Publication Date

January 1, 2016

Silence and nervousness greeted me when I walked into the classroom that early fall afternoon. At the technology station in the front of the room, I launched a browser and called on the services of YouTube. Moments later, James Brown’s “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” blasted through the classroom speakers.

Students looked around the room, unsure of the protocol. Then heads began to bounce as Mr. Dynamite crunched tight, horn-filled grooves. Within seconds, students started to speak to each other, casting away the awkward silence that hung uncomfortably over our room.

For the last couple of years, I’ve played music in my survey of colonial Latin American history at Texas Christian University before the start of each class. At first, my intention was simply to break the ice, to get students to relax, to interact with one another and get acquainted with me. But as I’ve experimented with incorporating music into my teaching, I’ve come to use it to set moods and reflect themes before the start of class, and as a primary source during lectures. Combining music of various genres and time periods, I’ve found, promotes useful discussions about the past.

The survey examines the social and cultural development of the region from the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in the late 15th century to the wars of revolution in the early 19th. The majority of students take the course to fulfill general education requirements, and many will never take another history class during their college careers. Some students have an interest in the region and its culture, while to others it’s the least of several evils. Like many history faculty, I sometimes face the issue of motivating the latter group. Music helps me combat student indifference.

Martin Fisch, phono (cc)/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

We met at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students from Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Jordan, and Nigeria mingled with those from Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, and New Orleans. Recent high school grads shared space with graduating seniors, veterans, and first-generation and returning college students evenly split along gender lines. Few had qualms about expressing their opinions, and I quickly learned that, as a group, they shared a wry sense of humor.

For our second meeting, Paco de Lucia’s “Cepa Andaluza,” a flamenco composition characterized by fast rhythmic strumming known as bulería, set the mood for our class on Muslim and Christian society in the Iberian Peninsula leading up to 1492. Students read a series of decrees issued by Islamic authorities to limit contact between the two groups. We paid close attention to the negative language used to describe Christian men and women to analyze the legacy of struggle and accommodation that characterized the period.

To help us examine our findings about Muslims’ attitudes compared to those of Christians, I played the one-verse song “Tell me, Moorish bitch!”—part of the 16th-century compendium of Spanish music known as the Cancionero de Medinaceli— as interpreted by the Colombian early Hispanic ensemble Música Ficta. Students read a translation of the lyrics, a story of unrequited love, contempt, and frustrated desire, pushing them to assess interpersonal relationships that developed across religious and ethnic divides.

As background for my lesson plan, I turned to several sources. Harmonia, a nationally syndicated public radio program on early music, allows listeners to access past shows featuring dances, carols, and religious compositions from across the region. Geoffrey Baker and Tess Knighton’s Music and Urban Society in Colonial Latin America (2011) provides a nice selection of written primary sources contextualizing the relationship between sound and ritual, one of which I translated from Spanish for students to read. And Colonial Latin America: Music, Sounds, and Silence as Historical Sources, an exciting new digital platform developed by historian Vera Candiani and musicologist Ireri Chávez-Bárcenas (currently subscription- only), features annotated sections that weave written and visual primary sources together with recordings. These sources have encouraged me to think about the way auditory stimuli shaped the experiences of historical actors and how to incorporate sound and music into lectures and assignments.

My classroom soundtrack includes selections that are openly anachronistic. As a prelude to a discussion of the Inquisition in the New World, I chose “Spirit in the Dark,” performed live by Aretha Franklin in 1971 at the Fillmore West. We evaluated the case of an American-born Spanish woman possessed, authorities believed, by an evil spirit that misdirected her relationships with men. Together we questioned the state’s rationale for policing people’s conduct, especially in relation to the behavior of women in colonial society. The idea of the Queen of Soul at her organ, commanding the stage in front of several thousand fans, gave our gender analysis heft: Franklin’s formidable singing and musicianship delivered a message not only of the subversion of traditional roles in music but also across time.

Aretha Franklin’s formidable singing and musicianship delivered a message of the subversion of traditional gender roles during the Inquisition in Spanish America.

The session continued with a short account of an auto de fe, a public ritual to condemn heretics, held in Lima on December 31, 1625.1 Paying attention to the way the document describes the event’s use of music helped the class evaluate institutional efforts to punish transgressors. The source’s narrator described the pageantry and drama of inquisitorial ceremony, including the sonorous elements that accompanied the penitent act: the use of buglers and trumpeters to announce the procession of dignitaries, and the sorrowful hymns sung by priests during different stages of the ritual. We listened to the counter-Reformation Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s hymn “Vexilla Regis [Royal Banners],” which was intoned by the two choirs that accompanied the clerics, ministers, and officials of the Holy Office as they delivered a ceremonial cross to the scaffold. I then played Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere Mei [Have Mercy on Me],” a hymn sung by four priests as they escorted the excommunicated to their sentencing. The intentionality of the music during specific moments of the ritual helped us think about what Alejandro Cañeque describes as “theatre of power,” the staged spectacle of governance designed to reinforce values and authority.2

As the course developed, some music I chose demonstrated that lyrics in music of today have a deep history. Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” launched a conversation about runaway slaves. The tune’s evocative chorus (“Swing down, sweet chariot, stop, and let me ride”), a sample on Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 solo debut album, The Chronic, helped us think about the circulation of knowledge and the significance of oral traditions. Students didn’t know that the lyrics originated in slave songs from the US South that referenced the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes and stations that helped runaways reach the North. For this lesson, we read accounts about maroon settlements in Mexico, Panama, and Brazil and listened to a selection of work songs, ritual chants, and celebratory tunes from Cuba and the Caribbean. These examples helped us analyze religious syncretism, labor regimes, and resistance strategies. Sound contextualized the tension described by Portuguese residents of early 19th-century Bahia (a region of Brazil with a large enslaved African and Afro-Brazilian population) when they listened to the ominous drumming of nearby quilombos on the eve of the 1835 Muslim slave revolt.

By the time Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” introduced popular rebellions in the Andes in the 18th century, the course was drawing to a close. In their final evaluations, students commented that they found open discussions and lectures a rewarding experience. “The fact that we talked so much in class,” one student noted in a course evaluation, “helped me absorb the information better because it forced me to think about my opinions.” Discussions of sensitive subjects, especially those concerning class formation and race relations, touched delicate nerves, yet a majority of students still viewed the classroom as “an open forum where ideas could easily be exchanged and respect for others’ comments was strictly enforced.”

The use of contemporary music to illustrate historical subjects runs the risk of creating a prescriptive learning environment detached from the lived reality of the actors of the past. For me, the value of combining musical genres from different time periods helps to open lines of communication that generate enthusiasm for learning. While few students commented specifically about the use of music in their final evaluations, the approach resonated with one, who noted, “Every class started consistently with music to relax and gain students’ attention . . . it WORKS!”

is assistant professor of Latin American history at Texas Christian University. He is completing a book on indigenous mapmaking in colonial Mexico and has started work on a rare 18th-century Mexican illuminated manuscript about old sayings recited to music.


1. “Relación de un auto de fe (Lima, 31 December 1625),” reproduced in Music and Urban Society in Colonial Latin America, ed. Geoffrey Baker and Tess Knighton (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 251.

2. Alejandro Cañeque, “Theatre of Power: Writing and Representing the Auto de Fe in Colonial Mexico,” The Americas 52, no. 3 (1996): 321–43.

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