Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Afro-Mexican Dance of the Devils II

Days of the Dead

During November 1st and 2nd, the official days for the ritual celebration, the Dance of the Devils becomes practically a carnivalesque performance. However, the initial phase of the ritual at the local cemetery requires more respect because it is dedicated to pay tribute to dead ancestors. The group dances the five sones, and the leader, “El Terron,” touched by the emotional circumstances of the event, cries out the names of friends and former dancers and musicians who passed away. Then, followed by the crowd, who are the other spontaneous but relevant characters in this performance, the devils wander about the main streets of the village dancing, drinking and playing. Eventually, they stop at the houses where the owner gives them money or food for dancing. During the whole Day of the Dead, the Devils’ festival is an opportunity for everybody to have fun.

Celebrating this dance during one of Mexico’s most traditional festivities known as “Day of the Dead,” is significant for many reasons. First, it brings to mind a direct relation to the underworld. Elements like devil, god, death, and creation, typically position the search for origins in a mythical context. On the other hand, this celebration in the Costa Chica of Mexico somehow has reminiscences of the traditional Yoruba ritual known as Egungun (translated as Masquerade). The Egungun are masked men who represent the spirits of the living-dead.[1] According to Laura Strong, Yoruba people believe that “the ancestors are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. They are sought out for protection and guidance, and are believed to possess the ability to punish those who have forgotten their family ties […]. The meaning of the Egungun is to provide a certain amount of stability to Yoruba society.”

In the same manner, Mexican tradition from pre-Columbian times believes in wandering spirits after death. There is a common belief about the constant interaction between the living and the dead so, the Day of the Dead is thus a time to pay tribute and to celebrate one’s ancestors. On the days of celebration altars with fruits, drinks and food for the souls who return to earth must be created. As in the Yoruba tradition, Mexican people believe that forgetting to pay homage to dead relatives may bring bad luck, manifested as punishment.

The pre-Columbian Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead is still observed throughout the country as one of the most important holly days. This celebration remarkably combines European and Amerindian traditions and, in areas with strong African influence as in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca and Guerrero, African features are also present. As it happened with many other Amerindian cults, Spanish missionaries readapted the Christian calendar to the ancient Mexican cult of death, originally performed at the end of the harvest in Mesoamerica. With the passing of time, the blending of Amerindians, mestizos and Africans became more common in the whole country. Perhaps it may happen as strategy of blacks trying to assimilate to mainstream culture. Certainly, most oral testimonies in the region agree that it was in the earlier years of the 20th century, after Mixtecan tradition, when Costa Chica’s Afro-Mexicans adopted the Days of the Dead as the official days for the performance of the Dance of the Devils. Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe, as Aguirre Beltrán has indicated whit reference to the concept of sombra (shadow) and wandering spirits (Cuijla 178-184) that many African tokens have permeated the memory of Costeños and are still present in their current cosmogony. In the same manner, the music of the Dance of the Devils, as we shall see, equally reflects the fusion of the three already mentioned ethnic roots.


Five songs in particular compose the music of the Devils dance; although there are variations in style, names and rhythm, the music is almost the same for all performing groups. These five songs are the following:

1. Son de entrada (Beginning Son) or Llegaron los diablos (The Devils Arrive)
2. Son de los Periquitos (Son of the Little Parrots)
3. Son de los pañuelos (Son of the Handkerchiefs)
4. Son de los versos (Son of the Verses)
5. El jarabe (The Jarabe)

The order listed does not reflect the order of performance. There are significant variations in the sequence of songs from one group to another. At least four out of five songs are very similar each other. The musical structure of these ancient songs is similar to that of the traditional Mexican son, which has its roots in a mixture of European, Amerindian and African music. The Mexican son, as E. Thomas Stanford rightly states is more elaborate than one might suppose, as compared with the Cuban son. Stanford points out:

