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Mexicolore contributor Professor Ruben A. Arellano

The concha guitar and the armadillo

One element in the process long known as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ was the introduction of the stringed instrument from Spain to the Americas. It led to a veritable flourishing of new musical instruments only found today in Latin America. Here we consider how one in particular found an important role in Mexican and Chicano folklore. Our sincere thanks are due to Ruben Arellano, who has written this article specially for us. Ruben A. Arellano is a Chicano activist, a danzante Mexika, and a Professor of History at Dallas College – Mountain View Campus in Dallas, Texas, USA. His research explores the history of Danza Azteca, Chicana & Chicano indigeneity, the intersection of Mexican and Native American histories, and the general history of the U.S. Southwest.

Pic 1: Daniel Rodriguez, Grupo de Danza Macuilxochtil, Azcapotzalco, Mexico City, Mexico, n.d., image courtesy of Evelio Chichilticoatl Flores
Pic 1: Daniel Rodriguez, Grupo de Danza Macuilxochtil, Azcapotzalco, Mexico City, Mexico, n.d., image courtesy of Evelio Chichilticoatl Flores (Click on image to enlarge)

What is the historical connection between the armadillo shell and the traditional “Conchero” dancers whose name is derived from the shell-backed and guitar-like instrument called a “concha”? If you are unfamiliar with this group, they are a part of the greater “Danzas de Conquista” folkloric dance complex of Mexico whose dance, or “danza,” is better described as a religio-spiritual tradition. Concheros don’t simply dance for cultural reasons or public consumption, they do it out of a sense tradition, obligation, and a spiritual passion to continue celebrating the syncretic hybridization of Catholicism and indigenous spirituality. But to understand the connection between the dance tradition and the shell, it is necessary to briefly survey the sources that deal with the concha itself.

Pic 2: The shell of a 9-banded armadillo forms the soundbox of a Mexican ‘concha’ guitar
Pic 2: The shell of a 9-banded armadillo forms the soundbox of a Mexican ‘concha’ guitar (Click on image to enlarge)

The instrument is called “la concha” (the shell) because it is made from the carapaces (shells) of an armadillo, hence the name of the dancers. The concha guitar is a sort of lute shaped instrument that is also known to have been made from gourds before the armadillo shell was standardized in the Conchero tradition. Thus, the question has been raised as to why the use of the armadillo shell, whether there is a symbolic, metaphoric, or spiritual significance, and the fact is that there is no clear answer. This survey will try to bring forth some of the most popular explanations for the emergence of this unique and significant musical instrument.

Pic 3: A ‘conchera’ dancer/player depicted in a mural by Diego Rivera on the history of Mexico, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 3: A ‘conchera’ dancer/player depicted in a mural by Diego Rivera on the history of Mexico, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

We begin with the way that dancers themselves recount how the concha guitar was introduced and adopted in the sixteenth-century. There are numerous variants, but the basic story is understood thusly: After the conquest of Mexico, Spanish priests were on a mission to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, and anything that was perceived or construed as demonic was destroyed and forbidden. Indigenous dance and music were prime targets in this cultural purge, but some priests opted to use Native American customs and beliefs to their advantage. Franciscan priests allowed dancing to continue if it was done in the service of the Church, and because the drum - the most basic and traditional indigenous instrument - was strictly forbidden, the dancers, or danzantes, were forced to adapt and find other musical sources to accompany to their dances. It is at this point that the concha was introduced and became the standard instrument for four centuries – roughly between the 1530s to the mid-1940s.

Pic 4: The inside of an armadillo shell, cleaned, dried and preserved
Pic 4: The inside of an armadillo shell, cleaned, dried and preserved (Click on image to enlarge)

When asked specifically about the armadillo, Concheros often do not know why the animal’s shell was selected in the making of the concha, but there are a few possibilities. According to one source, armadillos were abundant, and that in keeping with the culture of using everything and not being wasteful (an ecological or utilitarian hypothesis), the shell was used in the construction of the instrument’s body. Because Native instruments, such as drums, were banned by Catholic priests, this explanation advances the idea that indigenous dancers duly replicated Spanish musical instruments to continue their spiritual practices without persecution. There is no evidence to support the utilitarian hypothesis, and the notion of replacing one instrument for another is certainly the most widespread and obvious explanation, but it still does not explain why the armadillo was used and not some other animal.

