All posts by The Eye
By Jane Bauer
Take a deep breath.
Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear?
As I write this, I hear the odd car driving past, the squawk of parrots in the tree outside my window, the clicking sound of the fan. These are the sounds of my life.
The Global News Podcast from the BBC recently came out with a new weekly show called “The Happy Pod”, which includes uplifting stories from around the world- giving listeners a break from the war in Ukraine and the violence in the Sudan. A segment of this show asks listeners to send in their favorite sounds and the answers have been rather surprising.
Someone from Rome sent in the sound of his Vespa starting, a guy in New Zealand sent in the sound of his dog drinking water and of course people submitted the sounds of their children laughing, giggling, cooing. A woman from Buenos Aires sent in the sound of the knife sharpener’s whistle that announces his services. On the latest episode there is a student in China who loves the sounds of his old fashioned typewriter and an Indian woman who shared the sound of the birds around her home in Bangalore.
Favorite sounds aren’t something we often contemplate. We ask about favorite songs or music but rarely do we consider the hum of the background soundtrack, unless it is an annoyance. According to The Telegraph, a newspaper/publication in the UK, the most popular favorite sounds are:
Waves against rocks
Rain against the window
Treading on snow
Living in Mexico you learn that different cultures deal with background sounds differently. In my experience, Mexican culture is very tolerant of noise compared to Canadian culture. After years of living here I don’t even flinch when a neighbor blasts reggaeton at 3am or the early morning sound of mariachis singing “Las Mañanitas” for someone’s birthday. By contrast I have heard foreigners complain about barking dogs, chickens, birds, music that is audible past 10pm and the calls of street vendors. To that I think of the words of fictional pirate Jack Sparrow “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”
We must embrace the symphony and cacophony of life to live harmoniously. While it is important to stop and smell the flowers, it just as important to listen to the hum of the world.
See you July,
The Resurgence of Classical Music in Mexico City
By Carole Reedy
Even before the pandemic, classical music, and especially the opera, appeared to be on the downslide in our grand cultural city. Over the years, music lovers had become accustomed to a solid season filled with operas, symphonies, and string quartets as well as individual appearances by world famous artists, such as Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, home-grown tenor Javier Camerena, and even the queen of opera Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano, in the 1950s.
It is true that classical music venues in México do not receive adequate support and funding from the government. Neither is private support up to the level of other nations. For whatever reason, the scene was not the same as it had been in earlier years.
Then came the pandemic and everything shut down.
However, during those bleak pandemic years emerged a single figure, a young musician, to rescue the classical music scene. His enthusiasm, knowledge, foresight, diversity, and dedication to communicating with the public has changed the course of music for all of us.
Enter Iván López Reynoso
His name is Iván López Reynoso. In his early 30s in 2020, and after two years as assistant conducter of the Orquesta del Opera Bellas Artes at 18, López Reynoso was named Director Artístico de la Orquesta del Teatro Bellas Artes. From that time to the present, the roster at Bellas Artes has been chock full of opera and symphonic concerts, live and online. The maestro’s personal calendar is even more impressive.
López Reynoso was born in Guanajuato in 1990; after his parents, who were engineers, recognized his interest in music, he began to study violin, piano, and conducting from an early age. At 15, he studied at the Conservatorio de Las Rosas in Morelia, and from there he went to Mexico City..
He’s also a significant figure in the music world outside of Mexico, conducting in Oman, Spain, the US, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, among other countries.
The first time I saw Maestro López was on a free Zoom session during the pandemic in which he analyzed Verdi’s opera Rigoletto by sitting at a piano for two hours, playing the score, singing many of the parts (he is an accomplished counter-tenor), all while explaining the opera to his attentive listeners. From that moment I knew he would be a significant figure in my life as well as for the future of opera in Mexico.
He states the philosophy of his career simply in an article from Forbes magazine: “I have as a mission and as a philosophy that every concert I direct, every note I sing or every chord I play, I have to play it as if it were the last chord in my life, as if it were the last concert I am going to conduct. That is, with the maximum dedication, the maximum effort, love and devotion possible.”
This is evident in every concert he conducts and every role he sings as a countertenor, his other talent.
Of significance to the listening public, López Reynoso communicates actively with his followers on social media (look for him on Facebook and Instagram), where he announces concerts, musical events, and venues, all with a very personal touch. When information is readily available, the music community responds with enthusiasm. Gracias Maestro for bringing the music to us!
