Chants, Icaros and Sacred Music - Shamans of Peru
Submitted by Howard G. Charing
The Shamans of Peru - Ceremonial Chants, Icaros, and Music - This unique set of recordings documents a collection of ceremonial chants and Ayahuasca icaros on CD.
Tracks 1-3 San Pedro ceremony held in Puruchucu, at the head of the Rimac valley. The ruins of this sacred site or huaca date back to pre-Inca times and have been accurately reconstructed. Setting the scene for the ceremony, three musicians play replicas of pre-Hispanic instruments. Alonso del Rio says: ‘while keeping to their original tuning, we have explored the instruments musical possibilities to give an idea of what the music could have been like in pre-Colombian times. The melodies came to us through the ancestral memory evoked through medicinal plants like San Pedro and Ayahuasca’. Instruments: the ceramic notch flutes of the Chincha civilization, Nazca panpipes or ‘antaras’ with their special tuning similar to Oriental scales, and Nazca drums.
The Mesa Nortena is a particular ceremonial tradition best conserved in the region of ‘Las Huaringas’, high and remote sacred lakes in the northern Department of Piura.
There are probably only a few good maestros who continue this ancient tradition in Peru today. The rest simply work with the externalities of the mesa, while giving their clients minimal doses of the visionary San Pedro cactus. Originally more importance was given to the medicine, which must be in the organism of the participants as well as the maestro for the power to flow. The mesa then served to intensify the power of the plant.
An altered state is needed to enter the symbolic world of the objects on the mesa (the word refers to the altar as well as the ceremony itself). The abundance of macerated plants, perfumes and smells employed in the mesa function to move the feelings associated with one’s memories. At a deep level, sensations are translated into vibrations, which the medicine brings to consciousness so that associated hurt and pain can be ‘re-membered’ again and a new attitude can emerge.
The singado, or absorption of macerated tobacco juice through the nostrils involves another power medicine, which is used to intensify the San Pedro at regular intervals. The instruction from the maestro to pour up the left or right nostril reflects the notion of duality found in shamanic disciplines all over the world: masculine and feminine, hot and cold, upper world and earth, expansion and contraction, flowing and stagnant. Illness arises from one of these polarities loosing equilibrium. The word singado comes from the Quechua word singa meaning nose and is perhaps an Andean notion of Pranayama!
Also audible in the following two mesas 4- 5 are the clicking of chontas, or black bamboo sticks used for cleansing people’s auras and the spraying from the maestro and assistants’ mouths, of perfumes and plant macerations over the participants.
The tendency to commercialise a tradition is inherent in urbanization and seeing things for their utility and business. For example mesas are sometimes held so that lawyers win legal battles. Piles of documents are laid on the mesa so that the power works on them and they win their case. In this way a shamanic ceremony is degraded to folklore. We can try to reconstruct the original tradition to how it was in pre-Colombian times and remove the images of Sarita Colonia and the other saints, crucifixes, photos etc., which have accumulated throughout the centuries and evolved the mesa into the mestizo tradition which survives today. Left behind are the ancient stones, magic plant brews and the enchanted waters of the lakes of Las Huaringas, being the original elements, which have survived underneath.
Track 4 Mesa with Alejandro Sanchez. Maestro Sanchez lives in Comas, a distant suburb of Lima, which began in the 1960s as a shanty town. It is surrounded by impressive parched stony desert hills. The maestro’s house is at the end of a road near the cemetery and overlooks this immense settlement from where he draws his clients. Sanchez was born in Sondorillo near the legendary sacred lakes of Las Huaringas. At age 11, while still at school, he seemed to have perceptions and to be able foresee things accurately. His astonished teachers thought he was having hallucinations and called for maestro Florentin Garcia. Later Alejandro became his apprentice and learned from him the secrets of plants.
The strangeness of these ceremonies can be seen as part of the ‘trappings’ of rituals in general. Strangeness serves to trick the rational mind so that it will not interfere with the subtle processes taking place in the subconscious. When we are fully awake, things can indeed seem strange…‘people are strange, when you’re a stranger…’ as the song by The Doors goes. A part of healing is recovering the lost gift of perception, the feeling of being alive again.
Track 5 Mesa with Leopoldo Vilela who was also born near the celebrated Las Huaringas in Radiopampa, an extremely cold place at 3,500 meters altitude. He was 90 years old and in very good health at the time of this mesa which was also held in the ruins of Puruchucu. At three years old he was sent outside to look for herbs for his mother who was suffering from a stomach ache; there he knew he would become a curandero. He used to watch his father who was clairvoyant and assisted people in his community to find their animals when they were lost. He used tarot cards and looked into bottles of aguardiente (firewater) with grains of corn of different colours at the bottom.
Don Leopoldo improvises sessions for groups and individuals, which may continue for hours. These are full of idiosyncrasy, and characterized by warmth, dedication and playfulness, which is quite touching at times. The seemingly endless sequence of bottles of tastes and smells and other procedures are often extremely weird while his inadvertent remarks and caresses on his guitar (of his own manufacture) often provoke smiles and laughter in all present.
