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An Interview with Musician/Storyteller Michael Heralda of the “Aztec Stories” Project

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Man ze kualli tonalli ximo panoltik.

That's how you say "May you spend a good day" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Los Angeles musician/composer/storyteller Michael Heralda reconnects people to the wisdom of the ancestors with his Aztec Stories project. I had the great good fortune to perform and record with Michael, and now to sit down and pick his brain about lots of things — from the ancient past, to the meaning of the end of the Mayan calender.

Here in the Andes, many people are proud of indigenous wisdom and are active in promoting the wisdom of the ancestors. However, I am sad to see others who do not value the traditions of indigenous culture. For example, even though parents in a household both speak Quechua or Aymara, many do not speak it with their children. Neither are the majority passing on the knowledge of how to gather medicinal plants or plants for dying wool or how to spin and weave the ancestral textiles. There is the belief that if the children speak Spanish and even English, they can "get ahead" in society. That it is better for their children to learn business administration and marketing and accounting than it is to know the oral tradition stories of the grandparents. Michael, as someone whose family, some generations back, cut the flow of transmitting ancestral wisdom in order to "get ahead" in the United States, what thoughts would you like to share with families who are in the process of cutting the flow in this very generation?

I would offer for consideration that parents and grandparents NOT cut off transmitting their original languages or ancestral knowledge and wisdom, because those unique components of their heritage will become the foundation that their children will build their lives upon. Having an indigenous understanding or upbringing does not mean that you cannot have a business background or marketing contribution to make. It is not a question of “one or the other.” Our children need to have both types of education — a solid cultural base of knowledge and the tools necessary to contribute in today’s technologically modern world.

There are life lessons contained in the oral tradition stories and working with your hands (as in weaving, sculpting, gardening, etc.) develops patience and an artistic eye for beauty. Regarding plant knowledge, there is an old saying that goes like this: “A man who knows how to work with the Earth and with plants will never lack for food or medicine when needed.” Growing up learning to work with the earth and nature are experiences that will ground our children in ways that the modern world rarely promotes, understands, or acknowledges as vital life experiences.

It is natural for parents to want a better world for their children and grandchildren. The key is in knowing what a “better world” is. Is it a better world when today’s administrators, politicians, scientists, and engineers create an imbalance in the world by polluting the water, air, and land that all creatures on this planet require for survival? Those educated people are the very same ones who are not connected to their ancestral heritage because if they were, they would know that their energies and talents should not be directed in those directions. This is why we need our [native] children to be immersed in our culture and at the same time acquiring the skills necessary to participate globally in the modern world. Our children need to be contributors and participants in both worlds.

Michael, what was your path in creating Aztec Stories? Were there pivotal events in your life?

This is a question I get asked many times. Awareness, one of four main characteristics that I believe are essential for personal growth and development, comes to mind when answering this question. One pivotal event for me was when I found a particular book at a yard sale. Today I wonder if I found the book or if it found me? Things happen for specific reasons and becoming aware of situations or events offers us the opportunity for growth and new experiences.

After reading my yard sale book I was motivated to learn as much as I could about the Mexica/Aztec culture and in learning about that culture I began learning things about myself. From that point on things started falling into place for me resulting in developing the Aztec Stories project. One thing to keep in mind with the concept of awareness is that with awareness comes responsibility – we are given awareness for a reason and once we have it we need to do something with it. To me, the decision to share what I had learned became the focus of my energy and that energy transformed into the cultural programs I, and my family, now share.

Michael, you mention that "awareness" is one of four main characteristics that you believe are essential for personal growth and development. What are the other three?

The four characteristics essential for personal growth and development are Patience, Awareness, Endurance, and Compassion.

I agree with you — patience, endurance, awareness, compassion. How did you come up with this list?

This is not something new and I have heard a number of versions of it over the years from various people with different cultural backgrounds. These are actually common sense characteristics.  Unfortunately, society has given up on most common sense so it's important to remind people from time to time of the basics in just being a good human/person. When you think about each one, individually, you begin to appreciate how important each one is. Together, even more important.

How has your life changed as you have been delving deeper into learning the wisdom of the ancestors?

Learning about ancient wisdom has taught me something very important — that I know very little and that there is so much more to learn. I also have a greater appreciation for nature and the simple acts of working with nature. Additionally, I think more about how and where my time and energy is being used so that I can focus it in a positive and meaningful way as much as possible.

What drew you to pre-Columbian musical instruments, especially the Bubalek?

The organic essence of their being is most appealing to me. One of the most intriguing aspects of native/indigenous instruments is that they are made from materials readily available to anyone – you can make them from sticks, gourds, clay, parts of animals, etc. There is a natural and simplistic characteristic about them that attracts me. Plus, knowing that for thousands of years instruments like these have been played by musicians in ceremonies and celebrations around the world inspires me. In one way, I am reconnecting with my ancestors through the instruments, the music they produce, and the songs and stories I use them in.

