Music in Guatemala

by Ana Cetina, Jul 28, 2020

Guatemalan music is not very well known in the world, but it is an important part of Guatemala and its history. The music culture in Guatemala is very broad and these few lines do not cover everything. I hope to intrigue the reader enough to learn more about Guatemalan Culture in general.

Let’s travel back hundreds of years ago, before Guatemala was “discovered” by the Spaniards, when the Mayas were the most important civilization of the land. They are known not only by their temples, that are still standing, but for being a civilization with great knowledge of art, medicine and mathematics, to name a few things. Their music is no longer known because it does not exist anymore. We can only guess about the music looking at the instruments, paintings in some murals and ceramic and codex found in the archeological sites. Between the instruments we can mention are ocarina, various types of flutes, trumpets, single and double patch drums, scrapers, reeds, rattles, sea snail and lacandon (a type of oboe). Based on the evidence found, music and dance where a very important part in rituals, and its main production was related to their religion.

When the conquest and colonization came to Guatemala the Spanish, in order to keep the calm with the local indigenous people, let them do their dances and music, even when they thought it was demonic and lacked beauty and harmony. The Spanish on their own had their medieval music. The clergy brought their religious music. Guatemala was a very important music center during the colony and had one of the first organs to appear in America. From this time there is a Christmas carol written in Guatemala, it is believed to have been written by Gaspar de Gonzales, the first Spanish musician that worked for the Guatemalan Cathedral. In that time no other gender of music is found in Guatemala, just this religious form.

In the late 1700s, non-religious music started to be popular. During these times “modern” Guatemalan musicians were the ones that started to give an impulse to the instrumentation that was very behind. Some artists even traveled to Europe and started bringing new instruments.

Today’s National Instrument of Guatemala is the Marimba. The fist documented marimba goes back to 1680. It came to Mesoamerica sometime between 1492 and 1680, as a result of the fusion of cultural elements from Africa, Europe and America. The origin is not certain because there are theories that the Mayas already knew this instrument. This theory is based on the ceramic glass from Ratinlinxul. In this ceramic glass a parade is painted, and one of the instruments in the parade is a marimba. The glass is now in the museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It is also said that there is a wooden codex with a painting of a Mayan man holding an arm marimba, unfortunately the whereabouts of this codex is unknown so it can’t be confirmed. Some people have said that in the pursuit of demonstrating that the Marimba has an ancient origin people have forged graphic documents or given opinions without any interpretative base of the evidence. No matter the origin, the marimba is an important instrument in the folkloric culture of Guatemalans.

Continuing with the history of music in general, there have been several important song writers and musicians in Guatemala, an important one is Francisco “Paco” Perez Muñoz (1917 – 1951), he wrote Luna de Xelaju (Xelaju Moon); this song is part of the identity of the Guatemalans. Other great song writers of the 1900s are José Domingo Bethancourt Mazariegos, Martha Bolaños de Prado and Jose Castañeda to mention a few.

In the mid-1960s, rock in Spanish began to gain supporters and Guatemalan musicians started to be known internationally. Luis Galich and his band Santa Fe, Plastico Pesado, Caballo Loco and Apple pies where some of the bands of the time. In the 1970s one band created the rock opera Corazon del Sol Naciente (Heart of the Sunrise). They had solo vocalists, an extended chorus, dancers, and Guatemalan percussion instruments, acoustic guitars, piano and violin. An important band was Alux Nahual that began in the 1990s, they released several records in Guatemala and where also known in Central America. They are still giving reunion concerts, but the members mostly work as individuals, producing and performing. Other modern rock bands worth mentioning are Extinction, Radio Viejo, Bohemia Suburbana and Viernes Verde. Other recent bands are El Clubo, La Gran Calabaza, Malacates Trebol Shop and the Miseria Cumbia band, the last one does not sing rock but Cumbia.