Reading Music Backwards: Alejo Carpentier’s Unpublished Text “Los orígenes de la música y la música primitiva”

Katia Chornik

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This article examines Alejo Carpentier’s unpublished and undated text ‘Los orígenes de la música y la música primitiva’ (The Origins of Music and Primitive Music). This important but hitherto unknown document appears to be the most important antecedent for the musicological discussions narrated in Carpentier’s groundbreaking novel Los pasos perdidos (1953), an account of a musicologist-composer who travels into the South American jungle to collect musical instruments and discovers the origin of music among South American so-called primitives. In ‘Los orígenes de la música y la música primitiva’, Carpentier proposes that speech and music emerged simultaneously, seeking the origin of music in rhythm. He incorporates the paradigm of cultural evolution, making extensive use of the nineteenth-century analogy between prehistoric humanity and current-day ‘primitives’. Carpentier also adheres to some of the concepts and methods of comparative musicology – which made use of evolutionary models – stressing the potential of primeval music for Western researchers and composers. The present study frames ‘Los orígenes de la música’ in the context of evolutionary theory, drawing on a range of anthropological and musicological accounts. It traces how Carpentier assimilates, resists, distorts and challenges theories concerning primeval music by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Richard Wallaschek, Jules Combarieu and Fernando Ortiz, among others. The article concludes with a brief examination of the discussions of primeval music and ethnomusicological research in Los pasos perdidos.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-31
JournalInternational Journal of Cuban Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Carpentier, primeval music, Darwin, evolutionism, comparative musicology, ethnomusicology, Los pasos perdidos


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