Music of Latin America Essay Sample

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Mayan musical traditions are characterized by a hybrid nature of pre and post Encounter traditions, instrumentation, beliefs, practice and performance. Today someone can examine contemporary Mayan music to identify these European and indigenous characteristics. This paper is about the scholarly literature and musical selections of Mayan music to confirm the premise of hybridization. The social context of Mayan music today references the culture of pre and post Encounter. The music of the Maya “is a function of the Maya belief system, in which the ancient Mayan religion has accommodated a considerable overlay of Christian beliefs, symbols, and practices” (Olsen & Sheehy, 2008, p. 226). For example, musical events tend to coincide with Roman Catholic festivals and the Mayan agricultural calendar, reflecting the integration of both cultures. While official events might focus on European traditions, more intimate events, such as those involving marriage, illness, and birth, reference more traditional Mayan customs (Olsen & Sheehy, 2008).

The music at these events is more likely to have instrumentation and performance qualities similar to those of ancient Mayan tradition, such as the use of a shaman singing a ritual chant. This chant departs significantly from post Encounter musical theory, involving the singing of a single tone that drops to a lower pitch when the shaman pauses briefly to take a breath (Olsen & Sheehy, 2008). Other shamanic musical performances include dancing and certain types of dress, such as a rainmaking shirt. In many cases, these ritualistic events also use instrumentation from the post Encounter influence. For example, the rain making performance includes accompaniment from a guitar, even though the text of the song is ancestral rather than Christian-European. Also, the rain-making performance includes text that references the Mayan view of the universe and its deities.

The melodic formulas rely on the chord arrangement of I, IV and V, which references Spanish origins (Olsen & Sheehy, 2008). Also at the same time Mayan music today cannot be conceptualized without its post Encounter influences. The marimba is the most popular instrument in Mayan music today, and it is believed to have originated in Central Africa in the 16th Century, arriving in Guatemala in the 17th Century (Oxford Music Online, 2012). Perhaps the most profound example of pre and post Encounter hybrid is the fact that, in some Mayan tribes, the marimba functions as both a musical instrument and a form of communication (Pellicer, 2005). The marimba reveals the indirect influence of Africa through European contact. The hybrid nature of Mayan music is evident in the song selections from Olsen and Sheehy (2008). The marimba’s influence on Mayan musical tradition is evident in “Los Novios.” The instrumentation reflects the influence of indirect African contact, and the subject matter of the piece reflects Roman Catholic influence.

In “Los Trece,” Mayan subject matter is integrated into sones that Ladino musicians have created from a variety of pre- and post-Encounter traditions. In “Amalihani,” the more traditional Mayan influences in music and performance, namely dance, are more evident without traces of post-Encounter influence. In conclusion, one must conceptualize this hybrid not as the sum of different parts but rather the product of different elements that have been synthesized to create something greater than the sum of their parts. By combining pre and post Encounter elements, the music of the Maya shows the unique nature of cultural experience manifested in creative expression. So, this tradition will continue to evolve and create new styles that will continue to integrate multicultural elements in a way that best captures the expression of the musician.


Marimba. (2012). Oxford Music Online. Retrieved November 10, 2012 from Olsen, D. & Sheehy, D. (2008). The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music. New York: Routledge.

Pellicer, S. (2005). Maya achi marimba music in Guatemala. Atlanta: Temple University Press.

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