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date: 09 December 2019

  • Andrés Amado

Turtle shell idiophone of Mesoamerica, used since pre-Contact times. A fresco in Structure 1 of the Bonampak ruins in Chiapas, Mexico, depicts a Mayan procession accompanied by musical instruments including the turtle shell, which continues to be used in religious processions nowadays. Tortugas are struck with mallets or sticks on the plastron side.

In Guatemala, indigenous and Ladino or mestizo (mixed-descent) people use the tortuga. Among the Maya, they accompany dances alongside other instruments. For instance, an ensemble comprising tortuga, trumpet, and tun slit drum accompanies the dance Baile del Tz’unum (dance of the hummingbird), an origins dance from Aguacatán, Huehuetenango. The Q’anjob’al-Mayan word for tun, akte’ (wooden turtle), suggests that the tun might have replaced the tortuga in some Mayan performances such as the Kanhal Che’ (dance of the horse), from Jacaltenango, Huehuetenango.

Among Ladinos tortguas feature prominently in the posada, the procession representing Mary and Joseph searching for lodging. As the procession marches, tortugas sound a rhythmic pattern. Although the tortuga has no definite pitch, the pattern uses two types of strokes, the higher-sounding one striking the shell towards its edge and the lower one striking towards the centre (ex.1). Guatemalans onomatopoeically refer to the lower sound with the syllables tu and cu and to the higher pitch with the syllable te, so the pattern of the posadas is known as tu-cu te-cu-tu (spoken in rhythm). Composers have used variations of the tortuga posada pattern as the basis for compositions for marimba that celebrate Christmas.

Ex.1 : Tortuga rhythmic pattern during the posadas