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Peter Crossley-Holland

Ancient musical instruments from western Mexico

We are most grateful to Ethnomusicology PhD student at Bangor University CHRISTINA HOMER for this valuable introduction to the collection and work of Peter Crossley-Holland (pictured), a unique ethnomusicologist whose story is outlined at the end of the article...

Pic 1: Scene featuring several figures circling a central person playing a drum. Nayarit, late preclassic
Pic 1: Scene featuring several figures circling a central person playing a drum. Nayarit, late preclassic (Click on image to enlarge)

Bangor University in north Wales is home to a number of collections, which have been built up over the last 150 years as research collections. There are the usual collections of geology, botany, natural history, and there is the collection of musical instruments from prehispanic Mexico.
This collection comprises 329 musical artefacts. They are all from the Western part of what is now Mexico. The cultures which they represent were not part of more central and influential cultures like the Nahua (Aztec) and Maya, although they did have some connections. One of the cultures represented in Bangor’s collection is Purepecha (which used to be called Tarascan) which originates in the area now called Michoacán. Another is the Huichol of the mountainous border of Nayarit and Jalisco. Both cultures are alive today, with groups of indigenous people performing their prehispanic music and traditions in these places. As well as representing a large geographic area, the objects span a time period of more than 5000 years. The earliest objects are from the pre-classic era (approximately 3000BC) and the most recent are from around the time of the Spanish invasion in the 1520s.

Pic 2: (For detailed notes, see below...)
Pic 2: (For detailed notes, see below...) (Click on image to enlarge)

Most of the artefacts are made from clay. About two-thirds of the collection are musical instruments. The remainder are models showing people playing musical instruments. Some of the sculptures of musicians cleverly contain musical instruments themselves! Distinct styles of ceramic art can be seen: the plump dog-shaped ocarinas (ex, pic 2 left) are from the area that is now the modern state of Colima; Nayarit sculptures typically show intricate costumes; artefacts from Jalisco use particular pigments. There are several conch shells which have been shaped and carved to be turned into musical instruments. There are also a few “conch shell” trumpets which are actually made from clay, but are very accurate replicas of the conch shell shape. There are two flutes made from bird bone. There are also a few percussion instruments made from shell or metal.

Pic 3: (For detailed notes, see below...)
Pic 3: (For detailed notes, see below...) (Click on image to enlarge)

There were no string instruments in Mesoamerica before the Spanish invasion, so all of the instruments, except for a few percussion instruments, are wind instruments. Most of the wind instruments are what we would call ocarinas and flutes. Ocarinas (pic 3) are instruments which have a round, hollow body. When they are played, air is blown though a mouthpiece and duct into the hollow body, and the air circulates before exiting via a vent. Flutes are instruments in the shape of a tube. Air is blown through a mouthpiece at the top of the instrument, and travels down the tube before coming out the other end. On the way down, the air vibrates in a column. The difference in movements of air travelling through the instrument, vibrating in different ways, results in different sounds from ocarinas and flutes. These differences affect things like the volume (how loud or quiet the instrument is) and the timbre (the quality of the sound). The size of the instrument affects the pitch of the note it produces - large instruments have lower pitches than smaller ones. The pitch can be varied with the addition of finger holes. For the instruments at Bangor, the most common number of finger holes for both flutes and ocarinas is four, but there are also instruments with three, two, one and no finger holes.

Pic 4: Figurine playing a rattle. Nayarit
Pic 4: Figurine playing a rattle. Nayarit (Click on image to enlarge)

In Western classical music, tuning is used to make standard pitches across all instruments. Any recorder which you buy will produce the same pitches as all other recorders. With the Mexican instruments, the pitches are different for each instrument, and they also don’t behave in consistent series like Western scales. Taking this information, and looking at contemporary indigenous music, we can assume that pitch was not such an important factor in music. Other things, such as rhythm and sound effects, were probably more important.
For the people who played these instruments, the music was probably inextricably linked to other parts of their culture. Most of the instruments have decorations, and great care must have been taken to hand-make them. This suggests that the instruments were used in special circumstances, as part of a religious or cultural celebration or event. The sculptures of musicians show decorated costumes, headdresses (ex., pic 4) and jewellery. This suggests that the role of musician held high status; perhaps as a religious leader.

