The musical culture of Mexico is a vibrant one. It enthrawls the lives of every person there through festivals, holidays, and religion. But have you ever wondered about the origins of the dynamic and zesty sounds that resonate from the south of the border? The instrumentation of many Mexican musical styles can be traced all the way back to the era of the Ancient Aztec Empire.
The Aztecs were an indiginous tribe that resided in the Valley of Mexico along the shores of Lake Texcoco. The land was extremely swampy and not the ideal
location to start a civilization, but the Aztecs were clever folk and adapted to their environment by building canoes, dikes, and floating gardens for growing food. They began taking over various neighboring tribes and were soon the dominate force in all of central Mexico. The Aztecs developed a strong social, political, religious, and commercial Empire, which in turn created a booming culture filled to the brim with many rituals that usually involved worshiping the many Gods they believed in.
Music in the Aztec Empire
Music in the empire was used in all aspects of life. They used it as a way of passing on culture, sharing an understanding of religion, and making a deeper connection with the events of everyday life. Children who were sent to school were required to learn a plethora of songs that held importance to their culture. Even the nobles often had their own band, songwriters and studios at their homes.
There are different types of Aztec music to go with the various aspects of an Aztec’s everyday life.:
Sacred Hymns: songs that commemorated the great deeds of their rulers and/or Gods. Sacred hymns would be sung to ask for rain, success in battle, or to simply thank the Gods for their gifts. Special dances were usually executed along with the singing of the hymns. Here is a video of a reenacted Aztec rain dance. You will see that the music is focused on drumming and the occasional vocals.
Cantares: A genre of Aztec music that some scholars refer to as “Ghost Songs”. They were sung to remember great accomplishments of the past. Cantares differ from the Sacred Hymns because Cantares are sung only in times of battle. People trained in singing, dancing, and acting would all take part in this important ritual.
The Spirit World also played a large role in the musical lives of the Aztecs. People would work themselves into trances as they sang and danced hour after hour. It was believed that while in that state of mind, you had a special connection to ancestors and the Gods. Warriors would lose all their inhibitions and fall into a hypnotic state. This was said to just draw them to battle. Through these songs and dances, battles of the past and human sacrifices were acted out.
It is important to remember that not all Aztec music is centered around war, human sacrifice, or the Spirit World. The Aztec sang about fun and lighthearted things too, such as love songs.
The lyrics to all the Aztec songs are known to be extremely poetic and have a symbolic nature with brilliantly thought out word play. A lot of phrases had multiple meanings behind it and were usually pretty obscure and ambiguous. Each place, God, or thing had many different names. For example, the two phrases, “where the smoke of shields diffuses” and “flowers of the heart upon the plain” both are speaking of the same thing: BATTLE!
-Percussion: Drums played a vital role in the part of Aztec music. There were three different kinds of drums that were frequently used. The Ayotl was a drum made from a turtle shell. The Teponaztli is a horizontal log drum played with mallets. A Huehuetl is an upright skin drum that is most similar to what we are most familiar with. Here is a video demonstration of two people playing the Huehuetl and the Teponaztli.
Drums would accompany music or be played alone, like when warriors were about to go into battle.
Rattles filled with beads or pebbles were also used as well as rattle sticks. Flutes, or huilacapitztli, were very popular
and were used to add the melody. They carved the flutes to make lots of different shapes and sizes. Rattles and various flutes are still used in Mexico today. The Aztecs also created a horn and trumpet sound with the Conch and the Snail Horn.
I found that the culture of the Aztec Empire was actually very musically centered. With every ritual they had, there was music to go along with it. Looking at Mexican music now, you can see the influences that the Aztecs had on the culture today. Much of the instrumentation that we see in today’s Mexican music, from the drums to the rattles to the horns, are derived from the Ancient Aztecs.