Hip Hop, and ethnic identity -in Mayan Highlands- Rusty Barrett, University of Kentucky, United States.
B’alam Ajpu… they strongly promote the use of Mayan languages both through their music and through their independent educational programs. The language ideology of B’alam Ajpu promotes an understanding of language variation as natural and language function as performative, in sharp contrast with the promotion of standardized varieties associated with language revitalization.

Balam Ajpu and Maya Hip Hop: The emergence of indigenous Hip Hop challenges dominant ideologies of language and identity in several ways. The participation of indigenous artists in global Hip Hop is in opposition to ideologies that view indigenous languages as incompatible with contemporary global culture. The members of B’alam Ajpu promote an ideology that they call Hip Hop Cosmovision that links the politics of Hip Hop with the term cosmovision, a common term in the Maya Movement to refer to Maya understandings of the world. Thus, Hip Hop Cosmovision, involves a specifically Maya view of hip hop culture (and vice versa)… the rise of Mayan Hip Hop (2012) marks the beginning of a new spiritual and musical era marked by a unique indigenous Hip Hop style.

For members of B’alam Ajpu, Hip Hop identity is associated with much more than musical tastes or even participation in an artistic movement. Rather, to identify with Hip Hop is to openly support a multicultural Guatemala in which Maya culture plays a central role.

School of Mayan Hip Hop: Within the “Caza Ajaw.” School, elements of Hip Hop are reconfigured to create alignment between Hip Hop -kulture– and Mayan culture. Caza Ajaw teaches Hip Hop as having three elements (-Rap, Painting and Music) corresponding to the three stones traditionally used to make a hearth (or xkub’) in Maya culture. The use of the xkub’ hearthstones recontextualizes the elements of Hip Hop from a specifically Maya perspective.  

The songs taught in the school reflect the goals of language revitalization within the Maya Movement – encouraging children to use the language among themselves, the use of Mayan languages in new domains, and an emphasis on the connection between language use and cultural knowledge. In composing the Maya lyrics for songs, the members of B’alam Ajpu ask a local Aj q’ij “daykeepers” to perform – 4 – ceremony’s to ask the ancestors and/or nawales to transmit knowledge concerning -whit Maya calendar-. The Aj q’ij… recite the words he receives, while Tz’utu hurriedly copies down the words to use as the basis for Hip Hop lyrics. Tz’utu refers to the process as “downloading” lyrics from the nawales or ancestors. After the Aj q’ij has channeled the lyrics, Tz’utu arranges them into Hip Hop songs working with MCHE and Dr. Nativo to set them to music. The group works together for -13- days to translate the meaning of the lyrics, which MCHE then uses to compose Spanish-language versions of the songs. In addition to teaching the songs at the Caza Ajaw School.

The lyrics of the songs emphasize language maintenance and cultural revitalization. In the song Nutzij (My words) by Tz’utu Baktun Kan (2011) for example, the lyrics index the authority of the Libros de Chilam Balam (written in Yukatek Maya), to argue for maintaining Mayan languages and traditional ways of dress (the two most salient indexical markers of Maya identity). Indeed, the phrase our language our clothes has emerged in multiple Mayan languages as a diphrastic kenning indexing the totality of Maya culture in the context of revitalization (Barrett, in press). Diphrastic kennings are pairs of complementary words that together convey some metaphorical meaning (Knowlton, 2002). Examples include “our father, our mothers” to mean “ancestors”.

B’alam Ajpu first CD includes a cycle of 20 songs about the 20 Nawales associated with the 20 days of Maya calendar Choolq´ij. These songs are intended to teach the children -and public-the meaning of each nawal and to pass on the information that the ancestors hope children will remember about each day.

The inclusion of older forms serves as a means of bringing Maya identity closer to its pre-colonial form, but also offers an opportunity to re-introduce older forms into contemporary languages.

In addition to teaching traditional cultural knowledge though the contents of the lyrics, the songs teach children the poetic structure of traditional forms of Maya ritual language. Mayan poetic traditions involve producing parallel structures across all levels of grammar (Sam Colop, 1994, Barrett, in press). These forms of poetic parallelism in Tz’utu’s songs match those found in hieroglyphic texts or early colonial documents written in Mayan languages (such as the Popol Wuj). Similar poetic forms can also be found in contemporary Mayan ritual discourse (Ajpacaja Tum, 2001) and in older forms of Tz’utujil folk music (O’Brien-Rothe, 2010).

