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The Creating, Colliding, Cosmic Musical Worlds of ‘Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven’

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"Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven" in Grand Park.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Part Mayan and Aztec, part electric, part rock opera, part mariachi, and part East L.A., the music of Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven spans centuries and continents. So does the story it tells: the Mayan myth of the creation of the world. A collaboration between Center Theatre Group, famed Chicano theatre company El Teatro Campesino (ETC), and the Boyle Heights community, Popol Vuh will be performed in Downtown L.A.’s Grand Park on October 10 and 11 at 3:30pm. We asked ETC Music Director Emiliano Valdez to tell us about creating the music for the show, and about working with Ozomatli’s Raul Pacheco, members of the band Quetzal, and other local musicians to give the production a Los Angeles flavor.

Popol Vuh, which tells a story of creation coming out of destruction, is “cosmic storytelling,” said Valdez, and it was important to him and ETC when they started writing its music that the sound reflect that. “We knew right away it would be a meeting of two worlds: the electric world (with electric instruments) and the indigenous world” (with instruments from the Mayan and Aztec traditions). “We were calling it a Mayan orchestra,” said Valdez.

The music was originally conceived on a synthesizer (“very indicative of the cosmic sound”), and then other instruments were added—cello, violin, Mayan and Aztec percussion, and rock-based drums and bass—to give it a “rock opera” element, said Valdez. Ultimately, they also added a traditional indigenous flute and baroque recorder flute to the mix. “We wanted to give it both a past and a future,” explained Valdez, “and we ended up coming away with more.”

Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven has been performed with and in the community of San Juan Bautista, ETC’s hometown, over the past four and a half years. “The notion was that we could come to Los Angeles and find the Boyle Heights sound,” said Valdez, and incorporate that into the pre-written musical scores. ETC and Center Theatre Group brought on Ozomatli guitarist Raul Pacheco to lead the way, recruiting musicians and sharing the sounds of his home city and his group—which mixes salsa, jazz, funk, reggae, rap, and other genres.

Valdez said that it’s been exciting to watch local L.A. musicians add their influence to the soundtrack of Popol Vuh and to have members of the bands Quetzal, Ozomatli, and Mariachi Divas in the Mayan orchestra has been amazing. From the first jam session, said Valdez, “we knew right away that working together would expand upon what we’d done back home.” Popol Vuh “is taking on a brand-new sound and a brand-new character that is very much East L.A.”

“It’s very exciting to work with some of the musical heroes of Boyle Heights,” added Valdez. “The energy and creativity that’s coming from them has become indicative of the Boyle Heights community…it’s just a beautiful thing.”

The music of Popol Vuh is not just limited to members of the band, however. Music has been part of ETC’s community workshops in Boyle Heights from the first meetings in May and June. For ETC, music is “a major storyteller” in performances, not just a soundtrack or accompaniment. “Music has always been the driving force behind our productions, from farmworkers’ strikes to Zoot Suit and beyond,” said Valdez. The actors, actresses, and puppeteers of Popol Vuh have also learned about ETC’s musical style through choreography, staging, and body movement exercises. At a dedicated music workshop, Boyle Heights community members made their own indigenous instruments, and got a crash course in “stripping back the actual history of the way ETC uses music,” said Valdez. “We thought it was important for the community to understand that music has a place within theatre and can become a unifying, driving force.”

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