The Vulture Speaks

Early in the process of sorting out who would write what, Alejandro and I agreed that we would not identify exactly where we encountered the badly damaged document that is our starting place for our linked essays. (His essay explains why we decline to do this). When we decided that my contribution would appear under the rubric of “Notes from the Field,” this provoked about a day and a half of sharp anxiety for me. This series is fun to read, after all, because of the richness and specificity of the perceptions and interactions described there. But how could I write anything when specificity was proscribed?

Then I remembered: I manage this all the time, not because of proscription but because of the mortal nature of documentary evidence. Historians of performance, and performers of historical material (I have been both) hover like vultures about the uncomfortable limbo zone where documental support for practices fails or simply never existed. One could say quite accurately that my “field” is this zone, as much or perhaps even more than the particular region of Mexico where we encountered the document. I’ve never before tried to describe that field as a Field in the geographical sense, giving a sense of place and sketching what’s at stake among the inhabitants I come to know.

The visual images that come first to mind are of emptiness, desolation; the inhabitants phantasmal, fleeting. It is, after all, a field defined by death. And vultures feed on death. My vulture analogy, however, is not intended as a jab at myself and my historian colleagues; I have always rather admired vultures. The Linnaean name of the turkey vulture is Cathartes aura: roughly, and grandly, “purifier who rides the winds.” If you have spent any time in non-urban environments in most of the Southwestern United States, and ANY part of Central and South America, you have seen this bird circling overhead: they are an extremely successful and widespread species. Large, robust creatures, ruggedly unhandsome, and with a clear mandate in the scheme of things, they make short work of the dead and spend a good deal of time soaring, taking advantage of rising warm air to rise in leisurely circles over canyons and valleys: always keeping an eye out for another delicious clean-up job.

Cathartes aura soars over Caribbean Mexico as it does California. There is a traditional son from the Tuxtlas region of Veracruz, entitled El zopilote, “The vulture” (not to be confused with the much better-known son jaliscense of the same name). The vulture appears there, not as a looming harbinger of Death, but as an everyday, honorable, perhaps slightly prissy figure:

Ay vuela que vuela, ay vuela que vuela,

Dando vueltas sin rebote,

así se consuelan, así se consuelan,

tan tremendos pajarotes.


Ah, fly, fly, fly, fly,

circling around smoothly,

that's how they pass the time,

such grand birds.


Un zopilotito, un zopilotito

a la garza regañaba,

porque sus patitas, porque sus patitas

ella no se las lavaba.


Con sus plumas prietas, con sus plumas prietas,

van rondando por el cielo,

y se les respeta, y se les respeta

por los muertos en los suelos.

A little vulture

scolded the heron

because she wasn’t washing

her little feet.


With dark feathers

they circle around the sky,

and they are respected

by the dead in the ground.


(thanks to Alejandro García for help with the transcriptions and translations)

[Recording: Los cultivadores del son, San Andrés Tuxtla]

The research project on which Alejandro and I embarked in late Summer 2016 sought archival evidence of the performance of comic theatrical music in Caribbean Mexico. This is an entirely different enterprise from looking at performances sanctioned by major institutions like the Church or the colonial governments, the unearthing and transcription and editing of which has become a minor industry in Latin American musicology. Theater music was always marginal. Comic theater music, the frivolous and reprehensible stuff between the acts of “serious” plays (which were not always so serious), was rarely considered worth preserving in documental form.

What we mostly found were references to the licensing of ad hoc theater companies, who competed with fireworks artists and billiard parlors to rent repurposed churches or convents. Over the course of about ten days, we found the names of two plays; of a handful of actors who probably sang; of a couple of parishioners described in marriage registries as “músico;” some interesting information about impresarios and set-builders; and a reference to an “escoleta” (a community band).

Slim pickings. Apposed to it, contesting it, however, is the unruly vitality of performance. The regions we were traveling in are famously rich in rural traditional musics. Even as “El zopilote” offers a wry comment on the fussiness of those whose office consists in picking over cadavers, it offers an alternate way of imagining the music those cadavers once made. Like many sones from the Tuxtlas, it bears a sonic imprint, faint but persistent, of nineteenth-century salon music—catchy, trite little turns of phrase, like shreds pulled free from the tight warp and weft of galant melodic and periodic structure. The musical fabric of late-Enlightenment cosmopolitanism is re-woven into what is now a deeply rural traditional music.

This odd echo of long-lost bourgeois theater music can be hypothetically explained with recourse to documents. When theater work was scarce, our elusive but entrepreneurial “músicos” hired themselves out to supply music for parties; there, they brought those long-lost, catchy tunes, imported from European theaters or imitated by criollo composers, into urban households. There, along with things like the “paspié” (= passepied, with origins in Baroque France) and the “congot” (= conga, with immediate origins in Cuba and the suggestion of an older African provenance), they were the height of musical fashion. (Antonio López Matoso, 1816-20) Some of these musicians were rural people, and they brought these fashionable tunes and dances back to their pueblos, where they continued to evolve in the hands and bodies of campesinos and campesinas. Along with echoes and transformations of African and indigenous gestures and postures, I hear and feel the faintly tawdry ghost of colonial bourgeoisie breathing through this son, which I first learned to sing, play, and dance in 2013.

Performance history suggests, amiably enough, that we not bog down unduly in the matter of documentation, but that we honor and observe what we see and what we hear in the here and now, as “restored behaviors” that comment on, dialogue with, inflect, and, when needed, stand in for the documental record. (Le Goff, 1992; Roach, 1996) Doing so, however, carries with it elevated moral stakes. All of a sudden, and for the first time in my career as a historian, my sources are living people, fellow musicians who do not fit in the category of “informant” very well, and who most certainly are not cadavers. Cathartes aura cannot digest living flesh.

By allowing my ear to be caught and held by these turns of phrase, which strike me as so characteristic, I myself perform a connection to colonial musics; by asserting it, whether in words or in my own performances of this son, I make it more real. This is a contribution that for understandable reasons is not necessarily welcomed by the tradition bearers for the sones. Such cultural-political resonances are now perforce a part of my project. Wings humbly folded, I take it step by step.



Jacques Le Goff. History and Memory. Trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Antonio López Matoso. Viaje de Perico Ligero al país de los moros. (1816-1820) A Critical Edition of Antonio López Matoso’s Unpublished Diary, 1816-1820. James C. Tatum. New Orleans, Middle American Research Institute of Tulane University, Publication 36. 1972.

Joseph Roach. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.


Elisabeth Le Guin is Professor of Music and Musicology in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and a devoted amateur jaranera.



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