Indigenous and Mestizo Musical Instruments: The Negotiation of Political and Cultural Identities in Latin America
essay, I am exploring diverse examples of indigenous and mestizo musical
instruments in order to underscore the manner in which these instruments can
help us to comprehend the political negotiation and location of culture. When I
say “cultural location” I refer not only to geographical place, but also to a
people’s cultural values and traditions as situated within communities at
particular moments in history. As for the “negotiation” of political identity,
I am alluding to the process of transculturation through which different and
sometimes contradictory elements of national, ethnic and/or social culture
combine unevenly. Such negotiation is ongoing and subject to change; there
exists no resolution. Strands of culture come to occupy dominant, prominent or
subtle aspects of national identity through negotiation and these strands are
visible in cultural representations such as music and dance. Although such
processes of negotiation are inherent to all types of identity formation, they
are particularly noteworthy in Latin American music because of the prevalence
of cultural mestizaje.
example of Guatemala’s national dance, the son. Ethnomusicologist Carlos
Monsanto describes the dance as “a strange mixture of native rhythms and
Spanish melodies” (“extrañas
mezclas de ritmos autóctonos y
melodías de corte español”).
In a sense, this process of blending can be heard in much music in Latin
America. Music in the Americas constitutes hybrid mixtures of Hispanic,
indigenous and African cultures. The sounds of culture—representations and
representers of identity—have been transformed through intense social, cultural
and political negotiations. In this essay I will foreground the manner in
which many of these negotiations have taken place on, with and through the
mediation of musical instruments.
state from the outset that I am not an ethnomusicologist. I have not conducted
fieldwork nor attempted to carry out organological studies of instruments. I am
writing, rather, from a perspective of cultural studies, analyzing specific
usages of musical instruments in order to trace threads of identity
construction that are articulated within and between Indo- and Latin America.
My analyses focus on exemplary cases in which musical instruments serve as
platforms for the negotiation of indigenous, mestizo and national identities.
My examples derive from an array of sources—from literary texts, such as
Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonial, to anthropological, ethnomusicological and
videographic documentary materials from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. I
analyze the commentaries of musicians themselves, and also the observations of
scholars and social critics who contribute to the overall discourse on music
focus on “indigenous” instruments, such as marimbas, chirimías and Indian
fiddles, emphasizing their hybrid or transcultural roots. These instruments
reveal the process through which indigenous and mestizo cultures have changed
over time. The process of transcultural negotiation is particularly evident in
the manner in which indigenous cultures have adapted European musical
instruments, constructing, as it were, their own original instruments with
which to express their culture. I conclude the essay by analyzing a group of
recently invented mestizo instruments—innovations on the marimba—in order to
highlight the continuation of the history of political negotiation at a
different place in the transcultural cycle.
Reading Marimbas: Instrumental Negotiations of
Guatemalan National Identity
manner in which scholars “read” pre-Colombian “music,” can reveal as much about
the scholars themselves as early indigenous music. Take, for example, the
polemic about whether the marimba derives originally from Africa, pre-Hispanic
Mesoamerica or Asia.
Regardless of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the data for each
theory, some writers approach the question with a preconceived nationalistic
agenda to prove that the marimba was first “theirs.” Enrique Analéu Díaz
asserts that some have gone so far as to falsify documents in their quest to
“find” proof that the marimba has pre-Hispanic American roots in the region of
what today is Guatemala: “Los
afanes por demostrar un origen antiguo de la Marimba en Guatemala han llevado
al extremo de falsificar documentos gráficos, o de dar opiniones sin ninguna
base en la interpretación de ello”
(“The zeal to demonstrate an ancient origin of the Marimba in Guatemala has
been carried to the extreme point of falsifying graphic documents, or stating
opinions without any analytical basis”).
This urgency to claim the marimba’s origin illustrates the ferocity with which
Guatemalan identity has been negotiated through music across history.
consider two notorious cases from Guatemala that claim to prove that the
marimba has Mayan roots. Both of these propositions have been disputed by a
majority of scholars. My purpose here is not to enter the debate, nor to test
the merits of these cases, but rather to read these narratives of origin in a
way that will foreground the manner in which the image of the marimba gets
stretched and pulled across history from its mythical origin to the present of
national identity. Guatemalan folklorist, Marcial Armas Lara, writes in El
renacimiento de la danza guatemalteca y el origen de la marimba (1964),
that he personally saw a fragment of a pre-Colombian Mayan codex that clearly portrays
a deity, or a Maya dressed as the deity, playing what he calls an “arm
marimba,” a marimba de brazo. According to Armas’s extraordinary tale,
he was blindfolded and brought to a remote area in May of 1958 by indigenous
priests (sacerdotes) who showed him the ancient image. Armas explains
that he faithfully copied the codex. Allegedly, after he finished duplicating
the codex, his indigenous guides rolled the parchment, placed it inside of a
bamboo canister, sealed it with dark wax and then assured the document that it
will remain “in hiding,” “estarás oculto para el mundo.”
