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date: 16 September 2019

Henrietta Yurchenco: Ethnomusicology Pioneer in Mexico and Guatemala

Summary and Keywords

Henrietta Yurchenco, née Weiss, was a pioneer of ethnomusicology research. Her expeditions in various regions of Mexico and Guatemala between 1942 and 1946 allowed for the gathering of musical recordings from the Zoque, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chiapaneco, Tojolobal, Cora, Huichol, and Seri peoples of Mexico, and from the Quiché, Kekchí, Ixil, and Zutujil peoples of Guatemala. A portion of these expeditions were carried out thanks to an agreement signed between the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III; Inter-American Indigenist Institute) and the Mexican Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP; Public Education Ministry/Department) and the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington. The recordings produced by these expeditions were made direct-to-disc and are preserved at the Fonoteca Nacional de México (Mexican National Music Library/Collection), where they have been completely digitalized. They were also recognized with the Memory of the World distinction by UNESCO in 2015. One-hundred thirty two (132) discs are preserved with hundreds of pieces from these cultures, of enormous value to Mexican cultural heritage. In her memoirs, published in two versions (Spanish and English), Yurchenco offers a fascinating account of her travels in Mexico and Guatemala. Additionally, she explores specific aspects of the aforementioned research in specialized journal articles and book chapters. Yurchenco was particularly interested in discovering traits from pre-Hispanic music. This goal drove her to explore remote regions of Mexico. Her work in its vast majority—both her writings and recordings on Latin America as well as on the rest of the world—still has yet to be studied.

Keywords: Henrietta Yurchenco, Mexican music, Guatemala, Latin-American indigenous people, ethnomusicology, recordings

“When I was 19, I decided I was not to be a concert pianist. I figured the world would not even notice my defection. Certainly it didn’t need another pianist who forgot the key she was in, and suffered attacks of nerves. Rather than fight them, I decided to back out gracefully, admit defeat, and try something else. I became an ethnomusicologist. This was not a conscious decision on my part; it just evolved little by little, over many years. This is the story of how it happened.”

—Preface to Around the World in 80 Years. A Memoir. A Musical Odyssey. Henrietta Yurchenco

The American researcher Henrietta Yurchenco (1916–2007), née Weiss, was one of the first to systematically record the music of Mexican and Guatemalan indigenous peoples. Her groundbreaking vision established a standard for researching indigenous cultures’ music. She plunged into adventure with minimal means to remote locations to record music that was until then unknown. Later, she made efforts to disseminate that music and generously share her great knowledge to generations of students at the City University of New York; thus she has left her mark on the history of ethnomusicology on the American continent.

Yurchenco recognized as her predecessor the Norwegian ethnographer and explorer Carl Lumholtz, who had explored regions of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Tarascan region/people of Michoacán between 1890 and 1910 and who, as a result, published books that included ethnographic materials on the Rarámuri culture. Additionally, Lumholtz recorded music of the Huichol people on wax cylinders invented by Thomas A. Edison.1

Yurchenco recorded the music of Mexican indigenous populations, first on discs and later on open-reel audio tape. She is recognized as a pioneer folklorist in Mexico, where she was invited in 1941 by the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, whom she met in New York, and his wife Olga Costa; with the couple, Henrietta and her husband Basil “Chenk” set forth on a road trip:

After some months’ stay in the country, and fascinated by the stories about the indigenous people, their music and dance, she became the first to record this music on discs. She delved into an international cultural project, led by Dr. Manuel Gamio, the goal of which was to compile Latin American indigenous music so that its dissemination would form part of and influence contemporary music production.2

Yurchenco gave herself to the work of recording the music of diverse indigenous groups in Mexico and Guatemala. This project, initiated in 1942, which was completed under the joint auspices of the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III) with headquarters in Mexico, the Mexican Secretaría de Educación Pública, and the US Library of Congress (LOC); it brought her to many areas of Mexico and Guatemala, and lasted until 1946. During this time, Yurchenco recorded approximately one thousand musical pieces from fourteen indigenous groups in both countries. Later, she would return to Mexico on four more occasions: 1964–1966, 1971–1972, 1981 and 2002.

Expeditions in Mexico and Guatemala

Background of Field Recordings in Mexico

In the 1920s, while the recently established post-Revolutionary regime sought to form a new nationalist consciousness, there emerged the so-called Misiones Culturales (Cultural Missions). It had, among other goals, that of compiling folkloric melodies from distinct regions of the country and making a record of them on paper. These first compilations were made a reality in collections of music and folklore published as volumes of sheet music and in didactic materials based on regional melodies/music.

Within the SEP, founded in 1921, there was a Sección de Música (Music Section) that formed part of the Departamento de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Department). This section was divided into two subsections: folklore and música culta (cultured music). The latter was dedicated essentially to compiling and transcribing ecclesiastical music: from archives, churches, parishes, and cathedrals. In turn, the folklore section was in charge of the compilation, study, classification, and publication of music from distinct regions of the country. Among their goals was the sending of research missions to directly gather folkloric documents all over the country. Before Yurchenco’s arrival, there had already been expeditions that recorded, on paper, the songs and photographs of the musicians. Nevertheless, very little had been done in terms of recordings. Shortly after Yurchenco’s project, the Mexican government organized an expedition with a recorder and shellac records that occurred beginning September 1, 1947 in Morelos. It was a mission to study the music—indigenous, mestizo, and criollo—of Náhuatl-speaking groups that lived in that state.3

Yurchenco’s Expeditions

In December 1941, Yurchenco set off on a tourist trip to Oaxaca where she fell in love with Zapotec music and the virtuosity of that region’s musicians. The following year, the researcher carried out her first ethnic music recording trip, accompanied by the American sound engineer John H. Green and Roberto Tellez Girón Olace, of the Sección de Música from the Palacio de Bellas Artes. With her own funds and support from the Universidad de San Nicolás in Morelia and the Palacio de Bellas Artes in México City (who provided a truck and driver) they began their journey. They visited Pátzcuaro and recorded Purépecha groups from the lake area as well as corridos in Paracho, where they recorded young people from an indigenous boarding school singing in duos and trios, also in the Purépecha language. They used the Fairchild recorder brought by Green and shellac records; these ran out after 125 songs, and so they returned to Mexico City.

