The Power of Song: Music and Dance in the Mission Communities of Northern New Spain, 1590-1810

By Watkins, Timothy D. | Notes, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Power of Song: Music and Dance in the Mission Communities of Northern New Spain, 1590-1810


Watkins, Timothy D., Notes


The Power of Song: Music and Dance in the Mission Communities of Northern New Spain, 1590-1810. By Kristin Dutcher Mann. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Berkeley, CA: The Academy of American Franciscan History, 2010. [ix, 300 p. ISBN 9780804770866. $60.] Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.

Kristin Dutcher Mann's The Power of Song is an ambitious attempt to describe the use of music and dance in mission communities organized by Roman Catholic missionary orders for the purposes of conversion and religious instruction of over fifty indigenous ethnicities scattered from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, including the territories of Baja and Alta California, Sinaloa, Sonora, Nueva Vizcaya, Nuevo León, Nuevo Santander, and Florida over a period of 220 years. For this purpose the author draws on numerous primary sources as well as scholarly studies from a wide variety of disciplines including musicology and ethnomusicology in order to place music and dance in the political, social, and economic contexts of the periods in question. Despite some generalizations and omissions that will no doubt frustrate musicologists, historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and cultural critics in turn, the attempt is largely successful and produces some new insights into ways in which music functioned in the culture of northern New Spain.

Mann's introduction is helpful in drawing attention to a number of recurring themes that underlie the author's approach. These include the importance of music in creating collective identity, the use of music as a means of both social control and resistance, and the power of music to communicate such issues as difference between and within groups and to facilitate communication between groups. Though Antonio Gramsci's conception of cultural hegemony (Prison Notebooks, trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari [New York: Columbia University Press, 1991]) as well as a poststructuralist approach indebted to Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: Pantheon Books, 1977]) are both evident at different points, the author also positions the study within the stream of the postcolonialist "new mission history" (see, for example, Erick Langer and Robert H. Jackson, eds., The New Latin American Mission History [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995] and Robert H. Jackson, ed., New Views of Border lands History [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998]) that has recently emphasized the agency of indigenous peoples in the Americas as historical actors rather than as passive subjects forced to simply acquiesce to the imposition of European culture.

The book is well organized, with three parts describing in turn indigenous music and dance before the arrival of Europeans and sacred music in Europe from 1500 to 1800, the meeting of these musical cultures in the context of the mission communities of northern New Spain, and the role of music in restructuring time as well as physical and social space. The organization of each chapter is likewise logical, though the summaries (actually labeled "Conclusions") at the end of each chapter except the seventh (which immediately precedes a short and unnumbered "Conclusions" chapter at the end of the book) seem redundant and contrived.

The first two chapters, which comprise part 1, "Musical Traditions," will probably be the most frustrating for many readers. Intended to lay a foundation from which to examine the meeting of European and indigenous musical cultures in part 2, they suffer from somewhat opposite problems. Any attempt at reconstructing indigenous music and dance prior to the arrival of Europeans will be necessarily spotty and conjectural, with the historiographic record consisting of early accounts by European chroniclers with widely varied musical interests, training, and abilities, frequently in the context of a report about another topic, limited to specific performances in sometimes widely varying cultural contexts, and inevitably constrained by their etic point of view. …

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