An Interview with Luis Perez
'Astral Aztec Music'
interview by Dan Liss
Luis Perez Ixoneztli, born in Mexico City on July 11, 1951, has dedicated his life to the study of Pre-Columbian musical instruments and the research of the living musical traditions among the ethnic groups of Mexico. He has a collection of over 700 native instruments from Mexico including replicas and archaeological artifacts, some dating more than 3,000 years old. Perez traveled all over the countryside of Mexico in order to study the indigenous cultures. He has lived with several ethnic groups among them the Nahua where he learned to speak Nahuatl the ancient language spoken by many groups including the Aztecs. His educational involvement includes the "Programa Nacional de Castellanizacion" a national program designed to teach Spanish to ethnic groups in Mexico, sponsored by the ministry of education. Perez has collaborated with artists ranging from Kitaro to Jackson Browne to Hans Zimmer to Yes frontman Jon Anderson.
Perez composes his music by combining pre-Columbian musical instruments with the realm of electronics. In 1981 the Mexican government became interested in his work and sponsored the first album of this type ever recorded entitled "lpan in Xiktli Meztli" (In the Navel of the Moon) which caused a big impact among the media and established Luis Perez as a precursor in this field followed by a new generation of Mexican musicians.
If the only sound you hear in your head is mariachi when someone mentions Mexico and music in the same breath, Luis Perez has a surprise for you. Since 1971, he has made his life's work the study of the pre-Columbian music of Mexico. Even the earliest wind and percussion instruments show an amazing degree of sophistication for their time. The design of various clay flutes, for example, contain finger positions that indicate that centuries ago, Aztecs were composing and playing melodies with harmony, in addition to single note patterns.
On his album, Tales of Astral Travelers, Perez plays both ancient instruments and replicas and combines these with modern ones, such as synthesizers, keyboards, guitars and accordions. The result is a very smooth and appealing blend of New Age/ambient soundscapes with the ancient and sacred sounds. Certain melodies bring to mind familiar passages, similar to the music of the Andes, Argentina or the Navajo, yet there is a distinctive difference in the melodies. This recording, on the Domo label, is Perez' first U.S. release. His last album was released in 1981, funded in part with money from the arts and education ministries of the government of Mexico.
"That support really helped me gain credibility with museum directors and other who could help me with my research and gave me more opportunities to examine the actual historical artifacts. There is a renaissance of interest in the culture of our ancestors, parallel to the renewed interest in Native American music in the U.S. The level of sound quality must be attractive to the listener. Obviously, there are no field recordings or written music from the pre-Columbian era, so a good deal of imagination is necessary must be combined with a knowledge of the instruments themselves in order to make music."
Sometimes the shape of the instrument itself will show you the best way to use it. How else would a person know without someone to show them?
"Music was an important part of the everyday life of the ancient people. Music was regarded as the most powerful link between the spirit and physical worlds. There was different music, songs and dances for different ceremonies and times of the year. Sometimes the icons or symbols that were carved into the material would be an indication for what type of music would be made with that instrument. We can also see pictures of people playing instruments in surviving paintings and carvings that depict bells, chimes and gongs as instruments of the Aztecs. Unfortunately, none of them survived because they were made of gold and the Spaniards melted all the gold into bullion because it was easier to ship that way.
"Other common metals used in instrument making were copper or copper/silver alloys. Many of the flutes and drums were made of metals such as these and that is why so many have been preserved. I use some that are made of cane, because it is an indigenous material. Cane flutes from that time would have deteriorated by now, but they probably used materials like this too."
What sort of skins would have been on their drums? "Jaguar, deer, monkey and snake. We can see this indicated in paintings and they also were used because they were sacred animals and it would have been considered a desirable thing to do to make music with the skins of the most powerful animals. Some of the drums had an extra hole in the body to modulate the sounds, like an udu or talking drum. Once again, this is a feature that made it possible for the musician to add nuances and subtleties to the sound."
Are the people in Mexico really taking a strong interest in all these discoveries, or only some scholars? "The renewed interest in Mexico in the culture includes all of these areas and I had to investigate history, mythology, religion, anthropology, and archeology to get a complete picture of how music fit into the society. Much of this renewed interest began during the 1930s-40s because we had a minister of culture who was an artist and writer himself. That is when we also saw the creation of great public art, like the mural painter, Diego Rivera."
Perez himself had visionary experiences at some of the historical sites which inspired him in his quest. "Pursuing work like this must have a spiritual purpose, because it has been very difficult in the past to find funds to continue the research."
Many of his discoveries seem at odds with what we usually are taught about the Aztecs.
"We must remember that the victors always write the history books, and so for hundreds of years after the Spaniards destroyed cultural artifacts, burned codexes (pictographs, books), and made up lies and distortions about the Aztec culture. For hundreds of years, these books were regarded as the truth, but the more we discover, the more the history books will have to be rewritten. We are still discovering more pyramids because once people in different regions heard about how sacred places were being destroyed, they began to cover pyramids and temples in mounds of earth, to hide them.
"Now we know from what we have found that, for example, that musical instruments were buried with musicians to travel with them into the afterlife, and there were many such discoveries, indicating a rich cultural heritage that valued the arts. A person had to study for years in order to be a member of the professional musician class. Each month was dedicated to a different god, and each had their own songs and dances. Music accompanied all aspects of life, and it was a metaphysical force that would bring the community together. Songs and poetry were used to teach history, to help the children retain the lessons in their memory. The Aztecs regarded flowers and songs as the two most beautiful things in the world. The flower represented the heart and songs were the way to open the heart. Dance was regarded as the earthly manifestation of the movements of the stars. Common people played music too, and much of the music of both the elite musicians and the common people was improvised rather than written down.
"Today, since I have become known for doing this kind of music, other musicians are also working in these areas, as ethnomusicologists and incorporating these old sounds into their compositions. In addition to the museums, many private collectors have also been willing to share their knowledge and instruments with me. It is becoming a source of pride to reclaim our heritage. At the beginning of my research, I was more of a purist, but I came to realize that we are a mixture, most of us are Indian, Spanish and some African. So we learn to embrace all of it, because that is who we are.
"One of the African influences is the bow. Not only instruments that were used like the berimbau, but also bows that used the mouth as the resonant chamber, like a giant Jew's harp. There is much discussion about these. They must have come over with the slave trade. Later additions to the sound, such as the guitar, came with the Spanish, of course. We are hoping for commercial success with this recording. I want to introduce the sounds to the audience in a contemporary setting. Then perhaps after two or three albums, people may be ready to hear more of the root music, perhaps what authentic ceremonies and celebrations would have sounded like back when these instruments were created."