Upon returning, Yurchenco approached the Sección de Música de Bellas Artes and the recently created Instituto Indigenista Interamericano led by Manuel Gamio, who proposed she prepare a series of radio programs in collaboration with the Pan American Union in Washington. The goal was “to stimulate the creation of orchestral works based on indigenous music [for which] we offer scholarships to Latin American composers.”4 Letters were sent to composers from various countries in the Americas, urging them to join the project, for example: Aaron Copland from the United States; Carlos Chávez, Candelario Huízar, and Blas Galindo from Mexico. Musicologists from the Americas were also invited and asked to send materials that could serve for the compositions and programs. Among those who received these letters were Carlos Isamitt of Chile; Andres Sas of Peru; Jesús Castillo of Guatemala; Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brasil (included as a musicologist on Yurchenco’s list); Francisco Curt Lange of Uruguay; and Juan L. Gorrell of Ecuador. Additionally, Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Division of Music at the LOC was asked for copies of the recordings of indigenous peoples (Iroquois, Seminole, Navajo, Pima, Papago, and Apache) with the same goal in mind. In 1942, before and after her trip to Chiapas, she worked on the aforementioned projects.

The researcher had already directed several radio programs in the United States that were the first to disperse what we now call world music and contemporary music. Before she moved to Mexico, Yurchenco had produced programs on WNYC, a radio station in New York. Among others, these included: Adventures in Music, from January 1940 to March 1941, which was a weekly broadcast dedicated to folkloric world music; Folksongs of America, on which the participants included the soon-to-be-famous Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, among others; Songs of Seven Million, which was dedicated to disseminating music from many nationalities representing the inhabitants of metropolitan New York; and Here is Music, which presented weekly songs from different areas of the world, transcribed and interpreted by the group The Consort, from New York University, under the direction of Roy Mitchell.5


Her next expedition was in 1942 to Chiapas and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, by invitation of the governor of the state of Chiapas and with the support of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH; National Institute of Anthropology and History), which provided a recording device, discs, and an anthropologist assistant, Raúl Guerrero.

Indigenous Music Project.

Miss Enriqueta Yurchenco, who has previously worked at the Music Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, is launching, in the State of Chiapas, and in accordance with the local government, through the Museo Regional (Regional Museum), the creation of a music library for indigenous musical folklore, especially among the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch’ol, Lacandon and Chiapanec peoples. Miss Yurchenco worked previously in the State of Michoacán collecting Tarascan musical folklore.6

Yurchenco spent two months in the state of Chiapas recording music of the Zoque, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chiapanec and Tojolabal peoples. Approximately 100 sones were recorded on disc and more than 700 feet in 16mm color film were shot.7 Yurchenco observed that the music had a primarily religious purpose, and that there existed a great pride in playing the pieces that were passed down through the generations. Similarly, she was able to note that the traditions were being lost due to rapid modernization of the region. Regarding the instruments, she recorded the existence of two types of groups: reed flutes of 3 to 7 holes and drums, and another combination of stringed instruments: violin, guitar, and harp; the latter was used on secular occasions, while the former was for religious events. Although marimbas are ubiquitous, they did not form part of the indigenous musical tradition, she pointed out. The researcher also observed that there was scarce vocal music and when they sang it was European and popular/common music, which was of little interest to her. Greater areas of interest were regions such as Chiapa de Corzo and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which were more rhythmically rich and with a “very simple and elemental” harmony; this she associated with indigenous influence. She highlighted the fact that in those areas with significant melodic development there had been more European influence. Of particular interest were variations on the same songs in each village, including their diverse embellishments or finales.8

In 1945, Yurchenco returned to Chiapas and made recordings in San Cristóbal de las Casas, where the native peoples went to play their music for the researcher. This time, Yurchenco learned of songs that she had not been able to find on her first visit and also bands using guitars, violins, and harps. In San Juan Chamula, Yurchenco was spellbound by various songs that seemed to be a type of canon that the Mayor and his wife played for her in the privacy of their home. The researcher placed the microphone between the two singers, put the needle on the acetate, and gave them the signal to begin. The first song was a hymn to San Pedro, protector of travelers. The discovery of this polyphonic music was later strengthened by instrumental pieces that she heard, in which the trumpet played a melody over which the flute improvised and the drum “brought everything together with a dramatic rhythm, like a third voice.”9

A collaborative project, financed by the LOC and SEP, brought the researcher to new territories. The first institution provided the equipment and discs, while the second offered Yurchenco a transport and travel allowance and an assistant: the photographer Agustín Maya, from the SEP’s Departamento de Propaganda y Publicidad (Department of Propaganda and Publicity). During that year, Yurchenco and Maya explored first the Cora and Huichol territory in Nayarit and Jalisco, and later the Seri in the state of Sonora.