The indigenous curators again blindfolded Armas and transported him far from
the original text. Subsequently Armas reproduced his copy of the codex as proof
of the Mayan origin of the marimba in his own book.
archetypal structure of Armas’s story. In quest of the mysterious origin of
the marimba, the blind seeker is led to a cave that harbors an image/drawing of
a Maya playing marimba. Armas concludes that he has found the grail, he had
discovered incontrovertible evidence that the marimba began in the area now
known as Guatemala. He claims, in other words, that he discovered the origin of
the marimba and by extension the origin of Guatemalan identity. Paradoxically, he
has solved the mystery of the marimba’s origin, and lost the original register:
The original codex, constituting the proof of the marimba’s Mayan origin,
remains hidden in an unknown cave. Unable to prove the marimba’s origin, Armas
attempts to prove the veracity of his experience. His proof is a copy, his
copy, which he offers as a representation of the marimba’s origin. In his book,
in other words, he publishes a copy of the copy that he rendered of a drawing
of a Mayan God playing marimba. Or, perhaps the original codex depicts a Mayan
holy man, dressed as a God, playing marimba? In this reading, Armas’s proof of
the marimba’s origin consists of a published copy of his rendered copy of a
codex (in other words, an image/copy) of a costumed man playing marimba—performing
in the image of a Mayan God.
Asturias G., another Guatemalan who has embraced the mission to find and prove
the marimba’s Mayan origins, fully supports Armas’s account and defends him
against what he dismisses as “trivial and unfounded” criticism.
For Asturias, Don Marcial Armas, “a great patriot and folklorist,” has simply
been misunderstood and treated unfairly.
my research”), asserts Asturias, “le di validez y credibilidad a su evidencia” (“I proved the validity of his
What is perhaps most remarkable about Asturias’s published defense of Armas is
the fact that Asturias never actually examined Armas’s original copy.
Asturias beseeches both God and the Armas family to loan him Don Marcial’s original
All of this evidence is intimately related to the
origin and evolution of the true Mayan marimba. I hope that God will help me
to bring this evidence together in one place, in homage to our Mayan
ancestors. This is a petition to the relatives of Don Marcial Armas Lara, that
they will loan us, in front of the press, the valuable copy of the codex that
meantime, Asturias contracted an artist (Sololateco Edgar Ordoñez) to
re-produce another copy of the copy for his article. Asturias’s proof then, is
based on an artist’s copy of Armas’s published copy of his copy of an alleged
Maya codex of a Maya religious leader playing an (unknown) arm marimba as an
invocation to a Maya deity.
also recurs to real archaeological iconographical evidence, especially a post
classical polychromatic Mayan vase known as el vaso de Ratinlinxul in
his effort to prove a Mayan origin for the marimba. In this case, the original
evidence is somewhat more present than Armas’s codex, although not in
Guatemala. The piece was excavated in 1923 and taken to the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where it has been exhibited (as object #11701)
since 1924. Asturias argues vehemently that this and other relics of Guatemalan
patrimony should be immediately returned to Guatemala.
to Armas’s codex, scholars can actually examine the original vase of Ratinlinxul.
Interpreting the Ratinlinxul images (estimated to have been made between
1,000 and 1,100 of the Common Era), on the other hand, is by no means
straightforward. In one figure, some see a dog, others see a jaguar, others
see a hybrid “jog,” and Asturias sees a “perro de la muerte” (death-dog). Some
identify the collective scene as that of a merchant accompanied by a team of
porters. Others argue that the vase depicts a dead man walking in a funeral
procession. Such details provide fodder for endless debate. According to
Asturias, one of these figures carries a marimba on his back. Others see no
marimba but rather a jaguar skin covered throne cushion.
No doubt that others will find other images within this image.
does not merely read the images to form his interpretation. To prove his
interpretation, Asturias went so far as to construct the “instrument” he sees,
an instrument he calls a “marinbah de caja” (“box marinbah”). His
logic of argumentation, accordingly, transcends archaeological evidence.
Asturias models his instrument on an (unclear) image from an ancient vase and
offers the existence of his new instrument as proof of the marimba’s Mayan
roots. Moreover, he publishes a photograph of his instrument in his book, Verdadera
evolución de la marinbah maya (1994) to fortify his argument. Tracing the
evidence (a photograph of an instrument modeled from a contested ancient image
on a vase [or more likely, from photographs of the images on this vase])
reveals more about Asturias’s agenda than a true instrumental origin.
