GUATEMALA CITY - A group of Guatemalan musicians is on a mission to breathe life into a pre-Columbian language and heritage through a thoroughly modern genre: hip-hop.
Calling themselves Balam Ajpu, which means Jaguar Warrior or Warrior of Light, they rap in the ancient Maya Tz’utujil language with the goal of making it cool for kids and teaching them their ancestors’ stories and ways.
Their debut album, “Tribute to the 20 Nawuales,” or spirits, is set to be released to coincide with the March 20 spring equinox. The musicians rap in both Tz’utujil and Spanish, blending a hip-hop beat with marimba and natural sounds like bird songs and running water.
“Since the time of the (Spanish) invasion, the (Maya) worldview was persecuted, even almost snuffed out, but now it’s returning to life, relying on music and sustaining itself in art,” said group member Rene Dionisio, who uses the stage name Tz’utu Baktun Kan. “Our commitment as artists is to rescue the ancient art.”
Three years in the making and completed in mid-February, the album’s songs pay tribute to each of Guatemala’s 22 provinces plus Mexico’s Chiapas and Yucatan, encompassing the region where the Maya civilization hit its apex around A.D. 250 to 950.
The lyrics came from a young Maya priest named Venancio Morales, who serves as the group’s spiritual guide. Starting with the project’s genesis and as recently as this month, he performed prayer ceremonies where he entered into a trance and dictated in Tz’utujil what the songs should say.
“These are the ancient stories / that were told to us / by our first mothers and fathers / who asked our creators for the wisdom to sow our essence,” goes the track “B’atz,’ ” or “Child of Time.”
Much of the album is dedicated to exploring the concept of spirits represented by animal glyphs in the Maya mythology. The record also provides a handy guide for listeners to find their own “nawuales” based on birthdate.
“We all have a ‘nawual,’ and by listening to the songs the people identify with theirs,” Dionisio said.
Balam Ajpu members said Tz’utujil lends itself to hip-hop rhythms as well as any other language, and their music is faithful to the percussive tradition of their ancestors.
“They used the beat of the drums in their ceremonies, in their battles,” said Juan Martinez, a.k.a. “Dr. Native.” “So did others, such as African peoples.”
The group performs in communities like Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, San Pedro la Laguna and Solola, in the highlands west of Guatemala City.
Wearing face paint and traditional garb, they swing incense-burners that smoke up the air. Ceremonial flutes and rattles contrast with the occasional improvised beatboxing.
Tz’utujil hip-hop has a long way to catch up with more mainstream music, but the group is picking up admirers.
“I love their rhymes,” said Weedman Corona, a 14-year-old budding rapper who took in a performance in San Marcos. “They taught me to make rhymes, now I have my own and I also hope to release my own songs soon.”
Proto-Mayan, from which Tz’utujil and other Maya tongues descended, is believed to have existed for thousands of years. It’s not clear exactly when Tz’utujil first developed, but it remains a first language for many in parts of Guatemala.
While experts say Tz’utujil is not in danger of extinction, it and other Maya languages are greatly overshadowed by Spanish in commerce, pop culture and other aspects of daily life.
“The children and young people we meet sometimes start singing and they do it in Spanish, even though they don’t speak it very well,” Dionisio said. “I tell them to do it in their (native) language, since it comes out more naturally.”
The group is already working on a second record, which will explore the 13 “energies” associated with the nawuales as established by the Maya calendar.
Balam Ajpu recently held a ceremony in a sacred spot on the slopes of the San Pedro volcano, in Solola, to give thanks for the new album with offerings of corn, alcohol, incense and flowers.
About 41 percent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, according to official numbers, though some groups estimate the true figure to be at least 60 percent. Some 22 Maya tongues are spoken in the country.
In a country plagued by gang activity and high homicide rates, Balam Ajpu sees its music as an instrument to teach young people to live in harmony with others and nature by returning to the principles of the Maya calendar.
“This is our cultural registry of the past for future generations,” Dionisio said.