Not only does the city have the ambition and talent of López Reynoso, but venues elsewhere here are opening once again for concerts.
And the Beat Goes On …
The Auditorio Nacional has opened its doors to the Metropolitan Opera of New York transmissions. Each season, the Auditorio presents ten of the Met’s operas, which provides a perfect sound system and a huge screen for viewing.
In addition, opera transmissions from the Royal Opera House in London will be presented once again at CCU (Centro Cultural Universitario). The popular Carmen, Il Travatore, Turandot, Cinderella, The Marriage of Figaro, and Sleeping Beauty will be among the operas shown on Sundays in May, June, and July 2023.
Sala Nezahualcóyotl also has a full schedule ahead with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM (OFUNAM), performing regularly in May and June
Soprano Elīna Garanča returned to Mexico in March at the magnificent Bellas Artes venue. And each week other musical events are adorning the main theater. Check the schedule online. I am happy to conclude this article with positive thoughts for the future of classical music in Mexico City!
Mariachi – a Uniquely Mexican Musical Tradition
By Julie Etra
Mexico has a diverse, regional, and rich musical history and it is mariachi that is probably played more than any other Mexican musical form. Mariachi originated in the state of Jalisco, particularly in and around Cocula, “la cuna del mariachi” (the cradle of mariachi), southwest of Guadalajara. In 2011, the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), added mariachi music to the organization’s list of Intangible Cultural Patrimony of Humanity.
Other traditional musical styles are son jarocho, corridos (19th-century narrative folk ballads sung by rural, working-class people on both sides of the border) narcocorridos, Tejano (Mexican/Texas border); conjunto (with the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar); quebradita (a “little bit broken,” music for a particular dance style, with a lot of brass instruments); banda (a type of polka); ranchera (a genre of mariachi); and Norteño (northern Mexico). In the state of Oaxaca there is chilena music from the coastal regions, sones and jarabes in the Mixteca (a region in western Oaxaca and adjoining parts of Puebla and Guerrero); sones and huapangos in the Papaloapan basin, with harp and jarana (a small guitarlike instrument), marimba in the Valles Centrales; and Zapotec songs on the Isthmus (e.g., “El Feo”, originally written in Zapotec). Check out the band Paulina y el Buscapié from Oaxaca City; Paulina plays the jarana (they played here in Huatulco a few years back as part of the Amigos de la Musica concert series).
Origin of the Word Mariachi
The late Neal Erickson, musician and former writer for The Eye, wrote about mariachi for The Eye in 2012 (https://theeyehuatulco.com/2012/02/01/mariachi/).
He points out that “the consensus of modern scholars is that the word mariachi is indigenous to Mexico.” The etymology of the word indicates it came from the now-lost Coca language, spoken in and around Cocula in central Jalisco. Erickson adds that “Legend erroneously attributes the word to the French Intervention of the 1860s, explaining it as a corruption of the French word marriage [but] historical documents prove that both the word mariachi and the ensemble it designates pre-date the French occupation of Mexico.”
Warning – down the rabbit hole! Being the bibliophile that I am, I ordered Jesus Juáregui’s El mariachi: Símbolo musical de México, (Mariachi: Musical Symbol of Mexico) the authoritative work on the subject (2006, there are updated editions).
According to Juáregui, the first time the word showed up in print was in 1852: “Tambien se llama mariachi amanecerse en un parranda, en un baile. Se decia ‘amaneci en un mariachi’, ‘vengo de un mariachi.’ This translates to “It is also called mariachi when you greet the dawn in a party, at a dance. It was said ‘I woke up in a mariachi,’ ‘I come from a mariachi,’ in this case referring to a group of musicians. The baile, or dance, was also called fandago.
Development of the Musical Style and Instruments
Regardless of the origin of the word, mariachi gradually developed from the fusion of Aztec instruments (conch shells, teponaztlis [wooden slitted drums, see O’Connor article elsewhere in this issue]), huéhuetls [another Aztec percussion instrument], reed or clay flutes) with guitars and violins brought from Spain. In 1695, the Cocas (people from Cocula) invented the vihuela (5-string guitar) and, later, the guitarrón (4-string bass guitar), which replaced the Spanish lute and double bass. In the infancy of mariachi in the 1850s, the instruments included violin, harp, and a specific type of drum. By the end of the 19th century, there were several well-known mariachis in Cocula and Tecalitlán (south of Guadalajara). The region’s most famous example is perhaps Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas López (1880-1969). At the time, most mariachi groups included a guitarrón, two violins, a vihuela and a chirimía (a double-reed wind instrument similar to an oboe).