Even if we
bracket off the enigmatic pre-Conquest origin of the marimba, this wooden
idiophone has undergone an extraordinary transformation in Guatemalan history.
The Spaniards prohibited the instrument because of the ritual importance it
played in Mayan communities. The Indians reacted by hiding their instruments,
constructing them clandestinely and playing marimbas in secret ceremonies.
Centuries later, in 1978, the marimba was declared Guatemala’s “National
Instrument” (Congressional decree, 66-78).
The 1978 law also declared October 17 as the “Día Nacional de la Marimba”
(“National Marimba Day”). Subsequently, in 1999, the marimba became elevated to
the even higher category of “símbolo
symbol) (Congressional decree, 31-99), effectively placing the marimba on the
level of the Guatemalan flag and the country’s national anthem. Article 2 of
the 1999 law holds the Ministry of Education responsible for supporting marimba
education in public and private schools, dedicating part of the budget to
provide marimbas to official educational institutions. Article 3 requires that
the Ministry of Culture and Sports organize marimba events every year in
September so as to give the instrument its due respect as national symbol
(during the celebrations of Guatemalan independence). By featuring the marimba
on the calendar, in schools and in civic ceremonies as a national symbol, the
Guatemalan government afforded the instrument a prestigious position and
status. In the context of official culture the marimba occupies a central place
in the image of Guatemalan national identity.
marimba’s transformation from prohibited indigenous instrument to revered
national symbol underscores the presence of indigenous roots in contemporary
Guatemalan culture. Yet this historical trajectory of the marimba should not be
taken as a vindication for indigenous music and culture. The designation of the
marimba as Guatemala’s national instrument implies a ladino (mestizo),
as opposed to indigenous national culture, according to Wolfgang Dietrich in
his article, “La
marimba: Lenguaje musical y secreto de la violencia política en Guatemala.”
In fact, the official proclamation of the marimba as national instrument took
place at a time when the government of Guatemala was intensifying a series of
long-term genocidal campaigns against Maya Indians.
In Maya Achi: Marimba Music in Guatemala, Sergio Navarrete Pellicer
informs that marimba players were often singled out and disappeared during the
period known as “la violencia” (“the violence”).
The Guatemalan government banned indigenous gatherings with music in 1981 for several
This is a case of history repeating itself: by banning indigenous gatherings
with music, the Guatemalan government essentially reinstated the policy set in
place by the Spanish Colonial authorities.
To read the
political implications that are embedded within the recognition of the marimba
as the national instrument of Guatemala, it is necessary to take a closer look
at the marimbas themselves. The indigenous “marimba de tecomates,” called k’ojom
in K’iche’, is comprised of a single row of wooden keys that hang suspended
over gourd resonators (tecomates). A single musician plays the
instrument, usually in rituals, and produces relatively simple diatonic
melodies and traditional rhythms. The marimbas played at official recognition
ceremonies, on the other hand, were not traditional indigenous “marimbas de
tecomates,” but rather ladino-designed chromatic marimbas.
Please click here for a musical example.
Hurtado invented the chromatic marimba in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala around 1894
with the conceptual guidance of Julián Paniagua Martínez.
The chromatic marimba has a second row of keys attached to the keyboard (adding
five semitone accidentals per octave) thus creating a twelve-note chromatic
keyboard. For performances, furthermore, the chromatic marimba is usually
played in a two-instrument ensemble—a “marimba doble”—that is comprised
of two chromatic marimbas (a large
six-octave marimba [played by four musicians] and a smaller three-octave tenor
[played by three musicians]).
musicians playing a k’ojom, a marimba de tecomates (gourd marimba), in
Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Note the gourd resonators and the
evenly spaced single row of the keys. Photograph by Robert Garfias
(reproduced with permission).
musicological perspective, the development of chromatic marimbas might be
described in terms of a technical advance that allows for greater musical
evolución de la marimba en Guatemala,”
writes Carlos Monsanto, “produjo
con el tiempo un verdadero piano de madera “ (“The evolution of the marimba in Guatemala,” writes
Carlos Monsanto, “produced over time a true wooden piano”).
Godínez maintains that the development of the double chromatic instrument
turned the marimba into a more universal instrument. He insists, furthermore,
that the marimba remains every bit as “Guatemalan” as its precursors.
