Last week the music trip went on yet another van ride, as we ventured to Juchitán de Zaragoza. We unanimously agreed that it was nice to get away from the tourism of Oaxaca, but we definitely missed the dry heat as soon as we took our first breath. We spent the week meeting so many talented musicians of all ages, and trying out our own musical talent now and again. When we weren't listening to awesome performers, we were holed up in our air conditioned rooms or eating a lot of fresh sea food; anything "mojo de ajo" (a garlic sauce) was always rewarding.
On Wednesday, we enjoyed an American style breakfast in air conditioning (a true luxury in sweltering Juchitan) and headed over to Pancho Tina’s house, an older, more unconventional musician in the region. We met Pancho, the 86-year-old former iguana hunter and troubadour in his backyard and listened to him play the washtub bass, harmonica, and maraca all at once. Every now and then he would take a break to fill us in on the stories behind the songs, many of which were originals. Pancho proved to be a true artist at heart, drawing inspiration from everyday scenarios, like two birds fighting, and transformed it into art. We learned he had the chance to marry a very rich woman, but declined the offer because he didn’t want to lead a life revolved around money. Perhaps more than we learned about styles and forms of Zapotec music was learning the value of integrity and being true to yourself. Pancho was one of the more out-there people we met on the trip, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to show his true self!
On Thursday, our group went to a flute-making workshop lead by Elyuth, a flute maker/player from Juchitan. The fljute is an important instrument in the Isthmus. It is often paired with a prehispanic drum and is used in many community ceremonies. For example at XIndxaa, a community ceremony where monetary donations are given to the party hosts, the prehispanic flute and drum are used at dawn to announce the coming of the festivities to the community.
The process of making the flutes was a long and interesting one as we had to be very precise with our measuring and carvings. We used bamboo rods and had to cut mouth pieces, sand it, burn holes into the rods for the correct chromatic scale, and insert wasp wax into the mouth pieces to produce the correct sound. It was a very natural process, everything that was used came from the community. Once we finished our flutes, Elyuth taught us a piece of music that we all learned and got a chance to solo for the group. Making these instruments from start to finish on our own really gave them a sentimental value and made us each very proud of what we had accomplished.
In the town of Tehuantepec, Javier, a marimba student, played more traditional songs from the Isthmus region for us on the chromatic marimba. This type of marimba plays five octaves with sharp and flat keys arranged like on a piano. The instrument originates from Chiapas, where it developed from the piano in the nineteenth century. Up close, we saw that each resonator has a hole covered with a membrane made of pig tripe that lets each note have buzz distinctively. Fascinated by Javier's talent and not wanting the performance to end, we were urged out by the arrival of young Tehuantepecos ready to work on their own marimba skill with the maestros.
On Saturday evening, after we had returned to the city, we were treated to a private concert by the Orquesta Mexicano where they played a piece composed by Carlos Chaves. The piece featured many prehispanic instruments and was rightfully titled ‘Cantos de México’. This rather unconventional orchestration included the concha de tortuga and flutes, which many of us had played while in Juchitán. One instrument that I was particularly intrigued by was the chirimía, a double reed instrument and predecessor of the oboe The sound was particularly interesting with an almost haunting timbre. I really enjoyed being able to see the instrument and to be able to better understand the history of the instrument that I play. The piece was separated into many parts with the leader of the orchestra explaining each segment and contextualizing how the piece related to the different regions in Mexico. It was fascinating to hear the piece finally be performed in its entirety, showing a very unique blend of Mexican nationalism and prehispanic influences.
By the end of the week we were back in the van; annoying each other by playing our handmade flutes and taking Dramamine to head back to the city. We’re now spending our days compiling all of the footage we took from the week into documentaries – get ready!
- Analiz, Bianca, Julia, Katie, Lilly