It takes some guts to play the belly drums, but what better place to find them than Oaxaca, the celebrated home of the world's best chocolate
right in the heart of Mexico, one of the most obese countries
on the planet. The members of this all-Oaxacan sextet have made a pledge to each other that together they're going to make it big, which means they pack in several courses of buttered tortillas between those delicious cups of hot chocolate every day. Their debut album, Cuacuahuececeyotl
, provides some dramatic evidence that they can bring age-old traditions back to life, even jazz them up a bit.
This little-known style of percussion has its roots in ancient Aztec mythology, according to group leader Chucho Pérez. He and the others worship a minor deity called Cuacuahuececeyotl, who (according to the liner notes) is responsible for introducing humans to butter. They titled their first song after the Buddha-like figure, whose name means "butter" in Nahuatl. It starts with a persistent low rumble from bass bellyist José Garcia, then builds to a lumbering roar as the others add their own themes in irregular polyrhythmic polyphony. Soon all the musicians are exchanging commentary ("trading fours" as it were), one to the next, until a dramatic solo performance by baritone bellyist Ramón Gutiérrez closes things out.
Unfortunately tenor bellyist Carmen López found out she was six months pregnant with triplets shortly before the recording sessions took place, but her younger sister was available to perform. Rosa López composed the third tune, "La Gordita Loca," in honor of her sibling. Its eighteen-beat form is based around six repeated units of three, around which the other musicians improvise freely.
Finally, five long tracks into the release, we discover the real talent of Chucho Pérez is his ability to play melodies on his belly. Like the tuned "talking drums" of West Africa, Pérez has learned to adjust tension to achieve individual pitches. He plays a recognizable medley of "Bemsha Swing" and "Epistrophy," to the rest of the group's swinging accompaniment.
Belly drumming may be a musical novelty for now, but Pérez knows it's just a matter of time before the New Age, meditation, and world music communities get into it. Soon enough, he says, we'll find it's a global craze of enormous proportion.
Thanks to the efforts of David Hasselhoff's Mel Bay Watch Records, this music is now available internationally. Hasselhoff admits in the liner notes that "there's no way a Southern California lifeguard could play this stuff, so we put one on the cover to give an ironic twist to the story."