Mariachi arrived in Mexico City in 1896 with strings and the voice of the José García group. At the beginning of the 20th century, Cirilo Marmolejo’s Mariachi ensemble donned charro suits – the style was immediately adopted and modified by successive ensembles. The charro outfits resembled clothes worn by vaqueros (horseman) of Jalisco: tailored woolen long pants and short jacket, festooned with gold or silver colored metal buckles, and the highly decorated wide-brimmed sombrero. The Porfiriato (period of governance of Porfirio Díaz, 1884-1910) was not a good time for the mariachi, since, like tequila, it was considered representative of the lower classes (although in 1905 and 1907, Díaz celebrated two parties with mariachi music).
With the Mexican Revolution (1910-21), the corrido became the musical companion to the struggle, providing the mariachi with lyrics. Once the country stabilized after almost a decade of war, filming of ranchera movies began, featuring mariachi music and providing much greater exposure.
In the 1930s, the Marmolejo group introduced the trumpet and in 1936, then presidential candidate Lázaro Cárdenas invited the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán to his electoral campaign, resulting in a revitalization of this genre of vernacular music, and the Vargas group (which is currently in its fifth generation of musicians) became popular.
Over the decades, the instruments and structure of the band have changed; Mariachi Marmolejo included a flute, which is no longer played. In most contemporary ensembles, the harp has also disappeared, and they do not include drums. Standards are the violin, guitarrón, vihuela, trumpet and voice.
Artists of Mariachi
Famous mariachi artists include the singers Jorge Negrete, José Alfredo Jiménez, Lucha Reyes, Pedro Infante, Lucha Villa, Antonio Aguilar, Vicente Fernández, Juan Gabriel, and the great female vocalist Lola Beltrán.
A close friend gave me a CD of the the group Mariachi Los Camperos, De Ayer Para Siempre (From Yesterday to Forever) recorded in 2019, for my birthday. While some of it is quite sentimental and schmaltzy (“schmaltz” is Yiddish for rendered chicken fat, “schmaltzy” means maudlin sentimentality). However, there are some great standards such as El Pasajero and Pajaro, in which the talents of the excellent singer and violinist Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán shine, along with a harmonizing chorus. And, of course, a few numbers include the Grito Mexicano (roughly equivalent to shrieking “yeehaw” in the U.S, but with musical adornment – see below!).
Arguably the most famous mariachi song is “El Rey” (The King), a symbol of Mexican maleness and independence written and recorded by José Alfredo Jiménez in 1971. Jiménez died in 1973; “El Rey” hit number one on the Mexican charts in 1974.
El Grito Mexicano/El Grito Ranchero
This is a lung-filled, prolonged but ‘”melodious” high-pitched note, cry, shout, yell, shriek, call, laugh, oink, or combo thereof, not easily described in English. It punctuates and characterizes many traditional mariachi songs; there are many competitive performances for duration, range, and quality.
This is very fun to google (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeyADIDthdk). It is not exclusive to mariachi or male vocalists.
In 1948, first female mariachi group formed in Mexico City, the Aldelitas (Adelitas were women who actively participated in the Mexican Revolution, often seen with bandoleros). The group was purportedly inspired by an all-female Cuban band, discovered on the island by the group’s director.
In California, always a progressive state when it comes to culture (remember, it was part of Mexico until 1848), schools started teaching mariachi classes in the 1970s as part of a bilingual and multicultural education program. In 1994 Reyna de los Angeles emerged from this program and formed Mariachi Reyna de los Angeles. With its ensemble of violins, guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, trumpets and harmonized voices, the band is known for its fresh take on the mariachi tradition. The group also has had enormous impact in breaking new ground for women in a genre long dominated by men.
One of my favorite female bands is Flor de Toloache, based in New York City and founded by Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol in 2008. Flor de Toloache first began playing in the New York City subways; since then, they have become a sensation, recognized for excellent composition, musicianship, and vocals with compelling harmonies, including Gritos Mexicanos. We were lucky to see them at an outdoor concert near our place north of the border. Amigos de la Musica, are you listening? (https://mariachinyc.com/meet-las-flores).