Pic 5: Mural ‘El pedimento o manda’, Santa Catarina Juquila, Oaxaca, by Arturo Estrada, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; note the presence of imported European brass instruments, centre
Pic 5: Mural ‘El pedimento o manda’, Santa Catarina Juquila, Oaxaca, by Arturo Estrada, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; note the presence of imported European brass instruments, centre (Click on image to enlarge)

Another source simply states that the instrument was handed down to the dancers by the Franciscans and encouraged to go out and spread the message of Christ to unconverted Indians. The idea being that exposing Christianity through indigenous dance was useful in advancing the missionizing project of empire. This explanation minimizes the ingenuity of indigenous peoples and places them in complete dependence on the priests, including for the very instrument that Concheros themselves believe was used to mask indigenous rituals under Catholicism. Although this hypothesis is possible, it’s not very probable. The counter argument here is that Indians made the concha guitar themselves to resemble Spanish instruments.

Pic 6: ‘Conchero Dancer’ - 1940s lithograph
Pic 6: ‘Conchero Dancer’ - 1940s lithograph (Click on image to enlarge)

Explanations from danzantes of the concha’s origins abound, but there is one that rings true, and it is one that has been circulated online through blogs and social media. As we see below, this version attributes a metaphorical and ritual significance to the armadillo shell:-
Entre 1525 los frailes introducen los instrumentos de cuerdas en las danzas, pero para el indígena la danza era sagrada. El tocar su música con cualquier instrumento no era posible de modo que crean las guitarras de concha de armadillo. El cual se considera un animal sagrado por que el armadillo solo puede tener cuatro crías. Este fue uno de los sincretismos más importantes en la danza dado en 1531. De este modo en esa concha-guitarra o mandolina ellos podían contar las antiguas veintenas... (Arturo Othoniel Mendoza-Marín, “Orígenes de Danza Azteca/Mexihca En La Época Colonial,” Toltecayotl (blog), n.d., http://toltecayotl.org/tolteca/?id=3627).
Author’s translation:-
’Around 1525, friars introduced string instruments into dances, but for the indigenous the dance was sacred. Playing their music with any other instrument was not possible so they created armadillo shell guitars. The armadillo is considered a sacred animal because it can only have four young. This was one of the most important syncretisms in the dance brought in in 1531. In this way, on that shell-guitar or mandolin they could count the ancient scores...’

Pic 7: Four nine-banded armadillo pups, genetically identical
Pic 7: Four nine-banded armadillo pups, genetically identical (Click on image to enlarge)

The claim made is that the use of the armadillo shell is due to the animal’s sacredness and its ties to fertility. Moreover, a connection to sacred numbers, specifically the number four and its polysemic meanings (four directions, four winds, four elements, etc.) is also made in this explanation. What makes this account reasonable is the fact that the armadillo’s symbolic and metaphorical significance to Mesoamerican cultures is well documented, and indeed the nine-banded armadillo almost always gives birth to four identical quadruplets (see Mexicolore’s feature on armadillos - link below). Those facts notwithstanding, whether this explains why Concheros adopted the armadillo shell for the concha is inconclusive and merits further research.
Now let us turn to a selected bibliography of scholarship that has discussed the concha and have offered some useful analyses. The following is taken from a recent dissertation that cites a publication from 1999. The quoted author is not listed in the bibliography and is only identified as “Iñiguez” in the footnote:-

Pic 8: 1910-1920 photo of a ‘concha’ guitar with ‘ritual instruments’, INAH
Pic 8: 1910-1920 photo of a ‘concha’ guitar with ‘ritual instruments’, INAH (Click on image to enlarge)

