New Humming Bird Earth Series Releases

5 08 2009

JAVA (1997)

Sacred Gamelan Sekati of Yogyakarta
Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 1

Note: This music was recorded in open-air pavilions on basic equipment under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. Earth Series is releasing this material because of its uniqueness and general unavailability on the commercial market.

1. Kyai Gunturmadu July 13, 1997 – 10:30 PM (22:49) | 2. Kyai Nagawilaga July 15, 1997 – 11:00 PM (24:53) | 3. Kyai Gunturmadu July 16, 1997 – 9:00 PM (29:34)

listen to Java | Kyai Gunturmadu July 13, 1997

Buy JAVA (1997) Sacred Gamelan Sekati of Yogyakarta Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 1 – Henry Kuntz here…

Instrumentation – 7 tone pelog tuning Bonang Barung 2 rows of 14 knobbed gongs, plus one on each side of the main seated player: played by1 leading player and 1 or 2 additional players who sit on the opposite side of the instrument adding occasional ornamentation. Saron Demung, 2 Saron Ritjik, Saron Peking Metallophones of graded sizes suspended over wooden trough resonators: Each saron may be played by 1 or 2 players, the players sitting on opposite sides of the instrument.  Kempiang 2 knobbed gongs on a wooden stand: 1 player. 2 Tjempur small suspended gongs: 1 player. 2 Gong Ageng large suspended gongs: 1 player. Bedug large drum: 1 player.

On my initial visit to Yogyakarta, Central Java, in 1987, there was one type of gamelan music I did not hear anywhere. That was the unusual and extraordinary music of the ancient and sacred gamelan sekaten. Prior to my journey, I had heard this music on an LP Java / Historic Gamelans (UNESCO Collection, GREM G1004) recorded in 1970 by Jacques Brunet.

I hadn’t realized at the time that the music of that gamelan – Kyai Gunturmadu (the Venerable Torrent of Honey) – and that of its twin, Kyai Nagawilaga (the Venerable Fighting Serpent) is heard publicly only once each year – on the six days and nights that precede the Javanese celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammad.

On the evening before the public playing begins, the two gamelan sekati are played in the palace compound of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, then carried in procession to the outer courtyard of the royal mosque and placed in opposite pavilions. That is where they are played alternately from morning until late evening for the six days.

In 1997, I returned to Yogyakarta at the time of this celebration to immerse myself in the music of the two ancient gamelans.

What is so special about the music of the gamelan sekati?

It is played on the largest and loudest Javanese instruments, yet it is the slowest, most spacious, and perhaps most internally complex of any Javanese music. It is characterized by odd phrasings and intervals, strange rhythmic markings and interjections, and sharp punctuations both on and off the beat. At the same time, the music is deeply spiritual in intent and is profoundly moving.

Historically, since the 16th century, the gamelan sekati have been associated with religious ritual. This association was allowed by Java’s new Islamic rulers as a concession to indigenous Javanese culture; it was encouraged by them with the hope that the sound of the gamelan might help attract converts to Islam. The word sekaten itself, after which the festivities associated with the gamelans is named, derives from a word meaning a profession of faith in Allah.

Since the gamelans almost certainly existed prior to the arrival of Islam, one would think that music for the ensembles must have existed as well. One wonders if the playing of the gamelans might originally have been associated with the week-long harvest festival that took place in pre-Islamic Java, the timing of which was changed to coincide with the sekaten celebration commemorating Muhammad’s birth.

The origins of the present-day gamelan sekati instruments, however, only partly go back to the (pre?) 16th century. The two sets of gamelan instruments that were used for the first sekaten celebration belonged to what was then the central Javanese kingdom of Mataram. In 1755, under Dutch supervision, that kingdom was split into the two less powerful principalities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. As a result of the division, the Mataram heirlooms – which included the two gamelan sekati – were also split.

So Yogyakarta and Surakarta each inherited one of the original sets of gamelans, each set carrying the same honorific title of Kyai Gunturmadu. Each principality also constructed a second identical sekaten gamelan to go with the first. In Yogyakarta, that was Kyai Nagawilaga which was completed in 1757.

These are the gamelan sekati that are used today in the week-long celebrations that take place in both Yogyakarta and Surakarta.

Until now, the only recordings of the music of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati were made in 1970 – of Gunturmadu, one track on the previously mentioned (and out-of-print) Java / Historic Gamelans – and of Nagawilaga, one track on a CD released in 1995, JAVA, Palais Royal de Yogyakarta 3: Le Spirituel et Le Sacré (Ocura C560069), also recorded by Jacques Brunet.

There are also wonderful recordings from the 2001festival of the two gamelan sekati of Surakarta (one track each) by John Noise Manis. They are included on a CD Gamelan of Central Java II: Ceremonial Music (Dunya/Felmay FY8042). What one hears is that the Surakarta style of playing is different than that of Yogyakarta. It is lighter in tone with a different balance of nuances. Also, to go by one of the photos in the CD booklet, the Surakarta gamelan sekati appear to include some instruments not included in Yogyakarta.

Which leads to the reasons for the present release –

Originally, these were recordings I made for my own use and reference – what one might call basic “field recordings.” My decision to release them is because they reveal something fundamental about the music of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati that the 1970 recordings, as sonically and musically excellent as they are, do not.

