“From the start of colonisation by Europeans, European music went all over the world,” explains Jean-Christophe Frisch, the conductor of Baroque Nomade (Nomadic Baroque), a musical ensembke that looks into connections between European and non-European music from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
All their projects start with historical sources - documentation of the presence of Europeans in a certain country during the 17th century.
One of those countries was Ethiopia.
“In that case, I go to Ethiopia, and I try to find musicians,” Frisch explains.
His ensemble went to Addis Abeba in 2009 with their European baroque instruments – violin, harpsichord, viola de gamba – and found local singers and musicians playing Ethiopian percussion and instruments like the mesinqo.
Together they found connections, as when Frisch and his group played Senhora del mundo, a 16th-century Porguese song and the Ethiopian musicians immediately recognised the tune.
“It was either that the Portuguese took an Ethiopian melody back to Portugal, or it’s a Portuguese tune that is still living in Ethiopia 400 years later,” says Frisch.
Over the past 20 years Baroque Nomade has explored music from all over the world, from Turkey to Brazil to the Philippines. They have looked at the the influence of Italian baroque on gypsy music in Transylvania and the interaction of instruments from Britain with Indian musicians in Calcutta.
They have worked extensively with Chinese music, looking at what happened when Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 16th century.
“The Chinese Emperor wanted to know this music that arrived from Italy,” explains singer Cyrille Gerstenhaber.
The Jesuits came with their instruments and Chinese learned to play them. Frische says they started playing their own music on them, which the Europeans also learned.
Baroque Nomade has tried to replicate this back-and-forth, with melodies like Pu'an Zhou, The Incantation of the Monk Pu'an.
“We did it with harpsichord and gamba, and we mixed baroque instruments and Chinese instruments,” says Frisch.
Gerstenhaber says this musical interaction was a kind of diplomacy.
”Music was a way of meeting people that you wouldn’t have been able to communicate with them. And it’s the reason why the Europeans sent musicians all over the world, to make the first steps of diplomacy.”
Frisch says that looking at the musical interactions of the baroque period shows that, beyond the results of European exploration and colonialism, people were still able to connect on an emotional level.
“They were able to meet,” he said. “And for me, it’s an example for us to say: why don’t we meet in the same way now?”