Cora-Huichol and Seri Territory

According to the vivid description in her Memorias, during this long journey, Yurchenco suffered from the rigor of difficult conditions, which Dr. Manuel Gamio had warned her about. In the places they stayed overnight, there was no electricity nor running water; sometimes they slept on the floor, eating only tortillas and beans, or exposed to poisonous bugs such as scorpions that got inside their clothes; they traveled by mule on the steep trails of the Sierra Madre mountains; it grew very cold at night and there was intolerable heat by day; such were some of the challenges they suffered. There were moments when she doubted she would survive the journey. The researcher spent ten weeks in the Cora and Huichol territory. In that region, Yurchenco suspected that she had reached the peak of her ethnomusicological goals: to find pre-Hispanic music; while at the same time she faced the fact that this form of cultural expression was in serious danger of extinction. In her words: “The Cora region was our first experience with an ancient Mexico, almost lost in the shadow of history,” and “one day we made a true discovery: pre-Hispanic songs sung by shamans.”10 Her impression was reinforced by the remoteness of the place they had to reach and by the use of an instrument made by a hunter’s bow attached to a gourd for resonance, stuck with two thin sticks, and called a mitote. The elderly man whom Yurchenco interviewed confessed that no one had taught him those songs, that “God gave them to me, I knew them when I was born.” He added: “When I die, all this will die with me. My son has no interest in learning these songs.”11 When asked for the lyrics to the songs, the musician explained that he could not give them to her because they were in an ancient language that was no longer spoken and that no one understood anymore.

In the Huichol region, a wild area of intolerable heat, Yurchenco and Maya were supported by one of the SEP’s Misiones Culturales, without which they would have failed in their ethnomusicological task. The employees of the SEP, led by Señor Bonilla, explained their work in the region and how, little by little, they had gained the trust of the people. Yurchenco felt that her feeling of going back in time was reinforced and she recounted unforgettable experiences for being “the most primitive.”12

Yurchenco experienced scenes of intense mestizo religiosity, in which the native worship practices, combined with Christianity, produced ceremonies she had never seen: She heard the panhuéhuetl drum for the first time, “only seen in museums and codices” and had contact with peyote, a “sacred drug” that played an important role in the rituals. The Huichol people explained to her the three foundations of their ceremonial life: deer, peyote, and corn; from being a nomadic people, the gods gave them corn, which made them an established society, although they continued practicing the worship of the three elements. Every year, they made a ceremonial journey for weeks in order to collect the peyote. For entire nights, Yurchenco attended ceremonies and recorded a portion of them on the discs she carried with her. She had to be selective since she did not have enough materials to record everything, in addition to the fear of the unreliable electricity that could interrupt recording.

In terms of the music, according to Yurchenco’s notes, the vocal tradition among the Huichol people was much older and more important than the instrumental, songs were sung in unison with the occasional use of falsetto. The researcher found a particular passion and religious intensity in the songs. She noticed that there were no flutes in this region and the use of violins and guitars, homemade, seemed of little significance. “Music is the property of all. Everybody in the community knows the songs sung during the fiestas.”13 It was particularly interesting to her to record the songs of a young woman in that ethnic group, an experience that left a mark on her in following years. “Years later I understood that, worldwide, it is the women who sing about private life, emotions and feelings.”14 Yurchenco’s intense emotional experience with the Huichol people affected her deeply and she would remember it for the rest of her life. Additionally, the researcher understood the importance of her work in the Cora-Huichol area, since that music had never before been recorded.

In the summer of 1944, Yurchenco, restless, prepared herself to leave on her next expedition in the Seri region. The Seri people are primarily a fishing people located in the Gulf of California in the state of Sonora. Before leaving, she read the works of the ethnologists William McGee (1898) and Carlos Basauri (1930), who had previously visited the region. Yurchenco and Agustín Maya spent two months in the village of Desemboque, where the main Seri community of 200 inhabitants was located. Living conditions were very difficult and uncomfortable, and they suffered from hunger. Yurchenco mentions that she lost twelve pounds during her stay in the region. They had to stay seven weeks waiting for a gasoline motor to arrive which was necessary to complete the recordings. In the interim, they spent time with the community, who eventually opened their doors to them. Despite the hardships of the experience, Yurchenco fell in love with the people. In her Memorias, she realized the closeness that she managed to develop with the Seri people: “In all the years of my work among Indians I never felt more at home than among these lively, intelligent and affectionate people. They opened their doors and let me in and I am eternally grateful.”15 Regarding her musical discoveries in the Seri region, Yurchenco summarized them in the following manner in an article published in the Boletín Indigenista.16

The Seri believe in the divine origin of music. The main shaman is the medium by which God sends his songs to the tribe. The music has always been used in religious and secular contexts. Although the great majority of the songs in the past formed part of sacred rites, this factor has almost disappeared since the festivals have not been celebrated for some time. Only the songs of the curanderos are still preserved in their sacred and ritual role. Everyone in the Seri community, including children, sing not only the music that is common property of the tribe, but also some of individual invention.17

The music accompanies the hunt or fishing trips, and there are love songs and lullabies. The music is sung in unison and the form is composed of two short phrases repeated as many times as required. Almost all the music is vocal with the exception of a one-stringed violin, which reminded the researcher of an oriental instrument. Yurchenco reports that some80 songs were recorded during the expedition as well as 50 photographs and 300 feet of 16mm color film.18


In February of 1945, Yurchenco took a train to Guatemala, sponsored by the US Department of State; without the resources to hire a photographer, she went alone. Yurchenco’s long-cherished dream was able to become a reality once the dictator Jorge Ubico was thrown out of power, as well as his successor, General Ponce. With the intellectual José Luis Arévalo’s return from exile and assumption of power, the situation became more propitious for Yurchenco’s endeavors. Once in Guatemala, the researcher was surrounded by people anxious to help her, and she became a kind of local celebrity.