These are the first released recordings of the Yogyakarta gamelan sekati in ritual use. The 1970 Brunet tracks brilliantly documented the sound, textures, and musical sense of the gamelans, with the compositions standing in high relief. The inherent time restrictions of the LP were perhaps perfect for that, but the tracks (at just over 17 and 13 minutes) are considerably shorter than nearly any of the performances I heard.

Brunet reports that in 1995 there were only fourteen musical compositions in the repertoire of the gamelan sekati. What one realizes on hearing the gamelans in performance is that for all their individual interest, the compositions are only a means, a medium if you will, for attaining and maintaining a finely tuned spiritual state. The compositions may be played for longer or shorter durations depending upon ritual need.

Further, the day-to-day use of the gamelan sekati instruments in performance affects the overall sound of the music. For example, when the bronze keys of the sarons (each key of which fits over two metal posts that jut out of the wooden troughs on which they sit) are continually struck by the players’ heavy lead-weighted buffalo horn mallets, there is a persistent metallic buzz (scarcely audible on the Brunet recordings) that almost begins to sound like the built-in buzz of a marimba.

Also, because until now there has been only one recording each of each Yogyakarta sekaten gamelan (i.e. no comparative recordings), we have not been able to get a sense of what we begin to discern on the present disc – how the character of each piece is determined to a large extent by the playing of the ensemble’s nominal leader, the player of the bonang.

Of the three pieces presented, we hear three different compositions led by three different players. Each leading player plays a similar introduction in terms of notes, but each one plays those notes with a different cadence and feeling. You would think this difference might be attributable to the compositions themselves, but my experience of hearing the players over several days suggests otherwise.

The peculiar aspects of each composition do not actually begin to assert themselves until several minutes into each piece – at around the 6th minute of the first piece, at around the 7th minute of the second, and at around the 10th minute of the third.

The first piece, played on Kyai Gunturmadu, moves into a heavenly, near ecstatic state of being. The simultaneous striking of various knobbed gongs, not unlike the use of the reong in Balinese music, contributes in no small part to this atmosphere. (Toward the conclusion of a piece played on Kyai Gunturmadu the previous evening, the sound of the gamelan was so incredibly strong yet sweet that the Javanese audience, thickly crowded around the pavilion, was smiling broadly and laughing in recognition of its power and charm.)

The second piece, on Kyai Nagawilaga, sustains a rarefied, near rapturous air, with an unusually high-pitched edge; it descends to earth with a precise, clockwork-like finish.

The third piece, on Kyai Gunturmadu, is the real gem of this collection. It is the final full-length piece of the six days – only an abbreviated 10-minute piece followed – played just prior to the royal attendants showing up to return the gamelan in procession to the Sultan’s palace.

The pavilion, the space between the two pavilions, and the entire surrounding area was dense with people. Many had come from villages near and far away to bathe in the spiritual sounds of the gamelan sekati and to participate in the festival’s grand finale the following day. (On that day, mountains of rice are carried from the Sultan’s palace and given away to the people who believe that partaking of the rice will bring prosperity and happiness.) So there was a pervasive murmuring and excitement in the air as the piece began.

The leader of this piece (pictured on the cover) I considered to be one of the great masters of this genre. He had the ability, as you can hear, to slow the music down to the point of inner stillness – like the stillness in the center of a Buddhist painting. But even as the music slows down – and it seems to slow down more as it moves along – it retains a high degree of complexity.

One keeps thinking that the music is going to settle somewhere, like into an ancient “groove” – but there are unexpected twists and turns, odd rhythmic accents, contrary beats, unusual stops, pauses, punctuations, and breaks in cadence. There is a point somewhere in the piece’s final minutes when the bonang and the sarons seem nearly to be moving in opposite directions. The effect of the whole is both musically masterful and deeply moving.

For me, this piece is the essence of what the music of the gamelan sekati is about. (Henry Kuntz, July 2009)

Recordings and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 2009 – All Rights Reserved

ADDENDUM: Since the release of JAVA (1997), a new CD, Gamelan Of Central Java XIV: Ritual Sound Of Sekaten (Felmay Records), has appeared, featuring comparative recordings from 2004 of the gamelan sekati Gunturmadu of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. There is one recording by each ensemble playing the same composition, Gendhing Sekaten Rangkung, said to be one of only two specifically composed for the sekaten gamelan. The two compositions date from the early Islamic period.

The playing styles and musical approaches of each group are remarkably different. The recordings by John Noise Manis are excellent.

The composition itself seems to be the same as that featured on piece # 2 of JAVA (1997) played by gamelan Nagawilaga.

BOLIVIA (1986)

Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums

Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 (Previously Earth Series Cassette 300)

Note: All of this music was recorded outdoors on basic equipment in “real life” circumstances, under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. It is to provide a small cultural looking glass into a world or worlds barely known to most of us that these recordings are presented. I hope they will encourage you to want to know more, to open your world up more to the many fascinating and diverse worlds around us.

