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In Tune With the Past

Xochimoki draws on ancient cultures to help kids enjoy music, nature.


Against the strains of wailing sirens and racing motors, Jim Berenholtz sat on his San Francisco patio and sang, using the phone as a mike, the praises of the natural world.

It's a familiar tune for this 40-year-old composer, musician and author who has worked with collaborator Mazatl Galindo for 16 years to help children appreciate the links between humans and nature.

The men call themselves Xochimoki (pronounced SO-she-mo-kee), a name derived from the Hopi and Nahautl, or Aztec, languages; it means Flower of the Ancient Ones. They perform original music on authentic instruments of the Aztec, Mayan and Mesoamerican cultures.

Children may know Xochimoki from school concerts arranged through the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Los Angeles Music Center outreach programs. On Saturday, the duo will give a rare public concert at the Children's Museum at La Habra in conjunction with the museum's "Music Studio" exhibit, which closes Sunday.

A free drop-in art workshop, in which children can make items inspired by the Aztec culture, will follow the show.

Galindo, a Mexico native who lives in Mexico City, said the music he plays is in his blood. His Aztec forefathers built one of the most advanced civilizations of their time before being conquered by the Spaniards in 1519.

While he has no Indian blood, Berenholtz became interested in Native American cultures as a child in Queens, N.Y. He maintains that listeners of any culture can find solace in the music.

"Our goal is to turn kids on to how beautiful and exciting it is to hear these sounds that come from nature," Berenholtz said. "This music is grounded in a sensibility to nature, and that's something that appeals to me in a very spiritual sense."

He said children as young as 4 can appreciate the concerts, which sometimes include dancing and colorful costumes.

Berenholtz and Galindo met at an Aztec new year ceremony in 1981, and the pair have since traveled extensively through the "pyramid cities" of southeast Mexico, visiting the ancient ruins and studying regional art and artifacts.

Over the years, they have amassed some 500 costume pieces and instruments. Many are authentic, others built from turtle shells, bamboo, pottery and other natural materials.

The Aztec civilization took root around the beginning of the 14th century, with its heart in the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City now stands. The empire spread into central and southern Mexico throughout the 16th century before being conquered by the troops of Hernando Cortes.

Although many remember the Aztecs chiefly for their ferocity, they also brought the world such benign gifts as tacos, chocolate and an early form of basketball. The Xochimoki duo sees no irony in trying to convey the serenity of nature through the music of people whose religious practices reportedly included human sacrifice.

"There's a very large school of belief in central Mexico that the history of human sacrifices has been grossly exaggerated," noted Berenholtz. "After all, the people who chronicled the Aztec culture were the [Spanish] invaders, so it was in their interest to make their enemy look as violent and evil as possible."

Berenholtz said many Latin Americans reject their Aztec roots because of a misplaced cultural prejudice. But he remains encouraged by the revival in Aztec teachings and traditions in many parts of the Southwest and Mexico. As evidence, he points to such popular Southern California groups as Xipe Totec Danzantes Aztecas.

"In a global sense, I support the idea of indigenous people claiming their culture, and not being acculturated into the dominant society," Berenholtz said. "It's important that we keep our own traditions alive and remember how to live with nature in a harmonious way."


"Xochimoki: A Musical Journey through the Americas" takes place Saturday at the Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra, noon. A drop-in art workshop follows the performance and continues until 4 p.m. (562) 905-9793. Museum admission is $4, children under 2 enter free.

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