Natascha Reich: Sounds of Power

Sounds of Power
Peruvian colonial pipe organs in
the interplay of cultures 

by Natascha Reich, Tinker Grantee; PhD candidate
School of Music and Dance

In  colonial Peru, the Spanish crown relied on religious orders, most notably Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits, for facilitating and advancing processes of colonization. My research deals with the historical interactions between Spanish missionaries and indigenous people in the Peruvian Andes, and investigates how these interactions influenced local power relationships. As an ethnomusicologist, I explore the vehicles that seventeenth-century Andeans used for reclaiming part of their authority by looking at the material remains of missionary music culture. I am seeking to answer the question how native Andeans managed to retain and express their own identity within the new Christian framework, and how this could possibly fit into a broader political agenda of passive resistance.

Organ in the church of San Juan Bautista, Sibayo (Peru).

Previously conducted research has led me to the Peruvian Valle de Colca, where Franciscans were in charge over the so-called reducciones in the seventeenth century. The missionizing tactics of the monks included preaching in Quechua and adapting Christian customs to native Collagua traditions, in order to ensure easier acceptance of the Christian belief. The pipe organs in the churches of the Colca Valley, the only material evidence of colonial music culture still present in the Valley today, show particular sonic, material, and stylistic characteristics that could help explain the way indigenous people reacted to the new imposed culture. I theorize that these particular Andean features in the organs could be interpreted as evidences of hybridity in Harvard scholar Homi K. Bhabha’s sense, thus as devices for intervening in the exercise of authority.

To place my findings in their proper historical context, I decided to travel to the Archivo Histórico San Francisco de Lima. The archive, founded in the eighteenth century, currently houses the worldwide second largest collection (after Mexico City) for documents related to the Franciscan Order in South America. Thanks to the financial support of the Tinker Field Research Grant, I was able to spend a full month (Nov. 25 – Dec. 23, 2018) in Lima to work in the archive, searching, reading, transcribing and translating relevant documents.

One of the 37 volumes of randomly bound together administrative documents from 1570-1800. 

My research activities during this trip can be divided into two main groups: First, categorizing the existing documents according to their usefulness and potential relevance for my research; second, looking into specific kinds of documents. The latter included three kinds of evidence:

• collections of administrative documents and correspondence like Royal decrees, Papal bulls, letters, petitions etc.

• unique single documents, like a book of sermons to be used in the missions (dating from the nineteenth century, but containing older sermons as well) and a “History of the Franciscans in Peru” written in the eighteenth century by a Franciscan monk

• sheet music, especially for organ and other keyboard instruments.

The insights I gained were mostly of a different nature than I had anticipated. I had hoped to find documents about the installation and presence of Franciscans in the Colca Valley, about their policies in the reducciones/doctrinas, and about their general music policy or their use of art and music as a tool for Christianization. However, so far, I have not been able to find any information specifically pertaining to the Colca Valley among the vast quantities of (mostly uncategorized) documents in the archive. Also, the few examples of organ sheet music present in the archive does not match the technical specifications (keyboard range etc.) of the organs in missionary villages and therefore seems not to have been composed for them. Instead however, I found pieces of information that let me infer the general view of Franciscans in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries on indigenous people in Peru and their cultural practices. I was surprised to find a much more dismissive attitude towards indigenous practices than I would have assumed based on secondary readings and on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted so far. The narrative I was previously presented with was one of kind and understanding monks, who showed interest and respect for the native population and its culture. My research in the Franciscan Archive in Lima though evidences a different attitude, one that regards indigenous people as wild “savages,” who were to be thankful to the Franciscans for freeing them from their “sinful” practices. The anonymous writer of the “History of the Franciscans in Peru” even starts his account with a praise of Franciscan missionaries, without whom, he explains, the “conquering of Peru” would not have been possible. Thus, the power relationships that I base my thesis on seem to have had a clearly articulated (colonial-)political component. Furthermore, they appear to have been addressed by the Franciscans very explicitly, even towards the indigenous population. Some of the sermons in the above-mentioned collection for missionary use contain very clear language about the lower status of non-Christians. They position the Franciscans as messengers of a God that was well-meaning in general, but able to punish “bad heathens.”

My intention is to publish my dissertation as a book after completion of my doctoral program. Through connections with the Peruvian ministry of culture, I am also planning on sharing results of my research in Peru. I hope that my work will raise awareness about colonial pipe organs in Peru, and thereby will contribute to preserving those instruments, which are valuable historical artifacts and testimonials of complex cultural interactions and power processes. Currently, lack of awareness, knowledge, and financial resources cause the instruments to deteriorate quickly, taking with them an important part of their culture’s history. Ideally, I hope to achieve protected status for the still existing exemplars of this type of pipe organ, like a placement on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list or a comparable protective measure.




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2019 Judge Yassmin Barrios Lecture / photos by Jack Liu

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