Los frailes franciscanos prohibieron el uso de los instrumentos de percusión (huéhuetl y teponaztle) por considerarlos paganos. Bajo represión de la iglesia y el nuevo gobierno a quien llegara a tocar uno se le cortaban las manos. Pero los frailes entendieron el poder de congregación que tenían las danzas y su valor la evangelización. Entre 1525 los frailes introducen los instrumentos de cuerdas en las danzas, pero para el indígena la danza era sagrada. El tocar su música con cualquier instrumento no era posible de modo que crean las guitarras de concha de armadillo. El cual se considera un animal sagrado. Este fue uno de los sincretismos más importantes en la danza dado en 1531. De este modo en esa concha-guitarra o mandolina ellos podían contar las antiguas veintenas, a éste nuevo instrumento se le llamo Concha, Mecalhuehetl, Zin-zin o Ayoyote, todo bajo la supervisión de los frailes, de ahí que a los danzantes se las haya llamado Concheros. (Axcel Uriel Ruiz Pedroza, “Efectos De La Antropización En El Valle De México: El Caso De Tlapacoya Y Su Cerro Del Elefante” [Bachelor’s thesis, México, D.F., Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana - Unidad Iztapalapa, 2018], 54, ft 5).

Pic 9: A stuffed 9-banded armadillo on display, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 9: A stuffed 9-banded armadillo on display, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Author’s translation:-
’The Franciscan friars prohibited the use of percussion instruments (huéhuetl and teponaztle) because they considered them pagan. Under repression from the church and the new government, whoever touched one had their hands cut off. But the friars understood the congregational power that dances had and its value in evangelization. Around 1525, friars introduced string instruments into dances, but for the indigenous the dance was sacred. Playing their music with any other instrument was not possible so they created armadillo shell guitars. The armadillo is considered a sacred animal because it can only have four young. This was one of the most important syncretisms in the dance brought in in 1531. In this way, on that shell-guitar or mandolin they could count the ancient scores. This new instrument was called Concha, Mecalhuehetl, Zin-zin or Ayoyote, all done under the supervision of the friars, and the dancers have been called Concheros ever since.’
You will notice that part of the previous quote cited previously is included in Iñiguez’s quote. It’s obvious that he is the original source of this idea, unfortunately a search for the author and the publication this quote is found in has not yielded any results. The important thing here is that it appears that Iñiguez was the first person to note the connection between danza, the sacredness of the armadillo’s four offspring, and its numerological significance to indigenous cosmology.

Pic 10: A danzante wearing ‘ayoyotes’ (nut shell leg rattles)
Pic 10: A danzante wearing ‘ayoyotes’ (nut shell leg rattles) (Click on image to enlarge)

Another point of interest is the casual introduction of the indigenous terms for the concha guitar – Mecalhuehetl, Zin-zin, and Ayoyote. Let’s start with the latter. It’s curious that the term “ayoyote” is being used here as being one of the names for the concha guitar. Ask any danzante, and they will tell you it is the Nawatl word for the pods used to make the leg rattles, which in fact are also called “ayoyotes” (see pic 10). I’m not familiar with the term “Zin-zin,” and a search did not produce any useful results. The last term is the most intriguing of all. I’ve never heard anyone call the concha a “mecalhuehuetl,” but apparently the term is not new. In a late nineteenth-century Nawatl-Latin dictionary, the term is listed as “Mecahuehuetl, n. lyra, harpa” (Bernardino Biondelli, Glossarium azteco-latinum et latino-aztecum [Mediolani (Milan): Valentiner et Mues, 1869], 48. Italics in original). The term “lyra,” or lira, is a synonym for “guitar” in the Spanish speaking world. In effect, the term directly translates to “string drum” – from “mecatl” (rope, string) and “huehuetl” (drum) (see pic 11, insert).

