In Guatemala a majority of the population is Mayan Indian. For centuries they have been excluded from national political and economic life, but today they’re finding their voice in music. One Guatemala rock band called B’itzma (BEETZ-MAH) sings in an indigenous language called Mam. B’itzma, by the way, means “Harmony.” The band has a big following in Guatemala and in the US.
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Mary Stucky: The young men of B’itzma bound onstage to the cheers of thousands. People are here for the inauguration of Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom.
B’itzma play the standard rock instruments: guitars, bass, drums, but also the marimba, the chirimia, a Mayan flute, and the turtle shell. They wear clothing embroidered with traditional Mayan symbols and they sing of pride in their indigenous heritage. The crowd loves it.
When the band members first got together, they called themselves Sobrevivencia, Spanish for survival – and some fans – especially in the US — still know them by that name. Guitar player Juan Jimenez says they were reluctant to call themselves by an indigenous word – even though they all grew up speaking Mam.
Juan Jimenez (speaking Spanish): “To begin with, we were a little fearful of the reaction. No one was really encouraging singing in Mam, but finally we decided to do it and we even wore typical clothing. Our clothing turned out to be quite popular and many people even started wearing it after our band became so successful.”
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Mary Stucky: The B’itzma musicians are definitely celebrities back in their hometown, Ixtahuacan, a pueblo in the northwestern highlands about an hour from the Mexican border.
During weeklong festivals, when Ixtahuacan bustles with people from all over the region, young women compete to be “Miss Indigenous Princess” and B’itzma, the hometown musical heroes, entertains the crowd.
They sing about their wish for the peace and well-being of Guatemala’s indigenous people. Hundreds of thousands died during the the country’s 36 year civil war, which ended 10 years ago. Most of the dead were Mayan Indians killed by the army. Juan Jimenez says during the war, the town of Ixtahuacan was surrounded — with the military on one side and guerillas on the other.
Juan Jimenez (speaking Spanish): The army was trying to eradicate indigenous towns. But they didn’t. Here we are. Our culture, the Mayan culture, goes on.
Mary Stucky: In Guatemala today the president and others say they want to bring to justice those responsible for crimes during the civil war. The B’itzma musicians say they support those efforts but they prefer to sing about life now for Guatemala’s indigenous people.
Xulem Ortiz is Bitzma’s band leader.
Xulem Ortiz (speaking Spanish): We are living now, surviving as human beings. Therefore, I don’t want to talk about the past and about the horrible things that happened. It doesn’t serve us. My challenge is in going forward, to understand myself.
Mary Stucky: In this song, Bitzma sings: If your thoughts and deeds are bad things will end poorly, but if your ideas and actions are full of dignity, your life will be rich in blessings.