Statement on the feature “Musical Missionization. Baroque music from the jungle”.

On August 30, 2013, Deutschlandfunk broadcast the feature “Musikalische Missionierung. Baroque music from the jungle”. Lena Böllinger has written a letter in response to this, which we would like to make public herewith. Several organizations have signed it, including glocal.

Addendum: Judith Grümmer wrote a response for Deutschlandfunk, which you can find here.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I heard your August 30, 2013 feature “Musical Missionization. Baroque Music from the Jungle” on Deutschlandfunk. I am deeply appalled and outraged by the way colonialism and the related missionary activities of the Jesuits have been addressed. At no point in your feature is there a critical reflection on the connection between missionization, colonial history of violence, and racism. Instead, the feature attempts to whitewash and legitimize missionization as “soft colonization.” In doing so, it updates and reproduces colonial-racist stereotypes and white[1] superiority fantasies.

The history of colonialism is a history of violence and oppression. The subjugation and extermination of non-European people and cultures took place not only through military and physical violence, but also through epistemological and ideological violence. The racialization of people in social and scientific discourses as well as the idea of a European civilizing and educational mission, which was to bring freedom, progress, enlightenment and “(high) culture” to the non-European, supposedly uncivilized, cultureless world – if necessary by force – legitimized the colonial project and its various forms of oppression and exploitation. The racist construction of an enlightened, European-Christian, white subject who, because of his assumed superiority, is allowed to subjugate, enslave, exploit, and educate the non-white, non-Christian, and non-European Other is fundamental to colonial history.

Accordingly, the distinction between “good” and “evil” colonization made repeatedly in the feature is nonsensical. Thus, the activities of the missionaries in Chiquitania are delineated from the military and physical atrocities of the other colonizers. Unlike the “Spanish slave hunters”, the missionaries had carried out a “gentle colonization”, a “missionary work with a human face, of which the descendants of the Europeans could also be a little proud”. And elsewhere there is talk of a “humane example of Christianization”. This euphemism must be contradicted. Missionary activities are part of colonization, they are part of the activities of the “Spanish slave hunters” because they are based on the same basic racist assumptions of white superiority and non-white backwardness that legitimized(d) colonialism as a whole.

Elsewhere, the feature lets Father Fleindl have his say: “The Jesuits took the people out of the forest, settled them down, then built a good church with them and put the people to work in a simple system. (…) But they were also things of culture. But they also learned to read and write in Spanish and they learned to make musical instruments. (…) The fact that these simple people from the simple milieu of the forest have reached such heights in music can only be understood in the sense that it has been a real collaboration between the people and the missionaries. (…)”. Padre Santos is also quoted as saying that life “improved significantly with the arrival of the missionaries (…)”. Finally, the feature itself comments: In protected areas, the missionaries wanted to “convert and clothe the hitherto completely naked nomadic ‘jungle Indians’ with God’s help and the sounds of violins, with timpani and trumpets, and to settle and educate them in village communities.” The author of the feature comments on the joy of the person responsible for the maintenance of the churches about her visit by saying: “After all, it is not every day that Europeans come to the village who are interested in his work”. These quotations express almost prototypically the ideology of white superiority and the devaluation of non-white, non-European cultural contexts: Where does the author get the self-evident assumption that her visit as a European is to be particularly emphasized and valued? What exactly is the inevitable advantage for people to be sedentary if they were used to nomadic ways of life until then? What is the advantage of the church? Why is it “good” to impose a colonial language on these people and erase the mother tongue? To what extent have people’s lives “improved”? How does posterity actually know this so well? Here, “culture” or lack of culture is decided on the basis of the standards of the European missionaries and thus, according to the colonial logic, the so called “common people” only have a culture if the white man was/is so gracious as to introduce them to the European high culture.

It is then also this European notion of high culture (the churches, classical music) that is presented throughout the feature as particularly worthy of protection and value. Pre-Christian traditions are not addressed. At no point is there any critical reflection on why UNESCO, of all things, would put a village so marked by colonial influences on the list of world cultural heritage sites. Why does this list have space especially for “colonial treasures,” for the supposed achievements of Europeans? Who actually decides what is culture and world heritage and what is not? The feature itself gives an indirect answer to the question of who actually honors whom or what with the inclusion in the list of world cultural properties: “When UNESCO honored the life’s work of the architect Hans Roth in 1990 (…), not only the churches were meant, but explicitly also the “reducciones” as a whole, the way of life of their inhabitants, their culture, their tradition”. So, on the one hand, it is about the “life work” of a white European and about the Christian-European – and only about this – tradition and culture of the missionized natives.

At the same time, in the feature’s portrayal, classical music, which dates back to the missionary activities of the Jesuits, appears as the only chance to provide a perspective for today’s Bolivian youth as well. Individual students are highlighted who have been given the opportunity to perform in a concert in another European country or who aspire to study music. For how many students this dream remains out of reach for economic reasons is not addressed.

Repeatedly praised in the feature, music-making keeps young people away from alcohol, excessive television and crime, and gives them a future. It should not be denied at this point that classical music can bring joy to young people or that making music can seem like a meaningful activity. What is missing here, however, as well as in the entire feature, is the thematization of the violent and brutal history due to which baroque music is played today in the lowlands of Bolivia, in the villages of the Chiquitania. The postcolonial theorist Spivak once made a perhaps shocking but nonetheless apt comparison for contexts like this: If a child who is the product of rape nevertheless one day grows up to be a “happy” person, that does not call into question the fact that rape is a horrific crime. Similarly, the connection between the colonial past and the supposed benefits of colonialism is only becoming apparent today.

In this sense, I ask Deutschlandfunk to pay attention to a more sensitive presentation of colonial history in the future and to consistently avoid the reproduction and updating of colonial-racist stereotypes and white superiority fantasies. I would appreciate feedback from you.

For documentation purposes, I keep the correspondence public.

Sincerely yours,
Lena Böllinger

* Initiative Black People in Germany e.V.(
* glokal e.V.(
* Informationsbüro Nicaragua e.V.(
* AG Postkolonial Leipzig(
* Berlin Postkolonial e.V.(

[1] The discursive spelling is meant to indicate that the category white is not about the thematization of skin color or supposed biological differences, but rather about the racist social construction that associates whiteness with superiority, progressiveness, civility, and so on.