With a truck, a driver, and some money provided by the Minister of Education, Jorge Luis Arriola, Yurchenco went to Rabinal in the province of Baja Verapaz. In that city she heard part of the music for the Rabinal Achí, a play of pre-Hispanic origin in Quiché that was documented by a Belgian cleric, Charles Étienne Brasseur, in 1855; the music is played with trumpets and a teponaztli with three tones instead of the usual two. The researcher recorded this music and compared it to the chapel maestro’s transcription made almost a century earlier, and discovered they had little in common. Yurchenco was fascinated by the topic and studied it deeply, managing to publish, many years later, a research article about the Rabinal Achí in a musicology journal.19

After returning to Guatemala City, she headed for the western part of the country. In Chajul, an Ixil town, she recorded a band of guitars, square drums with leather skins, reed flutes, metal trumpets, and a teponaztli. This time, the recordings were created on aluminum-based acetate discs on a turntable. There she managed to find someone to play El baile de las canastas (The Basket Dance) for her, which they explained consisted of nine parts, each with its own music, on trumpet and teponaztli; the recording took an hour. To the researcher, the music seemed “so cheerful and rhythmically exciting, so unlike the doleful sound of the Rabinal Achí.”20 Inspired by this music, Yurchenco managed, with the support of the Minister of Education Arriola, to organize a staging/performance of El baile de las canastas in Chajul. They rented costumes and hired dancers who wore the baskets on the end of poles attached to their backs. With the accompaniment of the trumpets and the teponaztli, the complete piece was performed, as well as filmed, photographed, recorded, and documented in notes. Hundreds of people from the nearby towns attended, knowing that this show had not been performed in a long time. The team had to spend large sums of money for the costumes, musicians, and alcohol that they demanded, among other things. It was a special moment that Yurchenco would remember for life. Unfortunately, the film was destroyed years later in a fire.21

Registry of Henrietta Yurchenco’s Historic Recordings of Traditional Mexican Music in UNESCO’s Memory of the World, Mexico (2015)

Thanks to the agreement signed between the Director of the III, Mexico’s SEP, and the US LOC, from 1944 to 1946, Henrietta Yurchenco produced a series of direct-to-disc recordings with the Cora people in Nayarit, the Huichol in Jalisco, the Tzeltal and Tzotzil in Chiapas, the Tarahumara in Chihuahua, the Seri and the Yaqui in Sonora, and the Quiché, Kekchí, Ixil and Sutujil in Guatemala.22

According to the agreement, three copies of the recordings would be held at each of the signing institutions: the Library of Congress in Washington, which produced the copies of the researcher’s recorded discs, kept a set and sent two copies to the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano based in Mexico City, whose director was the prestigious anthropologist Manuel Gamio. He left one of the copies with the Secretaría de Educación Pública, specifically at the Departamento de Música de Bellas Artes (The Bellas Artes Music Department), then led by composer Luis Sandi.23 This is the set that was archived at the CENIDIM, beginning with its creation in 1974, and is currently housed at the Fonoteca Nacional. The second example held in Mexico currently belongs to the Programa Universitario de Estudios de la Diversidad Cultural y la Interculturalidad (PUIC; University Program for Cultural and Intercultural Diversity Studies) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), once the III was dissolved in 2009, and has also been housed at the Fonoteca Nacional. According to her Memorias, Yurchenco herself left a copy of the completed recordings from Guatemala in that country at the end of her stay.24 Some of these recordings were later produced in Washington on record labels such as Folkways and Nonesuch.25

The two collections kept in Mexico consist of 262 shellac direct-to-disc recordings, recorded between 1944 and 1946 in the regions mentioned previously. CENIDIM’s collection, now preserved, inventoried, catalogued, and digitalized, includes the following discs: 14 from the Seri region, 11 from the Huichol, 25 from the Tzotzil/Tzeltal, 11 from the Cora, 20 from the Tarahumara, 16 from the Yaqui, 21 from the Quiché, seven from the Ixil, four from the Kekchí, and one from the Zutujil, with a total of 130. These two series were proposed for registry in UNESCO’s Memory of the World in 2015, by CENIDIM, PUIC, and the Fonoteca Nacional. On February 21, 2016, at the XXVII Feria Internacional del Libro del Palacio de Minería (The Palacio de Minería’s 27th International Book Fair) in Mexico City, the presidential office of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Mexican Committee’s presented the Diploma of the proposed registry to the participating institutions.

Compiling and Distributing Indigenous Music

Aware of the importance of her pioneering work in the collection of indigenous music in Mexico and Guatemala, in 1946 Yurchenco published an article in which she gives an account of her work and experience, advising future ethnomusicologists to undertake field work recordings. Yurchenco doubts the veracity of transcriptions completed in the 19th century due to the debatable transcription ability of those who completed them and because of the limitations imposed when one transcribes into modern-day musical notation what is heard in other cultures. When compositions were made based on indigenous melodies, the harmony was “corrected,” making it unrecognizable when compared to the original source. Her proposal is the “amalgamation” of musicologists’ methods with those of ethnologists and archeologists: the collection of melodies by the first group and the study of the music’s social and cultural aspects by the other two.

Yurchenco gives some general and practical recommendations, and others more technical, with respect to the recordings; a kind of recording manual for the ethnomusicologist. Among the first are the following: if possible, contact the groups through the local authorities, that is, so that the expedition is recognized as official in nature. However, if there is hostility toward the authorities, it is better to earn the trust of the indigenous groups directly; this was Yurchenco’s experience with the Seri women. It is important to compensate the musicians and, frequently, the performers refuse to play unless they are offered alcohol. She experienced this with the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Seri peoples. It is also essential to offer praise/show admiration that you feel for their music “for its beauty and rhythm, thus you will have won half the battle.”26 Additionally, she warns researchers of the dangers of authorities offering them false information that may lead to incorrect conclusions. For example, she mentions her impression that the indigenous music of Chiapas was primarily instrumental, according to an article published in 1943, but when she returned to the state three years later she realized the error of her assessment.

