“Much of the Mayan knowledge has been hidden for the past 500 years because of oppression. Only now are the nawales emerging and beginning to sing.” – M.C.H.E.
Balam Ajpu is a hip-hop collective dedicated to sharing Mayan wisdom through their music. Their debut album, “Jun Winaq´Rajawal Qíj / Tribute to the 20 Nawales” is a landmark project bridging the knowledge of sacred Mayan calendar with traditional Mayan sounds, modern beats and conscious hip-hop rhymes.
Based in the highlands of Guatemaya (the ancient name of Guatemala), the three primary members, or "the three stones" as they call themselves, are Tzutu Kan, M.C.H.E. (which stands for Memory, Consciousness, History and Evolution), and Dr. Nativo. Balam Ajpu (literally the "Jaguar Warriors,” as seen on the band’s album cover: jaguar on the left, warrior on the right) is more than just the three primary members; it is a collective of folkloric musicians, spiritual guides, beat makers, instrumentalists, shamans, healers, M.C.s, singers and producers. All of these talents came together in Guatemaya to give the nawales a forum in which to sing.
What are the nawales?
For the Mayan people, the nawales are a set of twenty energies that guide humanity through time. Each day the sun rises and a new nawal takes charge. The 20-day cycle repeats 13 times to create a 260 day cycle, known as the Chol’qi (Tzolkin), the central wheel in the system of Mayan calendars. Additionally, for each year in the Ha'ab (the 365 day calendar) a new nawal reigns. The members of Balam Ajpu explain that the nawales are like guardians, angels, and friends. Each of us has a nawal that we were born with, which guides us. Some say that this is our “Mayan sign.” Implicit in each nawal is a sense of duality: it has a human side and an animal side, a masculine and a feminine, a positive and a negative.
Dr. Nativo says “living with the nawales gives more meaning to my life because each day I wake up and I know that the day has a purpose. For example, today may be the day of the ancestors. This is important because sometimes we go throughout our whole life and we don't even acknowledge our ancestors or where we came from. Another time you might wake up and you know that the nawal is the seed. So you may go throughout your day doing whatever you do but you know at some point you're going to plant a seed or you going to plant a thought or you are going to plant something new. This is how to live with the nawales everyday.”
Tzutu Kan, already making a name for himself as an independent mayan hip-hop artist, has the knowledge of 3 Mayan languages and this adds a lot to the project. Hearing hip-hop rhymes in the tzutujil, cakchiquel and quiche languages is striking to the ear, and Tzutu’s expert timing sparks the music into higher levels of intensity and depth.
The Tribute To The 20 Nawales began when Tata Pedro Cruz, a Tzutzuhil Mayan Elder and the group’s spiritual guide, had a vision that the nawales wanted to sing. He shared this with the young musicians who would become Balam Ajpu.
Excited by the idea but unsure where to start, the “three stones” went to a young shaman in their community and asked for permission to let the nawales sing through them. The shaman did a ceremony and told the group that the nawales agreed to the project. The musicians then asked, “what do the nawales want to say?” This is when the shaman invited Tzutu into a series of ceremonies with the intention of receiving each nawal's meaning. The shaman would go into a trance and invoke a nawal and “download” a direct message. Tzutu would write the words down in the Mayan language and this would become the lyrics he would sing. Over the course of 4 days (5 nawales per day), the messages of all 20 nawales were received and the mayan language lyrics were born.
In arranging the music, Tzutu would occasionally move words around to make rhymes, but would leave the essence of the message untouched. This is what you hear as the Mayan language on this album: the divine Text in its original essence.