Music from the Fiesta de la Invención de la Santa Cruz May 3, 1986

1. Group One (2:41) 2. Group One (2:25) 3. Group Two (3:22) | 4. Group Three (2:33) 5. Groups One & Three (10:09) | 6. Group Four (1:43) 7. Group One (5:20) | 8. Groups Two, Three & Four (8:30) 9. Groups Three & Four (8:50)

listen to Boliva | Group One

listen to Bolivia | Group Two – Alto Bamboo Flutes

Buy BOLIVIA (1986) Native Ritual Music from Italaque: Panpipes, Flutes, Drums Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 2 here…

Group One plays large single-row panpipes of seven different-length tubes each. Pieces 1 and 2 were recorded on the group’s arrival and departure from the small courtyard. Group Two plays 5-hole straight flutes, each some 2 feet long. Piece 3 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Three plays two sizes of 4-hole straight flutes, one approximately 2 feet long and the other closer to 3 feet. Piece 4 was recorded on their arrival in the small courtyard. Group Four plays relatively small single-row panpipes of different sizes with different-length tubes in groups of 6, 9, and 12. Piece 6 was recorded on the hill overlooking the town, as were all of the remaining pieces featuring all of the different groups.

Various types of drums and snare drums of all shapes and sizes can be heard prominently featured on all of these recordings.


The village of Italaque is set alongside a river in a high Andean valley some two to three thousand feet below the Bolivian altiplano (or “high plane”), itself some 12,500 feet above sea level. It is 25 kilometers northeast of Puerto Acosta, not far from the Peruvian border, on the eastern (and less-visited) side of Lake Titicaca. It is reached via an occasional (all day) truck ride from La Paz or by a seven to eight-hour foot path from Puerto Acosta, which is the way I and an Australian friend of mine, Patrick Hanson, arrived.

The native people of the region are Aymara-speaking, and for the feast of the “Discovery of the Holy Cross,” May 3, groups of musicians came to Italaque from several area villages to take part in religious and ritual observances. In Lynn Meisch’s Guide to El Dorado and the Inca Empire, where I first learned of this festival, she refers to the goings-on as a contest of sorts among groups of sikuri (zampona or panpipe) players previously trained in Italaque, but this seems to no longer be the case. At least in 1986, there were only two groups of sikuris— one played quite large panpipes and the other from Italaque played smaller ones— and there were three other groups which played straight wood (bamboo) flutes of varying types and sizes. Although the several groups frequently played their own music at the same time right next to each other, there was no apparent competition between them, at least none that was apparent to an un-acculturated outside observer. Rather, there was only a dizzying and outrageous mix of sound, of varying sorts and in varying chance combinations, never the same twice!

The festival took place on a high hill and precipice that overlooks the town. The hill, known as Calvario, was the site of a very small chapel and courtyard. Early in the day, each of five musical groups (except for the one from Italaque, the event’s organizers) took a place somewhere on the hillside below, performing their own ritual observances (including the drinking of an overpoweringly strong white grape brandy which they continued drinking intermittently throughout the day) and preparing themselves for the hours of playing to come. One by one, they moved rapidly up the hill, playing their panpipes, flutes and drums. Ritual prayers and playing took place in the small courtyard and chapel, the groups forming circularly and moving circularly, first this way and then that, as they played. They then filed out onto the precipice of the hill where they continued to play, with only short breaks, the remainder of the day.

Each of the groups was composed of some fifteen to twenty-five male musicians. They were dressed in different, though similar, costumes, presenting an array of colors. Some wore hats decorated with numbers of tall multi-hued feathers. One group used only flamingo feathers, making for a sea of soft pink. Two of the groups wore as well a type of “woman’s” wig, straight black hair pulled back with a single thick braid behind! The group with the flamingo feathers wore a type of open-front, thin white cassock, nearly dress-like at the bottom, on top of which they wore dark blue suit coats. By way of difference, the group from Italaque wore suits (or coats) and occasionally ties, and dress hats (!), while still another group wore the white cassocks, but without the coats, almost “oriental” looking.

Indeed, some of the music itself (tracks 3 and 4 e.g.) had a quality, an elegance even, not unlike a type of Japanese or Korean court music — highly stylized, insistent, and nearly trance-like in nature — music, like all of the music heard here, from a dimension far removed from itself as music alone. For here, unlike most native festivals, the music was the main event, it was not an accompaniment to anything other than itself. Its only connection to any ritual outside of itself was that it was this day of ritual that had brought it into being and it was responsible to it, but the music was played and entered into on its own terms. In the first instance, this was a musician’s festival.

The groups were, however, accompanied by various mythological and ritual characters. There were two men costumed in huge black-and-white condor feathers wearing a type of hood over the face with a small, rectangular mirror in the center, representing perhaps Inti, the sun, and also perhaps to ward off evil influences. There were other characters, more like “ritual humorists” (I borrow the term from Victoria Bricker who used it in Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas, University of Texas Press): a couple of masked and hooded personages with a type of ski-mask over their faces, devilish sorts with short rope whips and small bells (heard at various points in the recordings). The function of the “ritual humorist” is to add a certain levity, to poke fun at participants and bystanders, to alleviate or contradict the serious nature or thrust of any event and, frequently, to reinforce (by contrast) accepted community values. These types of characters are common at native festivals throughout the Americas.