Regarding technical aspects, she indicates the differences between recording religious music and secular music. For religious music, she lists three methods, each with advantages and disadvantages: (1) Record the ceremony live, (2) Recreate the festivities for the recording, and (3) Gather the musicians with the sole goal of recording the music. This last option has the limitation of losing the “festive ambience” although it is the most practical of the three. This form allows the recording of different versions, isolating parts, and distinguishing harmonic and melodic traits and style of performance. The researcher also provides technical instruction on the use of recording devices and microphones, the tone control, and more.

What attracted Yurchenco to research the music of Mexico was, according to the researcher herself, her fascination with pre-Hispanic music. She hoped to find music that had not been contaminated by Western civilization. During her many expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala, this was a recurring theme that she expressed both in her diary as well as in articles that she wrote and, without a doubt, guided her travels of musical compilation throughout the country. Her eagerness can be seen in this passage that she wrote in her memoires (original in English):

I never doubted that any future research I might do would focus on Indian music rather than mestizo, particularly the possible survivals or prehispanic culture. Though I knew Spaniards had explored every nook and cranny of the country and left their mark everywhere, anthropologists and musicians assured me that if I went far enough into the mountains I would find primitive tribes living like their ancestors.27

In the Spanish version of her memoires, overseen by Yurchenco, her claim was slightly more tentative:

Despite my interest in all kinds of popular music, what interested me—after my explorations—was the possibility of discovering pre-Hispanic music, still alive and well. Before leaving New York, a prominent anthropologist assured me that indigenous culture no longer existed, that it had been destroyed by the Europeans. But according to some Mexican anthropologists, it still existed among the country’s most primitive tribes.28

In 1942, on her first compilation trip to Chiapas, she found herself already in pursuit of these cultures. She confirmed then that: “The music of the indigenous tribes of the state of Chiapas is one of the most primitive of the republic, although on its own maintains little of the pre-Hispanic.”29 On her next journey to Chiapas, in 1945, she points out that: “To the casual observer, Chiapas is Christian country, yet, underneath lies a secret vein, a devotion to a past recalled through song and ritual.”30 The researcher claimed categorically that those songs survived from the ancient past, long before the arrival of Europeans, and that they were as valuable as the Mayan ruins scattered throughout the state. She confirmed that throughout that region the music was changing due to modern influences.

Her efforts to find original music led her to delve into more and more remote regions far from civilization, such as the Cora-Huichol region in the Western Sierra Madre, where Yurchenco suffered through lack of food, water, and places to sleep. In a 1963 article, Yurchenco recorded her discoveries from the 1940s and concentrated on her insistent idea of the survival of pre-Hispanic music, indicated in the title, and which she claims to have found in the “primitive tribes” like the Seri and Yaqui, with songs and dances that harken to a time even before hunters and fishermen. She also found this type of ancient music among the Huichol and Tarahumara peoples. Yurchenco identified the Yaqui Danza del venado (Dance of the Deer), which portrays the hunt and capture of the deer, as pre-Hispanic; from this piece she transcribed a fragment of the lyrics and another of the music. Similarly, she transcribed an example of a Yaqui song that the people sang in the privacy of their huts, thus avoiding exposing it to the Mexican mestizos, and she offered a brief analysis of its music. The piece was “in praise of God; it is characterized by leaps of a fourth and a fifth, repetition of single notes, emphasis on ‘tonic’ and ‘dominant,’ a strong accent and relentless metre; the range is an octave.”31 The third example that she included was from the Tarahumara, from the Dutubiri dance. The Tarahumara are another people isolated from contact with miscegenation and fond of consuming the hallucinogenic fungus from peyote (like the Huichol people). She found that the Tarahumara were “very primitive” and “with a strong pre-Columbian culture.” The musical characteristics that she described included accompaniment by a bell that could last for hours, short melodic phrases with a basic rhythm and descending pattern.

Thanks to this zeal for original purity, Yurchenco managed to attend ceremonies in remote regions where she had access because of her skills and good offices, obtaining recordings of music never before recorded; some of which survives today only in this form. Yurchenco had a clear awareness of the sense of social cohesion/connectedness that music has among indigenous peoples, its cultural value and the importance of its preservation as intangible heritage of ancient cultures, whether in Mexico or other countries of the world. In a report published in 1983, Yurchenco demonstrated a great appreciation for mestiza music that had been heard in Michoacán in the 1960s. In particular, she noted the voices of women such as the Solorio Sisters and the Pulido Sisters, who sang accompanied by guitar. She also praised the quality of the voices of a girls’ school group she recorded in Uruapan in 1966. Yurchenco no longer searched for only music that was most closely tied to the original, and could appreciate the musical quality of cultural mixing seen in these women or in Joaquín Bautista, a “talented Tarascan guitarist” trained at the Conservatorio. Upon studying the Pirekua, she finds that this has a clear influence from 19th century Europe in the ternary meter, the use of the guitar, and harmony in thirds and sixths.32

It was a time in Mexico in which the national musical identity was being formed, through the compositions of Carlos Chávez, Silvestre Revueltas, Manuel M. Ponce, Candelario Huízar, José Pablo Moncayo, and many more, recreating culturally mixed sounds in the search for a national sound. As Marina Alonso has mentioned, in the Mexico of the 1940s and 1950s, there emerged a process of “invention” of indigenous music, to which composers contributed, with the creation of national styles, as well as researchers in popular and traditional music, for the sake of forging a national culture that would be seen reflected in broad-reaching and long-lived cultural politics.33

The recordings that Yurchenco made constitute an important link in the construction of the musical memory and ethnic heritage of Mexico, which has been preserved in archives in the United States and Mexico. These recordings safeguard genres, instruments, and even dialectical variants that have since disappeared, but thanks to her work we can appreciate. The wealth of documents collected by Yurchenco in her recordings and held at archives in both countries still await researchers who will study and share them.

