Singing Truth to Power: A Musical Protest during the Aztec Empire

The gathered musicians were, unsurprisingly, terrified.

They were about to take part in a musical protest of sorts, using a specially-written song to challenge their oppressor face to face, and demand justice for their people. But their oppressor was the most powerful person they could imagine… the leader of the Aztec Empire.

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The year was 1479, and the musicians stood at the gates of the great palace of the Aztec emperor Axayacatl in the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. They hailed from the near-by kingdom of Chalco, which had been brutally conquered by the Aztecs a generation before.

Aztecs musicians singing, dancing and playing the drums during a festival.

In victory, the Aztecs destroyed the Chalco’s royal family, dictating that henceforth the Chalcan people would be governed by the direct rule of the Aztec emperor. There was worse to come; the Aztecs imposed crushing demands for annual tribute, and a steady stream of human captives to be sacrificed in the great temples of Tenochtitlan.

Time passed, however, and by 1479 a new generation of Chalcans had come of age, and they began to bristle at the Aztecs’ demands. Conquest was the way of the world, they understood; and yet they retained the memories of self-determination and a proud history that stretched back centuries. Leaders of the town, particularly its noble classes, sought to speak out against the Aztecs’ continuing oppression, and to demand fairer treatment—perhaps a degree of autonomy, or at least a more active role in the governance of the empire. More importantly, they wanted to be treated with respect.

And so a group of musicians traveled to Tenochtitlan, ostensibly to perform for Emperor Axayacatl for his entertainment, as freely-offered tribute from Chalco to the great leader of the Aztecs. In secret, the musicians planned to present a carefully selected song that would present a coded message, saying: “We know what you’re doing is wrong. And you know it, too.”

The musicians were playing a very dangerous game. For one, the Aztecs famously treated disloyalty and dissent in ways that would have made Attila the Hun queasy. Aztec leaders were not above actively goading their already-conquered territories into open rebellion, and then using the unrest as a pretext to invade all over again so they could impose even greater demands for tribute. But it wasn’t just international politics that had the singers concerned… the Aztecs took musical performances seriously. Very seriously. Aztec sources remark how terrifying it was to perform for the emperors, as the rulers brutally punished performers who displeased them. Stalin may have tormented Soviet artists who sparked his ire, but he never ripped out their still-beating hearts with his bare hands and wore their flayed skins like a cape. The musicians were literally taking their lives into their own hands, and risking terrible retribution for their people.

Musicians being punished for “bad” performance

As it turned out, the pressure apparently got to the lead singer—when the musicians were called for, he fainted and could not be revived. The situation looked dire.

It was at this point, one of the other singers, a young man named Quecholcohuatl, came forward. He would serve as the lead singer. He stepped over his prone companion, and called for the musicians to begin. And he knew he would have to give the performance of a lifetime.

Aztec singer, accompanying himself on a drum

The musicians presented a piece called The Chalca Woman’s Song. It was a revolutionary work, calling for the main singer to perform as if he were a female prisoner of war, taken as a concubine for the king. This was hardly a subtle metaphor; everyone present would instantly see the connection between the enslaved woman and an enslaved kingdom. But by focusing on the point of view of a woman, the song presented a very different perspective. She had lost her own agency. Her children had gone from cherished beings—her hopes of the future—to becoming nonentities with no value. Her sense of honor and dignity now depended on the largess of her king. The song forced the listeners to contemplate the glories of war through the eyes of victims who had no ability to fight back. The effect was similar to how Euripides’ play The Trojan Women forced the ancient Athenians to grapple with the morality of war.

The narrator of the song varied her reactions between each of the verses as the captive sought to take control of the situation she found herself in. Sometimes she flirted, trying to entice the king into treating her favorably. At one point she makes direct allusions to sex, and even speaks flattering words of the king’s penis. Next, she gave over to despair as she remembered her former life, calling out in desperation. The song ended with her making an offer to the king; the captive promised to live with him willingly and join her life to his, but only if she was treated with respect.

Quecholcohuatl’s performance was remarkable. A later chronicle noted that as he accompanied himself on a gilded drum so skillfully, that the drum itself sang aloud and matched its voice to his. He threw himself into the song, modulating his voice to expertly match the melody with the meaning of the words to pull at the listeners’ emotions.  The singers behind him raised their voices to intertwine with his, giving additional strength to the captive woman’s cries, and dancers brought poetry to motion.

