(Image of a clay vessel depicting an elite singer/dancer and his musician retainers, one of whom plays a friction drum, from Guatemala, 600-900 CE Maya Vase Database)
Princeton University Art Museum: Music from the Land of the Jaguar
From the 2004 exhibition on pre-Colombian Mesoamerican music, musician and independent scholar John H. Burkhalter III talks about bringing the Maya friction drum back to life:
For historians interested in the musical practices of the ancient Maya, the multifigure narrative on the seminal Maya vessel illustrated here (above) is extraordinary. The figures are seen in profile in keeping with standard Maya artistic convention. The extensive jaguar regalia of the figure on the far left attests to his elite status; his posture indicates that he has just turned from gazing into a pyrite mirror and assumed the pose that is the Maya iconographic symbol of dance. From the rich jaguar details of his dress, it could be concluded that he is about to perform a jaguar dance, with steps suggesting the movements of the jungle cat. If so, this may represent the origin of the jaguar dance that is still performed today in southern Mexico by the direct descendants of the ancient Maya.
…The central figure provides astonishing and unequivocal proof of the use of an instrument with a string component, centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. …The sixteenth century Spanish chroniclers…made no mention of any stringed instruments.
This particular instrument, is an acoustic marvel and a testimony to the ingenuity of the Maya instrument maker who first conceived it. The purpose of the instrument is clearly to imitate the sound of the most important creature in the Maya cosmos, the jaguar. As depicted on the vessel, the player holds horizontally in his left hand a long stick to which is affixed a string, tautly connected to the membrane of a drum. The drum, most likely made of ceramic, acts as an amplifier. The instrument is fully activated when the serrated rasp stick in the player’s right hand scrapes the stringed stick; as the vibrations travel the length of the string into the drum, the resultant sound is almost indistinguishable from the throaty snarl of an adult jaguar.
A scale replica of the instrument depicted on the vessel was first heard in 1998, at a Dumbarton Oaks conference on pre-Colombian music and iconography. At that time, it was immediately recognized that this unique instrument could be said to evoke “music from the land of the jaguar.”