General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Mexicolore contributor Chris Garcia

String Instruments in the Americas/Mexico

We’re most grateful to our good friend - and superb musician - Christopher García, a Los Angeles based percussionist who plays MEXICA percussion instruments in various settings e.g., traditional, symphonic and world musics, and a keen historian, for this intriguing look at some unusual stringed instruments that may well have been played in ancient times. It’s long been taken for granted that indigenous peoples throughout the Americas only played wind and percussion instruments in their music. Chris points us to clues that suggest otherwise...

Pic 1: One of the ‘classics’...
Pic 1: One of the ‘classics’... (Click on image to enlarge)

Most musical historians believe that there were little to no stringed instruments in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, due to the lack of documentation either written or visual. I went back and revisited Robert Murrell Stevenson’s books and went thru his footnotes and bibliographies:-
- two of the best researched books in English on the subject
and was surprised to find them ONLINE as ebooks to either read
and/or download for FREE (follow links below). Both books are either long out of print and/or difficult to find in any library.

In researching Stevenson’s sources listed in his bibliography on the internet, he included articles, books and pamphlets which are now long out of print but available on the internet. I found the following articles written in 1898:-

Pic 2: Group of 6 Mixtec musicians, Codex Becker I, folios 8-9 (detail)
Pic 2: Group of 6 Mixtec musicians, Codex Becker I, folios 8-9 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

by Edward S. Morse Click link here who agreed with American archaeologist Marshall Howard Saville (1867 - 1935) - author of A PRIMITIVE MAYA MUSICAL INSTRUMENT - that the Codex Becker image (see pic 2, extreme right) is a musician, that he believes to be holding a stringed instrument, i.e. a musical bow; (the interesting thing about this Mixtec image is that it is rarely shown with more than four musicians at one time. Many times it is shown with only the percussionists playing and not the “trumpet” players. Here we show the complete image (which is spread over two pages in the original codex)...

Pic 3: The mysterious sixth musician in the Codex Becker (fol. 9, detail)...
Pic 3: The mysterious sixth musician in the Codex Becker (fol. 9, detail)... (Click on image to enlarge)

Shortly after Saville reported his findings he reported the following “Within a few days I have received a letter from Mrs. Zelia Nuttall*, the eminent American paleographist, to whom we are indebted for the most profound researches in connection with these ancient codices. In this letter Mrs. Nuttall refers to Sahagun’s great manuscript, wherein she says:
The native musical instruments are repeatedly enumerated. The turtle’s shell figures among them, but there is no trace of a stringed musical instrument ever having been known or employed in ancient Mexico.
Mrs. Nuttall then says that the object held under the arm of the musician which has been recognized as a musical bow is undoubtedly a turtle’s shell.
In support of this view she sends me a tracing of the figure from the original manuscript which is now in Vienna, in which the entire object under the arm of the player as well as the forked stick is colored blue.”
*the American archaeologist and anthropologist ZELIA NUTTALL.

Pic 4: The quinojongo from Nicaragua
Pic 4: The quinojongo from Nicaragua (Click on image to enlarge)

I also read about the QUIJONGO OF CENTRAL AMERICA in NATIVE AMERICAN STRING INSTRUMENTS written by Dr. D.G. Brinton (see page 19):-
”The first is the Quijongo of Central America. This is a monochord, made by fastening a wooden bow with a stretched cord, over the mouth of a gourd or jar which serves as a resonator. The bow is usually a hollow reed about five feet long, and the resonator is attached at one-third the distance from one end. The string is then bent down and fastened to the mouth of the jar. The notes are produced by striking the two sections of the string with a light stick, and at the same time the opening of the jar is more or less closed by the palm of the hand, thus producing a variety in the notes.
F. Ferraz, in his work, Nahuatlismos de Costa Rica, p. 106, says the name is from the Nahuatl or Aztec language, but its exact derivation is unknown - which is interesting specifically because the word is purported to be a Nahuatl word which led to this stringed instrument from Costa Rica, which looks very much like the instrument BERIMBAU from Brazil, except that it is played rather differently.
See a YouTube video of the quijongo guanacasteco, played by Euliano Guadamuz Guadamuz Click link here

Pic 5: The chapareke
Pic 5: The chapareke (Click on image to enlarge)

Did stringed instruments exist in ancient Mexico?
Robert Murrell Stevenson cites Charles L. Boiles work (1932 - 1984): Boiles cites 14 native language dictionaries with a definition for “string instruments” which were published in Mexico. (See p. 23 of Music in Aztec and Inca Territory -unfortunately he does not specify which indigenous dictionaries these appear in).
Is it possible that such an instrument existed and we have yet to find a record?
We have to remember that even though images have not been found in the Codices that we can still investigate murals, pottery and sculptures and new discoveries continue daily.


