Choral Music as a Bridge Between Cultures

I’ve spent my life looking for ways to connect people through music to the point of obsession. I keep asking myself how I can make my job relevant during these times of extreme polarization in our society? Now, more than ever, it is important that we listen to each other, that we learn about each other’s histories, and celebrate global diversity. To me there’s no better way to do that than through music.

How can choral music serve as a bridge between cultures and people?

For 25 years, I conducted Coral Cantigas, a chamber choir in the Washington DC area whose mission was to ‘increase awareness and appreciation of the many styles of Latino choral music in the Washington DC area and beyond, and to unite communities through the transformative power of music.’

You may think that singing music from Spain and Latin America exclusively would have limited my experience somehow. Quite the contrary, it was through my work with Cantigas that I learned about the interconnectedness between the different music and cultures. I learned about the Arab-Jewish influence on the music of Spain, and how those influences made their way to the Americas. I learned that the tango is the product of European immigration and African rhythms. I learned that Cuban National poet, Nicolas Guillen, learned to write his rhythmic poetry after he befriended Langston Hughes in New York, and that the poems of both have been set to music for chorus.

In 1947 Cuban ethnologist and sociologist Fernando Ortiz, proposed the term ‘transculturation’ as an alternative to the more generally used term acculturation. Acculturation describes the process of transition from one culture to another. On the other hand, transculturation “refers to the encounter between or among cultures in which each culture acquires or adapts elements of the other(s) or in which new cultural elements are created.” In other words what happens in transculturation is an encounter where there is new creation. For Ortiz, this was a less ethnocentric and more appropriate term to describe the cultural phenomenon that happened in his native Cuba.

I will borrow Fernando Ortiz’s term to help us better understand the development of music in Latin America; music that is often set to music for choirs.

Once the Europeans arrived in the Americas, the music was not European anymore because it was being created under completely new circumstances. There was an adaptation, an adjustment, an exchange of musical and cultural knowledge. The Europeans arrived in a place where the music and poetry was already an integral part of the societies that populated the continent, for example, in the Aztec culture, music had a sacred dimension. Musicians enjoyed a special status in their society. The elite class learned poetry and music; poetry was not read, it was sung. The word for poetry in Nahuatl is cuicatl which means “song”.

For that reason, the Spaniards soon realized that music could be an effective way to impose the Catholic religion. Spain was a powerful country that became very wealthy thanks to the appropriation of gold and silver from the colonies. They started building magnificent cathedrals in the European style that very soon started incorporating an amalgam of elements from the distinct cultural groups.  I remember visiting a church in Cholula, Mexico where the interior was decorated with colorful figures of dark-skinned angels, flowers, fruits and corn: imagery full of local symbols and meanings.

The first chapel masters and musicians came from Europe. But very soon they needed more singers for the choirs and instrumentalists to accompany them. They trained Native people in the art of singing, playing, and constructing European musical instruments. Less than a century later musicians of Native origin were composing in the style they had learned from their European mentors incorporating elements from their own culture. By 1599 we find two short motets written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, composed by Don Hernan Franco, an Indian youth who had been educated by the Franciscans in Mexico. Now we know that this wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for the role that music played in the lives of the Aztecs and Mayans before the arrival of the Europeans.

Dios Itlazo –

The same thing happened in Peru where the first piece of polyphonic music was published in 1631, this time a short choral piece written by a Franciscan priest of Spanish descent written in Quechua, the language of the Incas. Hanacpachap is a beautiful example of syncretism, the fusion of different religious beliefs, that ensues in Latin America. In this Marian hymn the composer uses many metaphors about nature establishing a connection with the Native American cosmovision.

Hanacpachap –

These short canzonas or songs are clear examples of transculturation where music was written in the European style but where the Native language was employed with images in the text that were associated with the Pre-Colombian cultures.

The term Latin America is a relatively new term. It was the invention of a French economist named Michel Chevalier around the 1830’s when he suggested that people in the Americas were part of a “Latin race” as part of a “Latin Europe”, in contrast with the “Anglo-Saxon Europe”, the “Slavic Europe” and the “Teutonic Europe”. The Latin American intellectuals of the time, who looked up to the liberal ideas of France, rather than to Spain and Portugal, soon adopted the term.

The problem with the term is that it amalgamates many groups in one. In my opinion the term ‘Latin American’, or ‘Latino’ for that matter, implies homogeneity. However, it is not possible to talk about Latin American music in terms of homogeneity. We are a region of many people, cultures, and languages.

Going back to the concept of transculturation, there is no better area to appreciate this phenomenon than in folk music; and this is the area where, as a conductor, I found more challenges and rewards. In the Andes region you can hear music with a strong Native American influence like Carnavalito, the Huayno, and many others with its Pentatonic scale and duple meters. For me, born in the Caribbean, these rhythms were the most foreign. The Misa Criolla for example, is a choral work that binds these styles into a bigger composition.

Here are some accessible choral pieces inspired in Andean rhythms:

Carnavalito by Will Lopes

La Lluvia by Stephen Hatfield –

From Argentina we have the chacarera, a rural style performed with guitar and the bombo that present the challenge of 2 against 3 rhythms.

La Doble (Argentinean chacarera) –

In the llanos or plains of Venezuela and Colombia we have the joropo, a fast ¾ music and the limping 5/8. Some of these arrangements are available in the US such as Alma Llanera, or you can teach one of my own arrangements of a children’s song for SSA about a ragdoll where the voices make use of onomatopoeia to imitate the sounds of the musical instruments from the plains: the cuatro, the maracas and the bass.

Fiesta by Cristian Grases-

El Monigote –

Africans who were brought to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade also mixed with the local cultures in which they landed, and new forms of music sprouted from these interactions. There are many examples of these musical forms that have been arranged for choir. Some are the festejo, an Afro-Peruvian rhythm, the plena, and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythm, and the rumba from Cuba, to name a few.

Festejo –

Unfortunately, communication between Cuban and American musicians is challenging, but fortunately some of these pieces are published in the United States. I am convinced that we become better musicians every time we have to learn and teach a Cuban rhythm to our choirs.

El Guayaboso is based on the rumba, an Afro-Cuban rhythm:

Just like the birds, music migrates from place to place picking up elements from different continents and cultures. And this is most evident in the music of our continent. We need to move away from the idea that the relationship between US and Latin America is a binary one: English speakers and Spanish speakers. Did you know that the United States is the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world? And let’s not forget Brazil, a country of over 200 million people who speak Portuguese. Did you know that Guarani is the official language of Paraguay and that there are 68 different languages spoken in Mexico? Music can help us navigate through those complexities.

So I would like to end with my own arrangement of Yemaya, an Afro-Cuban chant sung in Yoruba, a language from Nigeria, and a beautiful example of religious syncretism. What better way to celebrate interconnectedness than through music?


Dr. Diana V. Sáez is the Director of Choral Activities at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, directing the University Chorale, Women’s Choir, and Choral Society. Prior to this appointment, Dr. Sáez served as Visiting Choir Director at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and Visiting Choir Conductor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Dr. Sáez also directed the Catholic University Women’s Choir for six years and served as artistic director of the World Bank-IMF Chorus for sixteen years.