Pic 11: A Conchera dancer playing a ‘concha’; insert - entry for ‘mecahuehuetl’ in Biondelli 1869
Pic 11: A Conchera dancer playing a ‘concha’; insert - entry for ‘mecahuehuetl’ in Biondelli 1869 (Click on image to enlarge)

This is a good point to remind the reader that gourds were also used in the making of the mecahuehuetl. In one of the earliest doctoral dissertations about danza, Portia Mansfield states:-
’The concha is named for, and usually made from, the shell of the armadillo. However some, sweeter but less resonant, are made of half gourds, sometimes beautifully inlaid with shell. Sometimes the player has an inexpensive stringed instrument of some sort, which he has altered and strung and tuned like a concha. The system used in Mexico City is explained as using five double strings, tuned similarly to those of the guitar sexta, to the fifth string of the latter; with the string corresponding to the highest of the guitar sexta dropped an octave.’ (Portia Mansfield, “The Conchero Dancers of Mexico” [Doctoral dissertation, New York, New York University, 1953], 212).
Later she adds this: “Their first stringed instrument was fashioned crudely from a gourd. They were not known before the Conquest” (Mansfield, 274). Mansfield did fieldwork in Mexico and this idea that the original mecahuehuetl was made from a gourd must have been told to her by a danzante informant.

Pic 12: Monument to indigenous leader Conín (later known as Fernando de Tapia), entrance to Querétaro, Mexico
Pic 12: Monument to indigenous leader Conín (later known as Fernando de Tapia), entrance to Querétaro, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

In another variant to the origin story of the concha/mecahuehuetl, the ethnographer Martha Stone cites a danzante who informed her that during the fight at Sangemal Hill in 1531 (the place and battle that is understood as the founding of the danza): “the whole time it was being fought … the great General Conin was sitting on his horse on the mountainside watching the battle … on the ground beside him stood a Chichimec with his bow and arrow … in front of him stood a Conchero playing his concha” (Martha Stone, At the Sign of Midnight: The Concheros Dance Cult of Mexico [University of Arizona Press, 1975], 198). According to the danzante, that is the moment they became Concheros. Complicating the story further, we have this entry in Book 11 of the Florentine Codex:-
Spanish – Ay unos arboles sylvestres, que se llaman tlacuilolquavitl: quiere decir que tiene madera pintada, porque ellos son bermejos, y tienen las vetas negras, que parecen pinturas sobre el bermejo: es arbol muy preciado, porque del se hazen teponaztles, y tamburiles, y biuelas y suena mucho, estos instrumentos quando son desta madera: y por ser muy pintada, y de buen parecer es muy preciada (Bernardino de Sahagún, “Libro Undecimo Que Es Bosque, Jardin, Vergel de Lengua Mexicana: Florentine Codex Book 11” [Mexico, 1577], fol. 115, p. 267, World Digital Library, https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10622/#q=Florentine+Codex).

Pic 13: Entry on ‘tlacuilolcuahuitl’ in the Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 13: Entry on ‘tlacuilolcuahuitl’ in the Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Nawatl – Tlacuilolquavitl: cuicuiltic cuecueioca, tomatic, xipetztic tlatztic, cuicuilivi, mocuicuiloa motlitlilania, motlatlamachia: teponaztli mochioa, vevetl, mecavevetl mochioa, velnaoatl coioltic, initzqui ia manqui initlatol, qualneci, teiculti, tetlanezti, eleviliztli, nequiztli, naoati, caquizti, tzilini, qualneci, tetlaneztia, teicultia.
English – ‘There are some wild trees, which are called tlacuilolcuahuitl: meaning painted wood, they are red and have black veins, which look like paintings over the red: it is a very precious tree, because teponaztles, and tamburiles, and vihuelas, when they are made of this wood, are very loud: and because they are painted well, and look good, they are very precious.’

Pic 14: Illustration of a Conchero dancer by Luis Covarrubias
Pic 14: Illustration of a Conchero dancer by Luis Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

The term “tlacuilolcuahuitl” translates to “painted designed wood” which described the processed wood used in the making of the instruments. The most common tree used for this production was the “ahuehuete” (Montezuma bald cypress) but walnut is also known to have been used. What’s important here is that the term “mecavevetl” (mecahuehuetl) is found in Book 11 of the Florentine Codex which was written in the early colonial era. This begs the question; does it refer to a type of string drum instrument that existed prior to colonization, or does it refer to a product of cultural hybridization?
The answer to this, as you may have guessed, is the latter. Recall that Mansfield tells us that stringed instruments “were not known before the Conquest.” And there has never been any serious discussion about pre-Kuauhtemoc instruments that resembled anything like lutes, guitars, or vihuelas (fifteenth-century fretted plucked Spanish string instruments, shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute).