Though perhaps accurate, this statement invites further inquiry. The chromatic
marimba and its precursors may all be “Guatemalan,” yet there remain
significant distinctions that characterize these instruments on a cultural
Godínez primarily sees the development of the chromatic marimba as a landmark
in musical technology, the differences between the marimba doble and its
indigenous precursors exceed the realm of mere technical design. In the
transformation from k’ojom to “wooden piano,” the traditional indigenous
instrument was Westernized culturally, technically and materially: “No solo las escalas son
europeas, sino también los resonadores llegan a ser de madera, y no del nativo
cajón de calabaza. . . . Con el tiempo se utilizó el instrumento para tocar
obras cien por ciento españolas (“Not only are the scales European,
but they make the resonators out of wood instead of the native gourds . . .
With time they started to use the instrument to play pieces that were hundred
Indigenous materials and conventions were replaced in the creation of the
chromatic marimba and the instrument was used to play European-style music,
usually in urban settings.
resonator boxes on a chromatic marimba (chiapaneca).
by Robert Garfias (reproduced with permission).
technical differences between the marimba de tecomates and the chromatic
marimba belie the conceptual distance between the European and indigenous
understandings of music. Whereas the marimba de tecomates plays a ritual
role in traditional culture, the chromatic marimba is played as an instrument
of entertainment, to amenizar (enliven) social gatherings. The national
celebration of the chromatic marimba, then, underscores the paradoxical
situation that indigenous music occupies within Guatemalan national identity
of the law declaring the marimba as national symbol reveals a complex discourse
that simultaneously celebrates and rejects indigenous culture and music. Decreto
(Law) 31-99 makes reference to indigenous culture in the second consideration,
asserting a Mayan origin for the marimba and describing the Maya as the
indigenous ancestors of Guatemala:
Whereas: The ancestors of the marimba derive from Mayan
Culture, an authentic lineage of the ethnic groups of the Guatemalan people, a
circumstance that is dignified by this nature and constitutes an expression of
national identity, for these reasons it is appropriate to declare the marimba a
the government, the authors of the law consider the Maya to be the originators
of the marimba and the ancestors of contemporary Guatemalans. The Maya are
celebrated as the source of the marimba and as the noble roots of Guatemalan
identity. The Maya are not, however, acknowledged in this law as playing any
importance in contemporary Guatemalan society. Moreover, the third
consideration explicitly names the chromatic double marimba, the marimba
played by ladinos, as the ultimate representation of the nation: “La marimba de doble
teclado con escala cromática constituye la más genuina representación de
(“The chromatic double marimba constitutes the most genuine representation
of our nationality”).
Where does this leave the Maya with respect to the celebration of Guatemalan
music and identity? Specifically, the law places the importance of indigenous
culture and music in the past, in the context of the ancestral contributions of
the ancient Maya. The instrument glorified as the most genuine representation
of Guatemalan culture is not the indigenous k’ojom, but rather the
chromatic marimba. The text lauds the chromatic marimba for having improved,
and perfected, its indigenous legacy. Dietrich, on the other hand, refers to
the chromatic marimba as “la marimba desindianizada, ladinizada”
(“de-Indianized, mestizo marimba”) and reads the national celebration of the
chromatic marimba as part of the violence directed at indigenous people.
The subsumption of the k’ojom by the chromatic marimba, in this view, is
an instrumental part of the political annihilation of indigenous culture.
How is it
possible for an instrument to have so many different meanings? The marimba
elicits conflict because of its presence within divergent concepts of identity
within Guatemala. For traditional indigenous people, the k’ojom plays a
central role in the ritual performances that frame their belief system. For
many Ladinos, on the gother hand, the chromatic marimba represents the
advance of Guatemalan civilization, the perfect distillation of ancient Mayan
roots in a modern (musical) nation. “Conforme el avance de la
Marcial Armas, “también
la marimba ha avanzado hacia su perfección”
(“As civilization has advanced,” writes Marcial Armas, “the mariba too has
advanced towards its perfection”).
Scholars, furthermore, both from Guatemala and elsewhere, have observed
instrumental similarities between marimbas from Africa and the marimba de
These similarities—combined with the lack of archaeological evidence of
marimbas at Mayan sites and in light of the dates of the first Colonial
documents to mention marimbas—imply that African slaves likely introduced the
instrument to Guatemalan Indians. The word marimba, furthermore, is believed to
derive etymologically from Africa from related terms in the Bantu language
From this ethnomusicological perspective, the marimba constitutes a historical
case of transculturation that transcends at least two continents (some start
the story in Asia) and many different ethnic groups. Ultimately, this spectrum
of meanings exemplifies the marimba’s polyvalence, as an instrument and as a
contested emblem of Guatemalan cultural heritage. From the k’ojom to the
marimba doble (chromatic marimba), the instrument has been manipulated
and rearranged, musically and discursively, in complex negotiations of ethnic,
social, musical and political identities.