When the groups had all paid their respects in the courtyard and chapel and had all finally moved out onto the small precipice, the music really took off. There were hours of interactions of sound, mixes and movements of color (from the musicians’ costumes and feather headpieces and the circular turning of the groups). It was like the wildest dream of sound, a perfect mix of the earthy and the ethereal, the tops of rugged Andean peaks and wisps of high altitude clouds readily visible in the distance. (Henry Kuntz, 1986)

(Note: Although I’ve mentioned that five groups took part in this event, two of the groups appeared to be from the same village and were similarly costumed and played the same music. So only “four” groups are represented on the recording. A sixth group, not represented on tape, appeared somewhat late in the day, playing in a style similar to Group Four, the group from Italaque.)

Recordings and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 1986/2009 – All Rights Reserved

For more photos and to read the complete story of Henry’s Journey to Italaque (Parts 1-4), go to Sax & Stories by clicking here…

The complete Humming Bird Records catalogue is available in my Record Shop here… and also via Metropolis | The Shop here…

Music and Ritual of the Modern Maya

23 02 2009



This piece was first published as a 20-page pamphlet in 1981. It included my drawings of the rituals and events described. This is the first time photos of any events appear along with the text. Because the Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula strictly forbid photographing their rituals, I purchased photos of ceremonial images from Chamula years later in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Who the photographer was or when the photos were taken is a mystery. To capture the feeling inside the church in San Juan Chamula, I made an abstract drawing, which is also included.

An original copy of Music and Ritual of the Modern Maya is on file at the University of California Berkeley library.

This journey had a tremendous influence on me as a musician. The ability of the indigenous musicians to create the moment, so prominent in the rituals I observed, was noteworthy. But it was the musicians’ sense of being profoundly in the moment of their creations, with no edge of performance, that affected me most. I had the sense that I would like to more overtly “ritualize” the manner of my own playing while at the same time expanding it conceptually – in short, to bring the feeling of earth-based traditions and innovation together in new and unique ways.

Henry Kuntz (2009)

In late February and early March of 1981, I traveled to Mexico in search of Indian music. From records available in the States, I was familiar with some of the music before I left and had an idea about where I wanted to go. I didn’t always find what I was looking for, but I found a lot, particularly in the state of Chiapas (bordering Guatemala) where I spent three days in different Indian communities during their carnival time.

My base in Chiapas was San Cristobal de Las Casas. With its location high in the mountains (at about 7000 feet) and the many Indians who come to market there every day, it’s one of the most colorful places I’ve been in all of Mexico.

There are a number of Indian villages in the area, their inhabitants all descendants of the ancient Maya and divided into two language groups, Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The largest Tzotzil-speaking group are the Chamulans, and their village of San Juan Chamula is the closest to San Cristobal de Las Casas. This is where I went for the first day of carnival which, for the Chamulans, is a celebration as much Mayan in tone as Christian. The celebration lasts for five days, a remembrance of the “five lost days” which occur at the end of the Mayan calendar and which are considered “unlucky.” For that reason, rituals and festivities take place to off-set any bad influences. (1)

  • (1) My experiences in Chiapas and particularly in Chamula were given new meaning by my subsequent reading of Victoria Bricker’s study, Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas (University of Texas Press, 1973). Using her work, I’ve included a series of explanatory footnotes, offering some insight into the symbolism of the rituals I saw. According to Bricker, “the dominant theme of the fiesta of Carnival in Chamula is one of war and conquest. All of the conflicts in which the people of Chamula have participated are telescoped into this one fiesta.” This extends to include “the domination of the Jews by the Romans and the crucifixion of Christ.” (Page 84)

I awoke at 6:20 in the morning the day the carnival began so I could catch the first bus to the village. There was a heavy, cold mist on San Cristobal, but people were already – coldly – walking about the streets and, despite the celebration, there were truckloads of Indians – Chamulans and the colorfully-clad-in-pink Zinnacantecans – arriving in the market area. From there, at about 7:30, I got into a VW bus (a camionetta) for the ride to Chamula. It only takes about twenty minutes, but the fog lifted and the sun came out shortly before we arrived.

In the center of the village is a large dirt plaza, in the middle of which were a number of people selling fruit and vegetables, radios with Mexican music playing from some of the stands or small tiendas along the sides.

The official ceremonies were already under way as small processions of people were entering the church, set back fifty yards from one end of the square. The processions included musicians with harps (which they carried on their shoulders), guitars, accordions, drums; and women with large clay goblets of heavily smoking incense. And in front of the church, as each group entered, rockets and very loud bombas were being set off. (2)

Inside the church, the atmosphere was otherworldly. The area was completely open, the floors were of a sky-blue tile with flower designs, on top of which were strewn large amounts of day-old pine needles which scented everything. The ceiling was high, and stretched overhead were three or four large banners, also with flower designs. (3) Pine trees whose branches had been stripped from the lower half stood on each side of the main altar area, and there were two along the right side of the church. Shining through large arched windows with half-foot square lattice work were two wide, thick rays of the early morning sun, set off and highlighted by the large amounts of incense being burned — and which made it difficult, if not impossible, to see from the back to the front of the church.

There were people in loosely formed groups here and there, each group with its own musicians. All of the musicians played the same song, but not together, rather in time with the needs of what group they were with. It was a slow to medium-tempoed chant-like tune, one of six basic melodies that accompany hundreds of Chamulan songs. (4) The many string sounds fell just out of synch with each other, both within each playing of the tune and throughout the church, the air filled with a gentle but pervasive counterpoint. There were a number of thin, white lighted candles stuck to the floor near each group which were replaced as they burned down. Near the back was a table with many vigil lights burning, and there were people kneeling or standing and praying, sometimes in an aloud incantation.

