The third day of this year’s Valletta International Baroque Festival found us in the splendid Throne Room of the President’s Palace for a concert of early world music and dance dating from the time of the Conquistadors. The majority of the concert's pieces had been discovered by American musicologist Robert Stephenson in the 1950s, who spent his lifetime collecting material from the archives of cathedrals and churches. I had thought myself at least vaguely familiar with a smattering of Baroque period music from central and Latin America, but everything on the programme was completely unknown to me, not just the pieces themselves but also the composers; for example, Gaspar Fernandes, Juan de Lienas and Diego de Salazar.

One of the most accomplished of the composers was Juan de Araujo who had settled in Lima after leaving Spain as a young man, later travelling to Cuzco and Panama. Several of his compositions featured but of the 22 items we heard they were some of the less memorable, despite being possibly some of the most polyphonic. In all, around 60 of his compositions have survived, nearly all in the form of villancicos – in the 15th century a secular song derived from earlier dances – after which the Ensemble Villancico is named. Founded by Peter Pontvik in 1995, they specialise in Latin American music from the Baroque period. Just four instrumentalists (five if you include the countertenor moonlighting on the virginals/ harpsichord); recorder, viol, Baroque guitar and percussion, plus a choir of eight, although perhaps eight singers would be a better description as most of the pieces featured different sub-groupings of three or four voices.

Things started slightly tentatively, but gained momentum through the evening with a most un-Swedish-like (in the nicest possible way) fun and abandon. The Latin American way of singing requires slightly different techniques; for the men a rather more "throaty" sound, almost verging on harshness, and for the women, an ability to throw the high notes and catch them on the way down – both were shown to best effect in the later stages of the programme, when the singers worked less from their scores and the instrumentalists played a much more integrated role and as a result engendered real dynamism and joie de vivre. One of the best examples was a tenor solo sung from memory accompanied by a fast and rhythmic, improvising Baroque guitar and together they produced a most engaging Canción de un negro al Señor Dios (anon). 

Interspersed with the songs were instrumental items and dancing in period costume; choreographed by the dancers themselves, Kaj Sylegård and Daniela Pontvik Valero, they certainly added gaiety to the evening especially a rather coy boy-girl courtship dance to Gaytas y zarambeques from the 1677 Luz y Norte Musical by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. 

But Pontvik had saved the best until last with two delightful pieces, Convidando esta la noche by Juan Garciá de Zéspedes, which began with a bassoon introduction before evolving into lively and rhythmic chorus, and Tambalagumbá (Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla), and which made an excellent case for bringing to a wider audience this unusual repertoire which Ensemble Villancico have made their own.