Creating a personal link to the past… with music

There are some things we do in life not for fame or money, but rather to give our lives meaning.

In the case of the Cortés family, that meaning plays a tune.

The family is from a small town of Santa Cruz de Arriba, part of the Texcoco municipality on the northeast edge of the Mexico City metro area. Texcoco was important in the late pre-Hispanic period as one of the three kingdoms that unified to create the Aztec Empire.

Cazuelas and other wares in Santa Cruz de Arriba

Santa Cruz de Arriba has had a reputation for the making of clay cookware for over 600 years. They are particularly known for making large cooking vessels called cazuelas, used for mole or rice.

Mario Cortés Bacilio made these , much like his neighbors, until he met researcher Jorge Dajer in the 1970s. The two began to work together to recreate authentic reproductions of the flutes and whistles that were an important part of the music of Mesoamerica for 2000 years.

They did not have much to go on. No written scores survive to document the music, only some molds such as those excavated from places like Teotihuacan. The work was important to Dajer’s professional development, but it also became important to the Cortés family.

Mario’s two sons, Gregorio and Mario (Jr) Cortés Vergara grew up not only making pots, but absorbing all the research that was being done around them. Gregorio made his first flute/whistle in the shape of a turtle at the age of 7 or 8. When the father died, the two brothers decided to continue the research and reproduction work even though there was little market for it at the time.

That is until the mid-1980s when some musicians took an interest in the replicas. Since then, they have created flutes of all kinds for musicians such as Humberto Alvarez, Antonio Zepeda, Gonzalo Ceja, Luis Marquez, Mago de Oz, the Zazhil group and many more. These musicians were interested in some of the most complex instruments that the workshop had catalogued over the years including double, triple and cuadruple flutes, ocarina or vessel flutes and whistles of all shapes and sizes and “plunger” flutes, which have small balls or marbles in them.

Over the years, the two brothers have catalogued and recreated over 400 types of flutes and whistles, from civilizations such as the Maya, Toltec, Mixtec and Mexica. It is exacting work in order to get the sound right. Their work is found in collections and museum both in Mexico and abroad.

However, they earn little from the making of the instruments and received little to no help to do the research. Both have worked as policemen to pay the bills, with only spare time allotted to their workshop Ah Pax Chul, a Mayan phrase that means “maker of flutes.”

The brothers’ work received some attention in the Mexican press recently, but unfortunately this was because Gregorio died during the summer of 2020 at the age of 50. There is now only Mario Jr to continue the work that his father started.

The workshop has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ahpaxchul/

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