When Maryknoll priest Dan Jensen went to Santa Eulalia, Guatemala, in the early 1960s, he went with the fervor of saving souls and serving the poor. He did not expect to uncover, in the eaves of his little church, an ancient indigenous manuscript of hymns to the Virgin Mary.
The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) has just released Guadalupe: Virgen de los Indios, based on the complex harmonies and indigenous instrumentation of these 400-year-old deerskin musical scores. "It is extremely touching as a musician to talk to people after our concerts," says SAVAE director Christopher Moroney. "People come up with tears in their eyes saying how much the music means to them. Even though many of the songs are in the Aztec language known as Nahuatl, the emotion and message of the music still reaches peoplefour centuries after it was written."
FOR MANY AMERICANS, the 1531 appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the foundational story of their cultural identity. She appeared not to the ruling Spaniards, nor to the Catholic priests, but to a young Aztec Christian convert named Juan Diego, and she arrived as a young, brown-skinned Aztec woman speaking Nahuatlthe language of the conquered Aztecs. Her appearance radically changed the relationship between the native Aztec people of Mexico and the Spanish forces of Christian conquest. As theologian Virgilio Elizondo writes, "The real miracle was not the apparition of Guadalupe, but what happened to the defeated Indians. They who had been robbed of their lands and their way of life and even of their gods were now coming back to life. They who had been silenced were now speaking again through the voice of Guadalupe."
SAVAE blends its seven voices with traditional wind and percussion instruments of the Aztecs to create music that is a spellbinding fusion of Renaissance European and indigenous Mexican cultures. The songs range from medieval rancheros played on a simple guitar to mystical chants carried by a clay flute. One recounts the virgin birth in Bethlehem; another calls to the "sweet counselor of my soul, divine star of the sea that illuminates the world, I await your maternal blessing."
In collaboration with World Library Publications, SAVAE is bringing this haunting and beautiful music back into contemporary worship. Through Guadalupe: Virgen de los Indios, voices once again give truth to the church in flower and song.
ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of Sojourners.
Guadalupe: Virgen de los Indios. San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble. Available on Talking Taco/lago, distributed by Allegro Corporation, 1998.