Brass band music from the Sierra Juárez

The state of Oaxaca covers some 95.000 km2 (three times the size of Belgium), which makes it the fifth biggest state of the 31 that make up the Mexican Republic. It is situated in the south of the country on the Pacific Ocean, west of Chiapas. The Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range crosses the country from west to east. The geographical situation of the state of Oaxaca gives it great biodiversity, which is, however, threatened by intensive deforestation, soil erosion and a chronic lack of water.

The state of Oaxaca, along with Chiapas and the states of Guerrero and Hidalgo, is one of the poorest in Mexico. Its economy is mainly rural and the native communities suffer from impoverishment and marginalisation, which leads them to move massively into the cities (Oaxaca, Mexico City) or other regions of Mexico, but also beyond the national borders and into the United States. The recent census of 1990 carried out by the Instituto National de Estadistica, Geografia e Informatica (INEGI), shows that over one million natives, that's to say almost one fifth of the Indian population of Mexico at the time, was settled in the state of Oaxaca. It is therefore the most "native" state of the country. In Oaxaca, the natives represent over fifty percent of the population and are divided into sixteen ethno-linguistic groups. The origins of some of these groups go back over 5000 years. Since the 16th century, religious orders have endeavoured to divide and disperse these populations who have retreated into the mountains, ever further and higher. Today, the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mazatecos, Chinantecos, Mixes, Cuicatecos, Nahuas, Popolacas, Triquis, Chontales, Amuzgos, Chatinos, Huaves, Zoques, Chocholtecas and Ixcaltecas are spread throughout Oaxaca as well as in 500 "municipios" or community groupings (the municipality is the smallest administrative division) spread over thirty-odd districts, which themselves are spread over eight administrative regions: Mixteca, la Cañada, el Golfo, Valles Centrales, el Istmo, la Sierra Sur and la Sierra Norte.

The Zapotecs form the third largest ethnic group in Mexico (after the Nahuatl and the Mayas of Yucatán) and come from a very ancient Pre-Colombian culture. Although today they mainly live in relatively destitute rural communities scattered throughout the mountains, their empire used to stretch over all of Mexico to Costa Rica, and their technical (agriculture, architecture,...) and social innovations influenced all Pre-Colombian civilisations in Central America. Indeed, from 500 BC the Zapotecs developed a novel concept for the region: a centralised state with a veritable political and administrative organisation. They settled in the region of Oaxaca around 300 AD and developed a highly advanced civilisation there. Two hundred archaeological sites are attributed to them the main one of which, and the most monumental, is that of Monte Albán. The decline of the Zapotec civilisation began around the 10th century, when the Mixtecs pushed them back to the East. In the 15th century, they were conquered by the Aztecs, and in the 1520s by the Spanish, thus completing their annihilation, despite strong armed resistance.

When it achieved Independence (1821), contemporary Mexico naturally promoted various policies for assimilating natives in keeping with its desire to build a homogeneous nation. These policies were all disastrous. They systematically denied the cultural and linguistic differences between the indigenous populations. They were pursued throughout practically the whole of the 20th century, using the capitalist market and the school institution as their main assimilation tools. The inevitable consequence has been the massive adoption of the Spanish language. It was not until 1964 that this political orientation changed and that a bilingual and "bi-cultural" system of education came into theoretical existence in Mexico. But change did not truly begin until the First National Seminar on Bilingual and Bicultural Education, in 1979. From the eighties onwards, the education system was more attentive to the needs of the native culture and education became bilingual, though not, for all that, truly native, for most of the subject matter consisted only of Zapotec translations of Spanish material. Although the situation differs greatly from one Zapotec region to another, in the Sierra Norte – a territory of over 3500 km2 including no less than fifty "municipios" scattered through the mountains and difficult to reach – the upkeep of traditions and language is proportional to economic marginalisation. Most villages are poor and agriculture (corn, beans, chilli peppers), practically the only economic activity, is barely self-sufficient. So it is not surprising that reciprocal ancestral systems of solidarity and exchange such as the gwon or gozona, are still current in these isolated regions. Over the last decade there has been a real will to promote development in the Sierra Norte, which can be seen in the improvement of means of communication, an increase of social and amenities infrastructures and more active schooling to curb illiteracy.