Instrumental History: Musical Mestizaje in Maya K’iche’
example of transculturation, this one from contemporary K’iche’ culture,
illustrates how music and musical instruments continue to play a central role
in the process of identity formation for individuals within a postcolonial
indigenous community. In Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la
conciencia, a text that focuses on individual and community identity,
Rigoberta Menchú describes the process in which music embodies both the
Catholic and indigenous sides of her identity: “Nuestra reunión cultural como
indígenas, la teníamos el viernes. Nuestra reunión como católicos, el lunes” (“We had our cultural meeting as
indigenous people on Fridays. Our meeting as Catholics on Mondays”).
She describes her connection to indigenous musical instruments as a vehicle
through which to become a part of her people by invoking the ancestors in the
presence of her family: “And so this was when I became so
interested in learning to play the instruments of our ancestors. For example,
the tún, the drum, the sijolaj, which we still have, the chirimía. We started to practice with my
Menchú emphasizes the fact that the traditional music shared amongst her family
is a crucial link to their past. Music functions as a kind of cultural glue
that solidifies the family both within their immediate community and within
their place in history. Their instruments are not merely tools with which to
produce specific sounds, the instruments embody traditional connections to
their ancestors. Menchú’s interest in learning to play the traditional
instruments points to a cultural need to repeat the rituals of her ancestors on
her ancestors’ instruments: “Me interesé . . . en aprender a tocar los
instrumentos de nuestros antepasados”
(“I became interested . . . in learning to play the instruments of our
Playing their sacred music on ancestral instruments and perpetuating their
mythology, Menchú describes contemporary K’iche’ Indians employing music as a
ritual of (traditional) cultural reproduction.
Menchú mentions the chirimía as a traditional instrument of her
ancestors, Spaniards actually introduced this (oboe-like) double-reed aerophone
in colonial Central America and Mexico. In other words, the chirimía may
be an instrument of her ancestors, though not her pre-Columbian indigenous
ancestors. According to Schechter and Stobart,
the chirimía is still played in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca and
Galicia in processional marches. In Mexico it is often played from a
church tower. Chirimía and drum ensembles accompany the Baile de la
Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) in Guatemala. The chirimía may in
fact have Arabic roots, which date from the long Moorish occupation of the
describes her community as one that knows and sings Catholic songs: “Rezábamos como
católicos con los vecinos a la vez, tocando nuestros instrumentos” (“We prayed as Catholics with our
neighbors, while at the same time, playing our instruments”).
). Music from indigenous, Catholic and Islamic traditions combines in
Menchú’s community to form a postcolonial fusion. Her family plays ancestral
instruments while praying as Catholics. Music delineates the divisions and
junctures between the Catholic and indigenous aspects of her life, history and
her community at large. Music does not represent either the indigenous or
Catholic side of Menchú’s culture unilaterally, it engages, rather, in a
process of negotiation. Musical mestizaje (blending) shapes and contours
this postcolonial Guatemalan community.
Catholicism and traditional culture shape the foundations of contemporary
K’iche’ identity, our reading would be far too narrow if it were limited to
this binary paradigm. In order to more fully understand the negotiation and
location of culture, the factor of popular music needs to enter into the
equation. In many communities, the pressures of Western culture and popular
music are proving corrosive to native traditions in Guatemala and throughout
Indo America. At the same time, the roots of indigenous culture remain
inextricably bound within mestizo popular music. The precise historical origin
of the marimba may remain a mystery, but clearly the indigenous k’ojom
played a foundational role in the development of the chromatic marimba.
Conversely, indigenous people also appropriate elements of mestizo music and
retool them, paradoxically creating new versions of “traditional” music.
Navarrete Pellicer sums up this process in four words: “New music, old
The relationship between indigenous and Hispanic music, then, is not a linear
progression of historical influence, but rather a complicated web of
transcultural interactive feedback. Reading the patterns of “give and take”
helps to reveal the ways in which music and musical instruments mediate the
negotiations of indigenous and mestizo identity.
Tzotzil Music from Chiapas:
Traditional Music as Cultural Compass
conflictive relationship between traditional indigenous and contemporary
popular music in Mexico is a central theme in the Chiapas Media Project
(CMP)/Promedios video, Song of the Earth: Traditional Music from the
Highlands of Chiapas (2002).
