Mayan Music

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Wed 18 Jul 2012 22:07
The Music of the Maya Peoples
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This afternoon we jumped on a chicken bus for the short ride to the Museo del Café.
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Imagine our surprise when our first tour was of a small museum featuring the instruments of the Maya people.
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The cymbals, rattles and maracas are used today exclusively used at special traditional ceremonies and dance dramas such as La Conquista, Los Mejicanos, El Torito, Palo Volador y Otras (the Conquista, the Mexicans, the Bull and the Flying Bat). The styles, designs and materials of contemporary rattles, range from the brightly painted tree gourds, metal bells, coins and charms.
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Next our guide blew a conch shell and played a turtle shell, very musical.
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The pre-Hispanic Maya used various types of drums; small drums made from pottery, ceramic double drums, square drums and the pax: a relatively long hollow log, probably made of pine wood, with one end covered by jaguar or deer skin. All these drums, were beaten with the hand. After the conquest, the Maya drums were modified but still retained their spiritual importance and religious function. Modern drums are played with mallets and vary greatly in size. Most have cylindrical shapes, with goat skin covers. Since pre-Hispanic days, drums have been played exclusively by men and accompany rites marked by the Sacred Maya calendar. The cofradia (the brotherhood) rites are marked with processions and traditional dances. I particularly liked the jaw bone, the loosened teeth made for a great rattle.
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The simplest marimba in the modern Maya world consists of a xylophone keyboard of parallel wooden bars, tuned, suspended and secured with pegs to a trapezoidal frame. Below each key or wooden bar hangs a tuned resonator made from a gourd. The gourds have openings at the base surrounded with black beeswax and covered with the skin of pigs intestines. This material acts as a sound modifier, causing the characteristic vibrating or buzzing sound when a key is struck. This instrument is also known as the marimba de arco. An arched tree branch attached at both ends to the marimba keeps the body of the musician from touching the keys as he plays or as it is carried. Marimbas are no longer hung, nor do they have the arco, but are supported by four legs. The keyboard of about twenty five keys is made of hormigo wood. The keys are struck with flexible wooden sticks with runner-covered ends. The rubber tips used for the lower notes are longer and softer, while those for the higher notes are smaller and harder. The keys are tuned by simply applying bees’ wax (sometimes mixed with bits of lead) to the lower surface. Modern versions of the marimba de tecomates, though scarce, that are found in the Quiche area around Chichicastenango. They are used to accompany the rituals of the Palo Volador, the Tzijok and Cofradias.

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There is no evidence that stringed musical instruments were used by the pre-Hispanic Maya. Strings were first introduced by the Bishop of Verepaces and the Dominican monks of that region and also around San Cristobal de la Casas, Chiapas, mexico. String instruments were used for religious music in churches. Very primitive string trios with violin, harp and guitar also played in Cofradia houses (Mexican) and for traditional dances in these area.

The violins of the modern Maya are very primitive versions of European ones. Although they usually have four tuning pegs, they only have three strings. Modern versions show a Mexican influence. They are played in an ensemble with harps and guitars. In some villages they accompany singing during religious ceremonies. Harps from Verapaz and Chiapas regions have twenty two to thirty two strings with manual tuning and a large resonator box. The resonator is usually beaten by a young boy with his hands or with a rubber or cloth tipped wooden stick to add percussion sound to the ensemble.

The guitar, the most primitive of the stringed instruments. It has a resonator box made from a gourd, covered with a thin, crude wooden top, glued with bee’s wax. It has five strings that, in the early days, were of animal origin. It was used as part of a trio but has been replaced today with the modern guitar and mandolins.

The diatonic harps have a large range but are limited to notes of a single key. The harp is used to play the melodic line as well as the rhythm part. It is usually played with the fingers, but sometimes with a plectrum (made of ivory or wood) to pluck the strings. 


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Flutes. In pre-Hispanic literature, the Popol Vuh and the books of Chilam Balam, both refer to flutes as something divine. During the Maya Classical period flutes were made of tapir and deer bones, pottery and jade. Most of the flutes had straight mouthpieces, but examples od double, multiple and transverse mouthpieces have been found. Today flutes are exclusively played by men, accompanied by a male drummer and are strictly associated with spiritual activities, Cofradias and as accompaniment for traditional dances. The chirimia is a difficult instrument to play. It was introduced by the Spanish and is of Moorish and Arabic origin. Similar to a primitive oboe, it produces a sad sound. This may explain its appeal to the indigenous peoples who adapted it to their native traditions. Still in use today, the chirimia is played in the houses of the Confradia, at church, at the head of a procession and features in the dance of the Conquest. The main body of the instrument is usually made of cherry wood. The mouthpiece, consisting of a dry palm leaf folded into a triangular shape, is attached with a cord to a metal or wooden pipe. The reed must be completely dampened to produce a sound.


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Next we entered a large room showing the dress and trades of several villages. The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilisation, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish. The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilisations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterised the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilisation fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than six hundred and twenty miles from the main Maya area. Many outside influences are found in their art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest. The Maya peoples never disappeared, neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures. Millions of people speak Mayan languages today; the Rabinal Arch, a play written in the Achi language, was declared a Masterpiece of the oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.


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Santiago Sacatepequez, altitude 6450 feet, inhabitants 14,000. The villagers spend the 1st of November – All Saints Day, at the cemetery to be with their dead. They decorate the graves, bring food and fly colourful kits of all sizes to send messages to heaven. This is a day of feasting, not mourning.

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San Antonio Aguas Calientes, altitude 4950 feet, inhabitants 9,500. Located on the slopes of Acatenango volcano, this is one of the few villages where women still weave on a backstrap loom. Originally they weaved geometric patterns with natural dyes. Around the middle 1800’s, Guatemala started importing chemical dyes and threads which came with sample patterns of birds and flowers, a first, that were soon copied and became very popular. Today we see many fabrics with a combination of geometric patterns and birds.

Santa Maria de Jesus, altitude 6750 feet, inhabitants 23,000. Located at a relatively high altitude on the slopes of Agua volcano, these people grow all kinds of vegetables: green beans, carrots, aspragus, beets, peppers, squash, guisquil in addition to the staples of corn and black beans. The women weave their ‘huipiles’ (blouses) with reds and purples and their skirts in dark blue hues. Women use ‘tzutes’ (shawls) to protect themselves from the sun and cold. Traditionally men wear thick black wool jackets.


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The Candle shop. Typically near each church you will find a small shop selling many different coloured candles. White for purity, yellow for protection, black against envy, green for good business, pink against illness, red for love, blue for getting work, purple to stop vices and light blue for studies and travel. A typical village wedding scene and a traditional ceremonial dance. Village church services tend to be a fusion of Mayan beliefs and standard Catholic practices.


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                     A GREAT LITTLE MUSEUM