  • (2) “The symbols of war – flags, drums, trumpets, cannons, and fireworks – are important symbols of the fiesta ritual. Every major event is introduced and terminated by the setting off of cannons and rockets.” (Bricker, page 88)
  • (3) “The flower is the symbol of divinity in Chamula and is in this sense equivalent to the color gold and the halo in Christian symbolism.”(Bricker, page 88)
  • (4) See notes to BATS’I-VOM (see discography below).

As I had entered the church, two men had been standing chanting similarly in the church’s courtyard, and a woman seemed to be performing a healing of some kind on a man seated under a cross in the center of the yard.

Leaning against the wall behind the vigil lights was a tall, white cross reaching almost to the roof. To the left was an arched altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe, above which were small, flashing Christmas lights. Between the cross and the altar was a dark, mystical painting of some kind.

Every now and then, new groups with more musicians would enter, some people carrying large, square chests of dark or unfinished wood. And the women with their pots of smoking incense, which smelled very-much like the pine smell of the floor and very agreeable, would perform a ritual purification of the entire church (5), moving into the corners and around the sides where there were many statues of saints, including one of Saint John the Baptist, after whom the village is named.

Sometimes, groups of men would enter dressed in tall, black hats of monkey fur from which fell many half-inch wide ribbons of yellow, red, green. Their sandals were backed with a high, black leather piece, like the back of a boot, and they wore something similar to a tailcoat, with wide red and black stripes. On top of this, each man wore something a little different, like a triangular piece of material that came over the back and chest, usually of some lighter color. Sometimes, they would enter playing short, upturned metallic instruments, flat on the sides, that made a loud tone similar to a trumpet. (6)

  • (5) “God ‘eats’ only incense.” (Bricker, page 91)
  • (6) These men are the “Monkeys” who “take over the earth for the five days of Carnival when all kinds of evil spirits are said to appear to perform their awful and obscene deeds.” (Bricker, page 9) “Their costumes are almost identical to the uniforms worn by French grenadiers during the period of French intervention (in Mexico).” (Page 91) But the monkey symbolism is of greatest importance, the monkey being “symbolically equivalent to the ‘pukuh’ (evil spirit) and the ‘h’ik’al’ (Blackman)*… The ‘pukuh’ is black except for his red eyes and penis; (thus) black and red are the colors of the monkey impersonators’ jackets. The Monkeys “also represent demons or Jews, whom a Chamula myth describes as the murderers of Christ.” The Monkeys are also the fiesta’s main humorists. Some are officially associated with the fiesta, but “any man or boy may change his identity for a while, cease to be human, and indulge in animallike behavior (for the time of the Carnival) – the behavior of monkeys.” (page 93) The Carnival is a time “characterized by drunkenness, license, and obscenity.” (Page 9) (* The Blackman motif seems to be a survival of the battle between the Moors and the Christians in Spain. See page 155)

Outside, the rockets kept swishing through the air and the bombas bursting loudly. Often, the bombardiers would go scurrying frantically out of the church so as to set them off at the right time which, in addition to the entrances of each group, was when some of the rituals inside had been completed; and after which would be passed around small, brandy-size glasses full to the brim with posh or aguardiente, a clear, strong rum made in the village from sugar cane and used for all religious and social occasions. Everyone, men, women, and older children would drink.

Most of the men were dressed in their usual black or white woolen tunics tied with a belt, leather or material, at the waist. Their shoes were sandals or of very well-worn black vinyl without strings. The women wore skirts of black, with blankets of dark sky blue or turquoise wrapped about their shoulders in which small children were sometimes held or breast-fed. They usually wore no shoes.

The ceremonies involved the ritual undressing and dressing anew of the many statues of the saints inside the church. The new material was taken from the chests they had carried in. The musicians would play, some would stand by shaking rattles, and the new cloth would, piece by piece (and there were many for each statue), be passed by two of the men over one of the goblets of incense and then placed on the statue. Sometimes, the image would be shielded from view by another piece of cloth while this happened. The statue, however, was never completely stripped of its material; the old material was simply removed from under the new.

All the while, the music continued from everywhere, creating a pace and space of its own: the rattles, occasional long blasts of trumpets, incantations, shouts at the completion of parts of the rituals; the clouds of scented smoke rising from here and from there, and the swooshes and explosions of fireworks.

It goes on like this for five days and nights, other prayers and rituals being engaged in after the dressing of the saints. When I left the church, more than two hours later, there were ceremonies getting under way in the plaza. From a street to the left of the church came running some 200 men, most dressed in the tall, fur hats and red and black coats, though some with suits of all red (7) , and many carrying large, colored banners with flower designs. (8) Many of the men had the small metal, trumpet-like instruments which they blew in long tones against each other, and there were others, dressed in normal Chamulan garb, playing large drums and flute and one valveless trumpet (which looked more like an old bronze trombone without a “slide”). They came running into the square, stopping, about two-thirds of the group forming two lines and facing their banners, then continuing on. (9)

