By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Considering that Spaniards were intent on destroying indigenous cultures everywhere they set foot five centuries ago, the lives and musical skills of Daniel Medina de la Rosa and Erasmo Medina Medina are nothing short of miraculous. Medina de la Rosa and Medina Medina hail from a small village in Central Mexico called Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, and the music they play with their tiny instruments – the raweri or Wixárika violin and the kanari or Wixárika guitar — is inspired by their deities and their reverence for nature.
Earlier this year, the duo played at Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, México’s premier art house, with internationally renowned composer and musician Philip Glass. It turns out it was the maestro’s 80th birthday, and to celebrate he performed his Seventh Symphony, Toltec, for four days at Bellas Artes. They were star-studded presentations befitting of Glass’s storied career: he is considered one of the most influential contemporary composers alive, a prolific music writer who has produced scores for several films such as “The Hours” and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” composed more than twenty five operas, large and small; twelve symphonies; three piano concertos and more. In 2016 he received a National Medal of Art from President Barack Obama, and his work was recently celebrated at the 41st Annual Kennedy Center Honors.
His birthday bash at Bellas Artes included reading of poems by Diego Luna and music by other renowned performers. If it weren’t for Glass, it is unlikely the Wixárika musicians would have ever played in Mexico’s most revered art venue.
Glass invited the Medinas to perform for his Days and Nights festival in Big Sur in October. And thanks to a special friendship Glass has developed with Enid Baxter Rice, director of the CSUMB Salinas Center for Arts and Culture, he also brought the duo to Salinas. They were introduced by Víctor Sánchez, a writer who has dedicated his work to exploring the ancient cultures of Mexico and how their spiritual practices can be used in the contemporary world to bring about contentment.
During the presentation in Salinas, Sánchez spoke at length about his research and meeting Glass in 2001, when the composer wrote to him and asked him if he would like to meet.
“The first thing I do is say ‘Are you THE Philip Glass?’ He says, yeah, I’m a musician. If you’re interested, I’m going to be doing a few concerts in Mexico City, five in a row’.” Sánchez signed up for all of them, he said.
By the time Glass wrote to Sánchez, the researcher had already written The Teachings of Don Carlos: Practical Applications of the Works of Carlos Castañeda, and Toltecs of the New Millennium, both works that explore the ancient Toltec culture – which predates the Aztec empire — and recognize Earth as a living being. In his writings, Sánchez traces Toltec beliefs to those held by contemporary indigenous people, beliefs that had to endure more than five centuries of occupation, colonialism, and profound racism.
“Getting to know our fellow Mexicans who live in the indigenous communities, (I discovered) they have a direct inheritance with this culture, which is alive. It’s not something just in the books, it’s not something hidden in the pyramids. It’s alive,” he said.
Glass wanted to tap into that knowledge, Sánchez said, something the maestro explained when they met for the first time in 2001.
“As we get to know each other, I realize he’s been exploring the musics of the world for most of his life, trying to decipher the origin of music or the nature of music, which is a remarkable and spiritual quest,” Sánchez said. “He had explored cultures from India, from Tibet, he has done all this relevant quests which I admire. What am I doing, what can I possibly show this man who seems to be fairly satisfied with the path he has walked? So I asked him, you seem to be pretty organized with your music, your work, your spiritual quest. What can I do for you?”
Glass, Sánchez said, was curious about his work on poderios, a word he uses to describe fields of energy in nature that are approached personally in the Toltec tradition as spiritual practice.
“We work with grandfather fire, father sun, mother earth. You pretty much ask them questions and things happen,” Sánchez said. “Something as simple as that.”
The journey Glass and Sánchez embarked upon continues to this day, the writer said, and included an introduction to Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, population 130, in the heart of Wixárika nation. That’s where Glass met the Medinas.
“I don’t take people up there,” Sánchez said. “It’s a reality that’s not easy to connect with. It’s a different language, it’s a different context and most people would not understand. … That did not happen. (Glass) connected with people in a very natural way, I was pretty much impressed and he was not even speaking Spanish. My friends do not speak much Spanish either, there had to be another way to make the link and it happened. They became friends first and eventually they started to play music together.”
Glass and the Medinas did not play together in Salinas. But the composer was at hand to introduce Sánchez, who in turn introduced the Wixárika musicians. They played one song that lasted about 12 minutes, written by Daniel Medina and inspired by his spiritual practice.
“My praises and songs come when I hear the hicori (cactus), I hear the reasons for things as they happen from whoever communicates it to me,” Sánchez said, translating Medina’s words into English. “I would listen to them in my dreams, in the sublime and in paradise because that’s what I like. When I give my prayers to my deities they are heard and only them will judge my work. That does not belong to me, I cannot appropriate it. It’s borrowed from my older brother the deer. He only knows where it comes from… I listen to the praises, I interpret them because they are my thoughts, my heart, my daily life, and I feel satisfied. … They are the composition of my deities and my ancestors, the mysteries of the sacred mountain and of nature, there is where this comes from, and this is how I go on.”
As they play, both musicians raise their eyes to the heavens, as if in prayer, looking for mercy, for approval, as if thanking the heavens for five hundred years of survival, as if asking for five hundred more.
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