Indigenous Maya Band Sak Tzevul Rocks Colgate

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Colgate University recently hosted the Tzotzil Maya rock band Sak Tzevul for a series of events, including a film screening, a talk, and a concert. The band’s visit not only showcased their musical talents but also created space for discussions surrounding Indigenous identity and cultural representation.

At the heart of Sak Tzevul’s music is the fusion of tradition and modernity. Their distinctive style, known as Bats’i Rock, is rooted in the rich traditions of the Tzotzil Maya people of Chiapas, Mexico, and emerged as a response to centuries of nationalistic narratives that pitted Indigenous culture against modern progress. Instead of viewing tradition and modernism as conflicting forces, Sak Tzevul celebrates their intersection and the dynamism of Indigenous heritage in a contemporary world.

“Sak Tzevul is unique in that they integrate Indigenous language and deep-seated traditions in their music but also look toward a future that is creative and limitless,” said Santiago Juarez, associate professor of anthropology and a key voice in bringing Sak Tzevul to campus.

“In their music, the band is constantly borrowing from classical, contemporary, and ceremonial musical influences that one wouldn’t regularly associate with rock — all for the sake of creativity and the celebration of identity,” Juarez said.

The events kicked off with panel-style discussions at the Keck Center for Language Study, where Sak Tzevul members engaged with students and organizations in Spanish, with bilingual students aiding in translation. These sessions delved into the challenges faced by Indigenous communities in navigating tradition amidst a rapidly changing global landscape.

Just one challenge the band addressed was that of keeping Indigenous languages, such as their native Tzotzil, alive. Sak Tzevul incorporates many different Mayan languages into their songs, both to aid in the preservation and appreciation of these languages as well as strengthen their connection to their cultural heritage. 

Another issue discussed by the band was the dual judgment that they experienced as a result of not speaking Tzotzil from birth, both from their Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities viewing their lack of fluency as a lack of Indigeneity.

“When you do not speak a language fluently, you can feel a bit of rejection sometimes,” explained lead singer and guitarist Damian Martinez. “For me, singing in Tzotzil is a way to neutralize that feeling of rejection. It is my way of connecting with my people again and saying very clearly, ‘I am from here, and as much as I can speak it, I am going to sing it.’”

A powerful moment in the band’s residency was their presentation on the genre of Bats’i Rock at Lawrence Hall. Here, Sak Tzevul illuminated how their music serves as a means of reclaiming cultural roots while envisioning an Indigenous future for all peoples, not just North Americans. 

“Sak Tzevul’s music and their message is not just for Mexicans or Latin Americans. It is for everyone globally to think about where they are from and how they connect to the land,” said Juarez.

The culmination of Sak Tzevul’s visit was a full-capacity concert at Arts at the Palace Theater. Amidst smoke machines and vibrant purple and green stage lighting, the band delivered a performance that transcended language barriers. From guitar solos to rhythmic beats, every song was infused with energy and celebration.

As the lead guitarist Martinez expressed gratitude to the crowd, he threw a fist into the air in classic rock fashion, and the audience erupted in cheers. “Thank you very much, Colgate. Just to have so many of us here in New York together. It is so good!”

Reflecting on the concert, Juarez expressed the unexpected emotional impact that seeing the band had on him. “Listening to Sak Tzevul live brought me back to that moment 15 years ago when I first listened to their music and felt a sense of connection to my ancestral roots. Their music has helped and continues to help me to explore Indigeneity, my identity, and how these factors have impacted my family, my culture, and the world at large.”