Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Indigenous dancers & their traditional instruments

An Owl Dancer performs in Ajijic. Owls were important symbolic creatures in the pre-hispanic world. They are depicted in various murals and pottery paintings found at the great city of Teotihuacan (100 AD - 650 AD). In addition, they appear in the mythology of both the Maya and the Mexica (Aztecs). Several months ago, Carole and I attended a performance by a visiting troupe of indigenous dancers held at the Auditorio de la Ribera here in Ajijic. The music for the dancers was played on reproductions of a variety of Aztec instruments. 

This kind of drum is called an huehuetl. The word is from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica. They shared this tongue with many of the other nomadic groups who migrated from the great deserts of the north into the Valley of Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. In Nahuatl, huehue means "very old", or "venerable" and therefore of great importance. The huehuetl was considered so important that its name became synonymous for gatherings of musicians, whatever the instrument they played. These drums were usually made from the wood of the ahuehuete, a kind of cypress sometimes called a "drum tree". While huehuetls were sometimes made from clay or even precious metals, not many of those types survived the Conquest. The sides of the drums contain mystical symbols and the hollow wooden cylinders are supported by decoratively carved tripods. The bottoms of the drum cylinders are open, but the tops are covered by tightly stretched animal skins. These are struck with the fingers to produce several different tones according to how near or far from the center the fingers hit.

The Owl Dancer's piercing eyes stare out from under his extraordinary headdress. The owl eyes of his costume have a deep significance. The rain god Tlaloc was one of the most important mythical figures of the ancient world. He is nearly always depicted with rings around his eyes. These are often described by archaeologists as "goggles", but some of them believe the rings are imitations of owl eyes. Tlaloc was the only one of the massive array of Aztec gods who was allowed to share equal billing with Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. Together, their shrines occupied the top of the Templo Mayor, the great pyramid in Tenochtilan (now Mexico City) which was the center of the Aztec universe.

Tlalpanhuehuetl, or standing drum. On top of the drum, you can see two other instruments: a gourd rattle and a conch shell. While huehuetl drummers played sitting down, those using a tlalpanhuehuetl stood. Carved on the top and bottom sides of the drum are an eagle and the sun, both symbols of Huitzilopochtli. He moved across the sky during the day, keeping the darkness at bay and providing the light and warmth that allowed the crops to grow. According to Mexica beliefs, Huitzilopochtli had to be fed a constant diet of human blood in order to gain the strength to return each morning and thus keep the world intact. This fitted nicely with the Mexica's own appetite for warfare. Their conquests resulted in Mesoamerica's greatest and most powerful empire, at least until its destruction by the Spanish. In addition to wars of conquest, the Mexica also fought what they called "Flowery Wars." These conflicts were staged on a regular basis solely to capture enemy soldiers who could be sacrificed on Huitzilopochtli's altar atop the Templo Mayor. Thousands had their living hearts ripped out while the last sound they heard was the thunderous drumming of huehuetls and tlalpanhuehuetls.

Skull Dancer wearing chachayotes, which are anklets of ayayote nut shells filled with pellets. Even one dancer wearing chachayotes creates a rythmic noise of considerable volume. Imagine hundreds, or even thousands, dancing in the great plaza in front of the Templo Mayor. In addition to his chachayotes and penacho de plumas (feathered headdress), he wears a loincloth with the pattern of a jaguar's fur. Jaguars were another animal considered sacred throughout Mesoamerica. They are extremely powerful night hunters and the ancients believed that these qualities connected them to the forces of darkness and death. The two most important military cults of the Mexica (and the Toltecs before them) were the Eagle and the Jaguar warriors who dressed in costumes imitative of their totem creatures.

These two horizontal drums are called teponaztli. The drummers were usually seated while playing this instrument. However, during warfare, these drums were sometimes worn hanging at the waist from a neck cord. There are accounts of Mexica kings leading their warriors into battle while playing a teponaztli. Each hollowed-out log has cuts along its length and across the middle, made in the shape of an "H". These cuts create two keys which are played with rubber-tipped sticks. The keys might be cut to different lengths or thicknesses to create different tones. Sometimes the end or bottom of the instrument was open to increase the volume. The teponaztli were often used to accompany huehuetls. In addition to warfare, the drums were often used to accompany poetry and singing.

The Skull Dancer's head gear includes a skull mask framed by an extravagant penacho. The artistic representation of skulls, or the ritual use of actual human skulls themselves, was common in pre-hispanic civilizations. The ancients viewed death as another plane of existence, not oblivion. Further, they saw death as inextricably connected to life, i.e. another expression of the duality of the universe which includes day vs night, male vs female, cold vs hot, etc.

Turtle-shell drums were called ayotl or sometimes ayocacallotl. The use of the ayotl was generally restricted to funerals. Early colonial historians recorded that they were played during death rites for a Tarascan king. At the end of the ceremony, the dead ruler's top officials and servants were clubbed to death in order to accompany their leader into the afterlife. Behind the ayotl are several pieces of stone also used as musical instruments. These lithophones, called tehuehuetl, are  made from volcanic stone slabs. The tehuehuetl are beaten with stone spheres to create a kind of hollow ringing sound.

A pair of rattlesnakes twine themselves around five skulls in this unidentified instrument. As best as I can figure, this resembles the "rainsticks" found in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa. Such instruments are given the name because they are hollow and filled with pebbles or seeds. When they are upended, the pellets inside cascade down the length of the interior. The resulting sound resembles falling rain striking leaves in the forest. The purpose of a rainstick is to encourage rain. It is possible, but not confirmed, that rainsticks may have made their way from Central or South America to the Aztec Empire.

The musicians and dancers included children, some quite young. The inclusion of children is a means of keeping these traditions alive. Some of the instruments I have been describing can be seen in use above. On the left, are three of the tlalpanhuehuetls, one played by the Skull Dancer. On the right, two young musicians play tehuehuetls and a teponaztli.

This concludes my posting. I hope you have enjoyed the images and stories behind these ancient instruments. If you liked this posting, I hope you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thank you so much for the ongoing blog posts. Love them!!!

  2. Hi Jim,

    My name is Sara. I am helping to put together a museum exhibit in Belize and would like permission to use your photo of the turtle shell drums. I can be reached at sara.a.clarke at gmail.com.

    Thank you,



If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim