As tools for creating and maintaining cultural identity go, music is hard to beat. The potential combinations of text and aesthetics are endless; the ability to involve an entire crowd in a live performance is priceless. Countless activists involved in movements to revive aspects of indigenous heritage – language, spirituality, environmentalism – have found fusions of modern production and pre-Columbian sonic traditions to make for an especially potent combination in engaging crowds of every age in reaffirming their own indigeneity.
Doctor Nativo, known offstage as Juan Martinez, has a knack for making people dance and a strong desire for social justice, particularly on behalf of his fellow Guatemalan Mayans. They come together in a lively fusion on Guatemaya, an album that blends hip-hop, salsa, cumbia, reggae, and strong elements of specifically Mayan and Central American sounds. In addition to rapper Tzutu Kan providing Mayan-language rap on tracks “Guatemaya”, “El 20”, and “Zion”, the album includes instruments like the cuatro, charango, and chirimía, as well as Garifuna drums – unsurprising from the Stonetree label, which has brought us the vast majority of internationally-released Garifuna music over the past few decades. The mix of styles speaks to Nativo’s understanding not just of the immediate present and the distant past, but of the full, often painful route between the two.
Musically, Guatemaya is devoted to good flow and rhythm, constantly in motion. Martinez originally recorded and released these songs under the name Dr. Sativo, sometimes with his Barcelona-based project, with some from as early as 2007. Now, Martinez, doubtless with the expert aid of producer and Stonetree founder Ivan Duran, expertly restores more Mesoamerican sounds to songs old and new, often driving them faster and always making them fresher. The first of these is title track “Guatemaya”, where marimba adds sweetness to a wall of aerophones and politically-charged verses that decry the violence that has plagued much of Guatemala’s recent history. The messaging is not subtle, and that’s as intended; Martinez has no intention of sitting by and idly permitting the specter of cultural erosion to run rampant when he is so capable of pushing back against it.
“Ay Morena” is another standout, an enticing cumbia jam that might be the easiest to listen to ad infinitum of the album’s many earworms. Then again, “Sabrosura” has almost as sensual a sway, and the positive vibes rolling off of “Zion” are a much-needed dose of sunshine and inner peace. “B-Boy” is Latin hip-hop at its most straightforward, a delightful thing, and Martinez’s time busking in Spain shows in the acoustic guitar work and ska-adjacent brass of “El Mero Mero”. Archival samples pull in the past to meet up with strong modern reggae sensibilities in “El 20” and “La Voz Popular”; “Kandela” and “Pa’ Que Se Levanten” close out the album with melody at the forefront.
A long and technically proficient career shows through Martinez’s work. His homecoming to Guatemala and transformation into Doctor Nativo marks him as a man committed to a culture he has seen physically and spiritually endangered by war and the remnants of colonialism in not only Guatemala but the entire transnational Mayan world. The solid sounds of Guatemaya signal rejoicing in resistance.