Working with Multicultural Choirs: Reflections after 25 Years

As a graduate conducting student at Temple University in the 1980s, Diana V. Saez recalls being frustrated that there was no mention of Latin American composers—except for the famous composers Villalobos from Brazil and Ginastera from Argentina. When she moved to Washington DC, in 1990, she found a bustling choral music scene, with a wide variety of choruses. But Latin American music was not part of the standard repertoire.

“For years I had been collecting choral music scores from Latin American friends and colleagues,” she said, “and I wanted to start performing them.” So with the help of a friend with a degree in arts management, she started a choir.

From the beginning Cantigas drew both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking singers, and the first concert in December 1991 was to a packed house. As the only “Spanish-singing” choir in the area, Cantigas soon began getting invitations to perform from museums, presenters, and other choral groups. An early concert was the Misa Flamenca, with Spaniard Paco Peña and his ensemble at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

Cantigas had a truly multicultural mission: to increase the awareness and appreciation of the many rich styles of Latin American and Spanish choral music. While pursuing this mission, however, the choir also found itself confronting some stereotypes about being a Latin American cultural organization in the U.S.

In a break-out session at Chorus America’s annual conference in Cincinnati, Saez described the challenges and rewards of creating and sustaining multicultural arts organizations, and her decision to close the doors of Cantigas after 25 years. This interview draws on that session.

In your session, you noted the difficulties with the term “Latin American,” both for those who identify as such and those who do not.

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

The problem is that the term lumps many groups into one. The term Latin American or Latino implies homogeneity. Yet, it is not possible to talk about Latin American music in terms of homogeneity. Latin America encompasses many people, many cultures, and many languages. This fact was reflected in every decision Cantigas made about marketing, fundraising, and programming.

How did the diversity you are describing lead to some marketing challenges?

DS: Our relationships with the many embassies located in Washington DC were very important to Cantigas. But, for example, the Argentinean Embassy would not be interested in our programs if there was no Argentinean music included. The same was true at the Mexican embassy, the Uruguayan embassy, and others.

"We would often hear from people who didn’t consider auditioning for Cantigas—or coming to a concert—because they didn’t speak Spanish. I would answer, 'Well, I don’t speak Latin or German, and I still enjoy choral music.'” - Diana Saez

For a while we programmed concerts dedicated to one region or to a specific country, but that was a challenge to market among the greater Latin American community. How could we convince Puerto Ricans to come to a concert dedicated to Central America or vice versa? We learned that there are prejudices and stereotypes even among ourselves.

Were the challenges different when marketing to white audiences?

DS: Yes. It’s similar to how many people approach “ethnic” cuisine. There is a platonic ideal of how an “authentic” dish should taste. That definition can trap the immigrant cook into very narrow expectations. It is a problem when people pigeonhole a group, a culture, and its music.

Some audiences expected Cantigas to sing exclusively folk music. They ignored that Latin American music could also include contemporary music or classical music, like the music written during colonial times. Sometimes that kept them away.

So how did you confront those stereotypes?

DS: We felt it was important to show how Latin American music was interconnected with other music. We learned about the historical context of each choral work we presented, and designed programs that showed the connections to other cultural groups. So we had programs called Africa in the Americas, which explored the influence of African music in Latin America; Jewish, Moorish, Christian: Music of Spain, where we presented music from the Spanish Golden Age; and Shalom y Esperanza, celebrating the Jewish culture in Latin America.

As time went on, we did not confine ourselves solely to Latin American repertoire. We saw ourselves as part of a bigger choral community. I’m not sure we were being seen that way from the outside, though. We were still seen as “the others.” We would often hear from people who didn’t consider auditioning for Cantigas—or coming to a concert—because they didn’t speak Spanish. I would answer, “Well, I don’t speak Latin or German, and I still enjoy choral music.”

Getting board members was also more of a challenge that you thought it would be. What were the issues?

DS: Some white Americans didn’t feel qualified to be part of the board because they were not Hispanic or Latino. And within the smaller Latin American community in the DC area, it was a challenge to find people with a passion for choral music in particular. They might be music lovers, but not necessarily choral music lovers. They might have business experience, but not necessarily an understanding of choral culture.

Some board members had trouble grasping the complexity of Cantigas’ mission. One said she needed to know from which countries our songs originated, so that she could invite people from those countries. Imagine performing Mozart and only targeting the Austrian community in DC! Another board member wanted to place mannequins wearing folk dresses at the entrance of the concert venue. I understood what she was trying to accomplish, but some of us didn’t want to play into that idea of what our music should be: fun, exotic, colorful.

Why was the music you performed also challenging for your multicultural group of singers?

DS: Half of the singers were American, which means they came from different backgrounds. The other half was of Latin American origin. Over our 25 years, we have had singers from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia, and more.

But just because you are born in Argentina doesn’t mean that you are familiar with the Afro-rhythms of Peru. As with most folk music, these rhythms were not meant to be written in staff paper like classical music and it may take a while to get a feel for them if you didn't grow up listening to this music. Singers from South America had a hard time with the Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms—most are very syncopated and it can be hard to hear the downbeat. And many of us had a hard time understanding and singing the Venezuelan rhythms. There is a 5/8 rhythm that feels like a limping 6/8. There are also many instances of 3/4 meter against 6/8 in fast tempo.

The music of Latin America is tremendously diverse. Can you tell us a little bit about how it changed as different cultures populated the continent?

DS: The ethnologist Fernando Ortiz uses the term “transculturation” to describe the encounter between and among cultures, where each culture acquires or adapts elements of the others to create something new. Latin America was not just influenced by European cultures. The native cultures, and the many cultures that cohabitate in the Americas, such as African cultures, also had great impact. Once the Europeans arrived in the Americas, the music they made was not European anymore because it was being created under completely new circumstances. There was an adaptation, an adjustment, and an exchange of musical and cultural knowledge. 

Today, there is a new generation of Latin American and Spanish composers of choral music. They are eclectic, deriving ideas, styles, or tastes from a broad and diverse range of sources. People like Cesar Alejandro Carrillo from Venezuela whose motet compositions show his command of compositional techniques from 16th century and 20th century alike. He can also arrange Venezuelan folk music with the same ease.

At the end of your session at the Chorus America conference, you said you would never again conduct a multicultural choir. Why is that?

DS: The reason why we decided to fold is that many of us in the organization felt that Cantigas has accomplished its mission to increase awareness and appreciation for the many rich styles of Latin American choral music in the area. More and more choirs are incorporating Latin American repertoire into their performances, and that is the way it should be. And that is the reason why personally, I don't feel comfortable directing an “ethnic specific” choir, not because I don't consider the music worthy of being performed, but because I feel that Latin American music should be part of the choral canon like other choral music, and should not be pigeonholed. To me, all music is multicultural.

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