Secondary Sources

Upon Henrietta Yurchenco’s death at ninety-one years of age, journalists, colleagues, and friends wrote obituaries in which they celebrated her life and career. These texts depict personal and professional traits of the researcher, from the point of view of those who knew her as friend, colleague, or teacher. John Graziano remembered her days as a professor at City College in the late 1960s: she not only taught folkloric music courses, something uncommon during that time, but also founded a musical group called Common Ground, with which she played music for liberal causes. She always accompanied her students to conferences and on musicological expeditions. And, although she retired, she continued writing books and articles. Her last books were Around the World in 80 Years (2002) and In Their Own Voices: Women in the Judeo-Hispanic Song and Story (2007). Eli Smith recounts how Yurchenco started her classes at City College in 1966, with an attitude of open rebellion in the face of academic affectations and against bureaucratic nonsense; there, she offered inspiring courses as well as workshops to learn to play different instruments and music styles. During that time she was very active in the anti-Vietnam War movement: “She remained politically active, going to demonstrations, speaking out against war and oppression, singing and promoting protest and peace songs until the end of her life.”34

David Austin Gura mentioned how, every Thursday, practically until her death, former students and friends would gather in the evening at her apartment in Chelsea to sing old protest songs that Yurchenco had taught in her classes in the 1960s and 1970s, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Study War No More.” At these gatherings, lyric sheets were passed out and people commented and asked questions, as if they were in a seminar. Every meeting had a particular theme.35

The obituaries appeared both in the United States and Mexico as well as England, and offer valuable information. Below are those that offer information beyond just biographical facts:

Additionally, due to the “Memory of the World 2015” recognition in 2016 and upon the hundredth anniversary of her birth, these articles came out highlighting Yurchenco’s ethnomusicological work:

There also exists a digital audio tape titled Henrietta Yurchenco en el Palacio de Bellas Artes, at the Fonoteca Henrietta Yurchenco of the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI; National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples), which is the recording of a tribute to Yurchenco made in 2004. It includes a biography by Sol Rubín de la Borbolla; a talk by Arturo Chamorro about Henrietta Yurchenco in the Huichol Sierra; a presentation about Yurchenco and her work in the sound recordings of Mexican indigenous peoples by Julio Herrera; another about Yurchenco’s contributions to Mexican ethnomusicological training by Gonzalo Camacho; as well as musical interludes. The entire event was topped off with a twelve-minute address by Yurchenco herself.

In the original article by Marina Alonso Bolaños published in 2008, the author uses the concept of the invention of indigenous music during the nationalist period of the 1940s and 1950s, to which three groups contributed: nationalist composers, scholars of popular music, and those who disseminated and initiated phonographic series. In this last group belongs Yurchenco, among others such as Cristina Bonfil, Irene Vázquez, Arturo Warman and Vicente T. Mendoza. That same year, Alonso Bolaños published her book, La “invención” de la música indígena de México. Antropología e historia de las políticas culturales del siglo XX (Buenos Aires: SB, 2008).36

Discussion of the Literature

Books and Articles

Without a doubt, an indispensable source for delving into the life of Henrietta Yurchenco is her own diary, which exists in two forms with significant differences: the English version (published in 2002) and the Spanish version (published in 2003).37 In her particular and casual style, Yurchenco tells us about her personal life; her ethnomusicological transformations; how she faced the Mexican and Guatemalan bureaucratic world, as well as other countries where she launched expeditions in search of music; her adventurous expeditions in inhospitable lands; living with different indigenous peoples where she traveled; and the ceremonies and transformations that she experienced. The Mexican version comes embellished with photographs from the field and documents, making it very interesting to discover the negotiations she undertook with Mexican, Guatemalan, and US authorities. Additionally, she recounts particular moments of her Mexican and Guatemalan negotiations, which sometimes are left out of the US version. At the same time, one can see a reduction or elimination of certain comments that are found in the original English language version, but that for Mexicans could have been considered derogatory.

Another worthy text, that discusses her research experience in Mexico and Guatemala, is the article, “Grabaciones de música indígena.”38 There, Yurchenco offers a historical account of the conquest and its implications on the lives of indigenous peoples, particularly the detrimental effect on the music of those ethnic groups. She describes the process of recording music in Mexico and Guatemala, as well as the collaborative project that developed between Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States, and which was completed in 1944–1945; she claims that some five hundred pieces of music were recorded and she suggests a classification of indigenous music; she explores the function of music in indigenous populations; she describes the distinctly indigenous musical instruments; and she concludes by pointing out the danger these representations are under with the advancement of roads and electricity to the most remote regions of the Mexican landscape.


Some of Yurchenco’s recording projects in Mexico and Guatemala came to light on discs produced by commercial recording companies. Listed here are those related to aforementioned expeditions. They appear in chronological order with reference to their reprints:

Folk Music of Mexico, Washington D.C., Library of Congress, Vol. 19, 1948.

Indian Music of Mexico: Seri/Cora/Yaqui/Huichol/Tzotzil/, New York, Folkways, P143, 1948/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, FW04413, 2004.

Music of the Tarascan Indians of Mexico: Music of Michoaca and Mestizo Country, New York, Nonesuch H2009, 1966/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, AHM 4217, 2004.

The Real Mexico in Music and Song, New York, Nonesuch, Hw009, 1966.

Latin American Children’s Game Songs recorded in Puerto Rico and Mexico, New York, Asch Folkways, 751, 1968/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, FW07851, 2004.

