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

April 27, 2017

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Turtle shells in traditional Latin American music

Part 01. Introduction


 

Turtle shells have long been used all around the world for building different types of musical instruments: from the gbóló gbóló of the Vai people in Liberia to the kanhi of the Châm people in Indochina, the rattles of the Hopi people in the USA and the drums of the Dan people in Ivory Coast. South and Central America have not been an exception: used especially as idiophones ―but also as components of certain membranophones and aerophones―, the shells, obtained from different species of turtles and tortoises, have been part of the indigenous music since ancient times; in fact, archaeological evidence indicate their use among the Mexica, the different Maya-speaking societies and other peoples of Classical Mesoamerica. After the European invasion and conquest of America and the introduction of new cultural patterns, shells were also used as the sound box of some string instruments.

The turtle shell consists of two halves ―the upper one, or carapace, and the lower one, or plastron― naturally joined together. When the shell is used for building an idiophone (one of its most common applications), both parts are left together. The resulting musical instrument can be one of three types:

1. Directly struck idiophone: the shell is struck with a stick made of wood, horn or bone, or with a mallet provided with a wooden or rubber head.

2. Indirectly struck idiophone: the shell becomes the body of a rattle (which can be used as an anklet). Several small shells can be tied together in bundles, making a single rattle.

3. Friction idiophone: a small section of the shell is smeared with resin or wax and rubbed with a finger or a rod, producing a squeaking sound. This type often accompanies singing as well as whistles or panpipes ensembles.

Izikowitz (1934) theorized that Latin American idiophones made of turtle shells arrived in the northern half of South America from Central America in ancient times; subsequent research has thrown this hypothesis into doubt, while confirming that these instruments were present in a much larger area, stretching from Canada (e.g. the kanyahte'ka'nowa of the Iroquois and the Seneca peoples) and the USA (the anklets used by the Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee, Seminole, Caddo and Natchez peoples) to northern Chaco, in South America.

According to anthropological and ethno-musicological studies, instruments made of turtle shell are unknown in Patagonia, the Pampas or the Andes, where the shell of different species of armadillo has been used instead for building percussion instruments (e.g. the ápel of the Aonik'enk people) and the sound box of many varieties of charango, the famous Andean chordophone.

 

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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 first 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.