Today, according to some estimates, there are over 700 000 Zapotecs in Mexico, mainly concentrated in the state of Oaxaca where it appears they alone represent 35% of the native population (in 1999). To date, there is no Zapotec region as such, nor any linguistic homogeneity, but rather a heterogeneity due to historical fragmentation. It is nevertheless true that there has recently emerged a cultural and social Zapotec identity, common to all the groups, as well as a political indigenist current seeking greater recognition, among other things through a greater promotion of language and culture, and through greater autonomy on the administrative level.

Making native languages official (1990) on the constitutional level, and legally recognising individual and collective rights for the indigenous populations of Oaxaca (1996), are indications of major progress in the emancipation process.

bandas school
In 1952, in San Bartolomé Zoogocho, a little village in the Sierra Norte de Juárez, the Centro de Integración Social n°8 “General Lázaro Cardenas” was created. This is a boarding school for natives, dependent on the public education department of Oaxaca (IEPO). This boarding school now caters for the primary schooling of children aged 8 to 14, in native language, as well as professional training and professional qualification (taller de capacitación) for older children. The training is mainly orientated towards the sewing and clothes-making industry, baking, carpentry and music (brass band musicians).

At the beginning of 2005, the Centre had 230 boarders from three different ethnic origins – Zapotecs, Chimantecos and Mixes – from forty-odd villages in the region. As it has developed, the musical activity has become predominant within the institution. Today, it represents over 40% of the educational mission of the Centre and involves half of its population. The school has two music masters and two bandas or brass bands with members aged between 8 and 20 years old: Banda Juvenil and Banda Nueva. Brass bands are extremely popular in Mexico, especially in this part of the state of Oaxaca. In some villages, with a population of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, it is not unusual for there to be several brass bands. Numerous festivities, mainly religious, such as the "Velas" punctuate the Mexican calendar and provide so many occasions for the bandas to parade through the village and then play at the inevitable popular balls. During these festivities the ancient Pre-Colombian culture mingles with Spanish rites and the people celebrate indiscriminately the patron saint of the village, the plants, the animals, the crops...

But despite the popularity of the brass bands and the abundance of festivities, it is still uncertain as to whether the training of musicians to carry on the banda tradition will continue. One of the Lázaro Cardenas Centre's missions consists in training instructors to respond to the demand in the communities (one banda was even created in Los Angeles in the United States, by a former pupil of the Centre, with immigrants originally from the valley). Beyond its ambition to train and educate, the Centre also contributes to the conservation of the community patrimony and to its dissemination. Old bandas have been rehabilitated, young musicians replacing the old. The repertoires are listed – and therefore preserved – and the collective musical practice of the brass bands is in full expansion.

Banda Juvenil can include up to thirty musicians. The original sound of a repertoire with no percussion instruments is rendered here by ten instrumentalists. All the represented composers are from the Sierra Norte.

Recordings made in February 2005 at the
Centro de Integración social "General Lázaro Cardenas" in San Bartolomé Zoogocho.
In Zapotec, Yelanban, means "that which generates life".  

CD tracks
  1. Unificación Serrana / Serrana unification (regional sound)
    Atilano Montellano

  2. A los toros / To the bulls  (paso doble)
    Bonifacio Gaetano

  3. Chelita (sound)
    Floriberto Martínez 

  4. Bella Zapoteca / Beautiful Zapotec woman  (sound)
    Ismael Méndez

  5. Lagunita encantada / Enchanted Laguna (cumbia) 
    Ismael Guzmán

  6. Lili (regional sound)
    Victor Reyes

  7. Selva rebelde / Rebel Jungle  (paso doble)
    Ismael Méndez

  8. Lisbeth (petenera)
    Ismael Méndez

  9. El caracol / The snail (march)
    Victor Reyes

  10. La llorona / The weeper (sound)

  11. Sones y jarabes / Sounds and jarabes 

  12. El chofer alegre / The Merry Chauffeur (Mixe sound)
    Delfino Reyes

  13. Sentimientos por Moctum / Feelings for Moctum  (bolero) 
    Carlos Jiménez