Bolivia can be a cultural blank to Americans, perhaps better known as a producer of coffee and natural gas (and coca) than as a country so musically rich that even remote villages echo an exalted past with present-day accomplishments.
The latter is what Philadelphia's Renaissance band Piffaro discovered 18 months ago when it was invited to play the International Renaissance and Baroque Festival there. Now it has brought some of those riches back to Philadelphia in "East Meets West: Spanish Pipers in the New World," which it will present in three area concerts this weekend.
"The trip has lived with us," said Piffaro codirector Joan Kimball. "It was like a lifetime lived in 4 1/2 days." The group also will devote its spring concert to "El Nuevo Mundo," with music found in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala.
Six-member Piffaro was swept up in a series of four concerts in South America's most economically depressed country in April 2010, one in the provincial capital of Santa Cruz but others in areas so remote that streams had to be forded. The concerts were full - and came with after-party performances by local talent, both planned and impromptu.
"Children would come up and surround us, and just pick up our recorders and start playing, not in a way that was aggressive or naive, but about enthusiasm for their traditional melodies," said Kimball.
She transcribed some and considered putting them on this weekend's programs, but their origins are so unclear she stuck with pieces she knew were from her period of specialty. Even then, many of the composers on the "East Meets West" program, as in a trio of Bolivian songs, are unknown.
Musical discoveries of centuries-old European pieces preserved in South and Central American mission churches have been surfacing for decades. Many are Vivaldi-esque and not appropriate to the medieval and Renaissance instruments played by Piffaro, but some of the earliest surviving music dates from the Jesuit missionaries of the 1690s, who left a lasting stamp on musical life even though music was disseminated by painstaking handmade copies.
"They kept copying the music over and over again, so that when these troves of music were found in the mission churches in the 1960s . . . there seems to have been a living tradition that was kept alive," Kimball said.
At times, the indigenous populations converted to the music faster than to the religion it represented, according to Piffaro codirector Robert Wiemken: "Where words initially faltered, music communicated."
Piffaro has long concentrated on late-Renaissance Spanish composers such as Cristobal de Morales, whose music was exported to Bolivia and will be heard in instrumental versions of polyphonic vocal music. "There an emotional commitment to the polyphony that one doesn't hear in the rest of the international repertoire," said Wiemken. Also, in a period dominated by vocal music, the Spanish had made strong use of instrumentation - good news for Piffaro's lineup of recorders, guitars, bagpipes, and harps.
Thus, the invitation from the Bolivian festival didn't require much persuading, though financial conditions there are such that sponsorship from the U.S. Embassy was necessary for the group to make the trip.
Festival officials sent Piffaro musicians volumes of Bolivian discoveries for their concert. But Kimball didn't see how dramatic this musical recovery had been until he arrived at a Bolivian museum that showed how moldering sheaves of music were discovered in the 1960s - masses of fragmentary paper thrown into canvas bags until someone thought to call in musicologists. Kimball also describes an odd time-warp moment upon seeing an ancient dulcian behind museum glass - identical to the instruments she uses.
Modern Bolivia, however, doesn't keep its music under glass. At one highway toll booth, Piffaro found the attendant passing time playing a pink guitar. The country has a version of Venezuela's "El Sistema," a system of government-funded youth orchestras - the one Kimball heard was "phenomenal" - that spawned the now-celebrated Gustavo Dudamel. Another sign of the deep musical acculturation: Though Piffaro is celebrated in the early-music festivals of Europe, Kimball had never signed 200-plus autographs, as she did after one Bolivian concert.
Chances are this music won't slip into obscurity in the future. As remote as some villages seemed, they were technologically up-to-date in terms of handheld recording devices. The group members saw many, even among a trio of heavily habited nuns. So much for intellectual property issues - "You had to set that aside," said Wiemken. "Different rules apply."
The Philadelphia concerts will be preserved far less haphazardly in a studio recording for the Navona label following the weekend's concerts. "We love this rep [repertoire] . . . and our old Spanish CD, Los Ministriles, has been out of print for a while," says Kimball. "If only we could record many more programs."
Piffaro performs music from Bolivia at www.philly.com/piffbolivia
8 p.m. Friday at Philadelphia Cathedral; 8 p.m. Saturday at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill; 4 p.m. Sunday at SS. Andrew & Matthew Episcopal Church in Wilmington. Information: www.piffaro.com/
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.