Decolonial strategies for the incorporation of Ecuadorian indigenous music in Higher Music Education: the case of the LAM-UCE programme

Political and educational context

Ecuador is the second smallest of the Spanish-speaking countries in South America. It is three quarters the size of Germany, and it has one quarter of its population. In 2008, the president in charge, Rafael Correa, established a new constitution heavily focused on a decolonial education in the name of his Revolución Ciudadana (Citizen Revolution). Although his revolution turned out to be another bittersweet chapter in the country’s history, the empowerment of Ecuadorian indigenous groups, from their linguistic and artistic expressions, has undeniably left a mark. In this context, Universidad Central del Ecuador developed a programme of Music based on a decolonial discourse and officially, for the very first time in the country, academised two traditions of local popular music: the Andean- and Afro-Ecuadorian.

Universidad Central del Ecuador is the oldest and largest public university of Ecuador. It is located in the capital, Quito. As a public institution, it is free of charge, making the admission process the hardest. The profile of its applicants mostly circumscribes to rural areas and low income families. The Licenciatura of Artes Musicales (LAM-UCE) programme is a BA degree which has the indigenous Ecuadorian music as its main component and started running in September 2018. The programme consists of nine semesters and it has four itineraries: performance, composition, production, and musicology in Ecuadorian and Latin American music.

Strategies for decoloniality

The two main strategies of decoloniality within the LAM-UCE programme are a) the construction of local instruments and b) the research of local material and expressions.

For the former, the programme has hired musicians and luthiers from the indigenous Afro and Andean communities as part of the faculty. Jackson Ayoví is one of them. Observing Ayoví teaching is fascinating. His methods challenge the ‘scientificity’ of conventional formal instruction. The class observed consisted of the construction of a bombo (drum) afro-esmeraldeño. Esmeraldas is the province in the northwest of Ecuador that holds the largest afro-community of the country. Ayoví had cut wood and leather himself, for the construction of the bombo. He started building the bombo while explaining through anecdotes, the beliefs of the community for the construction and use of these instruments.

The latter strategy consists of the field research for material of local expressions, either older or current. For this, Pablo Guerrero, renowned music historicist, and owner of possibly the largest archive of Ecuadorian traditional music documents (scores, interviews, testimonies and audio files, to name a few), joined the faculty and is in charge of the itinerary of musicology. His students are digitizing thousands of documents from his archive, and also doing field research. Again, Guerrero’s teaching is full of stories of his own experiences with regards to different conversations with musicians and composers, while gathering documents and information throughout the years. In the lesson observed, Guerrero handed the students original scores from the early 1900s by national composers that have never been published.

Indigenous forms of teaching and learning

Certainly, more conventional teaching happens in subjects such as Composition and Ensembles. The teaching encompasses a mixture of formal pedagogies and teacher-centred learning, similar to what happens in a conservatoire; however, the repertoire is constituted by popular music in the shape of traditional songs (except in one-to-one classes of piano as a complementary instrument). The fact that the repertoire is more traditional forces the use of traditional instruments too. When teaching resources for a specific instrument do not exist in the format of books or music scores, the methodology is orality. These teachers themselves have learned to play listening to and watching older performers in their own communities. They replicate this practice in the classroom, sometimes even bringing other members of the community to play with them and the students.

The lessons observed confirmed a high input of narrative and descriptive content. They did not provide traditional theory or scientific explanations considered ‘acceptable’ in the traditional academic models of education. For example, in Ayoví’s preparation of the wood for the bombo, he explained that it had to be cut on certain nights depending on the moon, the reason being, the quality of the sound that it produces. Common scientific methodology would demand a proven explanation of the qualities of the wood. On the other hand, the proof for this ‘ancestral’ knowledge is the sound, and for the Afro-Ecuadorian community, that is enough. Having alternative ways of learning is extremely important, especially for those who are teaching them. As Ayoví responds when asked about the risk of having Afro-Ecuadorian music in the classroom:

Our sounds are sounds of the mountain, which is not the common ‘do re mi fa sol la ti’ of the 4:40 tempered system. It is a system that lives, that has survived, despite adversity, it has survived in the mountains, and it is mysterious that this system has reached us intact, and we maintain it. I don’t believe at all that this wisdom will worsen, rather, if this knowledge is empowered, our people would be empowered even more, and our country too.

Jackson Ayoví

Preservation and progress

The LAM-UCE programme reflects the urgent need of preservation and progress of Ecuadorian indigenous music. However, in a postcolonial society, the imperative of progress seems to create unusual tensions when trying to find ways of preserving ancestral knowledge, which is also an imperative if considering indigenous communities as equal as the rest of society. But preservation is not to rescue, and progress is not to ignore. To see them like that is to translate them into political discourses that overshadow the organic hybridisation of indigenous cultures. The danger is to confuse decoloniality with preservation as a process of rejecting any external influences, and looking for a ‘state of purity’ very likely by repetition in isolation.


Higher Music Education can present itself as a bridge between progress and preservation by having an intrinsic force of universality. Political leaders and academics should work together towards the creation of legal frameworks and educational environments that can guarantee the recognition, contributions and experimentation of indigenous and minority expressions, giving them a voice, and listening to what they have to say in their own words, with their own tools and methodologies. Their empowerment is ultimately our empowerment too.

This article is a part of the publication titled How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

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