Musical Ancestries™: Central America

Sophia, Fernando, Eva and Carlos had the greatest music teacher EVER!  Señora Cruz taught at a university in San Jose, Costa Rica, and also coached their marimba group, Los Estudiantes. Through her, they’d learned how to read music, music theory, and how to play marimba and percussion instruments. They worked hard and began to be noticed at local music festivals.  So Señora Cruz put their group up on social media, and the invitations started coming in.

Señora Cruz wanted her students to be aware of how every country’s voice is shaped by its history and culture.  She explained, “This ‘Big Blue Marble’ – Earth – is a living thing that is home to us humans.  Ever since we lived in caves as hunters and gatherers, we’ve learned how to adapt, and how to express ourselves through art – starting with cave drawings and music.

“Finding we could do more if we worked together, we formed tribes, then larger groups of native (or indigenous) peoples.  The art and music reflected the culture of each place that we gathered. Over many centuries, communities grew into countries, each with its own unique cultural heritage, reflecting each group’s individual art.”

“We’ve also moved (or been moved) to other places in the world. When that happened, each group’s own cultural heritage became part of the “new” community…like a beautiful colored thread woven into one huge piece of cloth.”

The students were wide-eyed.  They’d never really thought about what made their own music and art so unique.  “Is that why we hear so many stories about the Mayans in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras?”  “Yes, Sophia, and we see the Mayans’ influence there.  Here in Costa Rica, we have influences from our own ancient indigenous peoples – the Cabécar, Maleku and Borucas, plus later influences – like African and Caribbean.”

“We live in ‘Latin America’, but what is that, exactly?”  “It’s Mexico, Central & South America…where the Spaniards settled.”  “Excellent, Fernando!  Class, can you name all seven Central American countries?”  They all chimed in, “COSTA RICA! Belize! Guatemala! El Salvador! Honduras! Nicaragua! And…Panama!” “Yes!”

“Central America has a huge number of cultural influences, from as far away as Europe and even Africa. Many cultures blended with indigenous peoples who were already here, and the cultural heritages are reflected in the rich exciting music, dance and art, which is different in each country.”

“So, my brilliant ‘Estudiantes’, where’s the best place to experience Central American music?”  Silence. “Where’ve you’ve been playing?”  “MUSIC FESTIVALS!”   “Exactly!  And I have a huge surprise!  Your parents have given you permission to play in three of the best music festivals in Central America – in Belize, Panama and Costa Rica!”  The class erupted.  “Really?  Seriously?!?”

“Yes! So, we’re going to learn about the music, history and traditions of those three countries.  But we’re also going to research the other four countries as well.  Each of you will take a country, learn about it, and then share.  It’s an incredible opportunity to appreciate our Central American cultures all the more!  Ready?” “READY!”

Señora Cruz began “BELIZE is a true melting pot with an incredibly rich heritage. The Mayans are indigenous to Belize, plus other countries.  Cave drawings show them playing instruments like trumpets and rattles.  But there’s much more…”

“Over the centuries, Belize was a subject of Spain, then Britain, and then other Europeans came, adding their musical influences to Belizean music. Creoles and the Mestizo people also contributed their music. “Gosh, that’s a LOT!” said Eva.

“Yes,it is, but there’s one more culture that’s probably the most important in Belizean music…the Garifuna people.  Originally from South America, the Arawak and Carib Indians moved to St. Vincent’s Island in the Caribbean. In the 1600s, two Spanish ships carrying hundreds of enslaved West Africans sank nearby, and those survivors also merged into the Garifuna culture.  Over the next 200 years, political unrest threatened to wipe out everyone on the Island.  In the 1800s, many Garifuna relocated and settled in Belize as an independent nation.

“Because of this very complicated history, UNESCO declared the Garifuna culture to be a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.   Garifuna music contains Afro-Indian, Hispanic, and English Creole influences, but probably its most distinctive element is Garifuna drumming.  The drums, made from local hardwoods and covered with the skin of a wild pig or deer, and are often played with siseras or shakka, a type of maraca in a style steeped in African origins.”

