January 15th - Sacred Guitar and Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs

I've been reluctant to write on the large number of ethnographic recordings in the Smithsonian Folkways archive for several reasons. For many of the recordings, I certainly don't know enough (or anything!) about the cultures represented to feel confident writing at length about them. As such, I have a real fear of doing 35 album reviews over the course of the year that read like a 5th grade history report - "The Nahua are a people of contrasts" - which would be boring at best and reductive and racist at worst. Additionally, I am concerned that there's really no way to guarantee that the collection of these recordings was ethical to the standards of scholarship of today or even of the time - there's just no real information about the level of consent given by the participants in these field recordings. 

To find a middle ground, I'm only going to write about albums that I find genuinely musically interesting. The point of this project is to highlight works and, to some degree, give my reactions to them - not to explain them. That I wrote this huge mea-culpa at the very start should emphasize just how much I love Sacred Guitar & Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs, even getting past the title of the album - even the liner notes immediately mention that the actual people recorded refer to themselves as "Mexicana" and are referred to in literature as the Nahua, and that "Aztec" is used to acclimate the American listener.

But the music itself is incredible. I was completely unaware of the violin tradition in indigenous Mexican music, and I honestly cannot think of an analogue to the kind of violin playing you hear on this album - it's rhythmic and exuberant, with the sort of syncopated bowing that you expect from Cajun music. But the tunes themselves feel even brighter and more vibrant than that tradition.

According to the liner notes these are ceremonial songs - the first three tracks accompanying a processional and the latter three accompanying dances. The all of the songs are beautiful, loping pieces made up of repeated motifs, some with rattle accompaniment, some just violin and guitar, all with environmental sounds from laughing children to fireworks. The pieces are both hypnotic and very active. I'm better for having heard them.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways