Meet Balam Ajpu, a Mayan Hip-Hop Trio That Proves Indigenous Art Transcends Folklore

Balam Ajpu

Talking with members of Guatemalan hip-hop group Balam Ajpu is a rapid-fire lesson in Mayan linguistics and culture. I recently sat down with members Tzutu Baktun Kan and M.C.H.E. in Mexico City; they were unwinding at a friend’s apartment after playing a handful of shows in and around the capital. Comprised of Rene Dionisio (Tzutu), Yefry Pacheco (M.C.H.E.), reggae and hip-hop artist Juan Martínez (Dr. Nativo), and producer Danilo Rodríguez, these musicians truly embody the namesake of their group: Jaguar Warriors.

“Do you know your Nawal?” Che asks me when I arrive. There are 20 Nawals, one to represent the spirit of each day in the Mayan calendar. Ajpu’s first album, which came out in March, has 20 songs to match each of the Nawals. Che pulls out his cell phone, and puts on “Tijax” (or obsidian blade), the track for the Nawal of my birth date. It features Guatemalan rapper Rebeca Lane, a feminist MC who Remezcla profiled earlier this year.

Tzutu raps in Tz’utujil, his native Mayan tongue, and alternates verses with M.C.H.E. in Spanish. I follow along in the liner notes, which include a Spanish translation of the Tz’utuijl lyrics. Che then scrolls to the album’s opening track, and my favorite, “B’atz.” The album is the culmination of three years of work together, and it’s also the most visible product of a growing movement of hip-hop artists performing in Mayan languages.

Tzutu, the more serious of the pair, finishes answering an email and shuts his laptop, covered in stickers with logos of other musicians and slogans from social movements. “Hey, shut off the music, we’re starting,” he says to Che.

Tzutu adjusts the ponytail that reaches far down his back, and explains that he has been rapping in Tz’utujil, one of the 22 indigenous languages in Guatemala, since 2008. He has connected with a number of other hip-hop artists who perform in Mayan languages, which are spoken by 6 million people in the Northern Triangle of Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. Among those musicians are Chiapas’ Slajem K’op, who rap in Tsotsil; Pat Boy Maya, who spits in Yucatecan Maya; and Poesia Loca, a group that also raps in Tz’utujil. Beyond Central America, he has reached out to Supaman, a hip-hop artist from the Crow Nation in Montana.

Even though roughly 60 percent of Guatemalans are Mayan, they are hard-pressed to see their culture represented in mainstream media. But just browsing through YouTube videos, it is clear that a vibrant Mayan music scene exists in Guatemala. “Our culture has always been oppressed. To make this music, it’s political by definition,” says Tzutu.

Tzutu is from a small town near Lake Atitlán, where he gives painting and hip-hop lessons to local kids, and where I first heard his music three years ago. Yet he seems equally at home in the middle of Mexico City, the flow of conversation occasionally interrupted by calls of a tamale vendor roaming the street below us. We discuss the Guatemalan hip-hop community, Balam Ajpu’s inspirations for the album, and why hip-hop is such a powerful vehicle for sharing and supporting Mayan culture.

On Mayan Hip-Hop

Tzutu explains that he grew up “right on the border [of the Solalá municipality] with other people who speak K’iche’ and Kakchiquel,” so he infuses his music with these languages, hoping to expand Balam Ajpu’s reach. He has worked with other artists from Chiapas, Yucatan, and in his own region of Solalá.

Tzutu recognizes that it is easy for the project to be tokenized, or get stuck in an essentialist portrayal of Mayan culture. Through his music, the rapper is on a mission to “break those stigmas.”

Not only is Mayan hip-hop a powerful mechanism for political and cultural resistance, it actually makes sense linguistically. Genner Llanes-Ortiz, a Yucatec Maya anthropologist, explains: “Hip-hop, because it is based on a fast-paced spoken-word, lends itself more easily to the rhythms, aesthetics, and inflections of the Mayan languages than some other music genres.” Even for listeners who don’t speak Tz’utujil, Tzutu’s verses are remarkably precise, and his flow is neatly methodical, buoyed by the sacred flutes and rhythmic drumming of Balam Ajpu’s music.

Balam Ajpu
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On How Balam Ajpu Got Together

Tzutu, Che, and Juan [Dr. Nativo] have been working together since 2012. Tzutu explains, “I am more of a painter than a musician. I did some samples with music in Tz’utujil and it worked. But it wasn’t until 2010 [when] I met M.C.H.E. that I started making music more consistently.”

“Hip-hop in Guate before 2010 was just a carbon copy of hip-hop from the U.S.”

Che is from Guatemala City, but was drawn to the hip-hop scene when he relocated to Xela (Quetzaltenango). He joined a collective called 13 Lunas, and soon met Juan in Xela when they played a show together.

Juan had a background in hip-hop, but as Che explains, he came from “a more American or European perspective. So when he came back home to Guatemala, he encountered a very unique philosophy of hip-hop.”

On Hip-Hop in “Guatemaya”

Tzutu and Che define the Guatemalan hip-hop scene by its eclectic sampling and fluidity between genres. Che says that around 2010, “hip-hop was really starting to change in Guatemala. Hip-hop in Guate before that was just a carbon copy of hip-hop from the U.S. Once we started integrating more local elements, it got a lot more original.”

Cumbia bands started seeking out rappers to perform with them, and rappers started to make cumbia and reggae. Tzutu says that in their own music they experiment with a variety of genres: “Salsa, merengue, reggae, hip-hop, bachata, cumbia. Any music that’s played well and has a social conscience; that’s what’s important.” This open-minded approach has culminated in album that leans as heavily on pre-Hispanic sounds as it does on hip-hop beats.

Related: Guatemalan MC Rebeca Lane is Behind Latin America’s New Feminist Hip-Hop Tour

Enriching the musical climate in Guatemala is a powerful spirit of collaboration. In addition to Rebeca Lane’s feature, Ajpu cites Sara Curuchich and Sotz’il Jay as other important Guatemalan figures in the music scene.

Rebeca Lane. Photo by Pablo Sigüenza
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On Tributo a los 20 Nawals

Producing 20 Nawals was a collaborative effort, and Tzutu says that spiritual guide Venancio Morales dictated the lyrics in Tz’utijil to him after consulting the Nawal energies. The group also enjoyed financial support from Foundation Paiz, the Norwegian Embassy, Mr. Music, and Hivos.

On Politics and Spirituality

After a 36-year Civil War that ended in 1996, Guatemala is still a nation in transition. Tzutu explains that the lyrics of the album may not be explicitly political, but that they have all been marked by the political history of their country.

Related: 8 Musicians Highlighting Indigenous Resistance With a 2016 Spin

“[On] the next album, we want to talk more directly about social issues. About water, about mining, all of the territory of the country being sold off to American and Canadian companies.”

“Hip-hop has always given voice to the most oppressed people.”

Balam Ajpu’s music also has a strong spiritual component; their live performance recreates aspects of Mayan ceremonies.

The political and spiritual strands of their music come together in Cosmovision Hip-Hop, a school for indigenous kids around Lake Atitlán, where they organize workshops on painting and rap music. Che explains that they see hip-hop as a vehicle to communicate the Mayan worldview, or cosmovision. It’s an easy match, because “Hip-hop has always given voice to the most oppressed people.”

Tributo a los 20 Nawals is available on Bandcamp now.