In this indigenous-produced documentary, a group of Tzotzil musicians from San
Andrés Sakamch’en lament the fact that young people today tend to reject their
traditional music, dances and clothing. “Who will be there?” asks one elder,
“to receive the memory and words of our fathers and mothers?” By posing this
question he is in effect formulating a plausible definition of “music” from an
indigenous perspective. Throughout time and in various cultures, we see a
conception of traditional music and dance as “the memory and words of our
fathers and mothers.”
musicians in Song of the Earth play for members of the EZLN (Ejército
Zapatista para la Liberación Nacional / The Zapatista National Liberation
Army) communities as well as a general public. In spite of their obvious
political affiliation, their music does not convey an inherently political
message. The music is not intended to broadcast outside of their community.
This is not a political movement that attempts to carry their message
throughout the world via music. Rather, these are indigenous peoples
experiencing their own music within their own community. Even the video was
produced in part to serve the community, “to help foster dialogue about why the
youth are not learning traditional music or wearing traditional clothing.”
In a sense, this conception of music approximates that of Rigoberta Menchú’s
testimonial. As was the case described by Menchú, the music of Highlands
Chiapas produces cultural cohesion within the community.
What is different here is that the Tzotziles describe their traditional music
as culture under siege, in conflict with popular music.
Tzotzil musicians, the survival of their music will ensure the endurance of
their traditional culture: “The wisdom of the hearts and minds of our ancestors
has not been lost; it continues to live on through us in our music, dances and
languages.” Here again we see the indigenous view of music as the embodiment of
ancestral cultural knowledge. Ironically, the Spanish title of the video—Son
de la tierra—conveys through its multiple meanings the relation between
music and culture as represented by the indigenous world view. “Son”
means “sound” and “song” and simultaneously reads as the conjugation of the
verb “to be.” Son de la tierra, in other words, conveys the role that
music plays in designating the cultural location and identity of a people and
their community. Son de la tierra can be translated as either “Song of
the Earth” or “They come from the Earth.” To locate Tzotzil culture we can read
their music, paying special attention to the places where Hispanic and
indigenous sound cultures converge and diverge with and from one another,
historically, and in response to contemporary popular music.
It would be naïve and
erroneous to assume that Tzotzil culture and music would have remained static
for centuries. Some of these changes are immediately evident in their clothing.
The musicians wear traditional Tzotzil clothing with Zapatista masks, bandanas
and sometimes cowboy hats. Obviously, a myriad details have affected Tzotzil
culture and music since the time of the Conquest. As is clear from earlier
discussion, music became a focal point of transcultural negotiation early in the
colonization. The crosses in the procession of San Andrés highlight syncretic
elements of contemporary Tzotzil culture. Whereas they speak of their “true
music” and “traditional instruments,” Western culture has contributed to shape
present-day Tzotzil traditions. The musical instruments that they play
underscore this process. Although the instruments we see in the video are
obviously hand hewn, the presence of harps, guitars and violins indicates the
influence of Spanish culture in their music.
Instruments/ Hybrid Roots
At some time in history
the Tzotziles chose to adopt European instruments and adapted them to produce
“traditional” indigenous music. Are they playing European instruments? One
could argue that some instruments played by native peoples only resemble
superficially their European prototypes. Ethnomusicologist Samuel Martí
observes that some indigenous guitars and violins look like European
instruments, but they have been designed to produce different sounds: “Huichol,
Tarahumara, or Chamula guitars or violins may look like their sixteenth-century
forebears, but it is practically impossible to play European music on them,
since their makers have only their own music in mind in their tuning and
Godínez, in a similar vein, asserts that in light of different construction
processes, materials and playing techniques, the European-style instruments
played by Indians are in essence indigenous: “Dichos instrumentos conservan sólo
la apariencia ajena pero en el fondo ya son enteramente indígenas” (“Said instruments only conserve a
foreign appearance, in essence they are entirely indigenous”). Accordingly, the Spaniards
introduced concepts of certain musical instruments that the Indians customized
over time depending on their own needs and preferences. Most likely, the
modifications were not carried out consciously, they have occurred over
hundreds of years of cultural and musical mestizaje.
interesting research project would be to examine handmade indigenous harps,
violins, guitars and other European-style instruments to determine how the
designs might have been modified to produce a more indigenous sound.
Questions of relative pitch and tuning would be central to such a study.
Salvadoran composer Arturo Corrales comments that mestizos often think that
indigenous music sounds out of tune: “When you go hear the indigenous
people playing, you say: ‘this Indian sounds out of tune.’ But, out of tune in
relation to what? Who invented the notes, the scale, why do, re, mi? The criteria
are completely cultural.”
