The Intermixture of Percussion in Latin American Chamber Music

Within the context of Latin American chamber music there is a small subset of compositions that are distinguished by their use of percussion. However, when percussion is added to smaller ensembles its purpose—rather than mainly rhythmic or dynamic—is to create or suggest a particular soundscape or dramatic element.

Perhaps the first work in this category is Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Nonetto, subtitled, “Impressão rápida de todo o Brasil” (1923, A Rapid Impression of All Brazil) for five winds, harp, piano, celesta, percussion and mixed choir. Though on the whole the winds are the dominant voice, the percussion section consists of 17 European and Brazilian instruments, such as the puita, (a friction drum), reco-reco (a notched hollow bamboo stick) and xucalho (a tube-shaped shaker). Although the percussion is used in a traditional manner, Downes remarks “there is a complete passage for the percussion instruments alone and a wildly dramatic conclusion, in which the heavy rhythmical accents of the chorus, set against the other rhythms of accompanying instruments, leads to a vertiginous climax, in which most, if not all, of the notes of the scale appear to be flung upon the composer’s canvas!”1)Olin Downes, “From Brazil: Music of South American Country at the Museum of Modern Art,” New York Times, 13 October 1940. The section to which Downes refers, which starts a few measures after rehearsal number 49, is actually written for choir accompanied by seven percussion instruments.


Although rarely performed, Tarasti finds that in “its emotional power the climax of Nonetto is one of the most impressive in the whole production of Villa-Lobos. It could be characterized as irresistibly barbarous music, a masterpiece of the musical primitivism of the first half of the twentieth century.”2)Eero Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Life and Works, 1887-1959 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995), 328.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) was born in a small town in west central Mexico. According to Estrada, in these small towns it is still possible to hear songs being played on “derelict” instruments, such as violin, harp, clarinet, trombone and drum, that are reborn in the orquestitas (little orchestras) of Revueltas’ El renacuajo paseador and 8 por radio.3)Julio Estrada, Silvestre Revueltas: canto roto (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012), 46. The latter, for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, two violins, cello and contrabass, was composed in 1933 and premiered on October 13 in Mexico City’s Hidalgo Theater by members of the Conservatory orchestra. It was later performed in New York on April 22 1934, on a Pan American Association of Composers event.

At slightly less than six minutes long, in this work the percussion section is limited to a field drum, a suspended cymbal and a pair of maracas, all of which are used to enhance the essentially folkloric character of the work’s melodic and rhythmic language.


In addition to folkloric elements, from the early 1920s Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) began to incorporate into his compositions many features thought to be characteristic of the Aztec culture. His third such work, Xochipilli Macuilxoxhitl (1940), is described by the composer “as an attempt to reconstruct—as far as it is possible—the music of the ancient Mexicans.”4)Carlos Chávez, Xochipilli: an Imagined Aztec Music (New York: Mills Music, 1964), preface. Xochipilli was the Aztec god of summer and various pleasant or creative activities associated with this season. As the patron of writing and painting he could also be referred to as Macuilxoxhitl.

Unlike in 8 por radio, the principal part of this piece “is reserved for a group of percussion instruments, that requires six performers, and includes Indian drums, two teponaztli (a small one and a large one), three huéhuetls (small, medium and large), two omichicahuaztlis, wood and bone scrapers and sonajas made of copper and clay.”5)Roberto García Morillo, Carlos Chávez: vida y obra (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1960), 111. In addition, the work is also scored for piccolo, flute, clarinet and trombone. “To secure maximum authenticity, the players used reproductions or modern adaptations of the ancient instrument;”6)Benjamin Keen, The Aztec Image in Western Thought (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1971), 560. and the trombone was used “to suggest the sound made by blowing into a conch shell. The result is a work of delightful primitive flavor, employing its strange instrumental resources with rare effect.”7)Howard Taubman, “Mexicans’ Music Sung at Exhibition,” New York Times, 17 May 1940.