The word [son] connotes a form with three distinct aspects: musical, literary and choreographic […]. As to overall musical form, it is strophic with a refrain and an instrumental ensemble involving a violin (one or more), a number of instruments of the guitar family, and a harp. Although there are exceptions to this generality […].The voices involved should be male.
As to its literary form, this is the copla, or couple, normally sung with repetitions of lines so as to permit its expansion from a usual four lines of eight syllables each, with rhyme or assonance falling at the last syllable of the second and fourth lines, to five-, six-, and even eight-line variants. The literary content of these couplets deals almost universally with women and love-making […]. This content is almost invariably present, though frequently it is rather obscured in double meaning which the audience is predisposed to expect.
As a dance type, the son is zapateado, at least in sections; it is a couple dance –commonly only males dance zapateado; and when danced as an exhibition form it is normally performed on a raised wooden platform called tarima –which in itself acts as a kind of musical instrument… (68).
Although similarities with the Cuban son exist, especially in the area of Veracruz, the Mexican son presents a variety of forms and names according to region, such as, son jarocho, son jaliciense, son istmeño, et cetera. Occasionally, the Mexican son may be identified with chilena, and huapango, the latter a typical rhythm from the Huasteca region and the former another mestizo rhythm from the Costa Chica originated during the 19th century. Chilena owes its name to a Chilean group who, during the California Gold Rush,[2] happened to stop by the Municipality of Pionotepa Nacional for a few months. This group composed of South American men and women disembarked in Puerto Minizo in Oaxaca. Circumstantially, unable to continue their trip, the Chilean group would perform their traditional music (the cueca) and dances; later on, the natives would adapt this melody to their own. The result was a variety of songs called chilenas. Currently, chilenas are the most representative music and dance from the region of both Pinotepa and Pochutla, in Oaxaca’s Costa Chica. In the same manner, musicians and composers of the state of Guerrero have adopted the word chilena to name various traditional rhythms.
As Elizabeth Romero Pérez (2004) suggests, it is likely that within this hybrid cultural environment, the Devils’ ancient music underwent modifications through time by borrowing mestizo and Amerindian rhythms;[3] likewise, they have influenced later Costa Chica music, such as, chilena and contemporary cumbia costeña.

Personal references collected during my research among members of the Dance of the Devils in Collantes reveal that some sones of the dance had lyrics; however, only one, ‘The Little Parrots’ Son’ is occasionally sung. The Collantes’ version of this song is as follows:

Señora, su periquito (My lady, your little parrot
me quiere llevar al pozo (wants me to go to the well)
y yo le digo que no, (but I said to him, I can’t)
porque su amigo es el oso. (Because the bear is his friend)

Pica, pica perica, (Pick, pick, little parrot, )
pica la rana (pick the frog)
como quieres que la pique (How do you want me to pick her)
si no me llega la gana (if I’m not in the mood)
como quieres que la pique (How do you want me to pick her)
si no me llega la gana. (If I’m not in the mood)

¡Ruja! (Ruha!)

In La Boquilla, this song shows a slight variation:

Señora su periquito (My lady, your little parrot)
me quiere llevar al río (wants me to go to the river)

y yo le digo que no (but I said to him, I can’t)
porque me muero de frío. (because I’m dying of cold)

Señora su periquito (My lady, your little parrot)
me quiere llevar al pozo (wants me to go to the well)
y yo le digo que no (but I said him, I can’t)
porque me muerde el endoco. (because the endoco[4] bites me[5])

In the verses of Collantes the word “pica” has implicit sexual connotations as it is understood in many regions of Mexico. Double meaning in language is also typical of the Cuban son. In La Boquilla, regional terms such as ‘endoco’ (river shrimp), occasionally appear. At the end, the devils group of Collantes yells the name of the “god” Ruja. Moedano suggests that the son of the parrots “has the melody of an old son of the same name known throughout Mexico since the earlier years of the 19th century” (24). However, the people of Collantes are convinced that the Dance of the Devils originated in the Colonial period. This seems to be true, although it should be significantly different than it is today.

