Ostula Culture and Defiance

Music and Dances

The choral singing that accompanies the devotions of the people of Ostula is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the community's musical traditions. Knowledge of these traditions was transmitted through the generations by masters who trained younger people, in the past within specific families. The need to learn the Latin words (which were not understood by the majority of community members) enhanced the prestige of the singers in a community in which the majority were illiterate, but religion was underpinned by the written word and ability to sing cantos and lead prayers paralleled the status attached to those who were eloquent in formal Náhuatl. Singing is an important element in processions as well as Church services.

Instrumental music also plays an important role. The main instruments used today are the violin, guitar and small and large drums. These four instruments (on occasion with an additional violin and/or guitar added) sometimes accompany the choir. But their main function within the Church is to play in advance of the singers, during pauses in the cantos when the cargueros responsible for the different images circulate between them offering the Saints copal incense, and during the sessions in which the Church is cleaned and the images have their clothing and adornments changed. (The adornments of the Church itself are also changed in different seasons.) Musicans also play at the head of processions, and when families are together with the souls of their dead children and parents when they return home during Todos los Santos. On the latter occasion, the musicians are paid by the relatives when they play at the graveside, and also when they accompany the cantores to play for the dead at the altars set up in their memory inside the homes of their kin.

A tradition that innovates

The indigenous peoples enthusiastically adopted instruments brought from Europe (while preserving some aboriginal instruments with a distinctive sound, such as the teponaztli which is played during Corpus). But they developed their own sones and local styles, thereby enriching a shared international as well as regional tradition, even though many of these local developments remained unknown outside their regions. In their day, these new musical forms were innovations and original creations, even though we now tend to view them as "traditions". The music that accompanies the religious services and dances of Ostula has, in fact, changed over time, and what we see and here today is a kind of snapshot of a historical process in which there have no doubt been many external influences. In the past, larger groups of musicians seem to have been assembled. Today it is the fiesta of Guadalupe on the 12th of December that attracts the greatest number of musicians and a greater variety of genres, as string and brass mariachis also participate in the fiesta. During the morning of the 12th, there are often many different groups of musicians playing different tunes in the Church at the same time. The Guadalupan fiesta also involves a great variety of different musical styles, since it includes the Guadalupan hymns and mañanitas that are part of shared national culture.

The dances

The majority of dances are performed within the Church, though there are some occasions in which the dancers perform in the atrium or accompany processions. The majority of dances are accompanied by a solo violin or violin and guitar. Most dances take a division into two lines as their starting point and there are two basic formations and movements, the cuadrilla and culebra (snake). But there is also a variant in which the dancers take hold of coloured ribbons suspended from a rope to create a circle. In the Monarca and La Malinche dances, there is a male and female principal, who pass through the circle or move down the line according to the format of the dance, so that La Malinche dances with each of the males in the group in turn. There are also dances within this genre, as well as others, in which the male principal dances with pairs of men. On some occasions, these dances are performed by yonger girls with a boy taking the Monarca role, and on the night of December 12th, older women join the children in a particularly hilarious version of some of the dances.

Monarca and Malinche dance, girls

Monarca and Malinche dance, girls

Monarca and Malinche dance, women with Children

Monarca and Malinche dance, women

The Apache dances involve a small boy representing an angel as well as a male lead, along with the two bartolos, the masked tricksters who are related symbolically to the figure of the mendicant friar with his staff. The bartolos try to impede and trip up the young male dancers, a confrontation that can escalate to levels where there is a risk of injury. They can also "kidnap" the young boy and carry him off on their backs. In some performances, these figures seize children from the onlookers. In one of the video clips you will also see a bartolo carry off an older man, who was less than amused by the indignity.

The Moors and Christians have their own dances, in which the "captain" of each group is the lead dancer. The Moor captain waits outside the Church until the music changes to begin the dance, sneaking his way into the throng in a way that reflects his nature as a tricky figure who wants to steal the images. These dances are performed on many occasions but take on a different form in the fiestas in which the Xayacates appear. After the Xayacates have finished wreaking havock around the village and fighting in the streets, they enter the atrium and invade the dance space of the Moors and Christians, transforming the normal form of these dances into a chaotic burlesque by "shadowing" the principals and parodying the normal dance movements.

Each genre of dancing involves a a series of distinct individual dances. The nature of the dances means that they can be extended for long periods of time, and today's dance sessions seem to be more abbreviated than those of the past. Words alone cannot really do justice to these traditions, because the meaning of the dance for the people lies in its performance rather than some external, verbal, account of what is being symbolised. In fact, today only a very few old people can talk about what the individual elements of the dances might symbolise or mean.

Tradition and innovation in dances

These traditions are transmitted by a dance master, a volunteer who trains the dancers in his spare time, currently Sr. Nicomedes Domínguez Flores. Sr. Domínguez is also assisted by some of the musicians in the training of the children, especially Sr. Leonardo Francisco Cárdenas. Some of the members of the choir who play a leading role in the organization of the fiestas in general, especially Sr. Celestino Martínez Mata, the choir master, and Prof. Nicodemos Macías Mata, also make important contributions to the reproduction and recreation of musical and dancing traditions. Prof. Macías was responsible for the introduction of the dance of the Kuautli (the Aztec eagle) in 1993. The musical and dancing traditions of Ostula continue to be open to new influences thanks to the participation of dancers from the community in programmes sponsored by the state government, the National Council for Culture and the Arts and other public bodies that bring them into contact with dance groups from the p'urhépecha region of central Michoacán and other ethnic groups and regions. In the past, it is clear that there was a considerable cultural interchange between different Náhuatl-speaking areas, so what we see today is the product of centuries of interaction, development, change and innovation, even if it also reproduces forms of expression that date back to the early colonial period.

At the same time, modern interest in preserving and "rescuing" indigenous culture has also led to the revival of disappearing dances and the adaptation of dances from different regions to the musical and instrumental traditions of other areas. Although some might consider this a source of "inauthenticity" it is also a source of creativity, and not so different, perhaps, from "borrowings" that took place because of cultural interaction between different communities in the past. What is most important is that the dances and ritual performances presented here also embody meanings that reflect significant historical memories and the way the indigenous people positioned themselves in a world dominated by others. Ostula's cultural traditions help us to understand how the community organised itself to confront external powers both symbolically and practically in a way that enabled it to assert and maintain its autonomy and exclusive control over territory.

Listen to the complete sung Vespers of the Fiesta of San Nicolás (click play in the control bar to start)

Video Clips of Music and Dancing

The Ostula choir, Fiesta of San Juan Bautista

Church cantores

Musicians, Fiesta of San Juan Bautista

Musicians San Juan Bautista

Todos los Santos

Musicians in campo santo, Todos los Santos

Musicians accompanying dances, Corpus

Musicians playing Corpus

Dance of the Monarca and La Malinche
Fiesta of Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa dances

La Malinche, Santa Teresa

The Apache Dance

Child Angel Apache Dance

Bows and arrows, Apache Dance

San Juan, musicians and Apache dancers
in procession

Musicians and Apaches in san Juan procession

Content John Gledhill (john.gledhill@man.ac.uk)