Huehuentones performing in Oaxaca City, Mexico, 2007
Last year, I spent a festive Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca. During the week long celebrations, representatives of the various indigenous groups from the region head to the center of the city to perform music and share their cultural traditions, most notably the display of altars. Of all the various musical groups that performed in the zocalo, the group I was most impressed with were the boisterous and playful Mazatecos from Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca. They moved through the crowds dancing, singing, hooting and pulling startled European women from the crowd to dance with them. What I especially appreciated about this music, besides it’s liveliness and the awesome masks they perform in, were the violins, as can be heard in the clip I took above. For a longer video of these particular musicians, please see here. (I suggest starting at the three minute mark).
Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Huehuentones
The costumes and masks used in this celebration are part of the Mazateco Dia de los Muertos traditions and are called Huehuentones. The charming boy in the clip above explains (in his native Mazateco and in Spanish) Huehuetones are depictions of gente de ombligo, people from the navel, as they are believed to have sprouted from the center of the earth. The Huehuentones masks depict various animals and other characters and are made from wood, paper mache and tree bark. You can also see the influence of Halloween masks in some of the Huehuentones costumes.
Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Silbando entre los Montes
Mazatecos also have an amazing way of communicating in their mountainous, highland towns, they whistle! The whistling is understood because their spoken language is tonal. In fact, speakers of the various dialects often have trouble understanding each other due to tonal variances. The clip above gives an example of a whistled conversation.
Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Dia de Plaza
This section of video shows a market day in a Mazateco village, narrated by another equally charming boy in his indigenous inflected Spanish. Popular foods of the region are chayote, yucca, yams, achiote, guavas and various other fruits and vegetables that I am unfamiliar with, including a giant seed pod filled with cotton ball looking sweet fruits. Another interesting fruit is the huasmole which is mashed up and cooked with yerba santa* (an anise like herb) and steamed in banana leaves.
Baile Flor de Naranja, Huautla de Jimenez
However, it is this video above that best reflects a real Mazateco celebration. A simple party in the middle of the house with the soon to be eaten food, including a live turkey, given special honors on the dance floor. The dancing abuelita with the silver trensas is the star of the show and my new hero. Like her, I want to be able to fall on my butt, get up and continue the party! I never want to be too old to dance, sing and laugh.
By the way, Huautla de Jimenez is best known for the infamous Maria Sabina, a curandera who used psilocybe mushrooms in healing vigils called veladas (click for mp3 samples). You might have seen the ubiquitous t-shirts of her smoking a joint, sold at various tourists shop in Mexico.
*If anyone knows where I can buy a yerba santa plant, please tell me. I’ve been looking for ages!