3 ancient musical instruments

The DAM Partners with Museo de las Americas on Rhythm & Ritual 

Editor’s note: The Museo de las Americas (861 Santa Fe Drive) will host Rhythm & Ritual from June 19-October 17, 2020.

Music is a central aspect in our lives and plays a key role in shaping our experiences. Most of us do not go a single day without hearing music in some capacity. Consider how people living 1,000 years from now would misinterpret what your life was like if music was left out of it. Have you ever stopped to think about the music of ancient peoples and how it impacted their lives and experiences? The Denver Art Museum is partnering with Museo de las Americas (Museo) for Rhythm and Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas to address this very question.

The past can sometimes appear to be static. Objects are seemingly condemned to sit in silence, removed from the context they were once used. In reality, each object has a rich life history. By animating these musical objects through live performance and playable 3-D replicas, Rhythm and Ritual aims to celebrate the instruments of the past and help us better understand the lived experiences of ancient people and their impact on culture and music today.

This exhibition tells the story of music of the ancient Americas through three sections:

First section: Classification

The first section provides an overview of the overarching classifications of musical instruments played by various cultures. You will learn the terminology used by musicologists who study these instruments, you will find out more about the evidence used to help us understand ancient music, and you will see instruments from different cultures side by side.

Second section: Context

The next section is organized both geographically and thematically to explore the context music was used. From funerary rituals in ancient Costa Rica to a casual jam session in an ancient Maya household courtyard, the type of music played would be completely dependent on the context of the event. This section looks specifically at the instruments found in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, and ends in a detailed exploration of music in the ancient Maya area.

Third section: Legacy

The final section honors the enduring legacy music of the ancient Americas continues to have today. Muralist David Ocelotl Garcia has painted a breathtaking interpretation of the Bonampak band, the largest depiction of an ancient Maya musical group. Clarissa Tossin’s piece, Ch’u Mayaa, explores how a modern recreation of ancient dance poses put to music can reclaim a space for descendant communities. Listening stations allow you to hear local Latinx musicians performing playable 3-D printed replicas of the ancient musical instruments on display, as well as answering questions about why music, both ancient and modern, is important to them. Finally, by trying your hand at playing 3-D printed replicas of several of the objects on display yourself, you can gain a better understanding of how ancient musicians played these instruments and hear what they sounded like.

Learn more about the DAM's art of the ancient Americas collection.

Images: Unknown Maya Artist, Jaguar-costumed Figurine Flute with Blowgun, 300-600 C.E. Ceramic; 6.5 in (16.51 cm). Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward M. Strauss, 1984.521. Unknown Costa Rian Artist (Atlantic Watershed Region), Decorated Ocarina, 1000-1500 C.E. Ceramic; 2.62 x 2.5 in. (6.67 x 6.35 cm). Denver Art Museum: Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1993.887. Unknown Chiriqui Artist, Drum with Painted Geometric and Facial Imagery, 900-1520 C.E. Ceramic; 13 x 5.5 in (33.02 x 13.97 cm). Denver Art Museum: Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1995.394.

Jared Katz is the curator of Rhythm and Ritual and is the Mayer Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow for Art of the Ancient Americas at the Denver Art Museum. In addition to curating, Jared is an archaeologist and a musician.