Sounding Indigenous: Authenticity in Bolivian Music Performance

    -- by Michelle Bigenho, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 289 pages.

The title of Michelle Bigenho’s book may lead one to believe that the content would only be of interest to scholars working in Bolivia or the Americas. This is far from the truth. Bigenho uses her field experience in Bolivia as a starting point for discussing issues and trends current in nearly all areas of ethnomusicology.

In each chapter of Sounding Indigenous, the author examines a different angle or unique topic, but the ultimate question that guides the book is, “What is ‘authenticity’ in the face of increasing contact between cultures within one country and around the world?” In a context in which music groups perform publicly for money, record albums for sale within the country and for international export, and just play for fun, which group holds the claim to being “truly Bolivian?”

Bigenho’s experiences in Bolivia included not only the traditional interviewing and listening but also active participation in a performing ensemble, Música de Maestros. Much of her writing is informed by this participation, and from it she gained a unique perspective on the creation of an authentic image. Música de Maestros is a group committed to the preservation and revitalization of the “great works” of Bolivia’s musical history. Group members sometimes use terminology such as “masterworks” or “great composers,” desiring that Bolivian music be thought of on equal terms with Western classical music. Not wanting to contribute to stereotyped ideas some outsiders have regarding Bolivian music, Música de Maestros members usually perform wearing black pants, white shirts, and white vests, with black fedora hats, rather than the expected ponchos. They want audiences to realize that Bolivia is more than the “world music” poncho-wearing panpipe ensembles that have gained international fame. However, this goal of breaking stereotypes and creating a new image of Bolivian music is not without its difficulties.

In Chapter 3, “Time!” Bigenho discusses two contexts for the presentation of “the authentic,” and problems that were associated with each specific instance. The first was a televised concert broadcast by Spanish television that was supposed to benefit and exhibit musics of indigenous peoples. Música de Maestros and two other Bolivian groups recorded songs for the broadcast but, to the Bolivians’ dismay, only a part of one of the groups’ performances was actually used in the program. The television producers—who blamed the mix-up on the limited time allotted for the broadcast—became the arbiters deciding which group seemed “Bolivian.” Since Música de Maestros did not have the look, they were cut.

The second situation was a folk music festival in France at which Música de Maestros performed, accompanying a Bolivian dance troupe. During the festival, Música de Maestros had to compromise their commitment to the “authentic” in many ways in order to match what festival organizers wanted. Their French patron criticized them when he thought they did not represent what the French thought of as “Bolivian.” In order to attract attention to their CD’s and cassettes, the members of the group had to play tunes on their instruments that did not “mean” Bolivian music to them but signified such to the French festival-goers.

In addition to her work with Música de Maestros, Bigenho also conducted research in two Bolivian communities, Yura and Toropalca. Of interest to many EthnoDoxology readers will be the chapter about her cassette recording projects in each community. Chapter 10 deals with issues of composition, ownership, and copyright. The central issue Bigenho faced in these matters was how Bolivian national copyright law applied—or did not apply—to musical works that were credited to a community rather than a specific named person. As part of that discussion, she questions the rights that a nation-state has to “own” the cultural artifacts that exist within it, and considers how such ownership benefits or hurts those who are producing the owned works.

This brief review does not do justice to the intricate complexities that Bigenho weaves throughout her text. The writing in Sounding Indigenous is top-notch, and it strikes a consistent balance between reflexive narrative and theoretical musings. Bigenho exercises a commanding knowledge of recent scholarship, and this, combined with her own experience in the field, make Sounding Indigenous a relevant and thoroughly interesting book.

    --reviewed by Neil R. Coulter

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