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Notes on Church in Guatemala

Villagers in Canquintec

9pm on a Saturday night in Todos Santos Guatemala and the sound in these mountains travels incredibly well. I heard a moaning cry, over and over obviously amplified in the distance. It sounded like someone had just had their brother murdered and were yelling at the murderers about what evil they had done. It sounded amazing and so I set out through the local drunks of Saturday through dark stone footpath alleys and I found it. I reckon it is a hybrid of Pentecostal meets Mayan.


4pm on Sunday about 4km north in a no named town on the maps North of Acul. The rain started pouring from the sky's as I made it into town so I ducked in for a soda and waited, but after 30 minutes it kept pouring and the church across the street started up with the music.

There were about 50 people in plastic chairs clapping in perfect sync to about 8 musicians. Of the 50, 12 were men and they were segregated to the right of the church. Each song sounded like it could be played on a Caribbean beach, with a reggae rhythm and some cheesy 80's synth keys playing unrepeating melodies. The mix is heavy on the bass and causing the sashes obscuring the tin roof to shimmer and vibrate.

Each song goes on for about 10-15 minutes. There is a Mayan woman hollering a repeating each note with increasing emotion. One by one the women turn around and kneel and fold their hands into their heads on the plastic chairs and begin moaning and crying. The music fades and under the drone of rain on tin and sporadic thunder you can finally hear the full congregation sobbing and moaning. It is a stark contrast to the upbeat Caribbean major key reggae.

The collection plate is not passed around, each person walks up to the collection plate. Pretty clever way to make sure everybody pays up.

The next song begins and it seems unrehearsed. As the song goes on the drums sound drunker and the bassist takes more artistic freedom leading to very strange chords. The music beings to sound off-kilter and dissonant like a solo Thom Yorke record.

There is not much between songs, anything that can be said can be said within the music. These musicians are obviously not afraid to wing it, and they seem to be more in control of everything then the person talking and singing. During all this cacophony the piano is sticking to cheesy upbeat expressions after every line which makes everything sound even stranger, meanwhile he is competing for musical space with the other piano who seems to be using a clavichord effect. It sounds like reality.

The music fades again and the moaning of everyone sounds naked and very human and by this time the streets are practically muddy rivers. The guy in the front of the congregation blows my cover and calls me out. After I lose the attention I slip out to find the nearest fried chicken shack for 5 quetzals and see about rounding up a Tuk-Tuk to take me down the mountain.

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