Sunday, June 5, 2011

Guatemala Part 7: Coffee & music at Finca La Azotea

A Maya musical trio played for us at Finca La Azotea, a coffee plantation outside Antigua. The group, called Aj, performed traditional instruments and danced as they played. This delightful interlude occurred during our tour of Finca La Azotea. We will see more of them later. In the mean time, have you ever wondered, as you stared, half awake, into your morning cup of "Joe," where it came from? It may well have originated in one of Guatemala's many coffee fincas. A finca is a plantation, and Finca La Azotea lies in one of the high valleys of southern Guatemala's mountains. Given its location La Azotea ("the roof") seems an appropriate name. We visited the finca after leaving Lake Atitlán and just before arriving at Antigua, the original Spanish colonial capital. La Azotea's mountain valley is surrounded by the lush, steep slopes of huge volcanos, some of them active in the not too distant past.

Coffee and its long and colorful history

Bags of La Azotea coffee waiting for transport. Finca La Azotea coffee is "Fair Trade" certified. The Fair Trade movement arose from a recognition that small producers and their workers are exploited by a handful multinational of companies that dominate the market. From each dollar paid by a consumer for a cup of coffee, 84 cents remain in the consuming country and only 16 cents go to the producing country, in this case Guatemala. When world coffee prices drop, the consumers rarely see a drop in the price for the contents of their cup, but the small growers are hard pressed to stay in business and are forced to cut wages to workers, creating a downward spiral in the local economy. Until recently, growers could sell only to a few large multinational companies, and they have been forced to dance to the multinational tune. The Fair Trade Organization (FTO) is a group of coffee importers, roasters, and wholesalers who work directly with the growers, thus eliminating multinational middlemen. The FTO encourages the formation of cooperatives where workers share in the profits. The elimination of the middlemen creates savings, some of which are passed back to the growers through a guaranteed price per pound and by financial and technical support. The FTO also works to educate consumers about the economics of the coffee business and the importance of buying Fair Trade products in order to improve wages and working conditions in the producing countries. There are Fair Trade networks around the world involved with a number of other goods where workers and producers are similarly exploited. These include handicrafts, cocoa, sugar, tea, honey, bananas, cotton, wine, fruit, chocolate, flowers, and gold.

The founder of Finca La Azotea's coffee business, Doña Dominga Mont. La Azotea did not originally produce coffee. For a very long time, the property was used to produce cochineal insects for dyes. Cochineal dye is an ancient process developed by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica centuries before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish took over production and developed an enormously profitable trade that lasted until the middle of the 19th Century, when artificial dyes were developed in Europe. Almost overnight, the cochineal industry collapsed, devastating the local economies that depended upon it. Coffee had been introduced into Guatemala in 1721 by Jesuits, but only as an ornamental plant. It wasn't until the early 1800's that coffee began to be cultivated as a cash crop. When the cochineal industry collapsed 50 years later, coffee cultivation became more widespread. In the 1870's, Liberal reformers under General Justo Rufino Barrios saw coffee as the economic savior of Guatemala, and took steps to radically increase output. Shortly after this, in 1883, the formidable-looking Doña Dominga Mont, seen above, purchased La Azotea and converted the finca from indigo to coffee, participating in a boom that was soon producing 90% of Guatemala's exports.

A coffee cherry, where it all begins. This cherry comes from a coffee plant, genus Coffea, family Rubiceae. The plant may reach a height of 2.44 meters (8 ft.), and its leaves and berries contain up to 2% caffeine. Growers plant two varieties, Coffee Arabica and Coffee Canefora. Arabica is the variety produced by La Azotea, and is the higher quality of the two. According to legend, coffee originated in Ethiopia when a herdsman named Kaldi noticed that his goats became agitated after eating the berries from the plant. He sampled them himself and then took some to a local monk, who used them to keep his human flock awake during long sermons. Coffee use gradually spread to the Harrar region of Ethiopia, a place with ideal growing conditions and the point of origin of all Coffee Arabica plants. Around 1200 AD, after a short journey across the Red Sea, coffee beans arrived in Yemen. The point of arrival was the town of Al-Makkha, from where sprang the nickname Mocha. When the Turks conquered Yemen in the 1400's, they carried coffee beans by boat and camel throughout their empire. Coffee was especially popular in the Muslim world because alcohol is forbidden in the Koran. In 1616, a Dutch ship captain took some coffee seeds from Yemen to the East Indies where great plantations were created in Ceylon and Java (thus originating another nickname for coffee). A coffee plant arrived in Europe in 1658 and was planted in the botanical gardens of Amsterdam. Cuttings from this plant were presented to the French King Louis XIV. In 1683, the Turks attempted to capture Vienna, Austria, but were defeated. A Viennese who had spent time in Istambul recognized the contents of some bags the Turks left behind. He took this Turkish coffee and created the first of Vienna's now famous coffee houses.

