Mayan music and culture

Visitors accompany Florencio Mes

Sustainable cultural tourism is one of the most significant ways in which a culture’s music, dance, language and traditions can be kept alive and declining trends can be reversed. The Lodge at Big Falls has been taking its guests to visit Florencio Mes a Mayan harpist at his home near the village of San Pedro Columbia for the past eight years. In 2007 he was filmed by Katia Paradis for a documentary titled the The Three Kings of Belize. the other two “kings” of Belizean music were Mr Wilfred Peters, now sadly passed away, and Paul Nabor the Garifuna exponent of the Paranda style of music.

Florencio Mes has been keeping the musical traditions of the Maya alive for the past fifty years or more. Now seventy-four years old, he was born in 1938 close to the village of Santa Cruz on the road to San Jose. Tragically his father died when he was one year old and his mother when he was four so Florencio was brought up by his brother Bartolo who is ten years older and even today Florencio refers to Bartolo as “my father brother”. He had very little schooling and cannot read or write but has risen above these disadvantages to become a great ambassador for Mayan culture and music.

Florencio Mes plays his harp

Florencio Mes, Mayan harpist

It was not until the age of sixteen that he began to practice and play Maya instruments and between then and the age of twenty-two he went and studied with Chalio Mes in Guatemala and with Jose Che a harp master from Cotton Creek. In Guatemala he learned more of the legends behind the music. None of the music Florencio plays with other musicians from San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia has lyrics but there is always a story behind each piece.

Florencio Mes and his Kek’chi Maya Strings have been recorded by Stonetree Records and have performed around the world at music festivals. In 1992 he played in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City along with musicians from eighty-six other nations and the year 2000 found him and his group in Venice, Italy which he remembers as “twice more hot than Belize because there are no more tall trees”. Florencio’s most recent overseas adventure was when he attended the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia in July 2005. This event brought together musicians from every continent to share their music, with representatives from Australia to Algeria and Peru to Pakistan.

Fernando Ash of San Pedro Columbia taught Florencio how to make Mayan harps, violins and guitars and he often has some works in progress to show visitors to his home, near Queso Creek (on the right hand side if you are traveling from San Miguel to San Pedro Columbia village). All the instruments are made from tropical cedar (cedrela mexicana) which is strong, light and has good acoustic properties. He now uses nylon strings which have advantage of being durable but do not have the same sound quality as the cow gut and cohune palm fibers which were traditionally used.

Mayan musical traditions

Florencio plays one his recently completed violins

Florencio enjoys receiving guests at his home and during a visit of an hour or more will play his harp for guests, demonstrate his instrument making techniques and give them a tour of his kitchen garden where they can touch, taste and smell a variety of plants and fruit which are grown either for food or medicine. It is a fascinating experience giving a glimpse into a vanishing world. A world whose disappearance is still being hastened by the interference of outsiders. Florencio is aware of the need to keep his cultural traditions alive. He lost some promising pupils when their parents were converted by missionaries who preached that music was the work of the devil and he now has no students to pass on his skills and learning.

So if you want to learn to play the Mayan harp then Mr Mes would be a willing and able teacher and if you want to buy a Mayan instrument then he is the man to see. If you want to hire Mayan musicians for a special event then Florencio Mes is the man to talk to. And if you just want to meet and talk and find out a little about the world of the Kek’chi Maya you can hardly do better than call by and introduce yourself. You cannot make an appointment but if he is there visitors will be made welcome. His house is on the road between San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia villages. Ask a local for directions.