There is an extensive network of early music groups around South America. The continent’s ensembles specialise in work from the Spanish and Portuguese colonial periods – music rarely performed elsewhere in the world.

The best place to hear this work is the biannual Misiones de Chiquitos festival in Bolivia, which celebrated its ninth incarnation last month. Around a dozen Latin American Baroque groups joined voices with some of the best European ensembles to perform in 13 mission churches in towns surrounding the city of Santa Cruz.

Background is important: though the Jesuits were expelled from Bolivia in 1767, they established a musical tradition that lives on and this is what the festival goes to great lengths to celebrate. The other big draw is the churches, restored during the 1970s by the German conservationist and architect Hans Roth. In the process, Roth discovered thousands of manuscripts used by the missionaries. Simple in form, much of the music has been rearranged for the purposes of the Chiquitos Festival.

While its authorship is a bit mysterious, whatever the music’s roots this festival is fun and exciting. Concerts are hugely popular not only with tourists and Baroque enthusiasts, but also hundreds of proudly cheering Bolivians. Santa Ana has the remnants of the only original Baroque organ in the Missions, allowing local organists Francisco Paz and Rocha Sorioco to perform ‘anonimo’ with style.

The centrepiece of 2012’s festival was the revival of a chamber opera, which Nawrot claims was first performed in Paraguay but remained in the repertory of the Bolivian Chiquitos long after the Jesuits left. San Ignacio, conducted by Antione Duhamel, had some amplification problems which marred the first 15 minutes , but it soon settled down as the young Liliana Parada emerged confidently in the title role. She was joined by 150 performers. Under APAC Association Cultural, the foundation that runs the festival, a plethora of baroque and renaissance choirs, chamber groups and orchestras have sprung up, performing in various combinations, and also with soloists.

The Coro y Orquesta Arakaender and Chilean group Les Carillons joined forces with Ashley Solomon – head of historical performance at the Royal College of Music and co-founder of Florilegium – for a concert of mission and colonial music. American organist Stephen Roberts has returned repeatedly to lead members of the same group and was honoured with a special award this year.

The Ensemble Barroco Chiquitano is an ‘elite’ group of Bolivians conducted by founder Ruben Dario Suarez Arana. Another guest was Italian harpsichordist Daniela Dolci’s Swiss-based ensemble Musica Fiorita, who led the Soloistas Bolivianos in a rendering of two masses.

Argentine group La Barocca del Suquia, led by the virtuoso violinist Manfredo Kraemer, offered spirited renditions of non-standard fare, from Geminiani’s extraordinary variations on the Scottish folk tunes such as ‘The Country Lass’ to Biber’s eccentric and occasionally polytonal Battalia.

El Grup Banza, hailing from the Brazilian city of Curitiba, demonstrated the depth of the folkloric traditions. Finally, Guatemala was an important place for music during the colonial period and was reflected in the concert given by Omar Morales Abril and his La Capilla de la Asuncion.

Robert Turnbull