Although the curriculum at the Caza Ajaw School is founded in Hip Hop culture, efforts at language conservation and revitalization are equally central to the Caza Ajaw program. In addition to encouraging children to use the language in new contexts and teaching about Maya culture, the program introduces children to traditional Maya poetic forms that they would not likely hear in other contexts. Thus, while the school teaches contemporary Hip Hop culture, it simultaneously emphasizes the relationship between contemporary and pre-Columbian Maya cultures. Cultural continuity between pre-Columbian and contemporary Maya is critical to challenging ideologies of ethnic identity in Guatemala, which typically holds that today’s Maya have no legitimate connection to their pre-Columbian ancestors.

The idea of a Maya Hip Hop artist rapping in Maya is in and of itself a serious challenge to hegemonic understandings of Maya identity. Challenges to dominant discourses of Maya identity must simultaneously demonstrate a connection both to modern global society and to pre-Columbian Maya culture.

Tz’utu argues that the process of language standardization creates divisions between Maya communities even though it claims to promote pan-Maya unity. Although Tz’utu’s hometown, Santa María Visitación, is a Tz’utujil-speaking town, it borders on regions where Kaqchikel and K’iche’ are the dominant language. Rather than perform in a purist version of Tz’utujil, Tz’utu blends together elements of all three languages (Tz’utujil, Kaqchikel, and K’iche’). When transcribing lyrics channeled by the aj q’iij (which may contain elements of multiple languages) and when organizing those lyrics into songs, the members of B’alam Ajpu work to overcome the ethnic divide in Guatemala in a way that places Maya culture at the center of Guatemalan national identity.

Conclusion: Language revitalization and Hip Hop are both global movements with profound effects on local understandings of identity. In the Maya Hip Hop music of B’alam Ajpu, these two trends come together to produce a variety of challenges to the dominant understandings of ethnic identity in contemporary Guatemala. The blending of Mayan languages in the raps performed by Tz’utu serve to challenge ideologies that view Maya identity as incompatible with contemporary global movements such as Hip Hop while simultaneously challenging the adoption of Western language ideologies by activists within the Maya Movement.     

– exerpts from Barrett, R., Revitalización del idioma maya, hip hop e identidad étnica en Guatemala, Language & Communication (2015), https://www.academia.edu/21844797/Mayan_language_revitalization_hip_hop_and_ethnic_identity_in_Guatemala

KEXP  (2019)
Music that matters, vol 690 – indigenous peoples´ Day. (track Batz)
CHILLY from el SONIDO: Music from B´alam Ajpu from Guatemala, combines Hip Hop and Mayan rhythms from the record’s tribute to the 20 Nawales containing 20 songs that recover and reinterpret ancient calendar knowledge. The album features Spanish and indigenous languages.

The British Museum Dr Genner Llanes-Ortiz,
One of the most talented writers is Maya Tz’utuhil speaker, René Dionisio, aka MC Tz’utu Kan. Tz’utu’s style is both traditional and contemporary, combining modern beats with ritual forms to communicate Maya spiritual worldviews. His songs mirror poetic forms that have been part of Maya literary traditions for centuries, still used today by spiritual guides and other ritual specialists. Tz’utu performs not just in his native language but also in K’ichee’ and Kaqchikel. Although the three languages are part of the Mayan linguistic family, they still differ from each other.

In 2015, as part of the music crew known as Balam Ajpu (Jaguar Warrior), with hip hop artists M.C.H.E., Dr. Sativo, and Danilo Rodriguez, MC Tz’utu Kan released an album with the title Jun Winaq’ Rajawal Q’ij (Tribute to the 20 Nawals). https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/tgIyDA7jnH-CLw?e=StellaAccess&fbclid=IwAR1P0CQjwe1QYpyXAQKJW7lWGL4Ilc-DpPCUAFVGWVh0xQHWIGMdSkgncag

REMEZCLA (2016) remezcla.com
Talking with members of Guatemalan Hip Hop group Balam Ajpu is a rapid-fire lesson in Mayan linguistics and culture. Comprised of Rene Dionisio (Tz´utu) Yefry Pacheco (MCHE) Reggae and Hip Hop artist Juan Martinez (Dr. Nativo), and producer Danilo Rodriguez, these musicians truly embody the namesake of their group: Jaguar Warrior.

The album is the culmination of thee years of work together, and it´s also the most visible product of a growing movement of Hip Hop artist performing in Mayan languages.

Not only in Mayan Hip Hop a powerful mechanism for political and cultural resistance, it actually makes sense linguistically. Genner Llanes-ortiz, a Yucatec maya anthropogist, explains: Hip Hop, because it is based on a fast-paced spoken-word, lends itself more easily to the rhythms, aesthetics, and inflections of the Mayan languages than some other music genres.”

