The University of Iowa

Bridging cultures through music in Chile (video)

June 13th, 2011

By Katelyn McBride


While studying abroad in Chile, Samantha Sidwell first connected with people through music.

Sidwell, a 2011 UI graduate, was placed in a host family full of musicians and quickly became involved in music locally by playing cello in an orquestra at her university and taking lessons from a Chilean instructor.

“Music was a great way for me to connect to my family,” Sidwell said. “I couldn’t necessarily speak that well right when I got there, especially because Chilean is very hard to understand at first. So one of the ways for me to connect was just to play.”

Sidwell attended a festival in Laguna Verde to celebrate the Mapuche new year and was able to experience two disparate cultures come together through music.

The Mapuche, the indigenous peoples of Chile, do not consider themselves Chileans, and vice versa – but through the sharing of music, Sidwell saw that the two groups were able to connect in a less hostile environment.

“It was fantastic because I had learned about this hostility but then there were these urban kids coming from the city, who normally would not interact or celebrate Mapuche culture, coming to explore music with these people living in the rural areas and celebrating the Mapuche culture in that way,” she said.

Sidwell was inspired by the connection music formed between the two groups and began exploring if socio-cultural devices, such as music, could benefit the relationship between the Chilean government and the Mapuche society.

The Mapuche make up less than 5 per cent of the total Chilean population and recently have been violently protesting against their government’s inability to include them in any land negotiation over territory they once occupied, Sidwell said.

“The Mapuche have been protesting in a civil manner for years and finally they’ve become more violent because they feel no other means to connect or to make themselves noticeable to the government and to the public,” Sidwell said.

Sidwell researched this topic for her honors thesis and even composed original songs that feature her cello skills and voice combined with musical styles from the Mapuche and non-Mapuche groups.

She concluded that music could create a setting where these two groups can find commonalities or find a way to connect with one another, and thus improve disputes over land and environmental policies and planning.

“Music is a way for the two sides to achieve a sense of awareness and connection to one another without the need for verbal exchange,” Sidwell said. “Portraying these issues in an artistic setting makes them immediately less threatening to those who are meant to receive the message.”