Mexico South: Traditional Songs and Dances from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, New York: Folkways Records, FE 4378, 1976/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, FW04378, 2004.

Music of the Maya-Quichés of Guatemala: The Rabinal Achí and Baile de Canastas, New York, Folkways, FE 4226, 1978/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, FW04226, 2004.

In the article by CENIDIM researcher Hiram Dordelly, “Catálogo de la colección Yurchenco,” he presents an initial classification of Yurchenco’s recordings collection and of those of which the Centro holds a copy.39 Dordelly states: “The following catalog corresponds to the order in which the original pieces were recorded and registers all the information that Henrietta Yurchenco noted in the first relating of the content of the recordings that she made.”40 Dordelly made a copy of Yurchenco’s discs on 19 cassettes that contain 612 registered pieces, with a detailed listing of all. Another interesting document with information regarding the recordings is that which describes the archives found at the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI)’s Fonoteca Henrietta Yurchenco, which can be consulted online.41 On the disc produced by the ethnomusicologist Xilonen Luna Ruíz in 2007, Memoria Sonora Náayari: Música ceremonial de la Coras de Nayarit (Memoria Sonora Náayari: Ceremonial Music of the Nayarit Cora People), six of Yurchenco’s recordings from 1944 are used.42 The researcher made another one that same year about the harp, another track of Yurchenco, recorded in 1945.43

Three reviews of Yurchenco’s recordings came out in the journal Ethnomusicology, all concerning the music of Mexico and Guatemala: one regarding the album The Real Mexico, another about Music of the Tarascan Indians, both by Thomas Stanford, as well as another by Linda L. O’Brien on the album Music of the Maya-Quichés of Guatemala.44 All the reviews emphasize the value of Yurchenco’s groundbreaking work in the 1940s in regards to recording this music. Stanford points out technical problems with the recordings, and both authors list several errors in the track notes and conceptual problems made by Yurchenco.


The main collection on this researcher is the Library of Congress’s Henrietta Yurchenco Collection in Washington. The vast majority of the documents held there, which include books, recordings, film, photographs, prints, and drawings, can only be accessed in hard copy at that institution. There are also the archives of the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI) in Mexico City, where the Fonoteca Henrietta Yurchenco is located, and where one can consult the researcher’s direct-to-disc recordings of the Tarahumara, Huichol, Cora, Seri, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal regions. At Mexico City’s Fonoteca Nacional’s archives, one can access Henrietta Yurchenco’s sound collection that was housed at the CENIDIM/INBA and is now completely digitalized. At the INAH’s Fonoteca in Mexico City, one can find the CD-ROM Henrietta Yurchenco: Grabaciones de Campo published by the CDI, which contains numerous documents and photographs of her field work; also a CD with a 2002 interview with Yurchenco: “La música y el I.I.I.”45

Translated from Spanish by Amy Savage.

Further Reading

Gottfried, Jessica “Music and Folklore Research in the Departamento de Bellas Artes, 1926–1946.” In the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, edited by William Beezley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Loza, Steven. “Contemporary Ethnomusicology in Mexico.” Latin American Music Review/Revista De Música Latinoamericana 11.2 (1990): 201–250.Find this resource:

Nava López, Enrique Fernando. “Musical Traditions of the P’urhepecha (Tarascos) of Michoacan (Mexico).” In Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History, Vol. 1, Performing Beliefs: Indigenous Peoples of South America, Central America, and Mexico. Edited by Malena Kuss, 247–260. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Tarica, Estelle “Indigenismo.” In the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, edited by William Beezley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Yurchenco, Henrietta. “Estilos de ejecución en la música indígena Mexicana con énfasis particular en la pirecua tarasca.” In Sabiduría popular. Edited by Arturo Camacho Escalante, 2nd ed., 153–163. Morelia: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1997.Find this resource:

Yurchenco, Henrietta. “Investigación folclórico musical en Nayarit y Jalisco. Grupos indígenas coras y huicholes.” In Música y danzas del gran Nayar. Edited by Jesús Jáuregui, 141–170. México: Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Contemporáneos, 1993.Find this resource:

Yurchenco, Henrietta, “Indian Music of Mexico and Guatemala.” Bulletin of the American Musicological Society 11/12/13 (1948): 58–59.Find this resource:


(1.) Carl Lumholtz, Unknown Mexico: A Record of Five Years Exploration among the Tribes of the Western Sierra Madre, in the Tierra Caliente of Tepic and Jalisco, and among the Tarascos of Michoacan (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902); and Carl Lumholtz, New Trails in Mexico: An Account of One Year’s Exploration in North-Western Sonora, Mexico, and South-Western Arizona: 1909–1910 (London: Fisher Unwin, 1912). These recordings can now be listened to on seven corresponding discs at the Library of Congress. Additionally, there are three CDs with his recordings donated by the Norwegian government to the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

(2.) Henrietta Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años. Memorias (México: CDI, 2003), 5. Can be downloaded free of charge at: (consulted July 30, 2018). This book in Spanish is a modified version of the English-language original: Henrietta Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years. A Memoir (Point Richmond, CA: MRI Press, 2002).

(3.) Secretaría de Educación Pública, “Informe de las labores desarrolladas entre el 1° de agosto de 1947 y el 30 de junio de 1948 por la Sección de Investigaciones Musicales” 1 Mecanoescrito del Archivo Histórico del CENIDIM, documento 159, caja 8, p.1.

(4.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 53.

(5.) In her diary, Yurchenco states: “Once the [radio] programs were over, another research opportunity came to me.” This claim leads us to believe that the programs were indeed completed; unfortunately, we don’t yet have those recordings. La vuelta al mundo en 80 años. 62.

(6.) Carlos Girón Cerna y Manuel Gamio, editores, Boletín indigenista, vol. II, no. 3 (México: Instituto Indigenista Interamericano, 1942).

