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Pre-Hispanic Music Made Today in Mexico

Updated on July 16, 2009

This fantastic photo is by Gordon Murray

Indians in regional dress and early instruments.  Webphoto by  Gordon Murray
Indians in regional dress and early instruments. Webphoto by Gordon Murray

The Group, Tribu, uses instruments from nature

Pre-Hispanic music, made in Mexico.

Many years before Johann Sebastian Bach was pulling the strands of the Baroque period’s music together in Germany, and writing such classics as the Brandenburg Concertos, or the magisterial Fugue in D Minor, and playing the organ or early piano, people wearing animal skins and grass skirts were making primitive instruments and music in Mexico.

Long before the harpsichord, stringed instruments and woodwinds, early Hispanics were making music using rocks, shells, hollow logs, animal-skin percussion instruments and more.

From the sketchy information about the early Mexican Indians, such as the Aztecs, historians and modern musicians have pieced together the designs of many of their instruments, such as they were, and even composed and recorded music that must be remarkably like that which they played.

One such group, leaders in the field, are TRIBU - the word means “Tribe.” Their mandate - and challenge - for years has been to attempt to create the music heard all over Mexico before the Conquest in the early 15th Century.

This is an enormous task, as Augustin Pimentel, member and spokesperson, ruefully informed me during an interview with the group. “We have had to examine all the ancient codices,” he said. “We have even found primitive musical scores painted on archaic ceramics.” “In other ancient scrolls, we have found crude drawings and a few words describing the instruments they used, the materials and, in a few cases, how to make them.”

Five troubadours make up Tribu (pronounced tree-boo), they came together in the seventies with the idea of researching the music of the ancient Indian cultures. They travelled endlessly around the huge Mexican Republic, talking to indigenous musicians and the elders of many tribes, all who contributed the scraps of information that were still available after the mindless destruction by the Spanish Inquisition.

Upon their return, after several years of wandering, they established a workshop and set about the construction of the startling array of instruments they use today.

As it did up to 5,000 years ago, much of what is used comes straight from nature: turtle shells, deer antlers and stones that form part of the percussion section. Huge sea-shells, such a cowry and conch, both mono and bi-valve, are blown, producing melodious horn or trumpet sounds. The hollow-tree drums of the Nahuatl and Maya tribes, still found today, were faithfully copied, even down to the peculiar motifs which adorn them.

When I was in Mexico, Tribu entertained regularly in the world-leading Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park. I asked Pimentel what language they used in the songs that accompany some of the melodies. He smiled. “There are at least 56 distinct dialects from which we draw inspiration, but the most common is that still spoken by many rural Indians today, Nauhuatl.”

Tribu has toured Europe and the US several times: each time they go, they end up staying much longer than they intended, as there is much interest in the music and instruments. “We also arrange sound and light shows here and abroad,” Pimentel said.

I wondered what the hardest part of bringing this music and instruments to the 23rd Century has been. “The hardest part for us,” Pimentel informed me, “was tracking down the design of the instruments so we didn’t leave too much to guesswork.” The group located many instruments in museums throughout the country and sought permission to copy the design or borrow them. Few museums complied with the lending suggestion, as the instruments were so old, fragile and rare, but many designs were copied. Now, the group has a school where the music and words are taught, as well as making the unique instruments. They also have recordings available on cd’s Pimentel admits technology in the studio does add some depth and mystique with the uses of synthesizers.

As well as music and choral addition, the group also feature regional dances, which Pimentel says survived better than the music and instruments: they add professional, regional dancers to produce these numbers. When I was there, Tribu also sold some copies of the instruments they used and provided basic instruction on how to play them. That might win you some Brownie points back in the pub in the Elephant, or the neighbourhood bar in Peoria. Just might not be the approval you seek, though. One can only take so much of a legless wannabe banging on a turtle shell!

As well as the instruments already mentioned, pre-Conquest Indians also used clay, bone, reed or wooden flutes; notched deer and HUMAN bones; whistles, clay gourds and bone rattles as well as some obscure instruments consisting of metal discs held between two pieces of wood. (I expect the high priest kept a nice paradiddle going to all this on the odd human skull, or two). They were also aware of the technique of obtaining differing drum sounds from vessels containing a varying amount of water.

Pimentel explained that each area employed a different kind of instrument or a variation on a common theme (such as whistles or rattles). He said the group is still getting information on other instruments they used, but, no, only Bach used the harpsichord!

If you do visit Mexico City, contact the Museum of Anthropology, which you will probably want to visit anyway, to find out about Tribu’s latest schedule.

You can also see a (bad) video of a group calling itself TRIBU on U-tube. I will not comment, except to say I don’t think they are the originals.

I would like to dedicate this hub article to Jorge Reyes, Mexican folk musician, who died earlier this year in Mexico City of a heart attack at 53.


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    • profile image

      Anne 7 years ago

      Where can I find CD's of this music?


    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 8 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi Arturo: You're right, and it's world-wide. Sadly, it may be the internet and TV that is turning us all into carbon-copies of one another; it also gives us the opportunity to discuss the situation! I was commenting in a new hub called "Sip of a Complex Broth" that awful North American fast-food, has replaced delicious, nutritious Mexican snacks.

      I suppose we have a lot to thank the gringos for, and much to condemn them.

      Viva Mexico! R.

    • profile image

      Arturo 8 years ago

      Excelent hub! I was just wandering through the net searching for some info about prehispanic music. I'm a mexican teenager and unfortunately my country's more interested in false new customs instead on relying in many beautiful ancient ones and so it's difficult to find something REALLY deep about the topic. So thanks for giving out some nice info about this.