A guided tour through the sounds of Latin American traditional music, its instruments and performers. By Edgardo Civallero

July 6, 2017

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Part 06. Mexico


 

In Mexico, the turtle shell has a special meaning dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Ancient legends link turtles to music and to the rain gods; they also appear in a number of important origin myths, such as the one explaining the birth of the maize. They are included in ancient narratives (e.g. the manuscript entitled Histoyre du Mechique) and, of course, in countless traditional stories derived from them ― the heritage of different contemporary Mexican indigenous societies (García Garagarza, 2014).

Turtle shells, used as musical instruments, have been featured in Mesoamerican iconography, such as the pre-classical murals of San Bartolo, in the Guatemalan department of Petén (Bourg, 2005), showing Olmec influences. The Mexica (Aztec) people and those who fell under their influence called them áyotl ("turtle"; Stevenson, 1976), ayot icacahuayō or ayotapalcatl. In his Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España [General History of the Things of New Spain] (ca. 1540), Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún writes: "...and they also carried their teponaztli and their rattles, and the turtle shell to play" (Book II, chapter 35, the feast of Atemoztli).

And continues: "...they used turtle shells made of gold, which they went along playing, and now they use the natural turtle shells" (Book VIII, chapter 9).

Interestingly, he did not enumerate the idiophone among the instruments kept in the mixcoacalli (Book VIII, chapter 14), the place where the court musicians of Tenochtitlan practiced and shared their knowledge.

The instrument is also mentioned in the Codex Borbonicus (Castellanos, 1970), in Hernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc's Crónica Mexicayotl (ca. 1598, describing the dedication of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan in 1487), and in the Codex Magliabechiano (Gómez Gómez, 2006), among others.

The turtle shells were also employed by the Mixtec people (as shown in the Oaxacan Codex Becker I, 12th century) and by the P'urhépecha people (as quoted in the Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobierno de los indios de la provincia de Michoacán [The Description of the Ceremonies, Rites, Population, and Government of the Indians of the Province of Michoacan], 1541).

There have been found both turtle shells (áak) used as musical instruments and their iconographic representations (Bourg, 2005) dating back to the classic period of Maya civilization. Called kayab according to Stevenson (1976), the instruments were part of ensembles which also included a huehuetl and a couple of rattles or chinchines (Stöckli, 2004). They can be seen in the frescoes of Bonampak (García Gómez, 2013) as well as in different designs on pottery (see Zender, 2005). Diego López de Cogolludo, in his Historia de Yucatán [History of Yucatan] (1688), explained that in the Maya cultural area the turtle shells were played by hitting them with deer antlers (see Guzmán et al., 1984.).

Diego de Landa, in his Relación de las cosas del Yucatán [Description of the Things of Yucatan] (ca. 1566), mentions these idiophones, and points out a different performance technique: "...they have other instrument, made of the entire turtle with its shell, and once the flesh is removed, they strike it with the palm of the hand, and it has a mournful and sad sound".

Nowadays, the Chontal or Yokot'an people (state of Tabasco) beat the shells of the hicotea or jicotea turtle (Trachemys callirostris) with a wooden stick, a rib or the traditional deer antlers to accompany, together with a cane flute or pito, the dance of the blanquitos, among other cultural native expressions. Turtle shells are also played by the Tzeltal people (state of Chiapas) during some of their dances and ceremonies (Pitarch Ramón, 1996). The Huave or Ikood / Ikoot people (state of Oaxaca) beat the carapacho with deer antlers; together with a drum and a reed flute, it lends music to the dance of the culebra (snake), the dance of the pez sierra (sawfish) and the son of the pez espada (swordfish). In the same state (CDI, n.d.), these instruments appear in the hands of the Zapotec or Binni Záa people, who call them bigu. It is part of a traditional ensemble known as pitu nisiaba or muní (Cruz, 2012) that includes a reed flute and a drum or caja to accompany songs.

Finally, among the Nahua, the Huasteca or Téenek, the Tepehua and the Totonaca peoples (states of San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, Hidalgo and Puebla), turtle shells are a key element in the performance of the songs welcoming the souls of the dead each November 1, during the xantolo (Barranco Jurado, 2013).

 

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About this article

Text: Edgardo Civallero.

Image: Player of concha from Tecacahuaco (Atlapexco, Hidalgo state, Mexico)[La Jornada].

This is the sixth and last part of the digital book Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music, by Edgardo Civallero, which may be read online on Issuu and freely downloaded here.