There is evidence of musical creativity among the Afro-Mexicans of this region since the last decade of the 19th century[6]. Later on corridos and sones of the Costa Chica became incorporated to the anonymous corpus of Mexican popular ballades and songs. An example is the well-known song “La Cucaracha” that was famous during the years of the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. Although with certain variation in lyrics and rhythm “La Cucaracha” is one of the sones de artesa still played by the artesa group of San Nicolas Tolentino, Guerrero.[7] The anonymity of songs like Los Periquitos and La Cucaracha may lead some scholars to believe they are products of general Mexican creation. Nevertheless, the Veracruzano son, La Bamba[8], or the lyrics of the Son de la Negra from the state of Jalisco, and perhaps the very origin of the jarabe at fandangos and popular barrio gatherings during the 19th century show in both lyrics and rhythms strong black influence.[9] Despite the customary lack of recognition by Mexican scholars to blacks in regards to the origins of these songs and rhythms, all pillars of national Mexican music, it is evident they owe very much to black musicians, dancers and composers. In fact, they have been part of the Afro-Mexican tradition for longer than their supposed historical origins would suggest.

Something common to all Devils groups from both states of the Costa Chica are the instruments used to play the music. These instruments are harmonica, charrasca and tigrera. The harmonica, which Costeño[10] people commonly call “flauta” (flute) for its association with this instrument of air, leads the melody of all songs. The second instrument is charrasca or quijada. This is a cow’s jaw with the molars purposely loosed to produce a strident sound stronger than that of the Cuban guiro. The player rhythmically rubs the teeth with an ice pick, and eventually hits the base of the jaw with the holder. This is a sign for the dancers to cry, Ruja! The third instrument is locally known as bote, tigrera or arcuza. This is a friction drum made of a dry hollow gourd covered on top with animal’s skin. A thin wood stick greased with beeswax, no longer than two feet is tied uprightly at the center of the upper skin circle. The player holds the tigrera with one arm when he stands up, and on his lap when seated; then, he rubs the stick with the other hand.
Undoubtedly, charrasca and arcuza, are tokens of natives’ and blacks’ creation. In Festival Costeño, Moedano et al. report that charrasca is called teconte among the Amuzgo[11] people, suggesting that Amerindians use this instrument too. Among various Afro-Latin American groups from Peru, Venezuela and Colombia charrasca is also found. They call it guacharaca, although the material with which it is made varies from metal to wood.

The term arcuza, another name used in the Costa Chica for the friction drum, is of Arabic origin. According to Paco Robles’ “Vocabulario Motrileño” the word arcuza comes from Arab ‘alcuza,’ meaning a tin-plated vessel for the current population of the Southern city of Motril, Spain, located 43 miles from Granada. This word, like many others in the Costa Chica, recalls the Andalusian influence introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 17th century. Musicologists have reported the existence of the friction drum in different ancient societies of Africa, Europe, Mesoamerica and Asia.[12] Most probably the Spanish zambomba, a traditional instrument in Extremadura played during Christmas to accompany villancicos has its antecedent in Africa. An excellent work by John A. Donahue from the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, emphasizes the use of the friction drum known as ngoma by the Venda, a Bantú-speaking group of Africa. He asserts:

The friction drum is spread all throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In Southern Africa, and South Africa, the ngoma drum of the Venda, a kind of all-purpose drum among the Bantu-speaking peoples, has been incorporated into many different types of drum, including the friction drum. Here too, the ngoma is likened to a lion, because of the "roar" that it produces when the fingers are wetted and rubbed up and down the internal stick, in this case a reed. (6)

Similar use has the tigrera among costeños. There are stories of regional healers, locally called “brujos” or “curanderos,” who use the tigrera for medical purposes. Costeños believe in bad witches who transform themselves into “lions” or “tigers” (local names for the “jaguar” or American puma). Walking into the forest, the healer rubs the stick of the instrument in order to produce the typical sound that scares the “lion.” For Costa Chica’s healers, as well as for many people in the region, a person who has been sick for a while, most probably is a victim of witchcraft. Because brujos come disguised to bring evil to the victim, and then hide back in the forest, the tigrera helps to keep them away.

