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Musical Ritual in Mexico City

Musical Ritual in Mexico City
From the Aztec to NAFTA

This book offers a comprehensive history and ethnography of musical rituals in the world’s largest city.

June 2004
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352 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w illus., 2 line drawings |

On the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City, Mexico's entire musical history is performed every day. "Mexica" percussionists drum and dance to the music of Aztec rituals on the open plaza. Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral, choristers sing colonial villancicos. Outside the National Palace, the Mexican army marching band plays the "Himno Nacional," a vestige of the nineteenth century. And all around the square, people listen to the contemporary sounds of pop, rock, and música grupera. In all, some seven centuries of music maintain a living presence in the modern city.

This book offers an up-to-date, comprehensive history and ethnography of musical rituals in the world's largest city. Mark Pedelty details the dominant musical rites of the Aztec, colonial, national, revolutionary, modern, and contemporary eras, analyzing the role that musical ritual played in governance, resistance, and social change. His approach is twofold. Historical chapters describe the rituals and their functions, while ethnographic chapters explore how these musical forms continue to resonate in contemporary Mexican society. As a whole, the book provides a living record of cultural continuity, change, and vitality.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • Part I. The Mexica: 1325-1521
    • 2. Tenochtitlán: 1325-1521
    • 3. Mesoamerican Resonance
  • Part II. New Spain: 1521-1821
    • 4. Colonial Mexico: 1521-1821
    • 5. Colonial Resonance
  • Part III. The New Nation: 1821-1910
    • 6. The First Century of Independence: 1821-1910
    • 7. Nineteenth-Century Resonance
  • Part IV. The Revolution: 1910-1921
    • 8. Revolutionary Mexico: 1910-1921
    • 9. Revolutionary Resonance
  • Part V. Modern Mexico: 1921-1968
    • 10. Bolero and Danzón during the Postrevolutionary Era
    • 11. Bolero and Danzón Today
    • 12. Classical Nationalism during the Postrevolutionary Era
    • 13. Classical Nationalism Today
    • 14. Ranchera during the Postrevolutionary Era and at Mid-Century
    • 15. Ranchera Today
  • Part VI. Contemporary Mexico: 1968-2002
    • 16. Popular Music Today
    • 17. Conclusion
  • Appendix 1. Theory and Methodology
  • Appendix 2. Timeline
  • Appendix 3. Discography
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Mark Pedelty is Associate Professor on the faculty of the General College at the University of Minnesota.


If you want to see if a nation is well governed, listen to its music.

—Confucius (in Castellanos 1970:65)

Mexico City has been the cultural and political heart of the Mexican nation since the Mexica founded their capital there in 1325. In a matter of decades, the Aztec settlement grew into the metropolis of Tenochtitlán, an island city on Lake Texcoco. Although neither the ancient city of Tenochtitlán nor Lake Texcoco can be found today, traces of both remain, buried just a few meters below the surface of modern Mexico City.

Similarly, layers of time have created a cultural foundation for the modern city. The past can still be seen, felt, and heard in the capital. For example, on the zócalo, the main square of Mexico City, Mexico's entire musical history is performed every day. "Mexica" percussionists drum and dance in the square's cemented central part. Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral, on the northern edge of the zócalo, choristers sing colonial villancicos. Meanwhile, just outside the National Palace, to the east of the square, the Mexican army marching band plays the "Himno nacional," a vestige of the nineteenth century. These remarkable sounds are subsumed and incorporated into the city's soundscape, no longer a dominant cultural force but vital nonetheless as reminders of Mexico's past. Although pop, rock, and música grupera dominate the contemporary soundscape of the world's largest city, these more subtle echoes continue to resonate as well. We can learn a great deal by digging through these musical layers. With that in mind, this book presents an aural excavation of the city's musical history and a snapshot of its contemporary musical life. The goal is not just to detail past and present musical rituals, however, but to explore the inextricable relationship between the two.

Such research requires not only historiographic examination but also ethnographic analysis. Both methods are applied here. Each chapter narrates the development, execution, and social functions of the main musical modes of a given historical period. Each historical survey is followed by a chapter describing how the same musical forms resonate today. For example, Chapter 2 is about Aztec music and ritual observance. Chapter 3 focuses on the ways in which Aztec ritual music is performed today, nearly five hundred years after the Conquest. The rituals of the Aztec Empire have been radically transformed, becoming rituals of renewal and even resistance when performed in the present. The sacred huehuetl drum no longer provides the soundtrack for sacrifice but instead renews the spirit of middle-class office workers and college students gathered in the zócalo. The conch trumpet no longer signals the hour of bloodletting; it entertains throngs of tourists at archaeological sites. The slit-gong teponaztli no longer plays for rituals of state but instead enlivens archaeomusicological ensembles at the National Museum of Anthropology.

Catholic rites (Chapter 4) that once legitimated Spanish rule have likewise lost their social centrality, taking on new, often antithetical cultural meanings in the postcolonial present (Chapter 5). A similar fate was met by the profane jarabe, a ritualized dance that challenged the colonial hegemony of Spanish theocrats. The radical colonial dance became an official ritual of national identity after the first Mexican Revolution (1810-1821), only to fade into fossilized "folk" status after the next (1910-1921). The growth, florescence, death, and rebirth of the jarabe and other musical forms of nineteenth-century Mexico are examined in Chapters 6 and 7. Modern musical styles, from the revolutionary corrido to postmodern rock, are similarly detailed in Chapters 8-16. The book concludes with a spectacular ritual event, the presidential inauguration of Vicente Fox, a dramatic ceremony recapitulating 700 years of Mexican ritual history.

Each of the musical movements described here has experienced a fairly similar life-trajectory, moving from creative obscurity to social dominance, only to be replaced in the next era by other musical forms and ritual regimes. Although each assemblage of sound has been quieted through time, none has been silenced altogether. Echoes of the musical past continue to resonate in Mexico City's museums, theaters, concert halls, restaurants, and parks. To understand those echoes, we must return to the beginning, when a relatively small Aztec band first reached the shores of Lake Texcoco.



“This is a charming and engrossing account of the history of largely popular street (and public face-to-face) music in Mexico City and surrounding regions from pre-conquest to the dawn of the twenty-first century . . . done with a great deal of style and flair.”
Patricia Seed, Professor of History, Rice University


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