NPR – Alt.Latino (2016) NPR Music USA
GARSD: Well, one of the reasons why I got the idea to do a show for Alt.Latino about indigenous lyrics and music sung in indigenous languages is that when I as living in Mexico an traveling though central America recently, I just would never stop finding out about a new language, and under the umbrella of Mayan languages, there are so many. There´s you know there´s Cakchiquel, Mam, Kiche. And next up I brought you a rapper named Tzutu Baktun Kan, and he speaks Tz´utujil, which is a Mayan language.

MARTIN: Cool, and there´s, like, this spoken word kind of hip hop vibe, right?

GARSD: Yeah. Well, I think it´s amazing but no surprising, you know, hip hop is everywhere in the world, as we know. But also, if you think about if, Mexico and Central America have such a close revolving cultural door. So it makes a lot of sense that Hip Hop is very present in Central America.

LOS ANGELES TIMES (2016) Los Ángeles Times
Visitors to Guatemala may get a new glimpse into a pre Columbian language through a group of musician who use hip hop to spread the massage of the ancient tongue.

The group Balam Ajpu is to release tribute to the 20 nawales, its first album, on march 20. The songs are in Tz’utujil and Spanish and also include such sounds as bird song and water, the album pays homage to Guatemala’s 22 provinces plus Mexico’s Chiapas and Yucatan, where the Maya flourished until about 900 AD.

Guatemalan rappers promote Mayan language stories to youth

A group of Guatemalan musicians is on a mission to breathe life into a pre-Colombian 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 Mayan Tz´utujil language with the goal of making it cool for kids and teaching them their ancestors´ stories and ways.

THE JAPAN TIMES Culture(2016) Japan Times
Their debut album, ¨Tribute to the 20 Nawales¨ or spirits, is set to be released to coincide whith 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 sounds and running water.

“Since the time of the (Spanish) invasion, the (Mayan) worldview was persecuted, even almost snuffed out, but now its returning to life, relying on music and sustaining itself in art,“ said group member Rene Dionisio, who uses the stage name Tz´utu Kan. “Our commitment as artists is to rescue the ancient art.”

EL UNIVERSAL.mx (2016)
The lyrics came from a young 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.

Reclamando identidades a traves del Rap Hip Hop en Lenguas Nativas.

Las expresiones musicales son liberadoras y ayudan a construir resilencia. Algunas expresiones musicales han logrado desatar cambios sociales y otras, crean identidad, resistecia pero sobre todo, contruibuyen en forma significativa a mantener vivas las lenguas y expresiones nativas.

Entonces cuando los tambores rituals comienzan a crepitar, las ocarinas silban, las chirimias, cascabeles, y guitarras acompañan a los jovenes, lo que surge es un nuevo canto Nativo, es un rap, punk o Hip Hop valiente, irreverente, arriesgado, renovador, creativo, contestarario, rebelde y siempre provocador.

REBEL MUSIC (2016) Rebel Music,
Is Mayan rap the next big thing in Hip Hop? Guatemalan rappers Balam Ajpu are banking on it. Album drops March 20.

NEWSREVUEW.COM (2018): Tzutu Kan Maya Hip Hop Artist: By Michael Mott
Tzutu Kan, scrolled through the photo on his phone, naming subjects students in his art collective turned into paintings: a fish in a bottle; the cosmos; colonial conquest; banana companies; civil war; a woman as a guerrilla fighter protecting her town; a new generation growing flowers. “this is power” Kan said. He helped from the art and Hip Hop collective in Guatemala in 2008 to teach kids history and culture.

Indigenas Contemporáneas . Estruendo Multilingüe (2017)
El Museo Universitario del Chopo presenta la cuarta edicion del Festival Internacional de Músicas Indígenas Contemporáneas Estruendo Multilingüe, con la participación de tres grupos y cuatro solistas provenientes de Sonora, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Estado de México, Guatemala y Canadá… Emprender luchas por el territorio ancestral con actvivdades vinculadas a una creatividad musical indigena que se posiciona dentro de un mundo global que revira hace el racicmo y el totalitarismo contra cualquier expresión de diversidad obserca Ruiz.

Los músicos y músicas indigenas contemporáneas son protagonistas de procesos multilocales que se organizan de manera independiente frente a politicas culturales patrimonialistas, frente a la centralización racial y lingüística de los espacios cuturales y musicales, y en favor de diversos derechos relacionados con el territorio.

