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Music Before Columbus

By Tim Hazell

The first instruments in pre-Columbian cultures were probably those obtained from the environment and used in their natural states, meaning without modification. Seed pods or cascabeles, the conch shell trumpet, calcite stones that emitted pleasing sounds when struck, and the tortoise shell played with deer antlers all may have originated from organic materials that were gathered for utilitarian purposes. As New World religions became more complex, rituals demanded sacred music, dance, and human sacrifice.

From these beginnings the sophisticated manufacture of musical instruments evolved. For example, the tortoise shell gave rise to the teponaztli. This is a hollowed out log, richly carved and/or painted, with two to four keys cut into the top that emit musical notes when struck with mallets. Clay flutes come in all shapes and sizes, requiring great skill and knowledge of acoustics by those that construct them. Trumpets are painted with images of gods, sacred events, and animals; they are manufactured from clay, wood, stone, and gourds in the Mayan tropical lowlands.

Native music still requires the duplication of sounds produced by such natural phenomena as wind, rain, and birdsong. Modern indigenous musicians might include instruments, such as the omichicahuaztli or musical rasp, globular clay flutes with a myriad of animal and plant forms called ocarinas, and the huehuetl (Nahuatl for grandfather) log drum with a resonating cowhide skin, hollowed out from a single trunk and richly carved.

Mexican recipes are part of the country’s living archaeology. Many have used the same ingredients and preparation techniques since pre-Columbian times. Pumpkin seeds play an important role, toasted in their hulls and eaten as a snack, or hulled but unroasted and unsalted, used in moles and the following “Camarones en Pipián.”


Shrimp in Pumpkin Seed Sauce


1-1/2 lbs. medium-sized shrimp, unshelled

1-1/2 cups cold water

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup hulled, unroasted, unsalted pumpkin seeds

8 sprigs fresh coriander leaves only

3 chiles serranos

1/2 small white onion

1 tbsp. unsalted butter

2/3 cup sour cream


Place the shrimp into a saucepan with water, salt, and pepper and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat. Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and transfer to a colander. Let cool until safe to handle. They will continue to cook. Reserve the liquid. Shell and devein the shrimp, reserving the shells. Place shells in the saucepan with the reserved liquid, cover and simmer 10 minutes longer. Reserve the broth and discard the shells. Gently toast the pumpkin seeds in a heavy, dry saucepan until they start to swell and pop. Do not brown. Add the shrimp broth, coriander, chilies, onion and toasted seeds to a blender jar and blend until smooth. Melt butter in a pan. Add the pumpkin seed sauce and cook over a very low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Fold shrimp into the sauce, stir in the sour cream, and heat through. Serve with tortillas or rice.


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