Coffee drinking establishments soon popped up all over 17th Century London. Beginning in the 1650s, they became places where London men-of-affairs conducted business, talked politics, and generally loitered. They spent so much time in the coffee houses that their wives considered the places to be dens of iniquity. There was actually a protest movement by London women aimed at closing them down and banning coffee. This produced the petition and counter-petition seen above. It is believed that the famous insurance firm Lloyd's of London had its origins in an early coffee house. Coffee soon spread all over the world, including the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean in 1721, the Dutch colony of Guyana (now Surinam) in 1727, the English colony of Jamaica in 1730, and the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion from which it spread to East Africa. Many of these locations are now famous for the coffee they still produce. However, all too often, coffee was grown on mono-culture, cash-crop plantations, and worked by slave labor. In many cases, this produced environmental and social devastation. Ironically, because coffee houses became centers for the free exchange of ideas between merchants, intellectuals, and artists, they may also have helped spread the new doctrines of freedom and liberty that resulted eventually in the American and French Revolutions. Not surprisingly, 17th and 18th Century religious and governmental authorities distrusted coffee houses as incubators of dangerous ideas. Coffee houses have maintained a "bohemian" reputation ever since.

Doing it the old-fashioned way. Above, this old wooden mortar and pestle were once used to remove the parchment skin from dried coffee beans. The mortar is made from a log hollowed out by fire, as you can see from the charred walls inside. The pestle is just as primitively made. Large amounts of low-cost labor were necessary to produce any significant amount of coffee with 19th Century technology. The need for a ready supply of such labor, as well as arable land suitable for coffee growing, led to the most pernicious aspects of General Barrios' "Liberal Reforms." While the Liberals of mid-19th Century Latin American politics called for liberty, freedom of expression and other human rights we now applaud, in Guatemala the leaders were themselves members of a privileged elite, and didn't intend that those freedoms and rights should attach to the Maya population. In practical effect, Guatemala's Liberal Reforms resulted in the wholesale appropriation by Barrios' government of hundreds of thousands of hectares of Maya land. It was then sold to coffee speculators. This created a critical food shortage for the Maya, many of whom were then forced by simple survival to work on the big coffee fincas. The small growers of coffee were also squeezed by the political and economic clout of the big finca owners. Barrios also passed legislation regulating the movements of the Maya, and requiring that they possess documents needing official stamps that could only be obtained if the Maya provided free labor to the government. Given the close connection between the Liberal reformers and the finca owners it should be no surprise that much of this free labor ended up being performed on the coffee fincas. In the name of Liberalism, a modern form of slavery was created.

Early pulping machine. This machine removed the pulp of the cherry, leaving the bean to be dried. Following the drying process, the beans were run through another machine to remove the dried husks, leaving just the green coffee bean. This was an improvement on the old mortar and pestle seen previously. The finca system has continued to the present day. In the early 1950s, the Arbenz government tried to implement reforms through which the government would have bought large amounts of land from finca owners--at the value declared by the owners on their own tax forms--and redistributed them to the landless Maya. In response, the finca owners allied themselves with the United Fruit Company and members of the military. Supported by the financing, training, and direction of the CIA, the finca owners and other wealthy elites overthrew the democratically-elected Arbenz government. A dark night of repression and genocide settled over Guatemala for the next 40 years, until peace accords were signed at the end of the Guatemala Civil War in 1996.

