On our first night in San Juan la Laguna, our Mayan spiritual guide, Javier, told us to close our eyes as we sat around a fire and began a traditional ceremony. The sound that broke the silence and the crackling of the fire was something like a bird. It was natural, but overwhelmingly melodic. The sound was an ocarina, similar to the one I have sitting in my lap now, which Javier helped me make over the past week for the second half of my independent study project
I started last week with an instrument slightly more familiar to me, drums. Still, the arduous process of transforming the trunk of an avocado tree and the skin of a goat into a single working instrument was spiritual for me in a way I never could have foreseen, and for that I am ever thankful to my mentor Juan, who walked me through the process with incredible patience and and steady hands.
Week two began with Javier knocking on my door early sunday morning, our free day. He told me he was leaving town to play marimba at a graduation party, and asked if we could start making my ocarina right then. So, naturally, I threw on some clothes and followed him to his house, where we spent the next four hours making and decorating the instrument exclusively using clay and water. Today it´s friday, and my ocarina has been fired, painted, varnished, dried and extensively played in my attempts to learn the most rudimentary of melodies.
But my independent study project has not been simply the exploration of music, a topic far too broad to cover in two week, but the exploration of music in Guatemala as a form of resistance (In fairness, a topic also far too complex to fully grasp in two weeks). I started by talking to Juan about why he makes drums, in the traditional fashion that he does. He explained to me that for him, the sound of a drum is a form of meditation, a single thought entering the air and slowly dissipating. He told me that the world we live in is constantly feeding us multiple thoughts at once, thoughts that seek to confuse us, to weigh us down. The beat of his drum is a single, suspended moment in time. It is his resistance.
My conversation with Javier started out with a very different question — Do you like basketball? He shook his head and told me ¨My ball game is the Mayan ball game.¨ He elaborated that he holds on to Mayan traditions because Guatemala is slowly letting them go, every day. The ball game, the spiritual knowledge, and the ocarinas are all links to a culture that has persisted despite a 500-year-attempt to erase it from history.
I am incredibly thankful to these two men, who have taught me so much both about mastering a craft, and why crafts are worth mastering. To my instructor Juancho, who has helped me affirm my belief that music is, and will always be a primary instrument (no pun intended) in the fight to improve our world and ourselves as humans. To resist.