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Sandunga
by Richard Malmed

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The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca stands alone in space and time. Colorful native apparel remains as the dominant choice of women's clothing. In this matriarchal society the women are known for their ability to consume large amounts of beer. Just about every week of the year holds a major fiesta day. My experience has been that the few outsiders who visit are invited to join in the festivities. We happened to be in the Isthmus on Constitution Day. Walking about the town of Huchitan at dusk, we were enjoying the birds who were loudly roosting in the trees giving a musical sense to the total town square. There was a hustle and bustle as the vendors in ox carts were leaving their station while the holiday calibrator's in regal native dress were beginning to trickle in for the night that was about to be. It was not hard to see that the only strangers to this town were us. Hardly a person passed by that did not recognize their visitors in some way. "Hola guapa", they would say with a smile to my wife Mimi. "Hello, beautiful" is a pleasant way to great a guest and to me they often said "hola guero". This translates as "Hello white person". It is intended to be a compliment and is accepted as such.

Long after the men were under the table, the Isthmus women continued consuming beer and dancing with each other.

Fiesta day

Turning the corner and heading away from the main square we happened upon a full city block that was closed on both ends with temporary constructed bandstands. There were tables set up along both sides with family groups of between 20 to 40 people sitting in rows behind each table. The food and drink in picnic style went from the respective table to it's family. A large band was stationed on each stand; one would play for about a half an hour and without missing a beat, the other band would start, the dancing never stopped. The sound of the music enticed us closer and we slid into the shadows for a listen. Not ten minutes passed before a woman came out to invite us in. The first row behind her family's table was immediately made available to us, our laps were spontaneously filled with plates of food and our hands were holding bottles of beer.


The band that was playing included about 15 members all of which had the earmarks of being a single family unit. Of the three drummers, the youngest was about ten years old, the ages of the band members stepped up to men in their fifties. Toddlers of that family band played around the stage some dancing others holding toy guitars. Eureka! This is where the music starts. That evening I found room in my list of favorite music gandras for cumbias. Their deliverance of "Macondo" still lingers in my ear a year later.

The drinking and eating was outrageous with celebrations going on past morning light. Long after the men were under the table, the Isthmus women continued consuming beer and dancing with each other.

In my opinion, the music that originated in the Isthmus is Mexico's most precious. Some tunes of the area are "La Llorona" , "Naila", and "La Sandunga". "La Sandunga" can be looked upon as the unofficial anthem of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, It was written by Máximo Ramó Ortiz a man that was also governor of Tehuantepec.

The word sandunga - sometimes spelled zandunga - is not a frequent visitor to the average Mexican's daily vocabulary. Most lesser Spanish-English dictionaries don't include it. Those that do vary a bit in their English translation. A combination of references define sandunga as: gracefulness, elegance, charm, wit, celebration. The story of this musical poem involves a local indigenous woman {Zapotec} embracing her dead mother's body and receiving no response. The bereaved painfully wails "SANDUNGA" and sadness turns to song as she sends her loved one off to God. There is in the music inspiration from the dances of Zapotec women and it is to this day played at all ceremonies in Tehuantepec at midnight. It is a waltz and it was influenced by the "Jota", a Spanish music style and is mixed with Native American and Mestizo elements.

Tim Sparks and I sat on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean one sunset. Our conversation that evening centered on the local music. We listened and we talked. "Sandunga" is a captivating piece and it captured us both. Tim touched his guitar and "Sandunga" flowed. The next day he put it on paper, enabling me to approach learning it. In Tim Sparks style, he passes it on to you.

LA SANDUNGA

Sandunga, sandunga mamá
Por dios
Sandunga no seas ingrata
Mamá de mi corazón
Hay! sandunga, sandunga
Mamá por dios
Sandunga no seas ingrata
Mamá de mi corazón
Antenoche fui a tu casa
Tres golpes le di al candado
Tu no sirves para amores
Tienes el sueño pesado
Sandunga, sandunga mamá
Por dios
Sandunga no seas ingrata
Mamá de mi corazón
Me ofreciste acompañarme
Desde la iglesia a mi choza
Pero como no llegabas
Tuve que venirme sola
Hay! sandunga, sandunga
Mamá por dios
Sandunga no seas ingrata
Mamá de mi corazón
A orillas del papaloapa
Me estaba bañando ayer
Pasaste por las orillas
Y no me quisiste ver
Hay! sandunga, sandunga
Mamá por dios
Sandunga no seas ingrata
Mamá de mi corazón


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