New Music From Long-Dead People

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In 'What's in a Song,' our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center, we learn of one man's quest to channel the music of the Aztecs and Mayans through new compositions that combine inspiration with scholarly research.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Sometimes amid the harried pace of the day, percussionist David Lopez closes his eyes and imagines what his street corner in Mexico City might have sounded like before the Spanish conquistadors arrived centuries ago.

Mr. DAVID LOPEZ (Percussionist): Sometimes I think that my dreams, I can travel to those ancient times and sort of guess, have a good guess, of what the music was like.

HANSEN: In this week's What's In a Song, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center, we learn of one man's quest to channel the music of Mexico's indigenous Aztec and Mayan people through new compositions that combine inspiration with scholarly research.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: That piece, it's called "Heart of Fires," "Corazon del Fuego."

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: The Aztecs used music for rituals, and we have several descriptions of those written once by the Spaniards in the chronicles they wrote. So, I take on those data, I try to trace some rhythms from indigenous communities or groups. And I also use some elements that are present in every ancient culture in the world.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: Spaniards said Aztecs used to go out in the streets when the sun was up, which I imagine around noon, and in groups of dancers and musicians. Then they started making some noise�

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: �whistling and yelling.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: And then after this, they started playing a more organized, let's call it a song or a beat, where the Spaniards could notice they were very well-synchronized musicians and dancers.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: And then they went again to the more chaotic part, whistling and yelling loudly, faster than the previous one. And they kept on doing this, alternating these two parts, every time playing louder, playing faster, playing harder.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

Mr. LOPEZ: They used music for war to give signals for military maneuvers. We know they communicated from one temple to another through music. We know they used music for rituals and we know that repetition was used to reach some sort of ecstasy.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

HANSEN: What's In a Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center.

(Soundbite of music, "Corazon del Fuego")

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