For example, on “Naoj” (Knowledge) the first Mayan verse, received through the shaman, translates as:
With our thought, glyph of reason
Of the creator’s knowledge we are blessed
With good perception, with beautiful song
We don’t know much; we are all equal
And the Spanish chorus, written by M.C.H.E. translates into English as:
No’j transforms consciousness into WISDOM
Universal cosmic mindinto our GALAXY
Hip Hop Philosophy is TELEPATHY
Where there is connection, there is love, THERE IS HARMONY
This is the positive part that the spirit ACTIVATES
Synchronicity, vibration, COLLECTIVE MEMORY
New form of life with tests to OVERCOME
Because art, science, spirituality, take POWER
To renew THOUGHT
Ancient sounds, old KNOWLEDGE
Modern rhythm, new DISCERNMENT
Hip Hop cosmo-vision, this MOVEMENT
Rukab’ul li qana’oj, rurejtal li qaNA’OJ
Ja ruNa’oj a chojtikow to, kojkiTEWECHIJ
Utz taq qana’oj, utz taq qaB’IX
Ma k’iy ta kojotaq, juntira oj JUNAM)
NO’J transforma conocimiento en SABIDURÍA
Mente cósmica universal en nuestra GALAXIA
La filosofía Hip Hop es TELEPATÍA
Donde hay conexión hay amor HAY ARMONÍA
Es la parte positiva que al espíritu ACTIVA
Sincronía, vibración, memoria COLECTIVA
Nueva forma de vida con pruebas a VENCER
Pa que arte, ciencia, espiritualidad, tomen PODER
Al renacer ambiguo, nuevo PENSAMIENTO
Sonidos antiguos, viejo CONOCIMIENTO
Ritmo moderno, nuevo DISCERNIMIENTO
Cosmovisión Hip Hop, este MOVIMIENTO
As the project’s musical director, Dr. Nativo brought a lot of musical insight into the project. A guitarist and songwriter for nearly 20 years, his vision of musical arrangement and his ear for the blending of sounds has resulted in some truly unique pieces of music. He says, “we had to create this collective of shamans, traditional musicians, beat-makers, producers, instrumentalists and singers to really make the nawales sing at their highest level of expression.” As you will see once you listen to the album, Dr. Nativo is not exaggerating. There is a wide variety of sounds on the album that span many genres and time periods.
The group’s Spanish-language poet, M.C.H.E., has spent a lot of time studying the ancient texts and books and has attained great knowledge about the Mayan calendar and cosmo-vision. According to him, the wheel of the 20 nawales, known as the Chol’qi (Tzolkin) is the center of all of the Mayan calendars and is the one that makes all of the calendars spin around. He says, “there is ancient wisdom embedded in this calendar and it is up to us to utilize it. Each of us comes to this world to improve ourselves. By living with the nawales we not only improve ourselves but we can improve our community, our society and our world.”
“During the last 500 years of oppression the Mayan people were not singing,” says M.C.H.E. “Only now are we beginning the investigation into what Mayan sounds are.” In making this album Balam Ajpu worked with traditional musician ensemble Sotzil Hai in Sololá, Guatemaya, to record ancient sounds, and spent 3 days sampling many instruments which had never before been recorded. Later these samples were brought to the mixing studio, where the band “put the puzzle pieces together” and spent nearly a year arranging the final album.
Dr. Nativo says, “We were chosen for this task. It's our destiny to share the nawales and to have them sing. It's important to continue this legacy because if we don't share it, it will be lost.”
The album is 20 tracks, one for each nawal. Some of my immediate personal favorites are "Naoj," "Saq Bei" (for nawal "E"), and "Kawoq." In addition to the “three stones,” the group has a 6-piece band which will be accompanying them at their album release concert on March 12th, 2016 in Guatemala City. They also have European tour lined up and will soon be coming to the United States. We at Sacred Arts Research Foundation support Balam Ajpu in their musical success and more importantly in the spread of the Mayan wisdom and knowledge throughout the world.
One of the coolest things about the album is that they have made all of the music and lyrics available on the album site. What this means is that anyone who speaks Spanish has access to this knowledge. English translations of lyrics coming soon. 
AJ Block is the director of Didge Project and a founding member of Sacred Arts Research Foundation. Noted as a didgeridoo player and teacher, AJ is a student of spiritual guide Maestro Manuel Rufino and a member of the Golden Drum community. For more of AJ's articles, music tutorials and sound recordings visit www.didgeproject.com.