Luis Pérez Ixoneztli ‘Santuario de Mariposas (Retusa)’ 2LP (Tokonoma) 3/5

Santuario de Mariposas (Butterfly Sanctuary) – also known as Retusa – is essentially an ambient soundscape in four movements primarily utilising pre-Columbian instruments from Mexico and Central America.

There is music and song within it, but they are no more important or prominent than the layers of sounds that conjure up visions of mountains and oceans, jungles and plains, forests and lakes, rustling grasses, whistling wind, howling animals, calling birds and the thrum and chitter of a million insects. It all flows naturally from one to the other as you fly from one community or landscape to another. One of the most endearing qualities of this recording is the sense of space around the sounds and music – you can almost feel the air pushing around and from the instruments, or the movement of leaves, clouds, animals and humans, as well as the moments of silence and stillness.

The composer, Luis Pérez Ixoneztli, started off as a rock musician in the 1970s, but has spent the best part of half a century researching and learning about the pre-Columbian instrumentation of Mesoamerica – that is, the instruments and what little is known of the music of the indigenous inhabitants prior to the arrival of Europeans in the mid-15th Century.

A reasonable amount of instruments (or images of them) just about survived the rapid colonisation and cultural devastation brought about by the Spanish however much is unknown about the actual music that existed at the times of the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec cultures etc and all the centuries before then. The PR for this album states that Ixonezetli has tried to “give life to sleeping instruments and reflect on what the music of the Mexican ancestors was like”.

On Santuario de Mariposas (which was originally recorded back in 1989 with a very limited distribution) Ixoneztli has actually done a brilliant job of imagining this – it’s a delicate balance of the very acoustic and natural sounds of these mostly percussive and windblown instruments (all manner of flutes and whistles mostly) as well as human voice, with a more interpretive evocation of the essence of these lands and cultures. The whole work is a finely tuned mix of academia and spirituality. There are, I believe, electronic elements within this work, but you’d be hard pushed to spot them, such is the sensitive nature and ear of the composer. This guy really knows his stuff.

To be honest, I tend to get put off by anything that has the word ‘ambient’ in it – it’s usually shorthand for a self-indulgent gloop of derivative electronic mush; however, once I’d allowed myself to set aside an hour or so to just listen and react to the music without any preconceptions or expectations, I found myself slowly seduced and pulled into its world. It’s one of those albums that gets better the more you listen to it.

Santuario de Mariposas (aka Retusa) is already over 30 years old and I do wonder whether Ixoneztli would have created it the same today – or would he have been seduced by the synthesised sounds of the 21st C? Either way, I’m glad Tokonoma Records (named after a Japanese sacred alcove, but based in Madrid) have decided to reissue this now. It’s a welcome antidote to the widespread ambient gunk of bedroom-based, keyboard warriors with man-buns and (yuch!) “Tribal Tattoos”…

Yes, it’s a bit niche, but it’s very sympathetically done indeed and is a great invitation to just lie back, disconnect your mind and let your spirit fly far and wide over untrammelled semi-mythical lands. Who needs drugs? This is a total trip.

Glyn Phillips