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Presione para ir a la versión en español Article suitable for older students

Mexicolore contributor Roberto Velazquez Cabrera

Music and the laws of Nezahualcoyotl - examples of onomatopoeic sounds

We’re delighted to publish here a short article on the little known but pioneering law of music and culture introduced by the poet-king of Texcoco Nezahualcóyotl, specially written for us by Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, a mechanical engineer by profession who has made a life-long study - including the physical reconstruction - of ancient Mexican resonators and other wind instruments. He is the founder of the Mexico City-based Instituto Virtual de Investigación Tlapitzcalzin.

Pic 1: Bronze figure of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City
Pic 1: Bronze figure of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472) was a highly cultured king of the Culhua people, an ancient Mexican tribe related to the Chichimecs, who migrated from the north to the region of Texcoco, east of today’s Central Valley of Mexico. Called the poet-king, he was responsible, among many other achievements, for issuing a pioneering legal code consisting of 80 laws, that was far ahead of its time, anywhere on the continent. Despite its importance, the original text has never been found, the code itself is little known, and the details little studied. The few chroniclers and scholars who have studied it have given it mixed reviews.

Pic 2: A Mexica council - part of the ‘calpulli’ community structure
Pic 2: A Mexica council - part of the ‘calpulli’ community structure (Click on image to enlarge)

We do know that in order to enforce the code, four councils were created: for war, finance, justice, and... for music – the least studied or understood. The first three are known roughly to cover the ‘standard’ requirements of any state needing to administer and rule a kingdom or nation. The fourth was unusual in that it referred not just to ‘music’ but to the entire concept of the culture that gives birth to music, encompassing science, art, literature, poetry, history and all of ‘higher education’. ‘Music’ covered everything not included in the first three councils – the things that people strive and live for, venerate and express in their festivals and celebrations.

Pic 3: Festival musicians and dancers, Codex Magliabecchiano p. 82 (detail)
Pic 3: Festival musicians and dancers, Codex Magliabecchiano p. 82 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In every type of civil, religious and military event, ancient sounds featured. A rich ceremonial life, at the heart of a festival calendar as varied as their sacred myths, required a level of knowledge embracing not just the skills needed to compose and perform music itself, but intimacy with song, dance, theatre, drama, poetry and much more – even with alcoholic drinks with which every festival is lubricated...
Many of these ancient sounds were very different to those heard in post-Conquest Mexico. Supported by archaeological evidence, we now know that these included the sounds of animals, birds, natural and even of ‘underworld’ phenomena. Sadly, chroniclers of the time made no mention of the sounds that no doubt accompanied actors in animal costumes who sang or emitted unique and special calls and other vocalizations.

Pic 4: Mimes/masked dancers in the Aztec feast of Atamalqualiztli; Codex Matritense, fol. 254r
Pic 4: Mimes/masked dancers in the Aztec feast of Atamalqualiztli; Codex Matritense, fol. 254r (Click on image to enlarge)

The following example serves as a good illustration. During the festival of Atamalqualiztli (‘The Eating of Water Tamales’) in honour of Huitzilopochtli, participants dressed as creatures:-
And all came forth there as hummingbirds, butterflies, honey bees, flies, birds, black beetles, dung beetles; in the guise of these the people appeared when they danced...’ (1)
Huitzilopochtli himself was represented by a person in bird costume:-
Huitzilopochtli was a wooden statue carved in the form of a man... on his head he bore a fine headdress in the shape of a bird’s beak – that of the bird they called vitzitzilin (hummingbird that buzzes) and that we call zunzones, which are all greens and blues as are the feathers. These birds have a long black beak and shining plumage...’ (2)

Pic 5: Bird costumed dancers, festival of Atamalqualiztli; Codex Matritense, fol. 254r (detail)
Pic 5: Bird costumed dancers, festival of Atamalqualiztli; Codex Matritense, fol. 254r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The bird costumes were richly decorated with feathers, even set in trees adorned with flowers:-
The dance that they most enjoyed was the one in which they crowned themselves and the main momoztli of the temple of their great god Hvitzilopochtli with roses, forming by hand a house of roses and even trees full of perfumed flowers; there they made their goddess Xochiquetzalli sit whilst they danced. At the same time young lads flew down, all dressed as birds, some as butterflies, richly costumed with fine feathers – greens, blues, reds and yellows; and they would climb the trees, wandering from branch to branch taking of the dew on the rosses. And then the gods would appear, for each an Indian was dressed in a costume similar to those to be seen on their shrines, each bearing a blowpipe with which they shot at the pretend birds passing through the trees... This was the most solemn dance that this nation possessed, and I have not seen or marveled at anything like it since.’ (3)
Despite its importance, this dance has been lost, and no attempt made to rescue or imitate it, not even by those who today perform ‘Aztec’ dances.

Pic 6: Ancient Mexican ceramic mouth whistles, from Rancho Ina (length 5 cms, top) and Ranas Querétaro (length 3.6 cms, bottom). (Un)covering the finger hole gives a range of around 1 octave
Pic 6: Ancient Mexican ceramic mouth whistles, from Rancho Ina (length 5 cms, top) and Ranas Querétaro (length 3.6 cms, bottom). (Un)covering the finger hole gives a range of around 1 octave (Click on image to enlarge)

Even so, some ancient resonators have been recovered which tell us more about the sounds – similar to those of animals and birds – that they made, than everything that so far has been written about them. These include small mouth whistles, such as the Maya whistle found at Rancho Ina, Quintana Roo (pic 6, top). Other similar ones discovered at the site of Ranas Querétaro (pic 6, bottom) can produce continuous sounds along a wide range of frequencies, just as birds can.
These mouth resonators and others with a great range of tonal quality, such as the Maya frog whistles from Yaxchilan that produce true onomatopoeic sounds are so unusual and unknown that they have yet to be incorporated into present-day musical performance, of any kind.

Pic 7: Roberto Velazquez recording the sound of an experimental version of the Rancho Ina whistle
Pic 7: Roberto Velazquez recording the sound of an experimental version of the Rancho Ina whistle (Click on image to enlarge)

One example of some of these extraordinary resonators that produce very special kinds of sounds resonant of natural phenomena such as wind and storms is the ‘death whistle’ (link below), part of a family of Mexican noise generators. Recently some of these special, very ancient sounds have been used by young composers of modern music, such as Cristina Garcia Islas (link below).

Quotes from -
• 1. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España. Ed. Porrua. 1997, p. 157 (English translation from The Florentine Codex, Book 2 - The Ceremonies, trans. Dibble & Anderson, University of Utah, 1981, p. 177)
• 2. Fray Diego Duran. Ritos y Fiestas de los Antiguos Mexicanos. Ed. Cosmos. 1980, p. 80; (English translation by Mexicolore)
• 3. Ibid., p. 131. (English translation by Mexicolore)

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo from Wikipedia
• Pic 2: Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1970
• Pix 4 & 5: Images from Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún scanned from our own copy of the University of Oklahoma Press facsimile edition, Norman, 1993
• Pix 6 & 7: Photos supplied by and courtesy of Roberto Velazquez Cabrera.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 23rd 2014

Listen to Roberto Velázquez playing his experimental version of the Rancho Ina whistle

The ‘death whistle’

Learn more about the work of Cristina Garcia Islas

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