About his work, Conga-Line in Hell (1994) for mixed wind and string ensemble, piano and percussion, Miguel del Aguila (1957-) writes, “the conga drums and the rhythm they play are the identity and sound of this work. Although the piano part looks very different from that of the conga, if you look at the hand movements of both performers they often do exactly the same thing; they are both playing the same percussion line which in this case was translated into what the piano could play.” He goes on to say, “when percussion instruments are added ‘artificially’ to produce color, the ‘sound’ of Latin music, the end result is never convincing as it always remains an artificial addition to music that doesn’t inherently possess that feature.”8)Miguel del Aguila, email to the author, 21 May 2015.


In Praeludium (1997), for soprano, mixed wind and string ensemble, piano and percussion, Venezuelan composer Miguel Angel Santaella (1971-) also uses conga drums, but to add texture and intensity to passages leading to climax (example 1).
example-1-santaella
He uses other percussion instruments, such as temple blocks and Glockenspiel, for coloristic effects.

During the early 20th century, Chilean poet Francisco Pezoa helped to extend the anarchist movement into that country’s mining region. There were numerous conflicts, the most tragic of which occurred in 1907: To put an end to a weeklong strike on December 21 the military forcibly dislodged the thousands of workers who had gathered in Iquique. Using mainly spoken declamations, Chilean composer René Silva (1984-) uses Pezoa’s text in ¡Pido venganza por el valiente! (2010) as the basis for a dramatic musical retelling of the fateful events of that day.


As the text becomes more forceful, the xylophone introduces a series of rapidly accelerating motives, first on one pitch and then on another, that then cascade throughout the ensemble. Finally, on the last page of the score tom toms join forces with the piano and contrabass as the voice, now no longer singing, is almost shouting out its raw indignation for the injustices suffered by the workers.

More recently, Kugüe kirá ni ña (2014), by Panamian composer Carlos Camacho, is a work for mixed wind and string ensemble, piano and percussion inspired by the legend of the Rabbit Indians who lived in the western area of present-day Panama. Traditionally, these indigenous people were fierce warriors who, even after the arrival of the Conquistadors, lived in a state of bloody and perpetual warfare with their longtime enemy, the ngöbes-buglé.
example-2-silva
In this piece, the percussion, which consists of conch shell, vibraphone, bass drum and bamboo chime, is not tied to any particular folk rhythm; rather, these are used to create atmosphere.9)Carlos Camacho, email to the author, 5 May 2015. The conch shell, which opens the piece, creates the essence of wind. Later, bowed notes on the vibraphone color the different timbres and sounds heard in other parts of the ensemble. The bass drum and bamboo chimes, used alternately, offer rhythmic support at key moments (example 2).

A more expanded survey might include Amadeo Roldán’s Danza negra (1928), Obertura para una comedia infantil (1937), by Argentine Luis Gianneo or José Serebrier’s Seis por televisión (1970), all of which are essentially European in outlook and use Western percussion instruments in conventional ways. However, with the exception of Santaella, the tendency of most Latin American composers who work in this genre is to approach the use of percussion from two different standpoints: either as way to enhance the timbral soundscape of a composition influenced by folkloric traditions, or, as in the case of Chávez and Camacho, to create an ostensibly indigenous sound world through the use of historic instruments, or instruments used in an unconventional manner.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Olin Downes, “From Brazil: Music of South American Country at the Museum of Modern Art,” New York Times, 13 October 1940. The section to which Downes refers, which starts a few measures after rehearsal number 49, is actually written for choir accompanied by seven percussion instruments.
2. Eero Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Life and Works, 1887-1959 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995), 328.
3. Julio Estrada, Silvestre Revueltas: canto roto (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012), 46.
4. Carlos Chávez, Xochipilli: an Imagined Aztec Music (New York: Mills Music, 1964), preface. Xochipilli was the Aztec god of summer and various pleasant or creative activities associated with this season. As the patron of writing and painting he could also be referred to as Macuilxoxhitl.
5. Roberto García Morillo, Carlos Chávez: vida y obra (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1960), 111.
6. Benjamin Keen, The Aztec Image in Western Thought (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1971), 560.
7. Howard Taubman, “Mexicans’ Music Sung at Exhibition,” New York Times, 17 May 1940.
8. Miguel del Aguila, email to the author, 21 May 2015.
9. Carlos Camacho, email to the author, 5 May 2015.

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