Yodoquinsi: The Voices of Mother Earth

By Douglas Thompson

Yodoquinsi 5

Yodoquinsi is the voice of the earth,

It’s the voice of the wind,

It’s the voice of water,

It’s the voice of fire,

It’s sound flowing in fibers of color….

With this invocation, recited by the group within their Day of the Dead performances, we are welcomed into the ritual space of Yodoquinsi. Yodoquinsi are four sound wizards from Oaxaca, Mexico, employing only pre-Columbian instruments to create their sonic universe. The dream begins as deer antlers strike rhythms across tortoise shells, quartz hammers dance over hand-chipped obsidian rocks, diminutive “sphere within a sphere” wind whistles blow up to the squall of a hurricane, and a giant snake-shaped rain stick shakes the water free. The elements have come alive in the hands of Yodoquinsi.

Group member and spokesman Luis Fernando Garcia elaborates on the relationship Yodoquinsi has with their instruments: “The acoustic sounds of the instruments didn’t happen by accident. They developed over thousands of years. The materials are simple, but the range of sound is amazing. And then there’s the symbolic nature that the instruments have for the indigenous cultures. When you hit a tortoise shell with an antler, you hear the earth, the light, and the day – the elements that the deer represents. The turtle represents the wetness, the darkness, and the night. When we play we express our amazement discovering the sounds within these instruments. They were not made for display in a museum. They were made to play the cultures, the animals, and the wind. We are breathing life back into these instruments.”

The bones of our ancestors

are the bones of the earth.

They’re talking stones,

They’re singing stones.

They know the future.

Take a crystal and hear their tune

It’s an ancient song of your ancestors….

These songs bubble up from the wellspring of humanity. The group’s name, Yodoquinsi, is taken from the name of their families’ village in Oaxaca, and translates to “land of many colors.” The rich mineral contents of the soil there are like a rainbow echoing the sky. The roots run even deeper. Evidence of human habitation in Oaxaca dating back to 11,000 BC was discovered in the Guila Naquitz cave near the remarkable archeological complex of Mitla. UNESCO recognizes this area as a World Heritage Site for the "earliest known evidence of domesticated plants on the continent, while corncob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize." The elaborately carved stones of many of these ancient cities may have been torn apart to create the facades of the conquistadors’ cathedrals, but the foundations of indigenous culture in Oaxaca are still intact.

Yodoquinsi 1

We will ring our bells at the cave in the mountain.

We will ask the elder if the day has come,

He knows the time,

He knows when the blessed flowers bloom.

He will ask for the offering, he will eat with us,

When the sun sets, he will become a cloud.

When the sun sets he will become a bird.

This is not the first time our landscape has been colored by the Oaxacan elders. In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president of the banking firm J.P. Morgan, took part in a nocturnal mushroom ceremony conducted by the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina in a remote mountain village of Oaxaca. The psychotropic revelations Wasson experienced during Sabina’s curing ceremonies attracted the attention of Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary. When Leary made the psilocybin mushroom his own sacrament, a generation of American youth followed his credo to “Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out.”

Yodoquinsi 2

The creator of life asked the animals to teach us

And they were the ones who showed us the way:

The path of the deer,

The path of coyotes.

They taught us to use medicinal plants.

They taught us to use healing herbs.

They showed us their power.

As Yodoquinsi thunders into its next invocation, we are informed the songs are “medicinas sagradas,” sacred medicines. Giant drums release the storm, rattles filled with butterfly cocoons hiss like rain, eerie vespers blown through dual, micro-tuned clay flutes gust over the maelstrom. The voices and worlds of the elders spring back to life and resonate at the deepest level of our shared DNA.

Luis Fernando Garcia: “When we play the drums, the gods talk to us. They use the skin of the deer and the body of the tree as interlocutors to talk to us. And when we shake the butterfly rattles, you can hear the spirit of their bodies resonating. There’s a legend that when a warrior dies in battle, he will be reincarnated into a butterfly, so as you learn more, your relationship with the instrument becomes more complex.

Yodoquinsi 3“Western civilizations developed a musical system based on mathematical proportions… and that put aside more complex sounds like thunder, birds and jaguars. These are sounds that can’t be found in the tuning of a piano. Our pre-Columbian ancestors built clay flutes and whistles that sounded like those animals. In no other place in the world can you hear those types of sounds. And if you think about it, a clay flute is made of the four elements: The clay is dug from earth, and you have to mix it with water to shape it. You have to bake it in fire to harden it, and then you have to blow air through it to make a sound. So you have the four elements to make a sound on a single instrument.”

Yodoquinsi 4Luis’s thoughts remind me of what my friend, composer Jon Hassell has related regarding classical music. Jon says that because the West possesses the technology, it has the “megaphone” to dictate that Western music is the benchmark for all musical forms. But in reality we find classical music existing everywhere in the world. Hassell looks at it like a periodical chart where the purest elements of music exist in exclusively distinct locations. Javanese gamelan, or Pygmy chants emanate from one unique location on the planet. These are the voices of the planet talking to us. So too the indigenous music of Mexico.

Luis: “We are kind of asleep. We are losing perspective of what’s really important, what’s really sacred. So much of what gives us life is being destroyed. We hope when we play this music, we will all wake from this dream into our beloved land of colors.”

Yodoquinsi invites us to listen to the butterflies, tortoises and jaguars, the voices of the thunder, wind and rain, the voices of who we were before technology changed our identities and planetary ecologies. In our great age of fossil fuels, when the skies turn dark and conspire against us, the poles thaw, the starfish dissolve, and the deserts are scattered with bones, will we keep listening to the stories that that no longer give us life?

Luis: “We are going back to Mother Earth, to our place of origin. No matter where you are, you’re from here. Our place is where we buried our umbilical cord. For us, it’s our beloved land of colors – our beloved Yodoquinsi.”

We are the south, rabbit and thorns;

We are the east, reed and light;

We are the north, flint and death;

We are the west, the house of the sun.

We worship you, Mother Earth.

Bless us, Father Sun!

Yodoquinsi performed in concert on November 8, 2014 at USC United University Church to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the radio show Canto Sin Frontera (Songs without Borders), produced by Tanya Mayahuel Torres on KPFK (90.7 FM Los Angeles, 98.7 FM Santa Barbara, 93.7 FM N. San Diego, 93.5 FM Ridgecrest).

Yodoquinsi have a ReverbNation page and a Facebook Page

Douglas Thompson is a filmmaker who has spent considerable time in Oaxaca shooting a documentary about Day of the Dead rituals with Lila Downs. He is a member of the KPFK team helping to produce the Global Village radio show with Yatrika Shah Rais, and is currently working on The Race To Save The World, a feature documentary about climate change.