“Two types of drum, the primero (tenor) and segunda (bass), provide rhythms and polyrhythms for ceremonial dances.  The music often includes call and response chanting which overlaps, creating a constant stream of sound.  Some Garifuna tunes are simply for listening…and are sung with gentle strumming.  Garifuna styles can include drums, banjo, accordion, guitar, and a donkey’s jaw bone (played like a saw or zither), and Mestizo styles add marimba, double bass, and drum sets.

“Other popular Belizean dances are: cumbia (related to salsa and merengue), and a Creole style called brukdown (breakdown – a sort of calypso with percussion).  Brukdown’s newer form (boom and chime) features electric guitars, congas, and bass guitars. There’s also paranda –related to punta and punta rock, developed for social events.  Punta’s traditional rhythms and dance steps mix with modern lyrics, and it sounds very similar to reggae.”

“Like all of Central America, Belize has year-round religious festivals (mostly Roman Catholic), with the largest ones at Christmas, New Year’s and Semana Santa, which is Holy Week.  But I think the one you’ll be most interested in is The Battle of the Drums at the Belize Garifuna Music Festival in Punta Gorda. THIS is the festival you’re playing in November, along with some of the best drumming groups in Central America!”

Señora Cruz also arranged for them to stay three extra days for Garifuna Settlement Day, which celebrates Belize’s founding with music, drumming and reenactments.  There’s also a lively procession, Yurumein (Homeland) that celebrates the culture’s history with drumming and singing.  What an incredibly exciting few days for them all!

The students then began studying Belize’s neighbors to the west and south, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Sophia reported on GUATEMALA. “Its popular musical styles – like cumbia, salsa, bolero, rock and pop – are shared by most Latin American countries.  Rock and hip hop came from the USA and New York City, but Guatemala also enjoys bachata and merengue from the Caribbean.”

“I learned traditional Guatemalan music shares Mayan and Garifuna background like Belize.  They have traditional dances that tell stories, with names like Monkey Dance, Dance of the Deer, Cowboy Dance, and Dance of the Mexicans.  But I thought you’d like to know that one of THE most significant things about Guatemalan music is the marimba!  Its ancient roots go all the way back to Africa.  An instrument known as a balafon was originally made from wooden bars and gourds for resonators.  Over the years, it’s evolved in different ways through many different cultures.”

“Guatemala’s national instrument is the marimba. Having embraced it many centuries ago, the Mayans still use it in their cultural ceremonies, but it has an even deeper meaning for them.  Ever since the Spanish came to Guatemala 500 years ago, Mayans have been discriminated against. The marimba is the Mayans’ symbol of resistance. It allows them to express their culture through music, and that shows that they will not be dominated, no matter what.”

“Most of Guatemala’s festivals are religious holidays, but they have one incredible example of art blending with faith…the tradition of villages creating “alfombras” (or carpets) of artwork made from sawdust, fruits, flowers and different materials.  They are breath-taking – just look at these pictures!”  The other students were amazed by the beautiful, colorful designs, and applauded Sophia for her fabulous report.

Fernando researched EL SALVADOR. “The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, it has many cultural influences, including the Cuzcatlan and Lenca, the indigenous peoples from El Salvador and Honduras.”

“El Salvador’s popular music is mainly salsa, Salvadoran cumbia, and hip hop.  Lots of their popular music is played on the xylophone…which is also considered a folk instrument…and there’s a marimba de arco, which got its name because it’s curved in an arch and played by hanging the instrument around the player’s neck.

“Their folk music includes xuc, danza, pasillo, marcha and canciones, but my favorite was xuc!” said Fernando.  “The name “xuc” comes from an antique Salvadoran wind instrument called a “JUCO”…but I didn’t have any luck finding a picture of one.”

