Harps among the Maya of Southern Mexico and Guatemala

Morgantown, WV, April, 2002.
Wire-strung harps have been in use for hundreds of years by the Tzotzil Maya Indians of the town of Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico.

I tracked down harpmaker Juan Mendez Gomez on a recent trip to Mexico. I had learned of him from a video (Laudero Chamula, produced by Universidad de Ciencias y Culturas de Chiapas) that shows him producing harps and other stringed instruments with simple knives and hatchets. Instead of using clamps when gluing, he wraps the parts tightly with string.

I was in Chamula for 3 days at Easter. In the Easter procession, I counted 50 harps, along with scores of guitars, accordians, drums, whistles, and even firecrackers. The music is very distinctively indigenous, and does not sound “Latin American.”

Local folks don’t like to be photographed or recorded, so I just grooved on the live scene. My harp, which I carried with me always, attracted attention as on my earlier trips to El Salvador, Russia, Haiti, and Northern Ireland. I was invited into a closed ceremony where, amid the smoke of copal incense, traditional religious authorities (mayordomos) in elaborate costumes danced and sang (or chanted) in the Tzotzil language to the sound of 2 harps, 2 accordians, a guitar and a drum. The songs constitute a cycle of prayers with indigenous as well as Christian roots.

Apart from religious settings, I met several people in Chiapas who readily picked out their own Mayan style of music on my harp. Mayan harps are quite large but very light-weight. They have 22 strings, a bass group of 6 and a treble group of 16, with a wide space in between. In relation to a diatonic scale, the bass strings are tuned to 1, 3, 5, 2, 1, and 5. The treble group starts on the third and runs up 2 octaves to end on a fifth.

These harps are as different from Paraguayan as from Celtic harps. Technique involves the use of thirds and octaves in the melody, with appropriate single or double note bass accompaniment. The performances are simple, repetitious, and spell-binding. I have tried to incorporate some of the Mayan style in my own standard program, Music from Many Lands.

In highland Guatemala, I spent time in San Lucas Toliman, with a group from my Rotary Club (Morgantown North). Unlike the Tzotzil, these Kakchikel Maya do not traditionally use the harp. There is great local variation in customs among the Maya, whose languages and traditional costumes can differ markedly from one town to the next. In San Lucas, Abraham Hernandez, the staff carpenter at the local Catholic mission, adopted the role of harpmaker. He built a small harp (on the design of my Rafaella ) and also a larger one copying the harps I brought with me. Abraham’s son Rigoberto, an accomplished guitarist, took on the task of learning to play the harp. These Maya of Guatemala seemed more ready to adopt the harp for popular or secular music, whereas for the Tzotziles of Mexico the harp is dedicated to religious use.

There are many adventures for the intrepid harper, in Chiapas, in Guatemala and elsewhere. Where in the world are you going with your harp!!?

John Lozier