Monday, July 29, 2013

Tortoise shells and gourds: Guatemalan music in the Mayan tradition

Museum docent demonstrating an early marimba
In the Western Highlands of Guatemala there is a coffee plantation and cultural center that many enjoy visiting. Finca La Azotea is located near Antigua, Guatemala, just a couple of kilometers away. Within the plantation is a fascinating museum that chronicles the development of Mayan musical instruments

You can take a guided tour (recommended) of the farm and learn how coffee is processed. But what I found fascinating was the "Casa K'ojom" (Museum of Mayan Music) where you will find examples of Mayan musical instruments and exhibits showing their development. The pre-Columbian instruments, surprisingly, are very similar to the instruments you will see as musicians play on the streets of Antigua for tourists today.

You'll see percussion instruments, drums and maracas, made of wood and of tortoise shell. The marimba is considered typical of Guatemala, also having roots in the Mayan civilization. The marimba is  made of wooden bars that are struck with mallets. Tubular or gourd resonators hang down from each of the bars and provide the mellow tones the marimba is known for. The original version was carried by two people and did not have the stand that is typical today.

Mayan musical instruments were developed as part of the ceremonial life of the Maya. Images of people using the instruments can be seen in pre-Columbian stone carvings
Playing on the streets of Antigua using traditional instruments

Today, on the streets of Guatemalan cities like Antigua, you'll often see small troupes playing traditional music using instruments that are not unlike the instruments of their ancestors. 

We enjoyed the colorful streets of Antigua. One day, near the Santa Catalina Arch in historic Antigua, excitement built as a family set up their instruments to play for the visitors.

There was a traditional marimba with gourd resonators and one of the men had a tortoise shell instrument just like those we had seen in the museum. Once they set up their drums and flutes, Maya Kaqchikel was ready to perform. The Kaqchikel are one of the indigenous Maya peoples of the midwestern highlands and this group of musicians was from that area.

Tortoise shells as percussion instruments
The person who stole the show and gathered the crowds that day was the very young boy, Carlitos,  who danced in his sandals on the cobblestone street playing maracas. The music was excellent and Maya Kaqchikel sold quite a few CDs.

When you encounter musicians in Guatemala, be sure and have a look at their instruments. You may be looking at the same type of instrument that was played back in pre-Columbian times and that was part of Mayan ritual life.

More Information
Coffee Plantation Address: Calle del Cementerio, Final | Jocotenango, Sacatepéquez, Antigua, Guatemala