Decolonizing Music: Musical Congress of the Americas


Last year, we published a piece entitled “A Hindu Puerto Rican’s Reflections on the Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Climate Convergence” by Priya Parrotta Natarajan, who was chosen to participate in the Emerging Leaders Multi-faith Climate Convergence in 2015. Now, Parrotta writes about a recent conference held at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in San Juan, Puerto Rico—Descolonizando la Música: Encuentro musical de las Américas [Decolonizing Music: Musical Congress of the Americas]—a regional forum sponsored by the International Music Council. In “Descolonizando la Música: Encuentro musical de las Américas” (18 November 2016) she calls the conference “a pivotal and inspiring moment,” in which attendees explored questions such as: “How does colonialism inform the contemporary music industry?” and “What are the ecological dimensions of the music we create?”

The Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico is one of the most beautiful buildings in San Juan—and possibly one of the most lovely music conservatories in the Americas. It is located on Avenida Ponce de León, adjacent to the Laguna del Condado. It is an easy walk to several of San Juan’s art museums, as well as some of the city’s spectacular coastlines. Most of the conservatory’s classrooms, libraries and rehearsal spaces are located in a restored nineteenth century building directly facing the campus gates. The building’s serene inner courtyard and gentle archways recall similar structures throughout the Caribbean. This is the Edificio Hístorico.

The Edificio Académico, meanwhile, is a structure that seems new in every way. Its smooth, futuristic exterior involves a combination of wavy concrete (not unlike the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC) and ample panels of glass. Light streams from the outside in. To be sure, this is how my time at the Conservatorio last month made me feel.

The Conservatorio de PR is the institutional home of the Consejo de la Música de las Tres Américas (COMTA). The Consejo, in turn, is a regional council of the International Music Council, a UNESCO-affiliated international organization committed to promoting the value of music in the lives of all peoples. Early last month, COMTA hosted a conference called Descolonizando la Música—Encuentro Musical de las Américas. As a writer, singer and facilitator whose primary professional goal is to harness the power of music for cultural pluralism and environmental awareness, I leapt at the opportunity to attend.

The fact that this conference would be taking place in my hometown, on and near the streets that inspired my career in music in the first place, was a delightful coincidence. The conference struck a comfortable balance of attendees. About half were based in Puerto Rico, and the rest came from universities and non-profit organizations in countries as dispersed as the United States, Sweden, Peru, Argentina, Switzerland, and France. Yet in my opinion, the wider the dispersal, the more profound the convergence.

Descolonizando la Música was, for many of us, a pivotal and inspiring moment. Our days were filled with a combination of presentations and performances, each of which questioned and/or celebrated various dimensions of the musical landscapes within which we live. Together, we engaged in a number of discussions, each rooted in their own joys and concerns. How does colonialism inform the contemporary music industry? Is music indeed a universal language? What are the ecological dimensions of the music we create? These were some of the questions we posed, debated, and deemed very important.

The last question—regarding music and ecology—was of particular interest to me; and it was explored in abundance. It was reflected in the rousing concert given one evening by la Orquesta de Instrumentos Autóctonos y Nuevas Technologías, an ensemble of contemporary and indigenous instruments based in Argentina. It was discussed afterwards amongst the participants—several of whom had divergent views about the concert’s choreography and social context. And perhaps most significantly for me, it was mirrored in the world we ventured out into after each day was done. Balmy night air, spirited by the chirps of coquís, and (if we were lucky) encounters with outdoor music, where ecology, coexistence, and laughter kept easy company. Here, in the city I loved, in the company of people whose minds and humor were rapidly awakening me to new possibilities, I was brought home in a way that I had never experienced before.

Highly communicative, improvisational, and joyful music is a hallmark of Caribbean culture. And Caribbean ecologies are just as precious as the musical traditions that they support. In this age of global climate change, we in the region (and beyond it) face a formidable challenge. We must communicate to others the need for ecological responsibility—and at the same time challenge the divides, wrought by colonialism and patriarchy and textbook neoliberalism, that hinder such communication in the first place.

Music, I believe, plays a crucial role in easing this impasse, in finding a way to resolve both of these crises (that is, of sustainability on the one hand and communication on the other). Certain forms of music in particular could really help us to heal our present climate crisis. Music which is ecological, communal, and border crossing. Music which confronts the painful condition that so many of us find ourselves in—of being broken, or threatened, by division and alienation. Music which, by doing all this, heals the heart of our time. We would do well to support such music—or at the very least, give it a listen.

Descolonizando la Música gave me an opportunity to introduce my new project: a podcast which celebrates the role of music in the global climate movement. My enthusiasm for this project (which is named Music & the Earth) is awkward to express here, but suffice it to say that I would love to be in touch with anybody who is interested in becoming involved. Emboldened by last month’s conference and the people I met there, I have begun to dream of this as a truly global initiative, which could bring musical and environmental voices from the Caribbean into dialogue with voices from India, from Peru, from Kenya. Such dialogue has already begun, as has the creative direction of the podcast’s first episode.

On the last evening of Descolonizando la Música, at a plena venue in Santurce, I realized with a jolt that it was Columbus Day (known throughout Latin America as Día de la Raza). This year—and only this year—this day did indeed represent a day of discovery. Discovery of sounds, people, ideas, and, crucially, discovery of this thought: that through music, we compose a less divisive world. And sustainability sets the beat.

Priya Parrotta Natarajan is a writer, musician and facilitator based in Washington, DC. She is committed to fostering empathy, curiosity, and responsibility across geopolitical divides– in the interest of our shared, brilliant planet. She is the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World, which brings light to what is arguably the Caribbean’s greatest gift to the world: centuries of experience in living together. She is in the process of creating a podcast which celebrates the role of music in the global climate movement. Her website is, and her email is

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