Late in the evening, a group of dancers begin to gather in a dimly lit house on a dusty road in the town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, 85km north of Guatemala City. Chicken buses, ox-pulled carts, and cars rush by the open door. A spiritual guide lights candles on the cement floor of the house. As the wicks burn in the dark, a set of masks are pulled out of cardboard boxes and placed by the candles. These are the masks that will be used for the Rabinal Achí or “Dance of the Tun”.
This drama-dance, which tells the story of the conflict between Rabinal Achí and the K’iche Achí, was first published in Europe in 1862 as the result of a translation made by Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg during his time as an Abbé of the town of Rabinal. The people of the town, proud of their heritage, still perform it to this day.
The spiritual guide begins a chant, calling the names of the grandfathers of the dancers in Achí, a language spoken in the Guatemalan department of Baja Verapaz. He then grabs a bottle of clear alcohol, and pours it into a small glass. Delicately, he gives each mask a sip. According to the local mask maker, Jesus Iboy Osorio, the oldest mask is nearly around 100 years old. The others are between 10 and 20 years old.
The spiritual guide continues his chant. Accompanied by the tun, a wooden instrument made out of a hollow trunk, and a trumpet. He asks the ancestors for permission to perform the dance. After the ritual concludes, a ritual fire is lit in the house’s backyard.
Over the next few days, seven different rituals took place in the seven sacred sites around the town of Rabinal. One of them, in cerro Kajyup, was attended by some of the dancers. There, the spiritual guide performed a small ritual asking for his ancestors’ blessing before a ritual fire was lit. The solemn sound of a conch shell preceded the fire.
Ten days after the rituals, the dance is held during the town’s fair. The dancers arrive to the site on the back of a pick-up truck. Another troop of dancers is already performing a different drama there, but they leave once the cast of the Rabinal Achí appears. And so, the first performance of the year takes place.
The play begins with the characters dancing in circles. Each revolution is faster than the last. Then, K’iché Achí, the warrior of the Quiché, steps forth and lets out a howl. “Come here, odious chief, despicable chief!,” he screams. “Will you be the first whose very root, whose trunk, I cannot cut? This I swear to do. This I swear to do before the heaven of the Zaman, and the Earth; and for this reason, I need to say no more. Heaven and Earth be with thee, oh most remarkable of the stalwarts-Warrior of Rabinal.”
Despite his bold defiance, the chief of the Quiché is easily defeated. The two-hour dance goes back and forth between the story of how the K’iché Achí is put on trial after being captured by Rabinal Achí, the son of the King who K’iché Achí challenged.
According the director of the dance, José Manuel Coloch, the future of the drama-dance of Rabinal Achí seems bright. “We are very optimistic since the youth has been approaching the dance and the younger dancers the longer they perform,” he explains. “A long time ago, it was only the elders who were called upon to perform. The old man would rehearse, but not have the possibility to keep on dancing for a long period of time because of his age.”
For Coloch, who inherited his post as director of the play after his father passed away in 2015, traditions like this are very important. “We should be proud of our stories,” he adds. “Just like the Spanish are proud of their book, Don Quixote, we should feel proud of the text of Rabinal Achí.”
Undeniably, and officially, Rabinal Achí is part of Guatemala’s cultural heritage. In 2008, it was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO after being submitted only three years before. This dance is the only surviving play in Guatemala with pre hispanic origins. It is also the only play completely performed in the Achí languague.
The masks used in Rabinal Achí are completely made out of Palo de Pito, Erythrina Macrophylla, and they are a strong part of the cultural aspect of the play. As we mentioned before, the oldest mask used in this performance is nearly 100 years old. According to the local mask maker in Rabinal, Jesus Iboy Osorio, the mask-making process requires one to be very meticulous. “The wood of this tree is soft and must be well treated so it can endure usage,” he explains. “This wood is very susceptible to moths and may become brittle. The process to make a mask takes about 15 days using Palo de Pito, or just 8 days using Cedar wood, which is more resilient.
And just like careful planning and fine attention to the craft keep the masks working for decades, the dancers of Rabinal’s devotion to their strong tradition has kept the story of their ancestors alive to this day.