Spherical or ball roaster. Manufactured in Germany in 1870, a roaster like this was used at La Azotea. The green coffee would be loaded into the sphere or ball. The ball would then be rolled back into the machine and the cover pulled down. A wood fire burned in the space at the bottom of the machine. The ball could be rotated to ensure even roasting. The  Finca La Azotea remains in the family of Doña Dominga Mont. Her great-grandchildren converted part of the grounds into a cultural center and museum in the year 2000, and have joined the Fair Trade movement. La Azotea is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM until 4:00 PM, and Saturday from 8:30 through 2:00 PM. Admission is 50 quetzales ($6.42 USD) for adults and 25 quetzales ($3.21 USD) for children.

Finca La Azotea grounds

A group of marimba players greeted us as we entered La Azotea. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala. It probably originated in West Africa, and was brought to Guatemala by slaves as early as 1550. The early instrument had a range of only two octaves and used dried gourds as resonators. In 1894 Julián Paniagua Martinez and Sebastián Hurtado created a "chromatic" marimba with the same scale as a piano. Modern marimbas have accurately tuned wooden box resonators and are often elaborately carved. While ancient marimbas were played by a single musician, modern Guatemalan marimbas take 3 and sometimes 4 players.

Part of the Finca's buildings have been converted into a museum. The central courtyard was cobblestoned, and the sides overflowed with bougainvillea and other flowering plants.

Carole and friend. Large puppets like this are often carried in religious parades and fiestas, as well as political demonstrations.

Toy horse and cart. As we wandered about the grounds, we encountered this charming little cart and its gracefully carved wooden horse .

The real thing. A relic from the finca's old days sat in the lush grounds behind the museum. Two-wheeled carts like this, called carretas, were pulled by a horse or ox. They hauled freight over the rough, muddy roads prevalent in Guatemala through most of its history since the Conquest.

And there were real horses, too! The finca's stables contained a number of these beautiful animals. A friendly worker allowed me to watch him shoe one of them.

Replica of a Maya house from the low-land areas of Guatemala. Behind the museum stood a variety of such replicas in the various styles of the different areas of the country. A manikin stands at the door, dressed in traditional clothes. A house like this would be built of corn stalks and bamboo reeds, and the roof is thatched from leaves of the guano or manaco palms. People from these areas grow tropical fruits, corn, black beans, sugar cane, and cacao. In addition, they fish, raise cattle, and engage in various forms of commerce.

Traditional Maya Music

Warming up for a concert of traditional music. Aj, a young trio of Guatemalans, was a delightful surprise at the end of our tour of the finca. With his usual exquisite timing, our Caravan Tour Director Jorge knew that we would be tired and hot from the mid-day sun. Accordingly, he arranged for a short concert in this shady little glade.

Edwin, the leader, imitates the sound of a jungle bird. Aj originated in Comalapa, the "cradle of Maya artists." While the main instruments were a marimba, drums, and a flute, the band also demonstrated their skills on a variety of hand carved instruments that perfectly imitated jungle sounds. The instrument Edwin holds in his right hand made bird calls. The bamboo tube in his left was filled with something that may have been corn kernels, or possibly pebbles. When he turned the tube upside down, it created a rushing sound like drops of rain water hitting the broad leaves of a palm tree.

Eric the drummer. His main instrument is a large drum, with the head covered by leather. Above the large drum are a set of turtle shells of various sizes that produced interesting sounds.

Edwin on another of his many instruments. These were very energetic young guys, and they danced through most of their performance, even as they played their instruments.

Luis, on the marimba. His is a one-man instrument, but was beautifully made and produced a lovely sound.

Edwin dances with Serese. As a finale to the performance, Edwin danced out among us to select a partner. He chose Serese, a young Canadian member of our tour. When she gracefully accepted the offer, Edwin draped her with a beautifully woven poncho. Serese performed as if she had practiced privately beforehand. Edwin's instinct about who to choose as a partner was right on target. After the performance I purchased one of their CDs for my nephew who is a jazz musician. If you would like to contact Aj about their wonderful music, you can email them at

This completes my posting on La Finca Azotea. I hope you have enjoyed it. Our next stop was the old Spanish colonial capital of Antigua, and I'll be posting on that next week. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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