Rhythmic rumble of hompak the sound of cultural coevolution


While on the subject of agave (see last week's post), there is one quite eccentric use I didn't mention, as a musical instrument. Not the whole plant - that wouldn't make any sense - but the hollowed out flowering stem.

The hompak is a long wooden instrument with a flared distal end. Something like an unfurled trumpet or perhaps a shortened alphorn. I can't find much background but it seems to have originated in the Mexican region during Mayan times (this next image is part of a mural I saw at the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia).


As you can see at the top of the post, my Mexican friend Manual Bonilla Rodríguez not only has one, but plays it. The extraordinary part is that he plays it, and it sounds, like an Australian didgeridoo. Cultural co-evolution says Manual.

I can attest to it sounding very similar to the didgeridoo played by the Australian Indigenous people of northern Australia. It even requires circular breathing, which although used with various more commonly encountered wind instruments is essential for creating the distinctive pulsating drone of the didgeridoo.

Here is Clarence Slockee playing the didgeridoo at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah, New South Wales, in 2005, followed by Manual at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2018.


Of course you can play any long, hollowed out, tube in the style of a didgeridoo. A university friend of mine used to show off by playing a vacuum cleaner, although the sound wasn't quiet as mellifluous as that produced by wood.

There are differences between the hompak and didgeridoo. The flared end for starters. Also the source of the tube.


Above you see a didgeridoo carried in the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony held at Royal Botanic Garden Sydney on 26 January 2007. Mostly it's made from a hollowed out eucalypt branch, traditionally with the hard work done by termites.


In Mexico, it's the hollowed out flowering stem of an agave, with the trumpet end due to the flaring of the stem at its base. A small segment - maybe 15 centimetres long - of bamboo is added at the mouth end, but no wax is applied (unlike the Australian didgeridoo).

To finish, I saw another cultural pursuit in Mexico City that to my knowledge Aboriginal Australians have - quite sensibly - not taken up, Voladores de Antropologia (literally, Flyers of Anthropology). I won't go into all the details but essentially four people dangle upside down from ropes that unravel and rotate from the top of a rather long pole until the 'flyers' reach the earth. It began, I understand, in the rainforest trees of southern Mexico. Today you can, if you are lucky, see it in this park setting in Chapultepec.



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