(7.) Henrietta Yurchenco, “La música indígena en Chiapas, México,” América Indígena 3.4 (1943): 305–311.

(8.) Yurchenco, “La música indígena en Chiapas, México.”

(9.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 165.

(10.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 73, 77.

(11.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 78, 79.

(12.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 80.

(13.) Henrietta Yurchenco, “Report on Expedition to Record on Discs the Music of the Huichol Indians of México,” documento inédito (1944) Archivo de la Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI).

(14.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 87.

(15.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 139–140.

(16.) Henrietta Yurchenco, “Nota sobre la expedición para grabar música aborigen de los indios seri,” Boletín Indigenista 4.3 (1944): 258–262.

(17.) Yurchenco, Boletín Indigenista, 260.

(18.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 98.

(19.) Henrietta Yurchenco. “The Rabinal Achí: A Twelfth Century Drama of the Maya-Quiché of Guatemala,” Acta Musicologica 57.1 (January–June 1985): 37–50.

(20.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 155.

(21.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 156–157. The American photographer Maud Oakes made slides of the event that still exist. With the terrible political conditions in the following years—the guerrilla war, the repression of the Ixil people—no one knew of this dance much less had they seen it when Yurchenco returned to Guatemala in 1979 and asked about it.

(22.) The information in this section is taken from the document titled “Propuesta para la inscripción en el registro Memora del Mundo 2015. Documentos Sonoros de Henrietta Yurchenco. Grabaciones históricas de música de pueblos indígenas de México y Guatemala” produced by the Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación e Información Musical “Carlos Chávez” (CENIDIM) of the INBA, the Programa Universitario de la Diversidad Cultural y la Interculturalidad at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Fonoteca Nacional (México, 2015).

(23.) Archived at the Archivo Histórico del CENIDIM-INBA, Ciudad de México.

(24.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 160.

(25.) See the section on Discs.

(26.) Henrietta Yurchenco. “La Recopilación de Música Indígena,” América Indígena 6.1 (January 1946): 325.

(27.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 111.

(28.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, 69.

(29.) Yurchenco, “La música indígena en Chiapas,” 306.

(30.) Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years, 166.

(31.) Henrietta Yurchenco, “Survivals of Pre-Hispanic Music in New Mexico,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 15 (1963): 16.

(32.) Henrietta Yurchenco, “Estilos de ejecución en la música indígena mexicana con énfasis particular en la pirecua tarasca,” in Sabiduría popular. En homenaje a Vicente T. Mendoza, Fernando Horcasitas y Américo Paredes, ed. Arturo Chamorro Escalante, 240–260. México: El Colegio de Michoacán/Comité Organizador pro Sociedad Interamericana de Folklore y Etnomusicología, 1983.

(33.) Marina Alonso Bolaños, “La invención de la música indígena de México,” Antropología. Boletín Oficial del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 77 (2005): 47.

(34.) Eli Smith, “Henrietta Yurchenco. (1916–2007).” (Consulted February 15, 2018.)

(35.) See references to these articles in the section on Secondary Sources.

(36.) Alonso Bolaños, “La invención de la música indígena de México.”

(37.) Yurchenco, La vuelta al mundo en 80 años, and Yurchenco, Around the World in 80 Years. In addition to these, the other articles by Henrietta Yurchenco cited throughout the text are recommended.

(38.) Published originally in the journal Nuestra Música in 1946 and reprinted in the journal Bibliomúsica 7 (January–April 1994): 55–61. Can currently be consulted and downloaded free of charge from the INBA digital archive [Consulted February 25, 2018].

(39.) Hiram Dordelly, “Catálogo de la colección Yurchenco, Bibliomúsica” 7 (México: Conaculta/INBA/Cenidim, January–April 1994), 62–72 [Consulted February 25, 2018.]

(40.) Dordelly, Bibliomúsica, 62.

(41.) Laura Ruíz Mondragón y Lorena Vargas Rojas, “Fonoteca Henrietta Yurchenco,” Centro de Investigación, Información y Documentación de los Pueblos Indígenas de México: Guía general, Coordinadora, Teresa Rojas Rabiela (México: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, CIESAS, 2003), 91–92.

(42.) Memoria Sonora Náayari: Música ceremonial de la Coras de Nayarit (Memoria Sonora Náayari: Ceremonial Music of the Nayarit Cora People) (México: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2007), 62 pp.

(43.) Xilonen Luna Ruíz, and Camilo R. Camacho Jurado, Arpas indígenas de México (México: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2007). The track is an example of the Tzotzil harp.

(44.) Thomas Stanford, “The Real Mexico in Music and Song by Henrietta Yurchenco,” Ethnomusicology 13.2 (May 1969): 408–409; Thomas Stanford, “Music of the Tarascan Indians of Mexico; Music of Michoacán and Nearby Mestizo Country by Henrietta Yurchenco,” Ethnomusicology 18.2 (May 1974): 349–350; and Linda L. O’Brien, “Music of the Maya-Quichés of Guatemala: The Rabinal Achí and Baile de la Canastas by Henrietta Yurchenco,” Ethnomusicology 23.3 (September 1979): 475–477.

(45.) This is a video of a conversation between the researcher and Guillermo Espinosa Velasco on August 21, 2002, upon Yurchenco’s visit to the History Archives of the Archivo Histórico del Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III) that day. It was published on compact disc in September of that year. There also exists the documentary Henrietta Yurchenco: Testimonio de vida (1996, duration 36 min) directed by José Luis Sagredo in the series “Programas Especiales: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, México” produced on VHS. We were not able to locate this material in Mexico City libraries. According to WorldCat’s catalog, it can be found in the University of Texas Library system.