Ti ka tzeta li ka beey jeb’ eel maya ‘bel Let us see our path, great Mayan people.
Ti ka tzija li ka g’ag, jeb’ eel maya ‘bel Let us light the fire, great Mayan people.
Ti kama li e g’a, jeb’ eel maya ‘bel Let us join our hands together, great Mayan people.
Ti kama li e wech, jeb’ eel maya ‘bel Let us unite our visions, great Mayan people
– “Nutzij” by Tzutu Baktun Kan
In October, I took a last minute trip to San Marcos la Laguna to catch a live hip hop concert in the Mayan language of Tz’utujil. The featured MC’s talent, community involvement & passion for giving voice to the Mayan story was truly tremendous. I was honored when he agreed to let me interview him about his story and his projects in the Atitlán area. I traveled by boat from Santiago to San Pedro la Laguna to visit with musician and artist, Rene Dionisio – better known in the hip-hop scene as Tzutu Baktun Kan.
Rene sits in a wooden chair, wearing a green playera and ripped jeans. His long, black hair is tied behind him in a ponytail that he occasionally repositions as he talks about his life’s work. He speaks of abuelos, story, mantra, and song. Passion for transmitting the Mayan story absorbs his work as an artist, musician, and activist.
Born in the small pueblo of Santa Maria, Rene grew up speaking the Mayan language of Tz’utujil and later learned Spanish and English while attending school. He studied architecture and painting and then began traveling in 2001 to the United States, Germany, Spain, and Mexico doing art shows, working with community development, and partnering with NGOs. Rene is well known around Lake Atitlán as he works with young artists in San Pedro as well as helps run hip-hop schools in San Pablo and San Marcos, where fellow musicians infuse Mayan language and traditional prayers with hip-hop rhythms and songs.
Rene pushes open the turquoise gate and shows me the dimly lit work stations with recent portraits painted by Canal Cultural’s students; Mayan nawales, landscapes of Atitlán, portraits of women and men in traditional clothing. One of Rene’s many community projects, Canal Cultural, is an art school run by a group of local artists – Luis Yat (activist & artist), Manuel Chavajay (painter & photographer), Jose Chavajay (graphic designer), Rene Dionisio (visual arts and music). These young men provide free art lessons to twenty aspiring young artists in the Atitlán area. When the project began in 2008, these artists visited different public schools in San Lucas to do art workshops. With the desire to have a year-long program, Canal Cultural moved to San Pedro in 2010 and began offering drawing and painting courses. The dream is to have a more formalized school, which can only be possible with more financial support from donations and by partnering with non-profit organizations like Fundación Paiz and Ri A G’ux associated with the Norwegian embassy in Guatemala.
“It is important for us because there isn’t a fine arts school in Atitlán even though there are so many artists in Santiago, San Pedro, and San Juan,” Rene says, “We see that there is such a range of quality artists – painters, weavers, and sculptors – so much diversity! And we want to support them by providing new designs and motivate them to create more art. By creating a formal school, we can aid in young artists’ creativity so that they can cultivate their talent.”
When speaking of his music career which began in 2010, Rene states, “We are reclaiming the word ‘Maya.’ For such a long time it was considered an insult to be Mayan; our ceremonies were prohibited and we were even prohibited from speaking our own Mayan languages [during the war]. Now, it is almost like a rebirth in an understanding of what it is to be Mayan. We want to wake up the people and bring our beliefs and stories to the light.” He takes this quite literally as he begins every concert with a ceremonial fire on stage.
I ask him, “So, why hip-hop?” He replies, “I saw that it was very important to be able to communicate in our Mayan language. Hip-hop has a story that comes from Mother Africa and then was born in the United States – in areas that were the most marginalized of society. Our stories as marginalized Mayan communities are very similar as we, too, constantly live under governmental and ideological repression. Hip-hop was the natural platform through which we could transmit our Mayan identity and story.” Rene’s latest project is a hip-hop tribute to the 20 Mayan Nawales. This will debut in June 2014 at the XIX Bienal de Arte Paiz in Guatemala. He has also been invited to present the 20 Nawales project in Medellin, Colombia for the International Festival of Poetry in July 2014.
Rene’s hip-hop music consists of traditional Mayan prayers and religious stories, as in his song “B’atz’”:
Pali Wajxaqib B´atz´ / On the eighth day, B’atz’
Xe Tik, Xe g´asbax li Achii / sowed and created man of maíz (corn)
Pa li belejeb Batz / On the ninth day, B’atz’
Xe Tik, Xe g´asbax li Ixoki / sowed and created woman of maíz (corn).