“El Salvador’s also known for its chanchona music, named for an instrument that’s from the low hills of Morazán.  They fit a double bass with a media caña, a cylinder made from tin cans filled with pebbles or seeds, and they sound like rattles.  Originally, canchona was played by two violins, two guitars, and the canchona bass, but the Modern style adds in accordions and percussion. The lyrics talk about “campesino” – the farming life.”

Fernando continued, “Another dance I really liked is ‘Zafacaite’, and it’s similar to a fandango. Its name comes from two words – zafa (loosen) and caite, a Salvadoran term for shoes.  I thought its name was funny, because the fast dance steps make your shoes fly off!  Zafacaite is usually played by trio of guitar, accordion, and violin, and it’s always fast!”

Most of El Salvador’s religious feasts are celebrated with tubular bells and chimes.  There’s also a real popular non-religious festival, Fiestas Agostinas, in August.  In San Salvador, the capital, a marching band wakes the whole city up at 4 in the morning! The rest of the day is filled with parades, sports, food, and art exhibits…and LOTS of music!  It sounds like a total blast!”  The class agreed, applauding Fernando’s report.

Eva spoke next. “I had HONDURAS.  The most popular forms there are punta,

Caribbean salsa, merengue, and reggae.  Most of these we already know, but the Honduras Punta is also called “banguity” by the Honduran folk dancers. (The term means means “new life”.)  It flows directly from the Garifuna tradition.”

Eva continued, “Hondurans really must love to party!  They celebrate all year long with colorful festivals and Ferias Patronales (Patron Fairs), where each town has its own customs and traditions.  In February, thousands travel to Tegucigalpa to pay reverence to the Patron Saint of Honduras, the Virgin of Suyapa, celebrating with the alborada (dawn chorus) plus music, fireworks and traditional foods.  Other celebrations are scattered throughout the year, but two really stood out.”

“In April, the Bay Islands and north coast of Honduras celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day – like the Settlement Day we’ll see in Belize! The Garifuna festival is said to ‘pop and hum’ with their distinctive music and dancing…it just sounds like such fun!”

“The second festival is so big, it goes for two whole weeks in June!  Feria Juniana, in San Pedro Sula, honors the city’s patron saint, Peter the Apostle.  It’s a month of art exhibits, folk dances, carnivals, fireworks, and concerts.  I want to go sometime when I get older…maybe when we graduate we could all go together!”  The class laughed and agreed, clapping for Eva’s information and her great planning.

Carlos reported last.  “I’m glad you mentioned the Garifuna in Honduras, Eva, because NICARAGUA’s another country that’s associated with the Garifuna. Like Punta in Honduras, the Nicaraguan version is very similar, especially in its dance movements.”

“But since we’re all into marimbas, I thought you’d like to know that marimba is so popular there, it’s the national instrument…but they play it differently!  Get this – Nicaraguan marimbas are played with the performers sitting and holding the instruments on their knees!  Wild, huh?”

“Nicaragua has both Caribbean – “Carib” – and European influences. They have a Maypole dance “Palo de Mayo”, and a Mayo Ya festival on the Caribbean coast, which welcomes the rain and the harvest with music and dancing.”

“Many Nicaraguan festivals are Christian, but not all. The city of Masaya, cradle of national folklore, celebrates the Procession of the Agüizotes and the Gran Torovenado del Pueblo.  Both are based on myths, legends and superstitions…which sounded super-cool to me. I bet we’d have fun there, too, after graduation!”  The class clapped for Carlos, laughing and buzzing about their graduation plans.

Señora Cruz agreed that a graduation trip together was a terrific idea, but reminded them that since they were all 12, graduation was still a little way off.  “But in the meantime, let’s explore PANAMA.  Its musical contributions are huge and include the usual styles, but there’s also jazz, saloma, pasillo, tamborito, mejorana, bolero, calypso and xuc.”

“Many of the folk traditions come from the heartland, the Azuero Peninsula. One of these is the Panamanian Típico Dance, with beautiful costumes and choreography.   In folk music, the accordion is one of the most important instruments, as well as the mejoranera and bocana (five- and four-stringed guitars), tambores (wooden drums), and guáchara (played by running a stick across carved notches).  Singing is a large part of folk music, and one style, saloma, is similar to yodeling. When the folk music is mixed with upbeat rhythms and pop forms, it’s called, música típica.”

