With our society’s attention spans’ becoming shorter, it is a difficult task for novice rappers to gain celebrity. Keeping the public’s attention is hard enough, but imagine also attempting to preserve an ancient Mayan Tz’utujil language?
It is a seemingly grandiose task for a new Hip-Hop group to undertake – one that the rappers in Balam Ajpu aren’t shying away from. If they are successful, cultural preservation will no longer be restricted to the job descriptions of museum curators and archeologists.
Balam Ajpu, which roughly translates to Jaguar Warrior, or Warrior of Light, hail from Guatemala, a country known for less favorable things today-gang violence and a troubling surge in drug trafficking to name a few. However the country was also home to the ancient Maya, one of the most impactful and advanced civilizations of its time.
In addition to advanced contributions in language, architecture, and mathematics, the Maya also possess a rich culture centered on a deep respect for nature and peace. It is a culture that has survived European colonialism in Central America.
In an interview with the Associated Press, group member Rene Dioniso said, “Since the time of the (Spanish) invasion, the Mayan worldview was persecuted, even snuffed out, but now it’s returning to life, relying on music and sustaining itself in art. Our commitment as artists is to rescue ancient art.”
Central Americans speak roughly 22 Mayan languages, yet Balam Ajpu is convinced that the culture is taking a backseat to modern advancements. But rather than compete, they’re simply bridging the cultural gap by preserving the ancient Maya teachings through rap music, and doing so isn’t threatening modernity. The video for their single “Batz” displays candles, incense, and chanting while the rappers trade bars in a lush rain forest-an amalgam of the contemporary and ancient.
Their first album, Tribute To The 20 Nawuales (Tribute To The 20 Spirits), pays tribute to the 22 provinces of Guatemala and the Mexican region of Chiapas and Yucatan – areas where the Mayan civilization resided in its peak around A.D. 250 – 290.
The songs are rapped in a blend of Spanish and Tz’utujil over a marimba influenced hip-hop beat. It is an ambitious attempt to encourage the young ancestors of the Maya to utilize their native tongue more frequently.
“The children and young people we meet sometimes start singing and they do it in Spanish, even though they don’t speak it very well,” Dionisio told the Associated Press. “I tell them to do it in their (native) language, since it comes out more naturally.”
Their lyrics, written by Mayan priest Venancio Morales, explore the popular concept of spirits and nature in Mayan mythology. Balam Ajpu hopes that by teaching these ancient concepts through a modern genre like Hip-Hop, the youth will be inspired to avoid negative activities like joining gangs.
The group hosts ceremonial performances in the tropical forests throughout Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, San Pedro la Laguna and Solola and have already begun working on a new album—it is through this effort that they hope to amass even more international recognition.
The release date of “Tribute To The 20 Nawuales” falls on the Spring equinox (March 20th), and is in alignment with the Maya’s obsession with time and seasons, it’s a symbolic ritual that still resonates today. With spring comes new life and, hopefully, a new outlook and appreciation of an ancient, influential culture.