‘El Pájaro Cenzontle’: A Mockingbird of Cumbias

in Music by

“Todas las mañanas canta el pájaro cenzontle
Por todas las costas de mi tierra sabanera
Todas las mañanas canta el pájaro cenzontle
Por todas las costas de mi tierra sabanera”

As a fan of cumbia music, “El Pájaro Cenzontle” is one song that I’ve often wondered about. Its title is Nahuatl for “el pájaro de las 400 voces, or “the bird of 400 voices,” also known as the northern mockingbird. As I was curious about the song’s history, I did a little e-sleuthing and, gracias a Santa Cecilia, found even more variations of the song.

According to the Audubon Society, the bird’s scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, part of the family of songbirds that includes thrashers and catbirds. It is very protective of its nest and will attack if you get too close (as shown here). The mockingbird is known for being musical; its songs and calls are described as “a long series of musical and grating phrases, each repeated three or more times; often imitates other birds and regularly sings at night.” It’s heard most during nesting season.

The cenzontle was important to Mexico’s pre-Columbian culture “to the point of appearing in many Mesoamerican myths and legends.” But it also forms part of many other cultures’ folklore. 

When it comes to the famous poem attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, the poet-warrior-king who ruled the central Mexican city-state of Texcoco before the Spanish conquest, the website Mexico Desconocido says that “most Mexicans grew up reciting the mockingbird poem attributed to Nezahualcoyotl. Research says it is apocryphal. … The mystique built around the mockingbird and its poem continues to proliferate among the population, increasing its love for the philanthropic values it reflects.”

“Amo el canto del cenzontle,
pájaro de cuatrocientas voces.
Amo el color del jade
y el enervante perfume de las flores,
pero más amo a mi hermano: el hombre.”

(“I love the song of the mockingbird,
bird of four hundred voices.
I love the color of jade
and the enervating perfume of flowers,
but most of all I love my brother: man.”)

In music, the cumbia track titled “El Pájaro Cenzontle” is a recognizable tune, but the lyrics are different:

“Todas las mañanas canta el pájaro cenzontle
Por todas las costas de mi tierra sabanera
Todas las mañanas canta el pájaro cenzontle
Por todas las costas de mi tierra sabanera

“Canta en el monte la pava congona
Se oye su lamento y se esparce en la ladera
Canta en el monte la pava congona
Se oye su lamento y se esparce en la ladera”

(“Every morning sings the mockingbird
All along the coasts of my savanna
Every morning the mockingbird sings
All along the coasts of my savanna

“The pava congona sings in the bush
Its lament is heard and spreads on the hillside
The pava congona sings in the bush
Its lament is heard and spreads on the hillside.”)

The original song from the ‘80s, titled “Pájaro Cenzontle,” was written by Cecilio Pedraza Islas of Super Grupo Colombia and the sonidero crew Dinastía Pedraza, from the Mexico City neighborhood of San Juan de Aragón. (Grupo Kual? also has roots in the same city.) The track is super catchy and as a cumbia sonidera, it’s a top favorite.

The pava congona in the lyrics refers to an endangered bird species in Colombia and is also the name of a cumbia song, “La Pava Congona” by Andres Landeros.

 

But before we get into more cumbia edits, here are some tidbits about the bird in music and art in general.

Cenzontle/Mockingbird is the title of Daniel García Ordaz’s “code-switching collection of diverse poetic forms, styles, and personas celebrating the dynamics of the human voice & spirit.”

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo titled his book of poetry Cenzontle. “These poems explore the emotional fallout of immigration, the illusion of the American dream via the fallacy of the nuclear family, the latent anxieties of living in a queer brown undocumented body within a heteronormative marriage, and the ongoing search for belonging.”

Cenzontle is also an independent non-cumbia music project by Mexican artist Jorge Hernández, who is currently based in Portugal.

Mexico City graphic maker Mazatl created a piece titled El Cenzontle which is featured as part of Just Seeds.

Novelist Jose Iglesias Blandon wrote Cenzontle, “a novel to deconstruct the human condition.”

In Tulum, there’s a secret garden as part of the restaurant Cenzontle.

Some music artists have taken up some form of Cenzontle to identify their group, like mariachi Los Zenzontles de Michoacan. Or in Veracruz, Grupo Zenzontle, who play son jarocho. There’s Rondalla Cenzontle from Monterrey, Nuevo León. And the amazing group Los Cenzontles, as well as their San Pablo, California-based creativity hub, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy.

From vallenato to mariachi and all sorts of variations in between, the beloved cenzontle appears por todos lados. Now, let’s get to the edits dedicated to our feathered friend…

MANO Pájaro Cenzontle Playlist

 

Los Askis
Pioneers of Mexican cumbia andina, Los Askis, whose name means “friend” in Otomí, created their own Askis-style of the original cumbia song by Super Grupo Colombia.

 

Bertín y su Condesa
From Acapulco, this is an awesome fast-paced cumbia about the cenzontle that has nothing to do with the classic by SGC.

 

Son Rompe Pera
Mexican alt-marimberos Son Rompe Pera re-worked the classic cenzontle cumbia into this fresh new version that some call punk. What do you think?

 

Chon Arauza y La Furia Colombiana
From Coahuila, this cumbia colombiana group continues to play our title track. Isn’t it lovely how there are so many Mexican groups playing Colombian cumbia?

 

Principe Q
We find ourselves near cumbia rebajada territory—for reference, watch the 2019 film Ya no estoy aquí/I’m No Longer Here—as Tejano producer Principe Q created a screwmbia version of our featured pajarito. More recently, Q debuted “Báilale” featuring Gio Chamba.

 

Alfredo López
This is a vallenato by “La Voz de Puebla.”

 

Grupo Kual?
Of course Kual?’s version had to be in here as they are technically part of the original group of creators.

 

I’ve kept the number of videos at lucky number seven, but please let me know on Twitter, or in the comments, which version of “Pájaro Cenzontle” is your favorite!

Sandra Treviño is a music journalist, DJ and radio host living in Chicago. Listen to her on the radio Friday afternoons on 91.1FM Vocalo and every second and fourth Monday at 6 PM CST on 105.5FM Lumpen Radio. she is also one half of the female selecta duo The Ponderers. #futurerootz #theponderers #djangelfuk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

Latest from Music