Pic 5: L-R: Figurine holding a bowl (possibly chanting or singing). Nayarit, late preclassic/classic. Figurine holding a turtle shell and beater. Nayarit, late preclassic/classic. Figurine of drum and player. Jalisco, late preclassic/classic
Pic 5: L-R: Figurine holding a bowl (possibly chanting or singing). Nayarit, late preclassic/classic. Figurine holding a turtle shell and beater. Nayarit, late preclassic/classic. Figurine of drum and player. Jalisco, late preclassic/classic (Click on image to enlarge)

The collection came to Bangor via a circuitous route. The collector, named Peter Crossley-Holland was Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1969-1983. He was British, and before his appointment at UCLA he worked at the BBC, where he produced a series of programmes about music in Tibet. While he was living in California, he assembled his collection of Mexican artefacts from local art dealers and auction houses over abut 10 years. He researched the objects as much as he could, writing detailed notes about similar objects in museums, and about the musical and visual characteristics of each instrument. He published a small volume using some of this research, titled “Musical Artifacts of Pre-Hispanic West Mexico: Toward an Interdisciplinary Approach” in 1980. After Crossley-Holland retired in 1983, he moved to Wales. He had always had an interest in Celtic cultures, and he published some articles about Welsh music and spoke at conferences at Bangor University in the 1980s and 90s. Professor Crossley-Holland died in 2001, at the age of 86. His collection of Celtic books, his personal research, and his Mexican artefacts were donated to Bangor University. Crossley-Holland was also a composer, and his manuscripts and notes are held at the Royal College of Music Library in London.

Pic 6: Figurine holding a rattle; the head is an actual whistle. Colima, late preclassic
Pic 6: Figurine holding a rattle; the head is an actual whistle. Colima, late preclassic (Click on image to enlarge)

The collection at Bangor University is kept by the School of Music, with the assistance of Storiel (the Gwynedd county museum). Objects from Crossley-Holland’s collection are displayed at Storiel and in the School of Music occasionally. Please email Christina Homer (PhD student, Ethnomusicology) via music@bangor.ac.uk for more information.

NOTES for pictures 2 & 3
• Pic 2: Left hand side: whistle with no finger holes, in the shape of a dog. Colima, early preclassic.
Back row, L-R: flute with 1 finger hole, in the shape of a coiled snake. Nayarit or Sinaloa, postclassic. Ocarina with 4 finger holes, in the shape of a lizard or iguana. Colima, late preclassic. Ocarina with 2 finger holes, in the shape of a lizard. Nayarit, late preclassic/class.
Front row, L-R: Whistle with no finger holes in the shape of a turtle. Colima, classic. Ocarina with 4 finger holes, in the shape of a frog. Nayarit, late preclassic/classic. Whistle with no finger holes, in the shape of a frog. Colima, posclassic. Ocarina with 1 finger hole, in the shape of a scorpion. Colima, late preclassic/classic.

• Pic 3: Top left: ocarina with 2 finger holes, in the shape of a bird. Colima, preclassic.
Top right: whistle with no finger holes, in the shape of a bird. Colima, preclassic.
Middle: whistle with no finger holes, in the shape of a bird. Colima (?), preclassic.
Bottom left: ocarina with 4 finger holes, in the shape of a mollusc. Colima, late preclassic.
Bottom right: ocarina with 2 finger holes, in the shape of a turtle. Colima, late preclassic.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: photo by Barbara Racy
• Pix 1, 4 & 6: photos courtesy Bangor University
• Pix 2 & 3: photos by and courtesy Christina Homer.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 04th 2018

See our full-length article on the Mesoamerican ocarina...

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