become an influential figure in the
Africanization of public music in his country, compose the national anthem and
receive an award as "artist of the people". The Missa Luba was put together in 1958
from traditional songs of the Luba people by the Belgian friar Guido Haazen, with the
collaboration of his choristers, who improvised transitions between the songs.
Although the Missa Luba can be understood better as a performance than as a
composition (the only scores are transcriptions of performances), its Philips recording
became an international best seller. 1 Both works are prior to the Vatican Council's
establishment of masses in the vernacular languages, and therefore retain the Latin
(and Greek) texts of the Western tradition. They do anticipate, however, the
prescriptions of Sacrosanctum consilium (December 4th, 1963), concerning the value
of local musical traditions "in certain parts of the world, especially mission lands" and
their adaptation for worship. The wide circulation of the Missa Luba recording went
beyond the mere demonstration of the capabilities of African songs as vehicles for a
religious message: it conferred upon them (in Western popular culture) the sacred
aura of aesthetic values.
But Ramrez's Misa criolla was not merely a continuation of the trend begun
in Africa. Its creation bespeaks the convergence of a number of societal, cultural, and
(of course) religious tendencies, but first and foremost, it is an artistic event: its
creators may have thought of Missa Luba, but they inscribed their product in the line
of Western settings of the Ordinary that begins with Machaut and Dufay. Ramrez,
like Gershwin before him, and like half a dozen composers-performers in Argentina,
was a successful practitioner in the field of popular music who aspired to recognition
as a "serious" composer. This was an attractive proposition in mid century, because
the prestige attached to institutions of academic music appealed not only to academic
musicians, but was recognized throughout Argentine society. Ramrez, however, did
not go the way of Gershwin or Piazzolla: although he did take composition lessons
from respected art-music specialists such as Luis Gianneo and Erwin Leuchter, he did
not attempt to write in the "large forms": no concertos, symphonic poems, not even
suites. Neither, as a rule, did he write for the ensembles that typically played concert
music. He kept his production tied to songs and dances, and to the standard
instrumentation of music in the urbanized folk tradition: in addition to voices (mostly
male), guitar, piano, native percussion (caja and bombo) and Indian or mestizo
instruments: charango (cordophone made from the body of an armadillo) or quena
(notched flute) 2. But (like several rock groups in the decade) he grouped his songs
into cycles, thus connotating aspirations to a more serious status than that of a mere

1
Other African masses related to these are mentioned (with links provided) in the web page
http://cantacongo.afrikblog.com/archives/2013/01/31/26300270.html
2
The inclusion of a harpsichord in the Misa criolla merits fuller consideration than can be afforded
here.
composer of ditties 3. And he used his image as a serious popular composer to gain
access to prestigious venues and social circles; his crowning achievement would be
his presentations at the Coln Theatre in Buenos Aires, the musical temple of the
cultured Argentine bourgeoisie.
The composition of the Misa criolla was the first and fundamental step in the
road to such a recognition. His avoidance of the trappings of concert music of the
European tradition and the large-scale form-building processes (the mass is built as a
chain of songs, each lasting no more than three or four minutes, with occasional
recurrences) served to transfer the sacrality of its religious contents to the popular
song format, as well as to the folk idioms he chose to employa selection largely
coincident with the canon of Argentine national folklore established in the previous
decades. Ramrez took care to draw his resources from genres spanning the extremely
diverse musical geography of twentieth-century Argentina, but excluded musics that
had been branded as urban (tango), that were not yet perceived as folklricas
(chamam, cuarteto), or that were excluded from the canon on account of being
"ethnological" (musics of the Mapuche, or the Mb). In other words, the repertoire
and styles that represented "Argentineness" and that now was sanctified by its
capacity to convey the core concepts of the Catholic faith was restricted to a culture
that blended the Spanish with the Indian, to the exclusion of all other immigrants, of
the "pure" Spanish and the "pure" Indian. Just a few months before, Ramrez had
participated in a project called "Coronation of Folklore" a title symbolic of the
supreme status accorded to this practice. Photo In the Misa criolla, therefore, the
sacred character of the text and of its liturgical function, informs with sacrality both
the notion of a serious popular work of art and the idea of folklore as the highest seat
of the national soul.
Although the Missa criolla is the best known exemplar there are dozens of
other Latin American folk Masses. In the same year, 1964, Vicente Bianchi
composed his Misa a la chilena, which in later years he followed with two other folk-
based masses and other liturgical pieces; the famous composer and singer Chabuca
Granda created in Peru her Misa Criolla [de bodas] in 1968-69; a Canadian priest
gave origin in 1966 to the Misa panamericana or Misa mariachi in Cuernavaca,
Mexico; Carlos Alberto Pinto Fonseca composed the Misa afro-brasileira in 1971. At
3
Some of Ramrez's cycles: Navidad nuestra (1964); Los caudillos (1965); Mujeres Argentinas (1969);
Cantata sudamericana (1972); Misa por la paz y la justicia (1981).
least two complete settings use Cuban musical traditions: the Misa cubana by the
well-known zarzuela composer Rodrigo Prats (1971) and the more recent Misa
cubana a la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre by Jos Mara Vitier (1996). There are
even settings of the Mass restricted to regional folk traditions, such as the Misa
santiaguea of 1988 (Santiago del Estero, in Argentina). Most of the foregoing can be
understood as exalting values similar to the ones we have discussed with respect to
the Mass by Ariel Ramrez. There are, however, other compositions or performances
which extend sacralization to other ideas.
We can start with a version of the Misa criolla recorded in 1968 by the Grupo
Vocal Argentino: by means of the introduction of foreign percussion instruments and
rhythmic patterns (specially in the Gloria), the arranger gives expression to an
emerging sacrality: the unity of Latin American cultures and struggles. Folklore artists
were increasingly polarized into conservatives who exalted national patrimonies and
revolutionaries who recognized no frontiers within the continent. Those who opted for
the second alternative (many of them being subsequently silenced or tortured by
military governments) used both music and text to effect the shift that directed
spiritual power towards social and political struggle. In the previously mentioned
Mass by Chabuca Granda, in spite of the work's original function as a Wedding Mass
for her daughter, the composer had inserted the following lines into the Gloria:

