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Rhythm and Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas Exhibition

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

By Jared Katz

The past can sometimes appear to be static, as the objects in museums are seemingly condemned to sit in silence, removed from the context they were once used. In reality, each object has a rich life history. Rhythm and Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas, seeks to bring these objects back to life for people, celebrating the instruments of the past. Rhythm and Ritual is one of the largest exhibitions in the United States to date to explore the context in which music was performed by various cultures throughout the ancient Americas. The exhibition, ultimately, seeks to populate people’s perception of the past with sound and music, allowing museum guests to better understand the experiences of ancient individuals in their daily and ceremonial lives. This show is a collaboration between the Denver Art Museum and the Museo de las Americas and features nearly 80 objects from the Denver Art Museum’s permanent collection. The exhibition tells the story of ancient music through three primary sections.

Section1: Types of musical instruments

The first section identifies the overarching organological classifications of musical instruments played throughout the ancient Americas, based on the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system. The display cases within this section show instruments within the same classification from different cultural areas, thus allowing museum guests to see the overarching similarity of the musical technology while at the same time allowing them to appreciate the stylistic differences. The three types of instruments discussed are membranophones, idiophones, and aerophones.

Section 2: Context of Musical Performance

The second section of the exhibition is dedicated to exploring the different contexts in which music was performed by ancient peoples. This section is organized both geographically and thematically, and is designed to help people better understand the sensorial experiences that ancient individuals would have encountered in their daily and ceremonial lives. This section highlights instruments from ancient Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and concludes with a deep dive into the ancient Maya area.

This section covers a range of topics. For example, there is a case discussing the use of music and musical instruments by ancient Costa Rican ritual specialists. Ritual specialists are identifiable based on their conical hats, which were documented ethnographically as well as archaeologically (Hoopes article). There are four instruments, three rattles and one ocarina, in the display case depicting ritual specialists with their conical hats. There are numerous instruments within the Denver Art Museum’s collection that depict these ritual specialists, and which emphasizes the link between this class of individual and music. Behind the case is a large photomural of a ritual specialist from the Kogi community, in Colombia, again wearing the conical hat and playing a flute, thus allowing people to draw the connection. In ancient Costa Rican belief, ritual specialists could enter into a trance state and transform into Jaguars in order to traverse the spiritual realms (stone).

In the front of a display case is a small whistle in the form of an anthropomorphic jaguar standing on its hind legs with elaborate body paint. This is most likely a ritual specialist in their jaguar state. Finally, the case contains a small ceramic rattle in the shape of a gourd. It was documented ethnographically into the early 1900s that there was a particular type of gourd rattle used by ritual specialists in funerary ceremonies, and it was believed to be bad luck if the rattle was used for other purposes. This case, therefore, is used to highlight the use of music by ritual specialists in ceremonies, and to ask the audience to reflect on what it might have been like for an ancient Costa Rican individual to have attended a funerary ceremony, hearing the instruments being performed as part of the event.

The next gallery provides a more in depth discussion of music in the ancient Maya area. The installation covers topics including music in ceremony, music in the household, music and the ballgame, and music and dance.

The section on music and the ballgame, for example, discusses both the formal and informal presence of music, helping museum guests to consider the phenomenological experience encountered by ancient Maya people at an event such as this. The case has two instruments. On the left of the case is a ceramic horn shaped like a conch shell. On the wall to the left of this instrument is a rollout of an ancient Maya polychrome vessel showing a ballgame that is just about to begin. Two musicians stand on the ball court next to the ball players, one playing a conch shell horn, similar to the horn on display. The musicians are serving as a formal part of the ceremony and pageantry of the event.

Just as national anthems are often played prior to sporting events, so to did ancient Maya musicians perform prior to the commencement of the game. On the right hand side of the case is a small ceramic rattle. To the right of this rattle is another rollout, this time discussing the informal role of music at the ballgame. This rollout shows a ballgame in full swing. One ballplayer has just struck the ball with their hip, no doubt resulting in a loud sound that is reverberating around the ball court. The ball is shown mid air, souring towards the opposing team. In the stands are two individuals facing towards one another. Their mouths are open, either shouting or singing, and one is shaking rattles, similar to the rattle in the display case. Below the label for the display is a QR code, which leads museum guests to an audio recording of a contemporary world cup game in which people are singing, playing noisemakers, and just enjoying the event. The label invites museums guests to listen to the recording and consider how similar our own experiences at a sporting event today are to an ancient Maya person’s experience over 1500 years ago.

The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to the enduring legacy of music of the ancient Americas today. This section features works by contemporary Latinx artists, emphasizing the impact that ancient music continues to have on people’s identities. Two contemporary artists are highlighted in particular. Clarissa Tossin, an LA based artist, kindly loaned her video piece titled, Ch’u Mayaa, for this exhibition. Ch’u Mayaa is filmed in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Maya revival style houses. The piece uses recreated ancient dance poses documented on Maya polychrome vessels and music in order to re-appropriate that space for descendant communities.

Colorado based artist, David Ocelotl Garcia, contributed a large mural that is a reinterpretation of the Bonampak Mural, from the site of Bonampak in Chiapas Mexico. The mural contains the depiction of the largest ancient Maya musical group known. When we approached David to see if he would be interested in undertaking this commission, he informed us that it was actually this mural and these musicians that first inspired him to draw on ancient Mesoamerican artistic practices in his own work, demonstrating how these ancient musicians continue to shape people’s experiences today.

This section also includes listening stations that feature interviews with local Latinx musicians as they discuss the role of music in their lives. This exhibition is designed to be highly polyvocal in nature, highlighting the voices of artists and musicians as they reflect on their thoughts about music of the ancient Americas.

Finally, the exhibition includes playable 3D printed replicas of the instruments on display. Originally, anyone would have been able to play the 3D prints and then sanitize them afterwards. Having the opportunity to play a physical instrument would have provided museum guests with an embodied understanding of what it was like for ancient musician to hold, play, and hear these objects. Unfortunately, Covid 19 has forced us to change our plans. I have been playing the 3D printed replicas on tours, and some of the education staff periodically perform them.

Rhythm and Ritual uses ancient instruments, audio tours and recordings, interviews, animation videos, contemporary artwork, and 3D prints all to help bring ancient music to life for people. Join us in celebrating ancient and contemporary Latinx musicians and musical instruments. The exhibition is on view at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, until October 17th.


Jared Katz is an adjunct professor in the art history department at the University of Denver and is the Mayer Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow for Art of the Ancient Americas at the Denver Art Museum. He is the curator of Rhythm and Ritual, one of the largest exhibitions to date dedicated to music of the ancient Americas. He received his PhD from the anthropology department at the University of California, Riverside, with a focus on Mesoamerican archaeology. His research is focused on the music of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and in addition to having published numerous articles on this topic, he has developed a methodology to 3D print playable replicas of ancient musical instruments.   


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