See a YouTube video of the chapareke from the Taruhamara people of Chihuahua, played by Antonio Camilo Bautista Jariz
Click link here
Read a journalist’s account of his search for the chapareke from by Jeff Biggers -
Click link here

Pic 6: The tawitol, from Lumholtz
Pic 6: The tawitol, from Lumholtz (Click on image to enlarge)


*LUMHOLTZ writes, “As we entered on the plain we could distinctly hear the beating of the tawitól, the musical instrument of the Tepehuanes. At this distance it sounded like a big drum. Srange to say, the shaman was a Tepehuane. I learned later that the Aztecs consider the shamans of that tribe better than their own. In front of the shaman was the musical instrument on which he had been playing. This was a large, round gourd, on top of which a bow of unusual size was placed with its back down. The shaman’s right foot rested on a board which holds the bow in place on the gourd. The bow being made taut, the shaman beats the string with two sticks, in a short, rhythmical measure of one long and two short beats. When heard near by, the sonorousness of the sound reminds one of the cello. This is the musical bow of America, which is here met with for the first time. It is intimately connected with the religious rites of this tribe, as well as with those of the Coras and the Huichols, the latter playing it with two arrows. The assertion has been made that the musical bow is not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, but was introduced by African slaves.

”Without placing undue importance on the fact that negroes are very rarely, if at all, found in the north-western part of Mexico, it seems entirely beyond the range of possibility that a foreign implement could have become of such paramount importance in the religious system of several tribes. Moreover, this opinion is confirmed by Mr. R. B. Dixon’s discovery, in 1900, of a musical bow among the Maidu Indians on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, northeast of San Francisco, California. In the religion of that tribe also this bow plays an important part, and much secrecy is connected with it.”


Mr. M. H. Saville:-
Saville described a primitive stringed instrument which he had personally encountered in the winter of 1890-1891, while exploring a cave of the Tabia hacienda in Yucatan, some Mayas from “various small villages in the interior of the country, remote from Spanish influences,” introduced him to a “primitive form of stringed instrument” call a hool. This instrument was made by stretching a piece of rope-like vine called ohil, between the two ends of a pliable piece of wood, making a bow about two feet in length.

See references to the hool in this article by Carleen D. Sanchez ‘Songs of the Ancestors: Ancient Maya Musicians’ -
Click link here

Another MAYAN stringed instrument
Click link here
CLICK on LISTEN on the bottom right of the page then CLICK on the image of the man standing holding a bow.

Click link here
replicated and played by Ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter, demonstrating how the Maya mimicked the sound of a growling jaguar with a reconstruction of a jaguar drum. This is part of the exhibition ‘Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya.’

An examination of a Maya musical instrument that appears on vase K5233, in Justin Kerr’s database of Maya vases -
Click link here.

The following link will take you to recordings by Henrietta Yurchenco, folklorist, broadcaster and writer, born March 22 1916; died December 10 2007:-
Click link here
Go to -
206 - CORA HARVEST SONG - Cora Shaman with Mitote
207 - CORA HARVEST SONG - Cora Shaman with Mitote.
The Mitote is the same musical bow played by the Cora, Huichol, Maidu, Mayan and many others.
”Ethnomusicologists study music in varying ethnic contexts. Ms. Yurchenco began by tracking down 14 all-but-unknown Mexican and Guatemalan tribes, reaching them with little but a mule and 300 pounds of recording equipment. She eventually recorded 2,000 of their songs for the Library of Congress.” New York Times obituary.

Henrietta Yurchenco obituary excerpt:-
”Aged 21, Yurchenco and her husband travelled to some of the remotest parts of Mexico. Using what was then state-of-art equipment - portable at a mere 200-300lb - they recorded the sounds of native Mexican peoples, such as the Cora, Huichol, Seri, Tzotozil and Yaqui, who had always lived cut off from mainstream society. Even now, with the possible exception of that of the Yaqui - a people made famous through the writings of Carlos Castaneda - this music sounds otherworldly. Yurchenco’s recordings from that and later trips to Mexico and Guatemala between 1942 and 1946 resulted in such releases as
Folk Music of Mexico (1948) for the Library of Congress and
Indian Music of Mexico (1952).
Her most commercially successful album was The Real Mexico (1966).”
Read an obituary of her here -
Click link here
Go here to see and hear the other recordings she did on FOLKWAYS and NONESUCH, and to check out the music of the PUREPECHA -
Click link here

Read NATIVE AMERICAN STRING INSTRUMENTS by Dr. Daniel G. Brinton online (see p 19)
Read UNKNOWN MEXICO VOLUME 1 by Carl Lumholtz online: (see p 474 for reference to the tawitol of the Tepehuanos)
Read A PRIMITIVE MAYA MUSICAL INSTRUMENT by M H Saville in American Anthropologist August, 1897 online: (see p 272)
Read THE MUSICAL BOW IN ANCIENT MEXICO by M H Saville in American Anthropologist, Volume 11 online
Learn more about Mixtec codices...
Read MUSIC IN MEXICO: A HISTORICAL SURVEY by Robert Murrell Stevenson online
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Chris. Mesmerising! you work together superbly as a duo... RECOMMENDED!