And to the sounds of the tunkul they don’t tire of dancing…”
(“El Tunkul”, Víctor M. Martínez & Carlos Marrufo)

Since time immemorial, music has accompanied communities during the hunt, to keep enemies away, frighten adversity, imitate the sounds of nature, or simply to celebrate. This is how it was with the ancient Maya, and continues to be, in Yucatán: land of the Trova and of a unique universe of sound that blends Western instruments with pre-Hispanic, giving a unique musical identity to the compositions and sounds that you can hear in the streets.

You have probably seen an instrument similar to a wooden box that emits a peculiar sound; this is the “tunkul.” It’s one of the most emblematic musical instruments of Yucatecan music, heritage of the Maya culture, that we still listen to today. Its characteristic sound accompanies folk music interpretations and even has served as inspiration for songs.

This ancient percussion instrument emits a dry sound similar to to a box hit with drumsticks. Made from cedar, mahogany, and zapote wood, it can be carved with decorative figures like frets and other designs. It used to be used in ceremonies and rituals, and today it is the main accompaniment of the Jarana. Best of all, children can make their own “tunkules” with regional wood, thereby preserving the instrument’s tradition.

Continuing with Yucatecan percussion instruments, there are rattles made out of squash filled with seeds or rattles from rattlesnakes, or made from turtle shells. Some have been found in cenotes including the one in Chichén Itzá, which gives us proof of the enormous universe of sound from the Maya that is still present today.

As well, there is a wind instrument that has survived the passing of time, maintaining its mystical qualities: the conch shell. Nowadays you can hear it in Maya ceremonies such as weddings, the equinox, and even in the re-creation of the ancient Maya ball games. It sounds like the ocean, and it’s used at the beginning of a significant event or to mark an important moment when people need to be alert. You can buy one and use it easily, and your lung capacity will be expanded because of the strength you need to blow into it.

But the star of the instruments is the guitar, with its many authors, writers, and poets who have been inspired to create romantic pieces for their beloved, now known as “Yucatecan Trova.” If you visit Plaza Grande in Mérida in the evening, you will be able to find some musician trios, each with different guitars and who will delight you with their interpretations of Yucatecan songs. It is said that in Yucatán life is interpreted in a song!

By Violeta H. Cantarell