“Live folk music in Panama almost always involves dancing. The most famous dance, el tamborito, is rhythmic and drum-based.” Sophie’s hand shot up. “Señora Cruz, my Lita (my Grandma) is from Panama and she taught me el tamborito!  She has a hand-embroidered pollera dress, and Grandpa’s embroidered shirt and sombrero pintado, the traditional painted hat. They’re gorgeous!”  “They must be, Sophia!  And that’s a perfect example of how music and art become such a large part of everyone’s heritage!  You’ll have to teach us all el tamborito.”

“They have big carnivals in Panama – like the Carnival of Panamá and the Carnival of Las Tablas…  And there’s The Tribal Gathering where sixty tribes from around the world come see international musical acts, tribal bands and indigenous musical projects. As for folk dance, the Festival de la Mejorana is HUGE!”

“But the one I think you’ll be most interested in,” said Señora Cruz, “is the Festival Nacional del Manito Ocueño, because this is the one you’re playing!  It’s been officially declared The National Folk Festival of the Republic of Panamá!”  The class had no idea. What an honor to have been invited to play!

Los Estudiantes saved COSTA RICA for last!  By now, they’d studied so much about the rest of Central America’s music and culture, they saw their own music in a completely different light!  They knew that today’s most popular Costa Rican music combines rock, Latin sounds, jazz and traditional folk music, and they were familiar with the popular styles as well as calypso, soca, and merengue.  They also loved the dances that went with those styles.

“Our folk music uses several unique instruments that set it apart from other traditions,” Señora Cruz began. “One is the ocarina, an ancient flute-like instrument shaped like a sweet potato. But the Costa Rican ocarina, known as the dru mugata, is unique because it’s made of beeswax!  There’s another traditional wind instrument, similar to the oboe, called the chirimia, which you’ll also find in South America.”

“One particularly unique folk instrument is the quijongo.  It’s a 55-inch tall wooden bow that has a metal string stretched between its two ends. A gourd sits in the middle of the string, and is a resonator.  Musicians create tunes by hitting the metal string with a stick and using their fingers to cover holes in the gourd.  There are variations of this instrument in different regions.  But if you really want a taste of Costa Rica’s original folk music, visit Guanacaste province. You can actually hear ancient pre-Columbian style of music played with ocarinas and quijongos.”

Señora Cruz continued, “There’s another important festival called the Fiesta or Danza de los Diablitos (Little Devils’ Dance), held by the Boruca people.  Celebrating their Ancestors, the festival depicts an historic three-day battle between the Boruca Indians and the Spaniards.  Only Boruca men participate, dressed as ‘diablitos’, each wearing a wooden mask that he carved himself.  One man dresses up as a bull, representing the Spanish Conquistadors. (Spoiler alert!) The Diablitos always win, just as they did in real life, centuries ago.”

“And finally, class, here’s the one you’re playing in October…Limón Carnival!  Held in the city of Limón on the Caribbean coast, it showcases our Costa Rican culture with a full week of music, activities, regional foods, and exhibits of local artists.  A Carnival Queen is crowned on the first day, and a Children’s Parade features gigantic handcrafted masks. The Dia de las Culturas, honors all the local cultures, including the Spanish, African, Chinese, Italian and indigenous peoples.  There’s singing, dancing and calypso.”

Wow! THIS was the event that Señora Cruz had arranged for them to play!  “The Day of the Cultures!”  How perfect after all they’d learned about Central America’s music and cultural heritage!

Nothing would ever be quite the same for the four students again.  Music, the language of the world, had changed their lives forever, and they recognized it.  They gathered around their teacher, surprising her with a lovely blooming plant and a note that read, “Thank you, Señora Cruz, for helping us discover our cultural heritage – and ourselves – through music. You are part of our hearts forever.”  Signed, Los Estudiantes.