In the next passage, Donahue mentions the friction drum among the Zulu; they call this instrument ingungu and utilize it in girls’ rituals of passage: “Like the ngoma, the Zulu ingungu is also a girl's initiation drum, played as part of the ceremony introducing her into the community after the onset of menarche” (7). It is the West Coast of Africa’s drum of friction, however, which had a greater influence on the various similar instruments found throughout the Americas. Donahue has addressed the issue substantially, affirming:

More important to the development of the American friction drum were those from Western Africa. Of all those, the kwita and ekpe gave rise to the ceremonial friction drums of Cuba and Brazil, and much of Latin America in general. The kwita, for one, is utilized by various populations in central Africa such as the Chokwe and Pende of Zaire, and other peoples of Zaire and Angola. Gourlay, the writer of the "kwita" entry for the Grove's Dictionary, notes that the Pende use the kwita in ritual and warfare (…). We find a similar instruments in Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea. One such instrument is the osomba of Gabon. This instrument, known to the Nkomi and Mpongwè, also features an internal stick, although this stick hangs from a string that is tied to a piece of wood on the outside of the membrane. The instrumentalist plays the osomba in a ritual context, either with it laying on the ground or resting in his lap (7).

In Brazil, the cuita or cuica is a friction drum played during carnival and other festivities. The juque in Costa Rica, like the furruco or furro in Venezuela, very much resembles the Mexican tigrera, Both show a stick greased with beeswax attached to the gourd and, unlike the cuica, it is rubbed with the fingers producing the typical sound used as a bass rhythm.

In Costa Chica’s Afro-Mexican music, the tigrera supplies the hoarse sound of bass, and the charrasca, the rhythmic sound of guiro. Indeed, both may be recurrences of the Africans’ inspiration in response to the torments of slavery in the Americas. These two instruments, plus the drum, used in other Afro Mexican dances of the region such as in the series of Danzas del Toro (Bull dances), alternate with other instruments, such as harmonica, violin and guitar that were introduced by the Europeans.


[1] Babayemi refers to the Egungun mask as follows, “There is usually a masque to be worn to cover the head and over the face is sewn a net to allow the masquerade to see […].The wooden mask may represent the head showing the facial marks of the lineage, or a totemic animal or bird sacred to the family. At times the carving may be a female head with the traditional hair do” (35).
[2] The discovery of small gold nuggets on the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers on January 1948 spread like wildfire locally and beyond the country. Trading ships carried the word to Hawaii, China, Mexico and Chile. Since the metal was literally free for all, it is not a surprise that the rush for obtaining the precious metal attracted people from everywhere. See for more details, Oakland Museum of California.
[3] See Elizabeth Romero Pérez, “Danzas autóctonas de Oaxaca.”
[4] Endoco is a local name for the shrimp of the rivers.
[5] See Rafael Reyes Larrea, “Imágenes de la Costa Chica.”
[6] Cf. McDowell, Poetry and Violence 25-26.
[7] See Carlos Ruiz Rodríguez, 60-61.
[8] Cf. Bobby Vaughn, “Mexico in the Context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” 7
[9] For more information about the origin of Mexican jarabe see, Jesús Flores y Escalante, 141-143.
[10] The word Costeño is a common term used among Costa Chica’s people as a denotation of regional identity.
[11] Amuzgos together with Mixtecos and Chatinos are the most well known indigenous group still alive in the Costa Chica. There is vast evidence of loanwords and other cultural borrowing among Afro-Mexicans and Amerindians in Costa Chica’s contemporary culture.
[12] See John A. Donahue. “Applying Experimental Archaeology to Ethnomusicology: Recreating an Ancient Maya Friction Drum through Various Lines of Evidence.”

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