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Photography Monse Guajardo

The experimental artist fusing ancient Mayan flutes and machine learning

Mexican-American musician Debit talks her ambitious second album The Long Count, reimagining ancient Mayan wind instruments, and DJing for Azealia Banks

Reimagining the sounds of ancient Mayan musical history, Mexican-American producer Delia Beatriz’s second album The Long Count takes its title from the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Used by the Mayans to predict the beginnings and endings of time periods across history, the calendar takes the form of cosmological cycles that are divided into 13 days and nights. Beatriz applies this nonlinear structure to the album itself, with each track representing a numbered day and time that has been scrambled to reflect our blurred knowledge of the past.

As there’s no surviving music from the Mayan civilisation, Beatriz used machine learning to create digital instruments based on archival recordings of ancient Mayan wind instruments held in the collection of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The result is ​strange and otherworldly; formless ambient soundscapes are rendered in unfamiliar frequencies to unearth a distant past. “It’s sci-fi, it’s very speculative, because there won’t ever be a way of really knowing,” says Beatriz. 

Some archaeologists believe that ancient Mayans used musical instruments as a portal to the divine. “I think my suspicion is that these instruments were interspecies communication tools,” she suggests. “A lot of people say that their cats freak out or ask to be held when they hear the album. The Mayans were in the jungle and jaguars are a huge part of their mythology. So, my suspicion is that they were communicating or exciting or scaring the felines with these particular sets of instruments that I stumbled upon.” Beatriz therefore uses artificial intelligence to tap into these “ancient technologies” and unearth its deep-rooted mysticism.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

Debit: The myth in my house was that they took my brother to piano lessons. I was four, and I like really wanted to take classes, but I wasn’t tall enough. But I was so hellbent on taking classes that they had to sit me on phone books. 

Ever since I can remember, music has been part of my inner world. Socially, it’s been a really important way for me to relate to space and culture, because I had a very nomadic, unstable adolescence and early adulthood. Every place I would go, it was through music scenes that I could dig my way into some sort of sense and place. 

So, how have these formative experiences shaped your music today?

Debit: I think it’s very typical of the immigrant experience to develop nostalgia for and romanticise the motherland. From the get-go, it was the one thing that I really held on to. Even when I made club music, I always needed to somehow be part of Mexican culture and to contribute to those genres that were innate to Mexico.

What are the main inspirations behind the album?

Debit: From the technical and like the compositional aspect, it was when I was in grad school studying music tech, and just being introduced to AI and machine learning technologies. Seeing the direction that research was going in terms of the data sets and the content, and in turn, the work that was training these technologies. I realised that nothing existed that wasn’t western, especially when it came to archaeology. I thought it would be really cool to use these technologies to try to create more tangible maps or bridges to the past. With the music, I had access to the instruments without knowing how they were played. It’s sci-fi and it’s very speculative because there won’t ever be a way of really knowing. 

Culturally, everybody who comes from Latin American countries is mixed and the histories are fragmented between different groups of people. In Mexico, there’s a huge body of work that deals with pre-Hispanic and indigenous communities – and I wanted to approach it from a tech, sci-fi perspective.

I love this idea of using technology to unearth imagined pasts, instead of focusing on the future.

Debit: I have a personal relationship with contemporary Mayan groups. I spend a lot of time in Chiapas in the south of Mexico. I mostly approached these sorts of communities for political reasons. Once I started to discover the cosmologies of the Mayans, there was so much knowledge. They invented the zero and they believed in nonlinear time. It all blew my mind that it’s radically different to the ideas that we base our worldview on. Even though I’m a foreigner to that community, I still feel that it really enriched the way I was critical of my own community. 

Critical in what sort of way?

Debit: I think our political systems are inherently flawed. When I get idealistic, the reality around me doesn’t really resonate when it comes to economic and social justice. The Zapatista is the group I was building with. That’s the reason I went to the south, in solidarity with that movement, which is anti-capitalist. The school of thought is autonomy, letting each group define their own future because in Mexico there’s a lot of oppression when it comes to the state and indigenous groups.

I love this idea of applying new or ‘future’ technology to interrogate spiral notions of time.

Debit: The subject matter came after I approached the structure. I wanted to use this tech to access this moment in time. From there, realising there is a meta-reflection. That’s why I named the album The Long Count, because it's one of the systems of timekeeping that the Mayans had. They predicted the end of the world, which is the direction we’re moving in. They were really sophisticated when it came to seasons, reading the sky, grasping that information and making it a psychic blueprint. Even their architecture reflected this idea. The pyramids are a reflection of history – it’s their conception of the history of man.

How do you feel this idea of nonlinear time manifests in your album?

Debit: In terms of the composition, operating within electronic music and ambient, it's derived from really classic compositional canons in terms of structure and parts. In that respect, I really just let each composition play out like a stream of consciousness. I'd done all the research, selected the dates that we’re gonna build the sound of the instruments. That nonlinearity is embedded in the structure of each song and the album itself. In the track titles, the days are scrambled. It’s cyclical and spiral and circular. 

“It’s sci-fi and it’s very speculative, because there won’t ever be a way of really knowing” – Debit

Can you talk about your experience using machine learning to develop these sounds?

Debit: We spent nearly a year and a half researching. I had really internalised the essence of the sounds. From there, I took a little more artistic licence. When I was writing, I built digital instruments with all of the sounds, and then, I began writing the music.

I saw that you DJ’d for Azelia Banks last year. How did that come about?

Debit: She had a series of shows in New York in August and she was looking for a local DJ.  Her producer was looking and her producer knew one of my good friends, who put me in touch and then I got casted by luck. It's probably the most iconic thing I've ever been able to do. I mean, she is a cultural prophet, in my opinion. Her way of seeing and understanding culture and music is just so elevated – and she's a breathtaking performer. 

The Long Count is out now. Debit is performing her European debut at Rewire Festival 2022