INDY WEEK´S music blog Durham-Chapel hill (2016)
Strange as it might have seemed to Ana Tijoux, this was a big day for Latin America Hip Hop at local universities. Duke Performances offered a free lunchtime talk and mini-performance with Tijoux, open to the public though Duke´s Artist-in-residency program. UNC brought in Tzutu Kan, representing Maya Hip Hop group Balam Ajpu, on tour from Guatemala, along with Durham´s Lil Chuy, to play at the Mandela Auditorium the same afternoon.

CULTURAL SURVIVAL (2016) Rhyming for My Ancestors: Tz´utu Kan
Hailing from what the Maya consider the bellybutton of the Universe-Lake Atitlan in the central Guatemala highlands- Tz´utu Kan is a Hip Hop artist who lays down rhymes in the ancient Mayan languages of Tz´utujil, Kakchiquel, and Kiche. He is also a member of the group Balam Ajpu, which means “Jaguar Warrior”… Balam Ajpu represents duality, the balance, light and dark, male and femaly energy, and the return to a relationship with the cycles of nature.

BILLBOARD (2018)Doctor Nativo – “Guatemaya”:
A mix dedicated to indigenous resistance that features native Guatemalan instruments together with guitars, percussion and bass. Stonetree Records releases the album Sept. 15. Watch the video for the title track, featuring Mayan-language rapper Tzutu Kan. – JCN

Los embates ideológicos y religiosos hacia las comunidades indígenas trataron de callar sus creencias y su fe. No solo en Guatemala, en todos los pueblos indígenas de América. Ahora, en tiempos de reivindicaciones y de rescate a sus raíces ancestrales, a finales del año pasado salió a luz el disco Tributo a los 20 nawales (Jun Winaq’ Kajawal Q’ij) a cargo del grupo guatemalteco de hip hop maya Balam Ajpu.

Hace un par de semanas fui a un concierto de MAKU Soundsystem, una banda de inmigrantes colombianos, principalmente, radicada en Nueva York. La gente estaba prendida bailando al ritmo de los tambores cuando los músicos invitaron a subir al escenario a quien quisiera hacer una improvisación. Un muchacho de pelo largo, negro y liso agarró el micrófono y empezó a cantar en Maya. Los aplausos no se hicieron esperar. Y yo, atónita al escuchar a alguien cantar tan hábilmente en un idioma que pocas veces en mi vida había escuchado, me propuse conocerlo y entrevistarlo.

KASEO_REAL (Gira el Circulo, Guatemala 2019)
Buena dosis de Hip Hop energico y revitalizador en Guatemala. Un placer compertir ritmos y rimas con los rappers de America Central y un gran descubrimiento conocer al colectivo #balamajpu gracias a @nochesvip Volvermos!!

CUENTOS DE RESISTENCIA Y SUPERVIVENCIA: revitalizando la cultura maya a través del arte público en Guatemala A Thesis Katherine Broughton, Ohio University With their Mayan hip hop, Balam Ajpu has introduced a new, unique genre to the world, that epitomizes the survivance of Mayan culture. The didactic essence of their music, along with the references to ancient myths, important symbols, and basic cultural values connects their music to the unending oral tradition. By transforming oral tradition into the “modern language” of hip hop, Balam Ajpu explains cultural knowledge in a way that is understandable and attractive to young Mayans, and thus helping to keep alive this knowledge that has already prevailed for hundreds of years.

Las líricas locales En Guatemala existen muchos valiosos grupos de rap en idiomas mayas, entre los cuales ha destacado Tzutu Kan y los miembros de B’alam Ajpu, quienes usan idiomas mayas y retoman las tradiciones orales y cosmogónicas de su pueblo. Además, estos artistas están comprometidos con el activismo cultural entre los niños de sus comunidades y la revitalización de los idiomas mayas como forma de resistir el lenguaje hegemónico en Guatemala. Pocos saben en Guatemala que estos artistas son muy apreciados en otros países, incluyendo en Estados Unidos a donde han ido de gira

Identity-Based Revitalization in the Maya Communities of Guatemala: A Focus on Dress and Language     Author: Hannah McChesney
The Casa Ajaw is not the only project Tzutu and other community members have embarked on. They are also involved in art classes at a place called Canal Cultural, in which ancient Maya symbols are incorporated into artwork. In the future, Tzutu hopes to create a  community center that can also serve as a school, with three educational foci: music, art, and language. He is also trying to write a documentary that details their projects, cultural visions, and the efforts of the group and other community members. However, he laments that he often struggles to receive funding from national organizations as well as support from authorities in his area, who he explains have little interest in his revitalization endeavors. 206 Interview with Tzutu, near Lake Atitlán 5/4/2020.

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