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From Elite to Popular: Estudiantinas in La Paz, Bolivia, 1880s to 1940s

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In recent years, the estudiantina (a type of plucked string orchestra of Spanish origin) has become a topic of increased interest among music historians, including Latin Americanists. The Bolivian case, however, has not been the focus of detailed historical research, even though music scholars long have acknowledged that in the early-to-mid 20th century the estudiantina represented one of Bolivia’s most popular ensemble-types, and served as an important vehicle for the performance of typical criollo-mestizo musical expressions. This article traces the trajectory of La Paz’s estudiantina tradition, from its emergence in the 1880s as an upper-class criollo form of music making that centered on European repertoire, to its peak of popularity in the late 1930s and mid-1940s, when working-class mestizo musicians predominated in the milieu and most ensembles performed local genres (e.g., huayño, cueca) and indigenista (Indianist) works. The principal goal of this essay is to document this major shift. In the pages that follow, I discuss various groups, but devote special attention to the Orquesta Típica La Paz. Founded in 1945, this estudiantina represents the earliest instance of a Bolivian state-sponsored music group whose establishment formed part of a broader state attempt to court urban blue-collar workers.

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