Preferences in sound
quality and tuning are entirely cultural and psychological.
sounds produced by the Guatemalan marimba de tecomates (k’ojom) also
illustrate the cultural determination of sound preferences and tuning. The
marimba de tecomates takes its name from a series of resonating gourds
(tecomates) that hang down from the keys. The instrument-maker perforates each
gourd with a special hole, surrounds it with a mound of black wax, and then
forms a seal with a membrane made from the intestine of a female pig. The
ensemble of hole, wax ring and membrane is called the mush, meaning
belly button in K’iche’ and Kaqchikel. The mush produces the
characteristic buzz that is often cited as evidence of the African roots of the
often observe that the marimba de tecomates, sounds “out of tune.” Dietrich,
on the other hand, questions whether the range of the instrument can accurately
be described with the Western diatonic scale. He posits that Western listeners
hear an “out of tune” diatonic scale because of their cultural predisposition
to hear music in relation to occidental scales. In Dietrich’s view, the k’ojom
obeys a different, intentionally determined, musical order: “Clearly
contemporary musicians and communities require the particular sound of their k’ojom.
The Mayan priests insist on maintaining the ‘erroneous’ tuning of the
instrument and musicians reproduce this with great care.” If this is true, the marimba de
tecomates is not out of tune, its construction, rather, corresponds to a
different system or cultural logic. Dietrich points out that the tuning of each
k’ojom conforms to the preferences of the musician and his community.
These instruments are not even compatible between two Mayan communities, much
less international tuning conventions. As further evidence of uniquely
indigenous tuning systems, Dietrich cites interviews with Maya school teachers
who insist that they cannot play their traditional music on chromatic marimbas:
no suenan en la marimba doble, son intocables” (“Those pieces don’t come out on the double marimba,
they are not playable”).
The music created by indigenous musicians is produced in accordance with native
cultural tastes and criteria—cultural preferences that represent underlying
Hybrid Violin: The Paradox of the Original
can see the hybrid roots of indigenous culture in musical instruments. Jorge
Luis Acevedo’s La música en las reservas indígenas de Costa Rica
includes a photo of an indigenous violin with a commentary by Térraba
musician/luthier, Mamerto Ortiz Ortiz (1982). The list of woods he uses
(Guanacaste de montaña, Guayacán, Guachipelín) would surprise a European
violin-maker, not to mention the fact that he strings the instrument with
guitar strings. Ortiz Ortiz uses his violin to play both traditional music and
contemporary popular songs: “Con
el violín toco mucha música de mis padres y abuelos, también puntos y cumbias” (“With the violin I play a lot of
my parents’ and grandparents’ music, also puntos and cumbias”).
This transcultural instrument derived from an essentially virtual source. Ortiz
Ortiz explains that he “copied the shape of the violin from a newspaper
photograph over fifty years ago” (“La forma del violín la copié de una foto del periódico
de hace más de cincuenta años”).
Tracing the origin of this hybrid instrument back to a photograph leads to an
image of a copy of a European violin. This is reminiscent of Derrida’s
reading of language: A system comprised of signs that always point to other
signs (these, in turn, signifiers of other signifiers) rather than an original
referent. Such is our quest for origins in culture, history and music.
This history of a
Térraba violin recalls the example of Guatemalan Indians and the manner in
which they refer to the manuscripts of their dance-dramas. The Baile
de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest), for example, developed from
various versions of the drama from the area of Quetzaltenango that date from
the mid to late 1800’s. The written manuscript is treated with the utmost
reverence and respect, it serves as the immediate reference for the drama and
is crucial, even when teaching spoken lines to illiterate participants. These
manuscripts are usually referred to as “el original” (“the original”).
Folklorist Barbara Bode reports (from her field work in 1957) that when a
manuscript becomes worn or faded, an “autor” (author) re-copies the text
(often introducing errors, other times intentionally modifying the text) and
this latest manuscript then becomes the new “original.”
For the Baile de la Conquista, then, “original” does not signify the
“first” text, but rather the definitive, most useful and most recent copy. We
might follow this example when talking about the Térraba violin. Granted a
European violin (and many subsequent copies) existed “first,” but in light of
the modifications we could say that Ortiz Ortiz’s copy of a photo of a copy of
an instrument actually constitutes a new indigenous instrument, in other words,
a new “original.” Indigenous instrument makers from throughout the
Americas, furthermore, have crafted new originals by refining European copies
according to their own autochthonous criteria.
Some Contemporary Mestizo Innovations on Indigenous
indigenous instrument-makers create new “originals” by remaking European
copies, the process comes full circle in the case of mestizos who use
indigenous instruments and music to assemble new musical innovations.
Guatemalan composer Joaquín Orellana Mejía has designed an extraordinary series
of new musical instruments—“útiles sonoros”
(“sonorous tools”)—most of which derive from the marimba.
