Latin American Music: A Brief Look into the Origins of Mesoamerican Musical Instruments

Latin American music has become popular in many countries, particularly in certain regions in the United States where the percentage of the Hispanic/Latino population is high. The top five of which are New Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona and Nevada.

Original Latin American music can be traced as far back as the Portuguese and Spanish colonization of the Americas around the 16th century. Settlers had subsequently brought their music as their only form of entertainment.

Yet what was music like before Christopher Columbus found and conquered the “New World? At that time, various indigenous cultures were already inhabiting the region that is historically known as Mesoamerica. These were the areas where numerous primitive people of different cultures were known to interact in highly organized societies before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores.

Whatever information gathered from studies of ancestral Hispanic music were based mainly on archaeological finds and iconographs found in ancient ruins.

Archaeological Finds that Gave Examples of Mesoamerican Musical Instruments

Sound artifacts unearthed by archaeologists in the Mesoamerican regions provided information on what music culture was to the pre colonial societies. Musical instruments found in burial sites indicated use in death cults. Some were found as offerings in the ruins of what were once temple structures, which suggest that death ceremonies were practiced in those areas.

In both burial and temple sites, the information gleaned was that the concept of music were in the spiritual realm. The musical instruments represented personal property that was important to the deceased, and therefore has to be buried with him or her when embarking on the impending journey to the unknown world of the dead.

Evidences of the first musical instruments in Mesoamerica were mostly percussion instruments in the form of animal bone rasps, conch tinkles, and turtle shells that were pounded with deer antlers to create complex rhythms.

Sound Instruments as Hunting Devices

Many of the prehistoric musical instruments found in the Mesoamerica region were devised by gatherers and hunters around 10,000 Before Common Era (BCE.) Most were whistles made from toe bones or ribs of hoofed animals; usually showing perforations with which to produce sound used for communicating. The acoustic bones required human breath to produce sounds that imitate those created by the natural environment. Presumably, to attract animals or beckon fellow hunters or gatherers.

Musical Instruments for Rituals

Numerous preserved ancestral musical instruments were for rituals, mainly among Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Ritual music was mostly performed with dance activity, involving a large ensemble of participants.

Studies of the musical instruments for rituals, such as the wooden drums and rattles were perceived as important to shamanic practices during ceremonies. The repetitive rhythmic beats may have been used to put chanters and dancers into some kind of trance.

Researchers analyzed that the high tone frequency of many bone wind instruments are within the range of sensitive hearing. When played together, the sound produced can have strong psychological effects. Although studies show that other techniques for raising altered states of consciousness, had included ritual intoxication by imbibing or inhaling psychoactive substances extracted from various indigenous plants.

Iconographs Provided Depiction of How and When Mesoamerican Musical Instruments were Used

In addition to the mural paintings found on walls and vases, there were also stone relief artefacts, picture manuscripts and figurines with distressed images of musicians and dancers. These sources were reconstructed to attain depictions of the specific functions of musical instruments and the musical practices with which the sound devices were used.

Scrolls also provided pictographic representations about recitative songs and instrumental music, smoke, scents and liquid that could be water or blood. Their depiction was in relation to sacrificial offerings and acts that were seemingly connected to the spiritual world.

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