Ja li B’atz’ ja la li ojertak Tzij / Thread of time, our ancient tongues
Cha xe g´uje pali ca xukulibal / were always in our sacred places
Bátz´ li ojer tzij ojer chawem / The thread of time, ancient languages, ancient words
ate li ka Te xque kemkan / this is what threaded together our ancestors
chi ka wech / for us.
His lyrics also contain narratives from armed conflicts during the civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. Approximately 700,000 people died or went missing during the war, including 190,000 to 250,000 people who “disappeared”. Rene’s music speaks to the effects that these tragedies have had on indigenous communities. These themes can be heard in his newest single, “Peyom Camisanel”:
ate xbantaji, ate li poconal / This is what happened, these were the travesties,
ate li gaxgolil, Li ate tata xqui gaxaj / These were the sorrows that happened to our mothers & fathers
… Xe ternbexi, Xe yupubaxi, xe elegaxel, / They were persecuted, confounded, and assaulted
… Xe tzuji, xe poroxi, xe kamixaxel… / mistreated, murdered and burned..
Xbixi cha xoj xachel. Ma oj g´asli. / We were told we would disappear…but we are alive!
I tell Rene that I first stumbled upon his music after viewing an Al Jazeera video featuring his work with Caza Ajaw. He chuckles and says that he met fellow musicians Dr. Sativo and M.C.H.E. in 2010 when the three of them founded hip-hop house, Caza Ajaw, in San Marcos la Laguna. “It is the voice of the people,” Rene says, “we are teaching them how to rap, to give voice in their own Mayan languages of Quiché, Tz’utujil, and Kackchikel.” The three musicians give free hip-hop classes and provide snacks for 20 kids – 16 boys and 4 girls. Rene comments that he would love to have more girls join the program, but it is hard to get their parents’ permission since it is outside of traditional gender roles.
When I ask about Caza Ajaw’s latest project, his eyes light up and he tells me about the Popul Hip-Hop Wu – a hip-hop musical that dictates the sacred Mayan text of the Popul Wu. “We worked for about a month on writing the songs and rehearsing. Now the students are ready to perform it for audiences. They love to perform and they take pride in their craft and their art.” But Rene is also a realist; he highlights that they are always looking for financial support and some sort of financial gift when the kids perform as many of his hip-hop participants have had to quit school and start working in order to support their families economically.
“This is so important to me because when I was growing up, I didn’t have these kinds of resources. My father and mother have supported me a lot, of course, but I see that my journey would have been much easier had I had these kinds of resources available to me – teachers, classes, music, and support within the community. I know that not all of the kids will become professional musicians or artists, but they are learning to express themselves in a positive way. Whatever struggles we have faced, we have passed them by and transformed them into greater victories.”
THE POWER OF STORY
At the end of the interview, I ask Rene what inspires him as an artist from his Mayan tradition. “My language,” he answers, “my people have been speaking it for more than ten thousand years and that is the tradition that propels me forward.”
After taking a few snapshots of his studio, I wish Rene luck as he prepares to head to London as the featured musician in his first European tour. I hop into a taxi to head back towards the dock. Mario, my taxi driver had this to say about Rene and his work:
“It is incredible what Rene and his friends are doing through art and music. They are telling our story – and sometimes even without words. They made beautiful painted murals in the square that tell our story from the armed conflict. Sometimes people can’t understand our reality; but anyone can understand art. Our story is being transmitted to others and that is what matters.”
A good friend of mine once told me that his understanding of oppression was the silencing of someone else’s story. People like Rene are breaking the legacy of silence by not only raising awareness to social injustices but by also vocalizing the beauty and depth of the Mayan tradition and spirituality. It was an honor to meet and learn from Rene, a gifted artist and storyteller. The importance of preserving the stories of those who have often been silenced is a lesson that I am learning again and again during my stay here in Guatemala…or as Rene sings, “Guatemaya.”
**For more information, to contribute financially to Rene’s projects, or to purchase Rene’s music, please contact Rene at:
firstname.lastname@example.org (for Canal Cultural)
email@example.com (for Caza Ajaw & music purchases)
Tzutu Baktun Kan’s soundcloud music channel: https://soundcloud.com/tz-utu-jil-hip-hop
Canal Cultural: https://www.facebook.com/canalcultural.colectivodeartistas
Caza Ajaw: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCgLmxJ3Ycc&feature=youtu.be