The names of Orellana’s “acoustic tools” tend to fuse fragments of the word
“marimba,” with the sounds and shapes of his designs. His first design, the sonarimba,
is a hollow bamboo canister that is fitted with wooden marimba keys at the top
and bottom. A small plastic ball inside the canister creates sound when a
musician shakes the instrument. The name, sonarimba, poetically fuses
the names of two instruments (sonaja [rattle] and marimba) with
the musical sound/rhythm, son. Whereas the name sonarimba evokes
two instruments, simultaneously playing a group of sonarimbas produces a
collage-like effect of multiple marimbas.
The names of
sonoros might be
considered short poems that produce visual images of their musical properties.
Orellana’s imbaluna curves a marimba keyboard upwards to form the shape
of a crescent moon. In this case, the name imbaluna superimposes marimba
and the moon-like shape of Orellana’s musical sculpture. The circumar (a
large circle of suspended marimba keys) reiterates the circular shape of the
instrument (and the circular relation between music and musical instruments) in
its nomenclature. The circumar first alludes to the instrument’s circular
form and follows with the beginning of the name marimba.
Orellana’s “musical tools,” the “Ciclo Im,” bends the marimba even
farther, turning the marimba into the shape of a cylindrical wheel. The Ciclo
Im contains a small ball that produces sound by striking the keys when the
instrument is spun. We might visualize this acoustic tool- instrument-sculpture
as a marimba turned inside out. Not only are the sound-producing surfaces of
the keys located on the inside, the playing technique also inverts the
traditional role of the musician.
marimba a marimbista strikes mallets against the keys to produce sound.
To play a Ciclo Im, on the other hand, the musician spins the keys.
Turning the cylinder moves the keys around the ball, which then moves via
momentum and produces music.
Orellana playing his imbaluna (with his ciclo im, upper right
by Diana de Arango.
we might say that Orellana’s work similarly inverts the traditions of Western
instruments and music. By perpetually rearticulating inverted pieces of
marimbas, Orellana develops original compositions of contemporary classical
Please click here for a musical example. [16MB]
Both the instruments (útiles sonoros) and his music have roots in
indigenous culture. Orellana’s work, moreover, generates a serious dimension of
political critique. In an interview with Ingrid Roldán
Martínez, Orellana explains that many of his compositions echo the sounds of indigenous suffering at the hands of the Guatemalan armed
forces. Of his 1998 composition, “Sacratávica,” for example, Orellana comments
that the structure contains a son de la muerte, a death song: “Tiene
dentro de su estructura un son de la muerte, un son doloroso acompañado por un
ritual vocal bastante libre que evoca los entierros o la estupefacción ante los
cementerios clandestinos” (“The composition has within its structure a death song [son],
a painful song that is accompanied by a fairly free vocal ritual evoking burials
or the awe provoked by clandestine cemeteries”). Through his sonorous experiments with indigenous sounds
(both the phonemes of indigenous languages and the marimba-based elements of
indigenous music), Orellana denounces the violent abuse inflicted against
Indians in Guatemala, and rearticulates an idiophone in defense of indigenous
people. In this way, Orellana’s marimba-based music and útiles sonoros
“strike back” at the musical and political status quo.
development of hybrid instruments is part of an on-going process of
transculturation and this essay has highlighted a few noteworthy examples.
Spanish priests brought the Islamic-derived chirimía to the New World and the
Indians converted it into a traditional indigenous instrument. For Rigoberta
Menchú, the chirimía is as traditional as is the tún and the sijolaj.
Other indigenous groups, such as the Tzotzil of Highlands Chiapas, indigenized
European instruments (guitars, harps and violins) according to their own
cultural needs and preferences. Similarly, Ortiz Ortiz’s violin can be read as
an original indigenous instrument that derives from an uncertain
European origin, a photograph of a copy, and functions as a ‘traditional’
instrumental innovations effectively re-start the process of cultural
renovation at a different location in the cycle. Orellana designs and creates new
indigenous-derived instruments. These new instruments are crucial for the
representation of their original musical compositions. These instruments,
moreover, re-present the marimba (an
indigenous instrument of uncertain origin) and in so doing produce new mestizo
The historical trajectory of the marimba—from indigenous instrument of unknown
origin to chromatic national symbol of (Ladino) Guatemala, and then to
Orellana’s util sonoro (a mestizo invention that denounces the
repression of indigenous people)—highlights the transcendence of indigenous
musical culture and also its plasticity as an artistic and political discourse.
indigenous and mestizo instruments reveals many of the lines along which
identity has been negotiated and played out across history in Latin America. By
exploring these cultural and political negotiations we can obtain a clearer
view of the complex, transcultural compositions that characterize and define
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