Would a trip to Guatemala be complete without busking in the pedestrian mall in downtown Guatemala City?  Betty and I are passing through the city on the way to Tikal and there were crowds around the buskers in the mall that took up the entire width of the street and sidewalks, blocking pedestrian traffic.  So we went back to our hotel, grabbed the accordion and kazoo, and got back out there.  At times, we had a significant crowd around us and they applauded enthusiastically.  A couple of people offered us money, which we turned down.  Apparently we’re more popular here than in our home country.  When we stopped playing, one guy talked with us in English for a while.  He had lived in the U. S. until he was deported.

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Reflecting on our first week back in Santiago, we went there in order to hear the Semana Santa music.  As I noted, the original “San Lucas” sound appears to be gone forever, but we did hear some bands.  I have to explain a little bit of complexity regarding the church here. As I wrote in this blog back in 2013, a cofradía is a place of worship located in a house, outwardly Roman Catholic, but actually a syncretistic mix in which the local Mayan deities are renamed as Jesus, Mary, and Christian saints.  For Semana Santa, there are two parallel and competing sets of public observances; the cofradía guys and the Catholic church guys.

 

On Thursday night, Crucifixion night, two separate brass bands play dirges in close proximity to each other in the church and out in front of it. On good Friday, two giant coffins of Jesus are marched around the streets, each procession accompanied by its own brass band. The marchers plod through their separate sawdust carpets, the bearers swaying under the weight of the decorated wooden caskets, a guy with a huge coiled extension cord following behind to ensure the entire display stays brightly lit. The paths of the processions are marked by evergreen-wrapped poles and horizontal bars from which hang decorated fruit and musical Christmas lights.


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The patron saint of the town of Santiago Atitlan is Santiago, and his statue lives in a cofradía, which rotates to another house annually.  On one of those holy week nights, the statue of Santiago is taken down from the cofradía to the church in a procession, and on Easter Sunday night a procession returns him to the cofradía and they have a big party with lots of drinking and music.

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So I want to describe two bands that I found interesting.  One was the Thursday night band of the cofradía guys.  This was the one I mentioned earlier, with the Tuba player who blew only one note.  I think it may have been a high school band. They were interesting not because they played so badly, although that did add a certain aura, but because they were playing in a style that I think owes something to local indigenous tradition.  Betty made some recordings on her phone, but I don’t think you can attach audio recordings to a blog entry.  I think some of the tunes they played may have been traditional local things, but at one point I recognized the melody of “Nearer My God To Thee,” played so slowly and so out of tune as to be almost unrecognizable.

 

At the other end of the spectrum of musical skill was the band hired by the Cofradía Santiago.  This is a professional dance band called Marimba Sonora Dimension.  They have a couple of marimba players, percussion, keyboard, bass, and a bunch of saxophones and trumpets.  The saxophones in particular play interesting harmonies (in tune).  They played a mixture of popular dance tunes and traditional songs from that area. One of the band members came over to us with their CDs and I bought one.

 

Betty and I went over to the cofradía on Easter night to hear this band play for the party.  They were up on the roof of the house, which like many houses in Guatemala, has a flat concrete roof that can become another floor, with re-bar sticking up out of the walls around it, and no guard rails. The band used a sound system suitable for a sports stadium. We didn’t go inside the cofradía, partly because it was so crowded, but mainly because the music was unbearably loud.  We sat down about a half a block down the street and listened to them.

 

Thus ends our quest for the Semana Santa music of Santiago Atitlan.

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