  • (7) The “outgoing” fiesta officials (those who have served to organize the community’s events during the previous year) all wear red. “Since in Chamula the color red symbolizes evil, all the fiesta personnel will have to run through fire at the end of the fiesta in order to purge themselves from the evil of having worn red themselves, or from having associated with others who have.” (Bricker, pages 90, 91)
  • (8) “The flag is the key symbol of this fiesta because it represents the spear which pierced the body of Jesus Christ.” The head of the flagstaff, hung with ribbons, is called “The Head of Our Father.” “The cloth banner and the ribbons represent the clothes of Christ.” (Bricker, page 88)
  • (9) “The men run in order” (in three groups, one for each of Chamula’s three barrios). “They are expected to maintain this order whenever they run, for the object of the running is not to ‘win,’ but to symbolize Christ running, with the Jews (Monkeys) in hot pursuit.” (Bricker, page 105) From time to time, the first group stops and waits for the second to catch up so that they can salute them by smacking their flags together. (Page 98)

In the center of the plaza, the market continued, though the people there, mainly women, stood to watch the festivities. The men continued running around and about the square, first in this direction, then that, stopping, saluting, this continuing for twenty to thirty minutes. And above the presidente’s office, on one side of the square, was a small balcony in which were seated thirty to forty men, dressed mainly in black with some red and wearing the black, fur hats with ribbons, and all looking very proper and serious.

After this, I talked with some men in the market place who were selling the Chamulan guitars. With the exception of the accordions they use, the Chamulans make all of their own instruments, both for themselves and other nearby villages. The guitars, like their harps and violins, are made completely of unfinished wood and are held together with some kind of glue. The sound produced is weak, the strings sound as if they’re loosely strung, but in fact they’re not, they’re strung at a normal tautness.

At 12:30, I got one of the camionettas back to San Cristobal.

The next morning, I was up early again, a little after 6:00. It was misty again, but distinctly warmer today. Near the market area, I caught an old school-type bus to the Tzeltal-speaking village of Tenejapa, and had the hour-and-a-half ride standing as the bus was already full when I got on.

Tenejapa is set in a beautiful, green valley just slightly lower than San Cristobal and 180 kilometers to the northeast. It’s more isolated than Chamula, and I felt a bit stranded here at first, being apparently the only outsider in the village.

On a small square where the bus left me off was the church, in totally dilapidated condition. The roof of the back end was off, and long boards and braces just inside the door were supporting its rear upper structure. Inside, the area was completely open, plaster falling from the walls and all over the floor. Small groups of two or three people were kneeling and sitting on their feet praying, chanting aloud, and lighting many rows of the same thin, white candles I had seen in Chamula.

This was also Sunday and the principal market day in Tenejapa. Its main street, a long, narrow, dirt street, was a sea of people. Vendors were sitting for blocks along its tiny sidewalks selling fruit, vegetables, popcorn, peanuts, dried red chiles, sweet bread, and soft drinks.

The men were dressed in long, black, woolen tunics with colorful shorts of black, red, or burgundy underneath, their tunics tied at the waist with belts of white and red. Their hats were wide-brimmed straw with a stubby, pointed crown from which fell in all directions half-inch wide ribbons of yellow, red, green, blue, purple. On their feet, if they wore anything, were shoes of worn, black vinyl or sandals.

The women wore skirts of navy blue or black, embroidered in red or white. Their blouses were white with attractive designs of red and black, and they tied wide red sashes about their waists. Around their shoulders were blankets of turquoise, and they wore sandals, tennis shoes, or other heavy shoes or had bare feet.

Some of the man, officials of the village, wore long necklaces, hung every few inches with medallions about the size of a peso which jingled when they moved.

Despite the crowdedness of the street and the amount of activity, it was largely very quiet. At its end, the street curved to the left towards a large, open field which was the end of another street parallel to the market. Here I heard the sound of rattles coming from a nearby house and saw people crowded about the door. I was uncertain whether to approach it or not when I heard from across the field the sounds of drums and flute and saw a small procession of men dressed in red with red banners, and the musicians.

They were led by a man dancing in a strange looking bull costume, which was little more than a boxed, straw enclosure with an opening in the front, horns on top, and a black tail. (10)

The group proceeded to the rear of a house not far from the house with the rattles, and I moved closer to observe. The man with the flute had one of the large, valveless trumpets with him, and he alternately played that and the flute, while the dancing bull continued moving about.

  • (10) The bull motif seems to be based on a parody of the Spanish bullfight. “In Tenejapa the Bulls are ritually killed on the last day of the fiesta.” (Bricker, page 172)

Then they stopped and began passing around bottles of chicha, a yellowish liquor made from sugar cane but fermented rather than distilled (as is the posh).

From there, the procession continued into the market area, where the dancing bull and the others stopped to obtain gifts of vegetables from many of the street sellers.

As the bull moved through the market, there were little boys who frequently tried to “lasso” it. The bull was followed by the musicians, who were followed by the men in red with banners, who were followed by four other men, two of whom were dressed in white and intoned a slow chant the whole way. The flute played a low-profiled, sliding and haunting melody, occasionally punctuated with half-toned trumpet blasts and to which the drums sounded a deep, dry and regular rhythmic accompaniment.

At the end of the market, the men walked to the steps of the church where prayers were said and music played, then back down the market street and up each side street.

Here they stopped at the intersections, many of which had small, stone crosses near the corners. The musicians knelt and played while the chanting continued. Finally, they returned to the open field and were led in procession around it by the dancing bull. They then stopped and more liquor was drunk. And by this time, perhaps an hour later, the group I had heard with the rattles had moved outdoors, and a crowd had gathered. So I walked over to see what was happening.