Pic 15: Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Flying Pole (Biombo con desposorio indígena y palo volador), Mexico, circa 1690; note the musician centre stage...
Pic 15: Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Flying Pole (Biombo con desposorio indígena y palo volador), Mexico, circa 1690; note the musician centre stage... (Click on image to enlarge)

This fact is further supported in the final source we will look at here. Music archaeologist, Arnd Adje Both, noted that:-
’To help in the process of conversion, some friars also employed pre-Columbian musical instruments in the church service. One source indicates that Pedro de Gante played the Aztec hand-rattle, ayacachtli, while the use of the popular slit-drum (teponaztli) could never be entirely prohibited. Indeed, in some rural towns, specimens from Colonial and even pre-Columbian times are still guarded and played today. Nevertheless, by a strange twist, the large tripod skin-drum (huehuetl) was soon replaced by the European lute, although the Aztecs literally called it by their own name mecahuehuetl (“string drum”). It is possible that the tradition of the Danzantes, a syncretistic religious group based in and around the Valley of Mexico, in which lute ensembles play a prominent role in processions and circle dances, can be traced back to transformations of this kind’ (Arnd Adje Both, “Musical Conquests: Encounters in Music Cultures of Aztec and Early Colonial Times,” in Music and Politics in the Ancient World Exploring Identity, Agency, Stability and Change through the Records of Music Archaeology, ed. Ricardo Eichmann, Mark Howell, and Graeme Lawson [Berlin: Edition Topoi, 2019], 153–54, DOI 10.17171/3-65).

Pic 16: A ‘vihuela conchera’. ‘Many modern instruments put the armadillo shell on the outside of a wooden bowl, instead of using the shell for a bowl’
Pic 16: A ‘vihuela conchera’. ‘Many modern instruments put the armadillo shell on the outside of a wooden bowl, instead of using the shell for a bowl’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Both sums up nicely what is the most likely scenario in terms of what occurred with the instrumentation of danza and how it was employed in the service of the Church. Although it’s exciting to find an early colonial Nawatl word for stringed drums, there is no evidence that guitar-like instruments existed in Mexico prior to Spanish colonization.
In sum, this bibliographic essay set out to explore the question about why the Conchero dance tradition adopted the use of the armadillo shell in the creation of the stringed instrument, the concha. What I found is that the most plausible explanation involves spiritual and numerological symbolism, allusions to fertility, and polysemic metaphorical representations.

Pic 17: A large Concheros troupe in performance
Pic 17: A large Concheros troupe in performance (Click on image to enlarge)

The research also led to the finding of a little-known term, mecahuehuetl, which was used in the early colonial period to label the original stringed instruments constructed by danzantes. These stringed instruments were originally made from gourds before the armadillo shells were introduced. This might explain why the Nawatl name for the “stringed drum” fell out of use and the Spanish term “concha” gained favor. While it’s interesting to imagine that this is what occurred, the change in the naming convention can only be explained with further research.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: photo supplied by Ruben Arellano (please see photo caption)
• Pix 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10 & 11: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: the original of this image comes from Mexican Folkways by Frances Toor (1947)
• Pic 7: photo by Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist; permission applied for; downloaded from https://quantumbiologist.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/double-or-nothing/
• Pic 8: photo downloaded from https://mediateca.inah.gob.mx/islandora_74/islandora/object/fotografia:320265 (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México)
• Pic 12: photo from Wikipedia (Conín), by Xulio Sandoval
• Pic 13: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 14: image scanned from Mexican Native Dances by Luis Covarrubias, Eugenio Fischgrund, Mexico City, 1979
• Pic 15: Public domain; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, online database: entry 209529 (from Wikipedia)
• Pic 16: photo downloaded from Wikiwand.com (Concheras)
• Pic 17: photo by Xavier Miró/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 22nd 2021

emoticon Q. Why do danzantes find it so hard to recall the origin of the use of armadillo shells for the conchas?
A. It’s all in their subconchas minds...

Our feature on the armadillo (Flora and Fauna)

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