Tan generosa la tierra, The land, so generous,


tan bella y tan maltratada, so beautiful and so mistreated;
el hambre grita mordiendo hunger cries out, biting,
y el hombre lucha su furia. and man struggles with his [its?] fury.

A second Mass recorded by Grupo Vocal Argentino in 1973-74 takes this


trend to full fruition, to such an extent that the author of the lyrics added to the
traditional text, Father Carlos Mugica, was assassinated by right-wing henchmen four
months after the recording was completed. The government censored the recording
and seized and destroyed all the copies it could; luckily it could not get its hands on
all of them. Here is part of the text to the "Gloria":

Te damos gracias Seor, We thank you, O Lord,


porque no sos un Dios espectador, for not being a Lord-spectator;
sino un Dios hecho hombre rather a God turned into man
que padece el padecimiento de los hombres. who endures the suffering of men.
Te damos gracias Seor, We thank you, O Lord,
T que nos arrancas del egosmo You who wrench us away from egotism
impulsndonos a luchar contra la explotacin. and incite us to fight against exploitation.
The transference of sacrality to the ideals and the action of the struggle of the
poor peoples of the world is attested not only in the lyrics, but in the very title of the
composition (Misa para el Tercer Mundo) 4, and in its musical affiliations. The style
of percussion and of vocal production refer us to Afro-American performance
practices or, indeed, to the Missa Luba. Taking into account the political
circumstances, we might even speak here of an aggressive anti-nationalism, that is at
counter-purposes with the Missa criolla.
A similar path of transference seems to have taken place in Nicaragua, where a
Misa popular nicaragense (1968) was followed by the Misa campesina
nicaragense (1975) created by Carlos Meja Godoy in the context of the Comunidad
de Base de Solentiname, a well-known social experiment inspired by the Theology of
Liberation 5. In this case, however, national identity was supported rather than
contested.
Throughout the preceding paragraphs we have spoken in terms of transference
of sacrality to secular ideas and vectors. By recourse to different understandings of the
Church's mission and teachings, such as the Catholic Nationalism or the Theology of
Liberation, one can, of course, account for this circulation wholly within the religious
realm. There is no need to quarrel about boundaries: what I hope to have shown is that
these and other post counciliar Masses effect a displacement of values, charging
concepts and goals that partake of the political with spirituality and transcendence.

4
Undoubtedly linked to the movement in which Mugica was a participant, the "Movimiento de
Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo".
5
T.M. (Toms) Scruggs, "Las Misas Nicaragenses: Popular, Campesina, y del pueblo", Istmo 17 (July
December 2008), http://istmo.denison.edu/n17/articulos/scruggs.html (accessed Dec. 5, 2014)

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