There were eight people dancing with rattles. Three or four of the men wore rubber, carnival-type masks, two men and one woman were without masks and dressed in the women’s garb I described earlier (11), and there was another man in a beige, furry-type mask.

  • (11) “Female impersonators are the ritual humorists of Carnival in Tenejapa… They dress as Indian women in skirts, blouses, and belts and are accompanied by men masked as Ladinos, in blue denim overalls, who pretend to be their husbands. In Tenejapa the female impersonators are called Dancing Ladies and the Ladino impersonators are called Ladinos. The female impersonators engage in sexual joking with the officials and spectators. The Ladino impersonators carry wooden knives and rifles with which they pretend to attack the spectators who try to touch their wives’.” (Bricker, page 172)

There were two musicians playing a highly rhythmic melodic line. It was a tune I recognized from the records I have at home. One man played a short, natural wood violin, dark with age, three strings only, flat at the end. He used a short, stubby bow, producing a generally weak, scratchy tone. The other man played one of the large Chamulan guitars, also dark and with only three strings operating. He played it upright as a bass, both men sitting in small, stool-type chairs with backs (these were also used by the musicians in the church at Chamula).

This gathering was one of high and, at times, vulgar if good-natured humor. Naturally, as an outsider, I became an easy and immediate target. “No tiene una camera, si?” said one man, and another said something in English about Washington which I didn’t catch, and they said other things, both in Tzeltal and Spanish which I didn’t understand, but which caused a great deal of laughter.

What followed was a lengthy two-man improvisation, one man with a rat-like mask with thick, black moustache and black eye patch, the other with a monster-looking mask, black “hair” on top, flesh on the bottom, large red lips, and protruding white teeth. They made hilarious fun of each other, gesticulating wildly, which had everyone roaring with laughter.

Every once in a while, I would glance into the field at the “procession,” now having been joined by more villagers dressed in red with banners. It seemed to be stopping more and more often, the men consuming larger and larger amounts of the chicha. Then they decided to run up and down the field, the drummers playing while running, led again by the dancing bull.

I watched them for as long as they did this, perhaps ten minutes, then wandered back into the market area. At 1:00 o’clock, I got one of the camionettas back to San Cristobal.

What I’m impressed with these two days in Chamula and Tenejapa is the way that music functions in these villages. It really has no life of its own. Rather, it is only part of a larger fabric, a religious and social context which it helps in part to make up but which is also its justification for being. This context is what the Indians refer to — almost reverently — as costumbre or “custom,” which is their manner of speaking of all which they perform and repeat as ritual. So the music operates in a very closed system and I’m struck, both in Chamula and Tenejapa, with the absolute similarity of the music I heard in the villages with the recorded music I have on LP, recorded some four to eight years ago. So there is no noticeable dynamic at work pushing the music to be anything else than what it already is or has been for many years.

Yet there was something absorbing and even unusual about it. The attractiveness of the melodies, for example, often belied their repetitiveness. And in the way in which the instruments combined and in the general scratchiness of their tone, there was an underlying rhythmic jaggedness to the music and implicit harmonic openness which generated a good deal of inner tension. Its seemingly preferred not-quite-specific time, pitch, and timbre within an otherwise entirely specific song form portended an explosion of sorts of its simpler, closed structures — not one likely to take place, by any means, but there by suggestion nonetheless. (12)

  • (12) Naturally, the music is specific to itself in terms of its own intonational preferences.

I’m also struck, in Chamula especially, with the power of the music in its own ritual environment, the way in which it functions as vibration alone, clearing a very pure space simply in its repetitiveness and repetition over a long period of time.

There is in it too a feeling, a feeling which comes out of a culture whose people literally have their feet on the ground. It translates as a deep self-assuredness, a self-completion in the music which exists totally without need of outside response (though it is, of course, in the context of the costumbre from which comes that other feeling of it being just a bit too settled, too comfortable, its rate of vibration remaining largely constant).

The next day, I took the 10:00 o’ clock bus to Venustiano Carranza, a small town of (I’m told) 38,000 people some two to two-and-a-half hours due south of San Cristobal. It’s very warm to hot here, but the town is hilly and set on a hill and you can still see mountains in some directions, so I have no idea of its altitude. The town is unique in that it has a large Tzotzil-speaking Indian population living immediately within its confines rather than in a separate village.

Carnival festivities were going strong as I walked into the square about 1:00 in the afternoon. A marimba band was playing and folks, masked and in home-made carnival outfits, were dancing. There was also a humorous skit of sorts that appealed mainly to the children.

This, however, was a town celebration rather than an Indian celebration, even though many Indian men (including some musicians who seemed to have played earlier) were also in the square. They wore all-white pants held at the waist by a red sash, and white tops which hung over the pants and on which were rows of busy geometric designs interspersed with ones of flowers or animals. And they wore straw cowboy hats and leather sandals.

I realized, though, that I would have to go elsewhere to find what music I was looking for, and one of the men pointed me in the direction of the Indian barrio.

