Focus - Overlapping voices

2017-06-01 L’Osservatore Romano

Nights are always cold and dry in the Puna of Jujuy. It does not matter that during the day the temperature reaches 27° and the sun forces one to dart from one shadow to the next in order to shelter from it; at night the temperature can go as low as -14°, changing the physiognomy of the country in only a few hours. At six o’clock in the evening Yavi seems a ghost village. The adobe houses mutely receive the warmth of the sun. In the midst of the silence a woman raises her voice and a few words in Quechua resound in the air. It is impossible to know where they come from or to grasp their meaning but they have a reproachful tone, as though they were addressed to a disobedient son. But there is no answer and the lament is swallowed up by the immensity of Puna.

On the right, the Argentine Puna

Yavi is located 16 kilometres from La Quiaca, in Puna, in the Northern Argentinian Province of Jujuy, exactly on the frontier with Bolivia, more than 3,500 metres above sea level. And that Yavi should be 16 kilometres from La Quiaca is a historical contingency brought about by the arbitrariness of geopolitical lines drawn in the construction of modern nation states: There was a time, not so long ago, when La Quiaca was 16 kilometres from Yavi. That is, the reference point was Yavi rather than La Quiaca. The line which separated Argentina from Bolivia left Yavi in the border zone, at the edge and far away, where everything remains so distant from the centres of power that it seems forgotten, abandoned to its fate.

The little church of San Francesco bears witness to this past history. The walls of the structure are of adobe. It has a single aisle and a choir above the main entrance; on the right is a chapel, separated by a rounded arch. The sculpted pulpit is of gilded wood, perhaps completed in 1707 although another date is hypothesized for the church’s foundation. An inscription, now faded, next to the presbytery says 1690, which would suggest that the building had already been completed by this date. From that time on, every year during Holy Week the church has been filled with song. Every group of women chants its own song, with its own tonality. All the songs blend in a medley, yet the voices form a single lament. In this prolonged lament the Andean motifs based on pentatonic scales are mingled with the modal quality of Gregorian chant – a strange combination interposed with prayers spoken aloud with deep intensity. Jujuy is a province in which a most particular syncretism exists, the fruit of the very rich cultural diversity which defines the women of the place as faithful Christians who have profound bonds with centuries of knowledge and beliefs inherited from the original populations.

women during the Good Friday celebration at Yavi (photo by Marcelo Pisarro)

The singing of the doctrinas of Yavi is a custom which dates back on the one hand to indigenous musical traditions and on the other to the process of the musical colonization of the region by the Catholic Church in a period impregnated by the spirit of the Counter Reformation. The doctrinas are groups of people who come from the farming and pastoral communities in the environs of Yavi, and the authentic form of prayer of the women of the plateau is found in their songs, which imitate laments. Few methods have been as useful for teaching Catholic doctrine as music, whose efficacy was demonstrated in the missions of the Bolivian Chiquitania by the Swiss Jesuit Martin Schmid. A part of this teaching is the singing which is heard every Good Friday but also, if one is lucky, in the preceding weeks during the rehearsals, preparations and organization. It is both a ritual and a representation, a form of religious devotion and an expression of collective identity. The devotion takes many forms. Some women proceed on their knees to the images. Others, after praying, leave the church, walking backwards without ever turning their backs on the altar. A colla, namely an indigenous woman, enters, bowed and clad in white, and holding by the hand a child with autistic problems. She nervously asks the child something in Quechua but the child does not answer her.

The Mass begins at the altar, the passion is dramatized in three voices: with a black priest, an indigenous parish priest and an elderly woman colla. The singing builds up and the fervour increases. Each doctrina’s songs are generally homophonic, from the viewpoint of harmony the voices move simultaneously and follow the same rhythm, but in Holy Week what one hears are songs that are definitely heterophonic: the sounds of the various doctrinas overlap, the musical theme does not follow a single melodic line. All the doctrinas chant at the same time each one their own song, and the result is a crazy polyphonic variation in which many voices speak over one another, sometimes overlapping and sometimes alternating. This acute lament is the prayer of the women lloronas, the weeping women who implore God to ensure that the earth may always host human diversity, while the stars of Yavi swallow their voices in the immensity of the Puna.

Silvina Pérez