For more on the first female mariachis check out this link: (https://masdemx.com/2019/03/primeros-mariachis-mujeres-historia-mexico/).
And yes, readers of The Eye, there is mariachi in Huatulco: https://www.facebook.com/MariachiHuatulcoOficial
Memories of Music in Mexico
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
When traveling to or in Mexico, we have always appreciated the music that is ubiquitous on the streets and in buildings, and we have been alert for opportunities to attend musical performances.
Our Introduction to Mexican Music
Our first musical trips were from Los Angeles to the border town of Tijuana, when, after spending hours exploring the San Diego Zoo or another attraction north of the border, our young children would beg to cross into Baja Norte to ride on Ferris wheels, whips and other amusement rides and then feast on tacos or other food they recognized as being tastier than fare in the U.S. Each ride came with its own music, and there was always a band playing nearby with people of all ages dancing in the plazas. Our daughter, never shy, was happy to join in and was welcomed.
When our children reached the ages that involved a week or more away at summer camp or school trips, we would hop on a plane for some snorkeling in Mexico at a coastal resort. We quickly realized that the best food and music was found outside the hotel, in areas frequented by the local residents. Rather than enormous buffets for tourists, we enjoyed fresh tortillas and fish, fowl and vegetables prepared on a grill, and in lieu of blaring rock our meals were usually accompanied by a guitarist or two playing folk songs that were frequently joined by neighboring diners who sang along.
But our serious exploration of Mexico and its music began as empty-nesters when we had the luxury of time to spend months rather than weeks visiting different parts of the country. Although we enjoy many forms of music, classical music has long been a passion. While Mexico City is one of the best places in the world to hear classical music, virtually every other major city in Mexico feeds that passion. Almost every Mexican state sponsors a symphony orchestra that is usually excellent, beloved by the local residents and appreciated by visitors. Many play on Sunday afternoons in a central plaza or the courtyard of a government building so that three or more generations of families can attend together. Whenever we arrive in a capital city we head to Centro and find the government office of culture to learn when and where the state (or visiting) symphony orchestra is playing. Since many concerts are free and seating is by order of arrival, we plan our day around that schedule.
Another method of finding great classical music is by checking with offices in theaters or conservatories noted for hosting outstanding performances. Our go-to place in Mexico City is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see also Carole Reedy’s article in this issue). The superb National Opera Company and the world-famous National Symphony Orchestra often perform in the large concert hall inside Bellas Artes; excellent smaller ensembles can be heard in the upstairs chamber-sized Sala Manuel Ponce. In the Sala Ponce the stage is only a few feet above the auditorium floor; we’ve had the pleasure of seeing children run up and rest their chins on the stage to watch the performance.
For examples of places in other cities: in Guadalajara we head to Teatro Degollado; in Oaxaca, Teatro Macedonio Alcalá; and in Morelia, El Conservatorio de las Rosas. Often, finding out box office hours can be a challenge in those venues. So we simply ask the usual guard at the door how we can find out about tickets for concerts – and he or she is usually obliging about steering us to the right person. The concert halls are commonly architecturally stunning, the audiences knowledgeable (no disruptive applause between movements) and the musicians world class. We have had some magical hours at concerts we’ve attended serendipitously.
In Huatulco we’ve had absolutely delightful evenings filled with music arranged by friends. Our late dear friend Carminia Magaña took a dynamic lead in Amigos de la Música de Huatulco, planning and producing concerts by exceptional musicians from all over the world. Charmed by Carminia into traveling to Huatulco, we found the Amigos concerts, most memorably the ones taking place on the ocean-front lawn of the Camino Real Zaashila, were priced low enough so that local residents could afford to attend – and Carminia, working her magic, made sure that a roster of sponsors kept the organization financially afloat. Another friend, Nancy Norris, actually built an ocean-front amphitheater at her Cuatunalco home as a venue for exceptional young local musicians playing as part of fund-raisers to support the medical and other needs of local residents.
Even Imported Musical Theater!
Although classical music is our favorite, we’ve also enjoyed musicals imported from New York City – in Spanish of course – in Mexico City. Man of La Mancha in a small theater sounded more authentic in Spanish. We loved The Lion King in the large Telcel Theater, especially because the very well-behaved children in the audience could barely suppress their excitement. And taking one of our theater-loving bilingual granddaughters to see Los Miz, also at the Telcel, was a special treat.