Even though I approached the task at hand without too much initial hope, I almost immediately came upon a small parade of men dressed in white, including two musicians, and a number of teen-aged and younger boys in shaggy carnival outfits and home-made masks of rubber, wood, or cardboard. Some of the masks, especially the wooden ones, were quite elaborate and old with old men-type faces.

The group proceeded up a small alleyway to a backyard, and I followed, being assured by one of the men that it was alright. Here I learned that the carnival celebration was in its third and final day, and I realized that a number of the participants were fairly drunk. The music here, of guitar and violin, was of special interest, certainly the freest music I heard in Mexico in any harmonic sense and, in that way, the most unorthodox. Here again, though, the structures were completely pre-prescribed and the music very similar to some of the recorded music I had heard from this town.

The two instrumentalists worked in widely different, if complementary, musical spaces, the guitar providing a low, relatively fast, and roughly chorded rhythm while the violin (played upright) moved circularly through a much higher-pitched melodic line, cutting sharply through it with a sandy, slightly sour, tone.

So there was more of a pulling this way and that which, if it had been pulled just a bit more, might have quite thoroughly blown the whole musical cover. As it was, it was a highly rhythmic music, though to some ears the pulse would have sounded ragged and subtle.

But people danced to this music, jumping up and down to it the same as you might see at any party in Berkeley or San Francisco. (13) But when I say “people” danced to it, what I mean is that the men, the carnival-attired men (boys), danced to it. There were no women involved in these festivities, though there were many ten to twelve-year old girls about, and younger boys too, and several married women.

  • (13) This actually seemed to be a variant of one of the Old Men type dances common throughout Mexico, and several of the participants danced stooped over canes. Although sometimes performed to ridicule the Spanish, the prototype of the dance is “clearly pre-Columbian in origin, having affinities with the Aztec dance of hunchbacked old men.” (Bricker, page 201)

The women were attractively attired — in long, straight dresses of navy blue, beautifully and quite elaborately embroidered in designs of bright pink, yellow, green, blue. The designs were at the bottom of the skirts and at the sleeves, while rows of light-blue geometric patterns set against white decorated the bodice. Sometimes, they wrapped brightly colored blankets about their shoulders, of green, yellow, orange, black.

But here, as was also the case in Chamula and Tenejapa, all of the official celebrating seemed to be done by the men only, though at Chamula the women did take part in the ceremonies in the church.

The ceremonies here were also the most “secular” of any of the costumbre I encountered, though there were likely other religious ceremonies that I missed. Apparently, the procession of musicians, men, and masked participants had been making various house calls for each of the three days of festivities, and after an hour or more at this house — and a good amount of passing of bottles of “posh” (which I shared) — the procession began again to go somewhere else.

We wound our way further into the barrio, leaving behind the paved streets and walking up and down dirt pathways into some scenic and mildly tropical hill country with houses of adobe and thatched or clay roofs.

At our next stop, the music began again and there was more dancing, some of the neighboring families coming nearer or standing outside of their houses to observe. Sometime after 5:00 o’clock, I left. I was glad to have had the opportunity to hear some of the music from here first-hand and, once again, to be able to get a sense of its context. Yet here, as in the other villages, there were similar formal constraints; also, as part of the celebrations, a general overuse of alcohol and implicit belief in its necessity as a social glue and means of release from ordinary consciousness.

In all of this, as in all of the rituals I encountered in Mexico, there was great power to create the moment and much, by implication, in the music. Yet here and elsewhere, the feeling of insularity of the cultures was continually present, simply as a quality or tone or inner resonance of the music and rituals.

So, for me, in the end, the rituals became demystified. I saw them, as I felt they were seen in the communities themselves, as more ordinary rather than extraordinary events. And that, paradoxically, is a good part of both their strength and weakness: there is a real and shared clarity of context (earthen in tone) which, when it is fully able to penetrate itself, becomes its own inherent self-completion; but which, when it is not, remains little more than captive to its ages-old self-imposed limitations.

Text, Drawings, and Photos Copyright Henry Kuntz Jr.
Thanks to Martha Winneker for help in editing the manuscript.


  • Modern Maya:The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico, Volumes 1 and 2 (Ethnic Folkways FE 4377 and FE 4379). High quality, on location, stereo recordings by Richard Alderson.
  • BATS’I-VOM (NA-BOLOM DISCO NO. 2). Disco No. 2 features music of Chamula while Disco No. 1 offers selections from other area villages. Available from NA-BOLOM, Centre de Estudios Cientificos, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. (Disco No. 1 may be out-of-print. My copy is also packaged identically to and with the notes for Disco No. 2.)
  • FOLK MUSIC OF MEXICO: Music of the Cora, Seri, Yaqui, Tarahumara, Huichol, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal (Library of Congress AFS L19). Recorded and edited by Henrietta Yurchenco. This is a record I’ve only recently come across. It contains five pieces from the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indian areas, although specific villages are not identified. The recordings were made in 1945, and particularly instructive is a comparison of the third of the five pieces with the same piece as it appears on band 2, side 2 of NA-BOLOM DISCO NO. 1. Although the flute line — over a period of thirty years — remains virtually the same, with minor pitch variations, the differences in feeling between the two pieces and, particularly, in rhythmic emphasis and placement are significant. Note also the unusual simultaneous flute and trumpet lines on the second of the five pieces.
  • For this journey, I consulted Mike Shawcross’s City and Area Guide to San Cristobal de Las Casas.