When I took my family to Chiapas recently--as tourists, of course--I found myself looking for its authentic music. Yes, I’d just cowritten a whole book questioning the wisdom of such a quest, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was in a new place and I wanted to hear the age-old music of that place, unadulterated--not something devised for tourists or heavily influenced by today’s pop. What could be more natural than that?
Well, I only heard two kinds of Chiapanecan music.
The first was a marimba band. In Comitan, the town we stayed in, the municipal marimba band--which, if I remember correctly, consists of eight marimba players, four saxophonists, two trumpeters, a bassist, a drummer, two percussionists, a guitarist, and a singer--plays every Sunday and Thursday night in the town square. The music clearly owes something to Perez Prado and to cumbia, but the marimbas are a local thing--only in Chiapas and neighboring Oaxaca and Guatemala, as far as I know, is marimba music so prominent. It’s a tremendously vibrant tradition. Dozens of people were dancing, and the kids all take marimba lessons. In the CD stores were literally hundreds of marimba CDs by dozens of Chiapanecan bands with long names. I picked up a few, and a few old LPs too.
The second was a musician from a Mexican folkloric group who had painted his face and wore an outlandish costume with some Mayan and Aztec elements. He played a fife with a drum on the end, which he hit with a stick. His folkloric group was far from authentic--they clearly had some anachronistic elements, and there was a lot of theater in what they did. But his music sounded quite close to some of the music on a couple of terrific CDs of authentic Mayan music. One I bought in Chiapas, and documents a Mayan music festival in 2005, and the other one came from Smithsonian Folkways--it’s called Modern Maya--and was recorded in the early 1970s. Many of the songs on these CDs boast an inimitable rhythm--the beats are so uneven as to preclude accurate notation--and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the music is pre-Colombian in origin. Some of it sounds completely unlike any music I’ve ever heard.
The two traditions have nothing at all in common. This reflects the reality of Chiapas--the Mayans there speak primarily their own languages instead of Spanish, wear clothes that they fashion themselves, and stick doggedly to their own traditions. It might appear at first glance that this is all for the benefit of the tourists (who were surprisingly few, and even more surprisingly non-gringo), but my trips to Mayan villages confirmed the solidity of their traditions.
So does this mean I’m a complete hypocrite? Why do I get so much enjoyment from authentic Chiapanecan music? Why was I searching for it in the first place? Were my criteria for authenticity justified--or even justifiable? Was I fetishizing the Chiapanecans as exotic, or “other,” by looking for the unadulterated products of their cultures?
I’m not sure I’m ready to answer these questions yet. But I will say this--it’s in our nature, in our bones, to search for the authentic. We just can’t give it up. No matter how hard we try to get away from it, it will always come up.
And when we find authentic music, it will reward us if we let it. I’m posting below some authentic Chiapanecan music which I love, and which I hope you love too.
I should add one more thought first. I didn’t hear any truly inauthentic Chiapanecan music when I was there. But perhaps if I were to hear, for example, Chiapanecan rock or jazz or disco it would reward me just as much as this more authentic stuff. Maybe my touristic authenticity bent blinded me to some amazing Chiapanecan delights. The sad thing is that it’ll probably take another several thousand dollars for me to go back to Chiapas and find out.
First, three marimba bands, in chronological order:
Marimba Orquesta Reyna Frailescana de los Hnos. Garcia: Mi compadre
La Marimba Orquesta de los Hnos. Hernandez Villegas: La carcacha
Marimba Orquesta la Reyna Tuxtleca: Mesa que mas aplauda (el za za za)
Now, from Smithsonian Folkways’ Modern Maya: The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico:
And from XV Festival Maya Zoque (2005), a Tseltal group called Bapus from San Juan Cancuc, performing a song they call simply San Juan.