The instruments themselves have energy and I thoroughly enjoy discovering their magical secrets and expressions. What I love most is that anyone can play them with little instruction. I can take ten (young or old) volunteers and hand them an instrument and in less that one minute we will have created an indigenous orchestra – kids who never played an instrument before are now making music together! They are experiencing the joy of music – what I refer to as a celebration of LIFE! What adds to the overall experience for me is that many of these young musicians are playing the very same type of instruments their ancestors played. In the music and experience they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

The Mayan Bubalek gourd water drums are very unique instruments. They are instruments that you can GROW! You feel their resonance in the mid-section of your body while playing them. While listening to them the soothing sounds can transport your thoughts and imagination to some very calming and tranquil states of being. They are soothing and melodic. My wife Sandy personally loves playing them of all the instruments we bring to a presentation. I rarely get to play them anymore during a presentation and just the other day while we were discussing an upcoming tour she casually and quite earnestly referred to them as “her drums.” When she said that we be both looked at each other as we grasped the meaning of her words and started to laugh! I completely understand her connection to them. They represent the feminine energy by the mere fact that as a plant they are connected to the earth. Add to that the fact that they need water to amplify their resonating sound and you have an additional connection to the healing and medicinal aspects of water – all feminine characteristics.

Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share about the Mayan calendar and 2012?

The Mayan calendar is a wonderful expression of indigenous knowledge coupled with acute awareness of the natural order of the universe. It is very similar to the Mexica [designed] Tonalmachyotl Stone [the Aztec Calendar]. It is also a reminder of how all things move in cycles. As one cycle ends, another begins.

I do know that Mayan elders do not appreciate or support those people that spread “doomsday” stories associated to the year 2012. Rather, they hope that humanity will embrace a more native/indigenous connection – to live with nature as opposed to trying to control nature and to add to the energy produced by the alignment of the planets in our solar system on a cosmic level. Opportunities are here now to join with others in adding your energy for a more impactful transformative experience. In essence, ask yourself what you want the world to be and be the model for that transformation.

Keep in mind that all things that exist are energy. With the coming alignment of some very specific celestial bodies within our own solar system and galaxy, energy fluxes will manifest. To what extent, no one can say so do not fear what may or may not happen. Live in the moment as you want the world to be, plan for a prosperous future for your family and community, and remember that every moment is precious.

Tell us more about the different projects of Aztec Stories.

Throughout the year I share themed programs typically based on the seasons. I have a spring program, a fall program that shares knowledge about the origins of Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead, I have oral tradition storytelling programs, and I have a very special foods program titled “The Seven Warrior Foods of the Mexica People.” I also offer workshops on making gourd water drums. In addition to the performances I have also recorded three CDs which are available on my web site. And just recently I started making how-to videos for my web site and YouTube.

Your day job is at Mattel. How do you feel being in what some might say are two worlds — the world of corporate America and in Aztec Stories?

This comes back to one of your earlier questions about learning and maintaining your cultural heritage, knowledge, and wisdom, while simultaneously acquiring contemporary skills and technology so as to become a contributor in the global community. I do live in both worlds and enjoy it! The corporate world supports the day-to-day living for my family and my cultural journey supports my passion. It is not uncommon for an artist to have a job in addition to making time for his/her art. And, in today’s economy, many artists need that alternative form of income to sustain themselves and their art. I would add that it works to your advantage in keeping the two jobs separate in focus and goals so that one does not infringe upon the other. Also, find a job that you enjoy contributing your energies towards – something that is meaningful to you.

What have been some of the reactions of the children at your presentations?

A sense of pride to those connected to the native cultures of this continent would be a frequent reaction I see. Also a true curiosity to know and learn more is something I see and hear expressed regularly. Children love the instruments, as do adults. When they see a turtle shell and learn that it is a two-toned drum, they are amazed and curious. I love watching their expressions change when I introduce a new instrument and tell them the story behind it. They are captivated and looking forward to “what’s next”?

Will you tell us more why you decided to make many of the musical instruments you play?

I love working with my hands and natural elements. Plus, I feel that my energy becomes part of the instruments – they are a part of me. I love decorating them with symbols and images that tell stories. When someone asks about a specific instrument, the decoration allows me to share cultural insight pertaining to that particular instrument. One other aspect that I enjoy while making an instrument is the focus and attention it requires – it becomes almost a meditative experience, it calms me and relaxes me and slows me down to a comfortable rhythm. And, I get to make them outside in my backyard which reconnects me to nature – the wind, sun, birds singing, hawks flying high above me, I get to see my dogs running around exploring their world – it puts me in the moment, the here and now, and that’s something we all need to do.

What else would you like to share with the readers?

Discover your gifts and talents and then develop them to the highest degree. This will make you an asset in any field or career you pursue. Be proud of who you are – remember that you are the dreams and aspirations of your parents, grandparents, and all those who went before you. Make them proud of who you are. Additionally, work towards the betterment of your community both locally and globally.

You can listen to Aztec Stories music and find cool free stuff at the Aztec Stories website.

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
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