Jungle music

One telephone, dirt roads - and a 200-strong orchestra. Keith Laidlaw discovers how classical music is changing lives in one Amazonian town
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The Independent Culture

One of the dictionary definitions of the word "baroque" is "extravagant or bizarre". This is the one that seems most fitting when applied to the idea of an orchestra made up of native Chiquitano Indian children playing Vivaldi on the edge of the Amazonian jungle. They are from the small town of Urubicha in north-east Bolivia, about 150 miles from the country's border with Brazil. Despite having only dirt roads, a single public telephone and, until last year, no meaningful electricity supply, the town has its own touring orchestra.

The story starts over 300 years ago, at the end of the 17th century, when a group of Jesuit missionaries travelled to this area intent on spreading the word of God to the natives. They came not only armed with bibles, but also carrying a wide variety of musical instruments including string, woodwind and brass. Their hunch, that the language of music was a more effective way of communicating the teachings of God than prayer and preaching alone, proved correct. Indeed, the Chiquitanos they met proved to be adept musical students, learning to build instruments as well as play them in the European style. Eventually, some even began to compose, writing requiems, fugues, sonatas and - in at least one case - an entire opera in the Baroque style the Jesuits taught.

Unfortunately, this harmonious relationship came to an abrupt end in 1767. The Jesuits had stood up for the local people being forced to work in the region's gold and silver mines. (omega) But, rather than give in to their demands, the area's rulers, representing the interests of the Spanish Crown, decided that they had had enough of the do-gooding missionaries interfering in their affairs and promptly expelled them, killing off the brief flowering of South American baroque.

Almost a century later, in 1856, missionaries returned (this time from the Franciscan order) and founded the town of Urubicha, but it took rather longer for classical music to make a comeback in the Guayaro region. It was the arrival of Father Walter Neuwirth in the 1960s that made the difference. While the first missionaries had been seeking to connect the locals with God, Father Neuwirth was desperate to reconnect the locals with each other and reverse a decline in the community which had seen many former residents leave to start new lives in the city. So, in 1989 he enlisted the help of a young Bolivian violinist and conductor called Ruben Dario Suarez Arana, who had attended the Cordoba State Conservatory in Argentina, to start teaching a few local kids part-time in Urubicha in the church grounds. The lessons grew more popular and eventually, in 1996, the town's school of music was officially opened.

Now, in a town with a population of just a few thousand peasant farmers, the orchestra numbers over 200, and has performed at venues across South America, as well as visiting France and Spain. It hasn't been easy, however. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and towns such as Urubicha certainly reflect this. Money is tight here, making it difficult to buy things such as strings for violin bows, never mind the instruments themselves. But the woodwind and brass sections are usually equipped through donations from better-off orchestras abroad, while the stringed instruments, such as violins and cellos, can be made by local craftsmen.

Suarez Arana has since been asked to help neighbouring towns and villages form their own schools of music and, with the aid of teachers who are graduates from his first school, the orchestra in Urubicha has become the catalyst for a musical renaissance in the region. Learning to play an instrument may not solve the problems of poverty the children will still face, but it certainly helps to teach them that, with the right attitude and a bit of effort, miracles can sometimes happen.

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