By Brooke O’Connor
When I think of traditional Mexican music, I think of mariachi bands, brass instruments, and loud emotional singalongs. Although fun, they are not the original music from Mexico.
What We Know about Pre-Hispanic Music
Until recently, pre-Hispanic music was believed to be basic and pentatonic (based on a five-note scale). In 1940, for example, the Museum of Modern Art staged a major exhibition of Mexican art; as a “sideshow” to the exhibition, Carlos Chavez, Mexico’s best-known composer/conductor, led a performance of what he called Xochi-pili-Macuilxochitl after the Aztec god of music, claiming that it was a reconstruction of Aztec music. With “all the proof” for the reconstruction being the instruments in the Mexican National Museum and the “crude” illustrations in Friar Bernardino Sahagún’s Florentine Codex (1575-77), Time Magazine was doubtful that what sounded like an “Aztec jam session” represented the real thing: “Flutes and pipes shrilled and wailed, a trombone (subbing for the snail shell) neighed an angular melody, to the spine-tingling thump-and-throb of drums, gourds, rattles. Xochipili-Macuil-xochitl sounded almost as primitive as Stravinsky.”
Despite Time’s outdated prejudices, their skepticism was probably justified. Archeologists and ethnomusicologists have discovered a diversity of instruments – whistles, vessel flutes (ocarinas), conch shells, wood, reed or bone flutes, rainsticks, stone marimbas, stringed instruments and more. Drums were made of hollow wooden cylinders. The huéhuetl was a vertical drum with a skin top, played with bare hands. The teponaztli was horizontal in form, played with a mallet, and had slits that varied the tone. We know these instruments created a variety of tones and they used a diatonic scale (the familiar seven-tone scale), polyphony (part singing and call-and-response), and microtonality (musical intervals smaller than a half-tone). In other words, they were quite sophisticated. It wasn’t just a primitive melody.
Pre-Hispanic Instruments and Their Sounds
Some archeological finds in museums can still be played today. Particularly notable is a triple clay flute found in the Hidalgo region. Unlike most flutes where you use a finger to alternately cover holes, creating different notes, this flute has a piston to modify the airflow.
Near Michoacán, they found whistles made of wood or bone, which were placed inside the mouth. A hunter would hold it between the teeth and the lips and be used to call animals.
We know from murals in the Mayan region, in particular those in the ruins of Bonampak in Chiapas, as well as Mayan vase paintings, there were trumpets – made of wood, clay, or gourds – as tall as the people blowing them. The murals of Bonampak date from the end of the 8th century; in three separate rooms, they depict the rule of King Chan Muán (reigned 776-c. 795) tells us quite a lot about Mayan music, with richly attired musicians, playing a variety of instruments, accompanying the king in procession.
From the Florentine Codex, we also know that Aztec palaces hosted a space for court musicians, the Mixcoacalli (House of The Cloud Serpent), a multi-room space where musicians could practice, build and store instruments, and generally be at the beck and call of the tlatoani (Aztec leader).
It has not been determined what pre-Hispanic music sounded like. However, found artifacts, and references to music in indigenous languages, can give us some insight. Many people in the state of Oaxaca are reviving the memory of ancient tunes. Thus, what is now called pre-Hispanic music, is musical imagination or improvisation with ancient instruments. Though not a complete view, it brings us closer to how music may have sounded in pre-Hispanic times.
The “Day the Music Died”
In Aztec culture, music and dance were considered acceptable gifts to the gods and common practice in day-to-day lives, for commoners and royalty alike. Music was a central focus at parties, preparing for war, obtaining health, ensuring good harvests, asking for rains, and preparing for conquests. Voices were also considered an important component of ritual music.
Musical instruments were boldly decorated and carved according to their musical message. According to the Spanish conquerors, the music was powerful and impressive. This, however, did not prevent them from “killing all the musicians.”
The 20-day month of Toxcatl (approximately May), comprised a feast in honor of the god Tēzcatlipōca, which ended with a celebration and human sacrifice. On May 22, 1520, as Toxcatl was drawing to a close, the Spanish, led by Deputy Governor Pedro de Alvarado, entered the hall and “attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces until they had killed all of them. The singers – and even the spectators – were also killed. This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours” (from an account collected in Miguel León-Portilla (1926-2019), The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston, MA: English editions 1962 – 2006). None of the Aztecs were armed in any way.
Cortés had been off fighting some rival Spaniards, but he was allowed to return to the Mexican capital in peace. A day later, however, the Aztecs attacked; the war ended a year later – Cortés took the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, on May 22, 1521. Within 50 years Mayan and Aztec temples were destroyed, and the priests, noblemen, and musicians were annihilated. Soon after, there was a school formed in Mexico City to teach a new form of music brought from Europe. This music taught reading from notes, using stringed instruments, and singing in parts. These songs sang praises to Catholic saints, while paganism and all its forms of practice were outlawed.
And What IS the Pre-Hispanic Sound?
In the years that followed, every part of Mexico was pulled into submission, and Spanish music and practices supplanted the native ones. However, in remote areas, there were tribes who refused to conform. They kept some form of worship and integrated their traditional music. We can still see the result of that in some modern-day rituals.
Many pagan and Christian holidays were merged culturally, including music and musical instruments. Some pagan rites were renamed with Roman nomenclature. Or some tribes added Christian gods to their list of gods.
Even today, we can clearly see two sets of holidays practiced by the Huichols of Jalisco. Their ceremonial life is a blend of pagan holy days and Christian rites. During the pagan holidays, more traditional music is played, while on Christian holidays there are violins and strings, a clear reminder of the Spanish. Chiapas also has a similar history, where stringed instruments accompany native songs.
In recent years, there’s been a revival of indigenous practices, culture, and music. Many Mexican musicians have blended flute and drumming into modern scores. But don’t be fooled. The guy standing on the corner with a three-part reed flute and a boom box is playing for the tourist’s ears, and not the indigenous ones. We can appreciate that as its own kind of fusion music.
If you’re interested in learning more:
Kathryn Goldberg’s senior thesis, submitted to Haverford College in 2018, ‘Music and Meaning in Three Zapotec Songs’ (https://scholarship.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/bitstream/handle/10066/20794/2018GoldbergK.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y).
Linguistic anthropologist professor David Tavárez of Vassar College, “Nicachi Songs: Zapotec Ritual Texts and Postclassic Ritual Knowledge in Colonial Oaxaca”
Want to listen?
Antonio Zepeda is a musician and composer of music for pre-Hispanic and traditional musical instruments. According to online music service Last.fm, “Inspired by the sonority of pre-Hispanic musical instruments such as drums, flutes, rattles, water drums, turtle shells, conch shells, ocarinas, clay pots, and log drums, he re-creates with them the mystical ambiance smothered by the dust of history”