Music For the Gods

by Mildred Boyd

      The Mexican love of music and dance is a heritage from the distant past. Graves from the pre-formative (1800-900 BC) have yielded primitive musical instruments such as bone rasps and simple whistles. By Aztec times the orchestra had expanded to include pipes, rattles, several types of drum, slit gongs, bells, flutes, ocarinas and trumpets as well as the human voice. Materials varied; gourds, wood, bones, terracotta, conch shells, metal, turtle carapaces and deer antlers all played their part. There were no stringed instruments before the Conquest and the marimba, now so closely identified with Latin American music, was introduced much later by African slaves.
      There was no form of musical notation, so we have no clue to how such music sounded except that it was obviously heavy on percussion and rhythm. The Spanish found Aztec ritual performances "doleful and tuneless" which, since they were mostly aimed at propitiating the numerous and merciless gods, seems quite fitting. Learning and performing the "Songs for the Gods" was an important part of the curriculum of students in the calmecac, or State schools.
      But surely, then as now, the people often raised their voices, played their instruments and danced to their own music for the simple joy of it.



     Six men, arms linked and wearing tall, elaborate head-dresses but, seemingly, little else, dance rings around their leader, who sets the tempo by rhythmically shaking what are apparently pebble filled and decorated dried gourds. These are identical with the maracas one finds for sale in any street market today and their distinctive sound is still an integral part of Latin American music. The figures stand roughly five inches high and are mounted on a circular base of the same diameter. This charming group is a funerary gift found in a shaft tomb in Colima and dates from the Protoclassic period (AD 1-300).


     This fine example of the standing drum is slightly more than three feet tall and is of Aztec origin, dating from AD 1520. The hollow wooden cylinder would have been covered with a taut animal skin drumhead, while the oddly shaped cut-outs in the base were designed to increase resonance. The elaborately carved surface shows Eagle and Jaguar knights above a parade of the Aztec monarchs these elite warriors were dedicated to protect. It was found at Malinalco, where, legend says, it was buried to prevent such a sacred object from falling into the hands of the Spanish conquerers.

 Hand Drum  

     This type of percussion instrument was usually held in the crook of the arm and struck with the hand or a drumstick made of wood, bone or antler.
     Almost anything with a large enough cavity, from clay pots to animal skulls, would do. This example is particularly interesting because, although it appears to be an ordinary turtle shell, it is actually made of painted clay and wears the head of Huehueteotl, the old man god who guarded hearth and home. It was found near the cathedral in Mexico City, in what was once the site of the main temple complex of the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan.


     Drums could be of many shapes and sizes as well as materials. This unusual specimen is of beautifully grained and polished wood, about two feet long by six inches wide and cleverly carved in the shape of a reclining warrior with inlaid shell and obsidian eyes. It is of Aztec origin, dating from no earlier than AD 1450, and is unusual in that its tone could be altered by inserting tongues of wood at various points in the two linear grooves running the length of the warrior’s back. Perhaps the anticipation of a sound beating explains why the poor fellow looks so apprehensive.



     At first glance, this well dressed musician might appear to be just another drummer beating time on turtle shell drum. He is, however, actually rubbing a stick across the natural roughness of the carapace to produce a distinctive rasping sound which would be amplified by the hollow space between the upper and lower shells. Hollow gourds or clay pots, properly grooved, served the same purpose and were a definite improvement over the earlier bone and stick rasps. The intricately crafted terracotta figure is slightly under 18 inches tall and is of Zapotec origin, dating from AD 600-900.



     No one knows exactly when man discovered that conch shells made excellent trumpets, but they were widely used as such on important occasions in many primitive societies, including the pre-Columbians. This 15 inch example, however, is not exactly what it seems. It is made of clay and, although the sculptor, working from inside out, faithfully reproduced the intricately convoluted interior and exterior form of a real shell, the sound it produces is more a whistle than a deep, mellow blast. Its actual provenance is unknown, but archaeologists assign it to the Mayan Classic period (AD 250-800).


     That this elegantly attired Mayan lord, with his winged head-dress, intricately woven loincloth and massive jewelry, is a musician is proved by the gourd rattles he holds in either hand. What is not so obvious is that he is also a musical instrument, at least until one notices the four finger holes in his back and the mouthpiece concealed in his topknot that make him an ocarina. He stands a little over eight inches tall and still bears traces of the original red and blue paint. He comes from Nebaj in Guatemala and dates from the Mayan Late Classic period (AD 700-800).

     This gaily painted ceramic jug may well depict the very earliest example of that musical phenomena known as the one man band. He certainly shows instrumental versatility, if not virtuosity. In his right hand he holds a set of pan pipes which he seems to be blowing lustily, his left hand flourishes a horn, held up to the side of his head like an ear trumpet and a clay hand drum is attached to the belt at his waist. The figure is 7-1/2 inches tall and is attributed to the Nazca culture of southern Peru (AD 250-750).