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Songs that Make the Road Dance

Songs that Make the Road Dance: Courtship and Fertility Music of the Tz'utujil Maya

Linda O’Brien-Rothe
Allen J. Christenson
Sandra L. Orellana
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  • Book Info
    Songs that Make the Road Dance
    Book Description:

    An important and previously unexplored body of esoteric ritual songs of the Tz'utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, the "Songs of the Old Ones" are a central vehicle for the transmission of cultural norms of behavior and beliefs within this group of highland Maya. Ethnomusicologist Linda O'Brien-Rothe began collecting these songs in 1966, and she has amassed the largest, and perhaps the only significant, collection that documents this nearly lost element of highland Maya ritual life.This book presents a representative selection of the more than ninety songs in O'Brien-Rothe's collection, including musical transcriptions and over two thousand lines presented in Tz'utujil and English translation. (Audio files of the songs can be downloaded from the UT Press website.) Using the words of the "songmen" who perform them, O'Brien-Rothe explores how the songs are intended to move the "Old Ones"—the ancestors or Nawals—to favor the people and cause the earth to labor and bring forth corn. She discusses how the songs give new insights into the complex meaning of dance in Maya cosmology, as well as how they employ poetic devices and designs that place them within the tradition of K'iche'an literature, of which they are an oral form. O'Brien-Rothe identifies continuities between the songs and the K'iche'an origin myth, the Popol Vuh, while also tracing their composition to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by their similarities with the early chaconas that were played on the Spanish guitarra española, which survives in Santiago Atitlán as a five-string guitar.

    eISBN: 978-1-4773-0110-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xxvi)
    Allen J. Christenson and Sandra L. Orellana

    THE TZ'UTUJIL MAYA PEOPLE OF SANTIAGO ATITLÁN, Guatemala, believe themselves to occupy sacred land, the place of first creation, the navel of the earth and sky, and the very heart of the world. They are fiercely proud of their language, costumes, and traditions. The town is built at the center point where the lower skirts of three massive volcanoes come together to form a rocky and uneven foundation for its winding streets and buildings. In ancient Maya belief, the creation of earth and sky first unfolded when the creator gods raised three great mountains from the primordial sea that once...

    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
    (pp. 1-16)

    Because ethnographic writing unavoidably conveys the ethnographer’s idealizations, biases, self-deceptions, and prejudices—which Steven Feld calls a “dialogue of sensibilities implicated in encountering and depicting a people and place” (1990, x)—it seems important to explain that I entered cart-before-the-horse into the field of ethnomusicology, doing fieldwork first and only later seeking to learn how to do it, and that I went from bringing a message I wanted to impart, to becoming the one who got the message. Feld goes on:

    This dynamic creates numerous ironic mysteries for an author, and no less for the people who are trying to...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The World of the Tz'utujil Maya
    (pp. 17-38)

    THIS IS A STUDY OF TRADITIONAL SONGS of a Maya community in the southwest highlands of Guatemala. As a work of ethnomusicology it explores several aspects of a particular genre of musical behavior, but ultimately it is also a contribution to the discussion of the nature of time in a Maya cosmos, a question that has long been central among scholars of both ancient and contemporary Maya. The context for this study was the town of Santiago Atitlán, about which Robert Carlsen observes: “a defining characteristic of Post-Columbian Santiago Atitlán is a distinct and identifiable continuity with the pre-Columbian past”...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Dance and Songs of the Nawals
    (pp. 39-72)

    The story of the creation of dance and songs by Rilaj Mam is contained in the Tz'utujil origin myth, of which many versions are told with variations in their details. A more complete version appears below, but briefly: In the very beginning of the present creation, twelve heroic male ancestors were merchants who traveled out of town to what is today Antigua Guatemala, where they sold fish from the lake and cacao and other produce that grew on the tropical coastal lands that belonged to the Tz'utujils before the arrival of the Spanish. After some unfavorable experiences, these men agreed...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The “Songs of the Road”: Texts and Contexts
    (pp. 73-153)

    SONGMEN WERE UNANIMOUS IN REPORTING THAT their music came from the Nawals, and that they learned it not from any other person but from the Nawals, sometimes in their dreams. Stanzione gives fine expression to this idea:

    Mam is also Lord as “Ajawal Ch'ol Tz'iij,” “Lord of Ordered Words,” “Ajawal B'iix,” “Lord of Song.” It is Mam who prays and sings through his shamans, midwives, and singers as they let themselves be possessed by him and his inspiration. It is said that the prayer makers and singers are only vehicles through which Mam does his work with himself. Yes, there...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Poetics of Tz'utujil Songs and Their Relationship to K'iche'an Literature
    (pp. 154-167)

    READERS FAMILIAR WITH THE COSMIC PARADIGM of the Maya of the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala will recognize many common concepts, stories, and elements of myth in the Santo Mundo described by Tz'utujil songs and prayers. The content of the song texts that relates to specific modes of behavior in liminal life situations may also be found to be consistent with ethnographic data of social behavior in highland Maya communities. But questions arise about the origin, poetic structure, and design of the song texts. What kind of poetry is this and where did it come from? How is it composed?...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Music of the “Songs of the Nawals”
    (pp. 168-190)

    UNLIKE THE SONG TEXTS, the musical form and style of several of the “B'ix rxin Nawal,” and the playing technique and the construction of the guitar that songmen use, suggest roots in the guitar culture of Spain in the middle sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries. During this same period an intense Spanish presence in Atitlán was related to the trade in cacao produced on Tz'utujil coastal lands (MacLeod 1973, 235–243). The metrical melodies seem to be an expression of variation forms popular in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, thechaconneand the relatedzarabanda.¹ The...

    (pp. 191-196)

    THE COLLECTION OF TRADITIONAL SONGS of the Tz'utujil Maya called the “B'ix rxin Nawal” or “Songs of the Ancestors” is not unlike the water in a basin one might dip into the waters of Lake Atitlán. It contains only a taste, a shallow cupful of a great spring of ancient tradition, the depth and breadth of which are as yet unknown. Both the basin and the lake mirror the changing sky and the road Our Father the Sun has traveled since the root of time, but the picture in the basin is but a small snapshot of changing Tz'utujil culture...

    (pp. 197-198)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 199-218)
    (pp. 219-222)
    (pp. 223-228)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 229-244)