In the midst of the performance, Axayacatl himself came forth and approached the musicians. He was a young man of about 30, noted for his athleticism and prowess in battle. As the chronicle reports, “When he reached the dance floor, Axayacatl lifted up one foot, completely happy in hearing the music, and began to dance and move in circles.” To everyone’s astonishment, he joined in the performance. This was an extraordinary honor, and the Chalcans had reason to believe their plan had gone well.

Lord Axayacatl, here shown wearing the skin of a sacrificial victim

When the song ended, Axayacatl abruptly left, entering the interior of the palace. The musicians looked at each other nervously, and then a grand courtier approached and demanded Quecholcohuatl follow him at once… alone.

Quecholcohuatl later reported that he had never been so terrified in his life, and that he could scarcely move his limbs at all. But he recalled that he was a Chalcan, and had come on a mission. He refused to let the Aztec court see his fear. He proudly stepped forward and followed the messenger.

He was brought to one of Axayacatl’s inner chambers, and found the emperor surrounded by his wives and concubines. Quecholcohuatl bowed and greeted the ruler with the traditional sings of obeisance by touching earth to his lips. He began a formalized, ritualized greeting of self-denigration—this was a general custom in Aztec culture, but given the circumstances it seemed especially prudent.

But Axayacatl would have none of it. He cut the singer off and explained simply that he loved the song. Moreover, he was deeply attracted to the singer himself. The emperor offered to take the singer to bed, and promised a prominent position at court, if he would promise to henceforth only sing for him. When Quecholcohuatl smilingly agreed, Axayacatl joyfully told his wives “My women, stand up and meet him, and find him a seat among you. Here has come your rival!”

Later, the emperor sent Quecholcohuatl back out to meet with his fellow musicians. As a sign of favor, Axayacatl presented the singer with regal clothing: a cloak, loincloth and sandals richly decorated and embroidered with jade. The singers were elated when they saw their companion; as gifts of clothing were traditionally exchanged among rulers, and the significance of the garments were immediately apparent to all. Several singers let out whoops of joy, and those who had been more confident in success openly ribbed their more nervous companions. The musicians celebrated lavishly that night in the capital, having succeeded in resetting the relationship between their kingdom and the mighty Aztecs.

In 2020, the remains of Axayacatl’s palace were discovered under the streets of Mexico City.

Indeed, Quecholcohuatl and his companions quickly became national heroes among the Chalcans. For one, the Aztecs raised the status of Chalco and treated it with respect. But more importantly, the The Chalca Woman’s Song became an enormous hit whose popularity reached across ancient Mexico, and endured over generations. Its fame was such that the city where Quecholcohuatl was from became famous and laden with honors. Curiously, the song took on renewed importance roughly 100 years later, after the Spanish conquest. During the 1560s, the song was sung again, but this time flung in the face of the Spaniards for their mistreatment of the native people of Mexico. Like Quecholcohuatl, the indigenous people used to turn to their overlords and state, “We know what you’re doing is wrong. And so do you.”

Quecholcohuatl and Axayacatl continued their relationship, which was considered honorable… and a source of pride for Chalco. It’s a strong reminder that for the Aztecs, sexual preference, sexual practice and sexual identity were relatively fluid concepts. Embracing them openly and honestly was seen as an essential part of the joy of living. The great Aztec emperor could father many children, but could be attracted to men as well.

Sadly, Axayacatl only lived two more years, dying a very young age. Quecholcohuatl, on the other hand, lived to be an elderly man who survived the Spanish conquest and its aftermath. Towards the end of his life, he chose to be baptized as a Christian, taking the name don Jeronimo before he died. The inclusion of the Spanish honorific “don” speaks to his fame and the high status he still held in the colonial era.

Aztec musicians in performance

Throughout time, artists have used their talents to challenge authority, and make society rethink their morals. Protest songs in particular have a long, venerable history, giving voice to the oppressed.

Quecholcohuatl is part of this important tradition. Centuries ago, this musician seized his moment to sing truth to power, and created a political earthquake in the Aztec Empire. It is gratifying to know that his song is still remembered today.

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[Note: for the curious, here is a transcription and translation of The Chalca Woman’s Song.]

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