The enormous National Auditorium of Mexico also hosts Broadway shows (we saw an enchanting performance of Mary Poppins there) and also is one of the worldwide venues where you can see New York’s Metropolitan Opera live in HD streaming. An audience of thousands attends, and if the opera of the day is in Italian, we can almost understand the Italian by glancing at the subtitles in Spanish.
An Uninvited Audience to So Much Music
We often plan our musical events, but Mexico is so full of music that we’ve come to appreciate and even anticipate becoming part of an uninvited audience. Wandering through plazas in far flung cities and towns we’ve stumbled on rehearsals of bands and on guitarists strumming together and never felt intrusive spending time sitting nearby to listen to them. Exploring churches, we’ve parked ourselves on a pew to listen to an organist or a choir practicing for a Sunday mass. When staying in Jalisco, we’re likely to choose a restaurant more for the sound of mariachis entertaining than for the food. In Chiapas we perk up our ears at the sound of a marimba ensemble and find a place where we can enjoy them. And even at local beaches we’ve suddenly found ourselves surrounded by visitors from other Mexican cities who unabashedly start singing folk songs that, after decades of our living in Mexico, are now familiar.
For us, music is synonymous with Mexico. And the sound of a symphony often brings back memories of hearing the same refrain in many of the states in Mexico we’ve come to love.
The Accordion in Mexican Music
By Randy Jackson
Nothing tells me I’m in Mexico quite like the lively accordion notes of a melody drifting out of a shop or restaurant as I pass by. The clarity of the accordion sound is like a pleasant breeze to our eardrums, its tonal vibrations stimulating our smile muscles. If the accordion sound were a colour, it would be bright yellow. What could be more delightful than a song with a lumbering tuba stomping out a slow beat while the accordion dances rapidly around it like Tinker Bell after an espresso.
Although the accordion didn’t originate in Mexico, once it arrived, it became a venerated cultural icon of Mexican music. The accordion was introduced by German immigrants to Texas and Northern Mexico in the mid-19th century. It promptly plunged into the existing regional folk music of Northern Mexico and Southern US like a fat kid doing the cannonball into the kiddie pool. Today we call the music that emerged from this area Norteño or Tejano music (also referred to as Norteño Conjunto and Tejano Conjunto (conjunto meaning “together,” or “ensemble”).
Traditional Norteño/Tejano music features the acordeón diatónico or acordeón de botones (an accordion with two rows of buttons, with each row producing the diatonic, or 7-note, scale), the bajo sexto (12 string Mexican guitar), drum, and a sort of talking-singing vocals. The instrumentation of this musical genre has evolved over time to include bass guitar, saxophone and other instruments. Beyond the Norteño/Tejano musical genre, the accordion spread to a number of other folk music traditions in Mexico, so that the delightful ear-tickle of the accordion can be heard in most forms of Mexican music today.
Where Did the Accordion Come From?
The accordion was invented in Germany in the 1820s. Its lively spread in worldwide popularity was accelerated by the “Polka Craze.” Polka burst onto the scene in Paris and London in the 1840s and spread rapidly throughout the western world. The marriage of the polka and the accordion was quickly consummated. From the start, the accordion and polka were artifacts of the common people, something more for the streets than for upper-class salons.
In Mexico and Latin America, the accordion never completely outgrew its folk root traditions. Rock music, which emerged mostly from the United States and Britain in the 1960s, favoured drums and electric guitars, which led to the decline of accordion popularity. But not before door-to-door salesmen convinced parents like mine, and those of Weird Al Yankovich, that their precious sons should learn how to play the accordion. Although accordion lessons worked out pretty well for Weird Al, my rotund Polish instructor only left me with an addiction to pierogis.
The Accordion in Mexican Music Styles
Thankfully, in Mexico, accordion love is still alive and well. There is an astounding range of Mexican musical styles; although the accordion may not be as prominent as it is in the traditional Norteño/Tejano music, it remains a proud member of most Mexican music genres and styles. Two examples of this are the banda and cumbia genres.
The popular banda music originated in the state of Sinaloa. This style may sound similar to Norteño because of the ever-present accordion, but the distinguishing feature is the prominence of brass instruments, in particular rumbling low notes of the tuba used to set the song’s tempo.
By comparison, the cumbia genre generally has a more lively tempo than banda, especially in its Mexican versions. Cumbia is thought to have originated within the Afro-Colombian community. Wikipedia lists four styles of cumbia in Mexico, and dozens of styles throughout Latin American countries. In Mexico, maracas are usually the distinguishing cumbia sound, setting the song’s tempo, but the piano accordion (keys instead of buttons) is frequently the main source of the rhythm.
