Marimba Music from the Festival of Todos Santos
Humming Bird Earth Series CDR 3 (Previously Earth Series Cassette 500)
Note: All of this music was recorded outdoors on basic equipment in “real life” circumstances, under conditions far from optimal for recording. Yet the ambience, excitement, and electricity of the music shine through in ways that fully reflect its cultural authenticity. It is to provide a small cultural looking glass into a world or worlds barely known to most of us that these recordings are presented. I hope they will encourage you to want to know more, to open your world up more to the many fascinating and diverse worlds around us.
Pieces 1 & 2 were recorded on the eve of the festival, October 30, 1990 and were played by four players from the nearby village of San Juan Atitan. Pieces 3-10 were played by three players from Todos Santos and were recorded on the first day of the festival, October 31, 1990. The players are playing a single 40-key marimba with resonators. On the recordings by the band from Todos Santos, the “middle” player changes after Pieces 3 & 4.
Tracklist: San Juan Atitan: 1. 7:21, 2. 4:15; Todos Santos: 3. 4:00 , 4. 4:20, 5. 3:39, 6. 4:01, 7. 5:08, 8. 3:49, 9. 4:39, 10. 4:38
While most of Guatemala
and much of Latin America is celebrating the Day of the Dead, Todos Santos—the village of All Saints—is celebrating its village festival as well. It is a nominally three-day affair that begins October 31st, though the festivities are in the air some days before. The festival is the major event of the year, and everyone from the village, no matter where they are—many men work on the lowland coffee plantations for much of the year—makes every effort to return for the occasion.
The people of Todos Santos are Mam (meaning “grandfather” or “ancestor”) and they are descendants of the ancient Maya.
In spite of a road being built only a few years ago connecting the village with the larger town of Huehuetenango, it is still a relatively isolated place. The road is not much to speak of — a winding boulder-strewn dirt road full of pot holes, certain to cause havoc with any vehicle of less than super strength.
Todos Santos is situated 8,000 feet above sea level, in a valley of the Cuchamatanes Mountains. The road to get there climbs to nearly 11,000 feet before its descent, at its peak looking and feeling as much like some part of the Andes as of Guatemala. And at festival time, the Guatemalan buses are as packed with people as the stuffed-with-humans trucks that ply the Andes. From Huehuetenango, it is 3 ½ slow hours by bus, an experience no foreigner arriving at this time of year will ever forget!
For all that, Todos Santos is a magical place—perhaps not even all that special, but extraordinary in its geographical setting and in its own ordinariness. By “ordinary” I should say that it is ordinary for Guatemala, for like all of the country’s traditional villages, it is a visual delight. Men and women both still wear their traditional dress. Vibrant reds and pinks stand out everywhere, impressionistically offset by every color of the rainbow. And the earth itself is thick with red dust and clay.
It is a mysterious place too, for though the mornings at this time of year are sunny and bright, illuminating the green-forested mountains that ring the village, by 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, the highland mist is so thick and damp you can barely see half of one adobe block ahead of you.
No matter what is happening once the village has moved into its “festival time”, marimba music is the glue holding it all together. At about 4:00 in the morning on October 31st, the music began in earnest and continued with only the slightest interruption for three days and nights! There were at least a dozen different bands, some from other villages, playing in every far-flung nook and cranny, with incredible physical demands placed upon the musicians.
Each band plays a single marimba with 40 tuned wooden keys, underneath of which are progressively-sized, loudly buzzing, wood box resonators. The buzzing is as integral a part of the music as the playing itself, a combination of notes and their vibrations always lingering in the air after they’ve been played. There are four players for each instrument, though usually only three play at one time, the fourth person acting as a timely and much needed relief for one of the other three.
One player plays the high end of the instrument, another the low, while the musician who plays the “middle” is often the leader, at his best (listen closely to piece 6 or any of the ensuing pieces) both countering the rhythmic bottom while at the same time adding decoration to the higher-pitched melodic line.
The marimba accompanies every kind of event —the festival’s “main” event, the out-of-time “horse race” of November l, during which riders power their runs with shots of rum or aguardiente (not so long ago, the riders would also competitively yank off the heads of suspended chickens but, thankfully, no more!); commemorative ceremonies in the cemetery November 2nd; the colorful day-long masked dances and other ceremonies in between—but the playing of the music is also an event in itself.
The back yards of various host houses are the sites for much of the playing throughout the festival, and these are occasions for copious rum consumption, dancing, hooting, and passing drunkenly into the void for the men. The women may not get drunk until November 2nd, the festival’s final day.
The marimba, however, sets a tone for the entire festival, and often more than one band can be heard playing at the same time while one is walking through the streets of the village. Indeed, without the marimba, the festival itself may not exist.
On the recordings presented, the first are from a band of four young players from the nearby village of San Juan Atitan. The remaining recordings are from a band from Todos Santos playing a brand new marimba with a mellower tone and with older musicians of somewhat more professional caliber.
Throughout the village, as I have mentioned, there were other bands and other musicians from other villages, each making their own contribution to this year’s festival of Todos Santos.
Recordings, Notes and Photos by Henry Kuntz. Digital Audio File by Michael Zelner. C & P Humming Bird Records 1991/2013 – All Rights Reserved
listen to Henry Kuntz Guatemala 1990 | Track 3 Todos Santos9 EURO CDR incl. shipment world-wide 6 EURO MP3 zip download