It’s no wonder the accordion is so often heard in Mexican music; its versatility to musicians is like a Swiss army knife to Houdini. The accordion can add delight to pretty much any music style. I’ve even heard the accordion in some reggaeton pieces. Although to my ears, reggaeton is basically rap music, it doesn’t get much of my accordion-loving attention.
Without any neurological understanding whatsoever, my guess is that the audible range of the accordion is perceived by the part of the brain that is associated with the urge to dance. I believe this dance urge developed early in human evolution, but remained only partially satisfied until the accordion came along. And although I accept that this view may have developed as a result of my childhood accordion lessons, I’m happy to have found that Mexican music embraces the accordion.
The Music of Mexico before the Spaniards
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”
Musical Genres in Mexico
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
As you might guess from the name, banda uses a lot of brass instruments, and just like brass bands anywhere, banda groups play almost any kind of music. Dating back to the 19th century, when piston brass horns arrived Mexico, banda first took off in Sinaloa; however, almost every little town soon had its own banda, usually with brass, woodwinds, and percussion – es.
Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-nO5meXGHs
Conjunto can just mean a musical ensemble, but it’s also the distinct Tex-Mex music of the northern border, specifically tejano or norteño. Border music usually features the accordion, brought to the border by 19th-century German, Czech, and Polish settlers in Texas, combined with Mexico’s 12-string bajo sexto guitar. Eminently dance-able, especially if you can do the polka!
Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCjLTXVCd1s
Cumbia (pronounced kum-bee-yah) made its way up to Mexico from Colombia. Very popular by the 1980s, it combines Colombian influences with Mexican norteño and ranchero styles, as well as African, Amerindian, and European sounds. Instruments usually include accordions, drums, flutes, and maracas.
Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXRyZtJ9c2E
Ranchera music, a traditional Mexican form, got a boost with the Mexican Revolution (1920-21), and played a part in developing a new national identity. Land reforms and job opportunities brought rural people into cities, and they brought with them the rural folk songs and the nostalgic memories they recalled – themes emphasize nature, love, patriotism. By the 1940s, ranchera music was made even more popular by the rise of ranchera movies – Mexico’s version of the westerns on America’s silver screen. Ranchera, like country music in the U.S., is still with us and probably always will be.
Want to listen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6fvKOC8LDM
What to watch to learn about Mexican music
By Jane Bauer
Luis Miguel: the series on Netflix (2018-)
One of Mexico’s biggest musicians, Luis Miguel, was the original child star, and this series follows his rise to stardom. Encouraged by his manager father, Luis Miguel became one of the best-selling Latin music artists of all time. Actor Diego Boneta plays the title role and sings all the music and does an incredible job considering how distinct and well known Luis Miguel’s sound is. When the series was first released in 2018 it was all anybody in Mexico was talking about. Luis Miguel’s world tour kicks off on August 3rd in Buenos Aires.
Selena: the movie (1997)
Selena (1971-1995) although born and raised in Texas, this Mexican/ American singer made a huge impression in a life that was cut too short after she was murdered. In 2020 Billboard magazine listed her in third place on their list of “Greatest Latino Artists of All Time”. The movie about her life was the breakout role for Jennifer Lopez and earned her a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actress . There is a new Netflix series as well but I haven’t seen it yet.
Hasta Que Te Conocí (Until I Met You) (2016)
This drama series follows the roots and footsteps of the legendary Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel. The 13-episode series is based on unpublished testimonies on the icon’s journey from childhood to fame. “A story that tells how his talent led him to defy and overcome poverty, betrayals and prejudices,” reads an official description on Amazon Prime where it’s available for streaming.
Los Tigres Del Norte At Folsom Prison (2019)
Los Tigres del Norte are a norteño band from Sinaloa that was originally formed in 1968 by four brothers from the Hernández Angulo family. They are the only Mexican band to have won six Grammy awards.
In 2019, they premiered a Netflix original documentary and live album Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison. The set marked the first time a musical act was allowed to film inside the prison walls since Johnny Cash’s fabled performance at Folsom in 1968.
The documentary also provided a rare, and compassionate look at Latino incarceration told through the songs of the band and the stories of the Latino and Latina inmates at Folsom Prison interviewed for the production.
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