Human beings have an instinctive awareness of other people’s conscious states of mind. When another person, a shaman, is authentic and spontaneously creative in the moment, this has the power to focus the mind, stopping it from verbalizing and rationalizing. A sense of pure wonder is evoked.
Track 6 Closing calls. The conch shells or pututus, still used in Andean communities today, are handed down from the Incas who obtained them from the Caribbean. They are used for convening meetings and ceremonies.
Tracks 7-9 Shipibo icaros of Mateus Castro, a shaman living outside Pucullpa in Yarinacocha. The arts of the Shipibo, especially textile designs, are closely related to ayahuasca icaros. The words of the chants are symbolic stories telling of the ability of nature to heal itself. For example the crystalline waters from a stream wash the unwell person, while coloured flowers attract the hummingbirds whose delicate wings fan healing energies etc. You might see such things in your visions but the essence which cures you is perhaps more likely to be the understanding of what is happening in your life, allowing inner feelings to unblock so that bitterness and anger con change to ecstasy and love. To awaken from the ‘illusion of being alive’ is to experience life itself.
Tracks 10-16 Dona Cotrina Valles was born in Agua Blanca, Department of San Martin. She apprenticed herself to a maestro in 1979 and later came to live in Iquitos with her husband. Today she lives alone with her children. It is very unusual for a woman to be a shaman in urban situations although they do exist amongst indigenous peoples. Amongst other limiting beliefs, it is thought that women break taboos as they are unable to take dieting seriously because of demands from their husbands and that when they go shopping in the market they will have contact with menstruating women or people who are mal dormida, (ie. a person who has been making love all night).
The diet is a vexed question in the city as the temptations of rich spicy food as well as sex are greater than in the rainforest. As all shamans will tell you, Dona too, says that sex is bad. The ‘mother plant’ loves you and if you make love to another person, you are being unfaithful to her. For this reason it is often said that Ayahuasca is jealous, and if you do not respect her, she makes you ill instead of healing you. You will also not be able to see any visions. The ill effects from not respecting the diet are called cutipa and range from a sense of trauma and stress to skin problems.
Dona’s chants are sung in Spanish and Quechua, as also are the chants of Javier Arevalo, which follow. Both Dona and Javier are mestizo shamans, that is to say their ancestors moved to the Amazon from the Andes, rather than being indigenous to the Amazon as the Shipibo are. The melodies of mestizo icaros have an Andean structure and are sung partly in Quechua, a language of the Andes.
Track 17 Despacho to Pachamama in the ruins of Pisaq. A despacho is an offering to the Earth Goddess, Pachamama, which nurtures all life on earth. The ceremony symbolizes the reciprocity of nature and speaks back to her saying ‘we understand the message and we have the same attitude’. The word despacho was mistakenly translated into Spanish after the Conquest as pago, meaning payment, to imply a satanic pact with dark forces.
As each participant made their contribution to the despacho convened by the Shamaness Doris Rivera Lenz ‘La Gringa’, Kike Pinto, played pre-Colombian instruments. The first piece is a Harawi from the Department of Cusco played on a quena, or notch flute, made from the wing bone of a condor. This little melody has been handed down from Inca times, thanks to its incorporation into Catholic mass in Colonial times. The second piece is a Haylli from San Pedro de Castas, Department of Lima, played on a ch’iriqway, or antara (panpipes), made from condor feathers. The melody also has pre-Hispanic roots and has survived in a form played on the chirisuya, kind of oboe, of probable Moorish origin. This track is ended with some calls on the putu, or conch shell.
Kike Pinto is a lifetime musician and researcher of traditional Andean music. He has recorded several CDs and is curator of his own Museum of Andean Music in Hatunrumiyoq, Cusco.
Tracks 18-26 Javier Arevalo comes from Nuevo Progreso, a community of 50 families on the Rio Napo. Many generations of his family before him were shamans and already at 17 years old he knew this was his future. However when he was 20 his father died from a virote (poisoned dart in the spiritual world), sent by a jealous and malicious brujo (sorcerer) in his community. Soon after he began his two-year retreat in the rainforest with his maestro grandfather, dieting many plants, later to become his ‘doctors’. During his time in the wilderness he realised that it was better to leave God to punish the brujo who killed his father, and he decided to be a healer not a sorcerer.
There are several different kinds of icaros, at the beginning of the session. Their purpose is to provoke the mareacion or effects, and, in the words of Javier, ‘to render the mind susceptible for visions to penetrate, then the curtains can open for the start of the theatre’. Other Icaros call the spirit of Ayahuasca to open visions ‘as though exposing the optic nerve to light’. Alternatively, if the visions are too strong, the same spirit can be made to fly away in order to bring the person back to normality.
There are icaros for calling the ‘doctors’, or plant spirits, for healing, while other icaros call animal spirits, which protect and rid patients of spells. Healing icaros may be for specific conditions like manchare, which a child may suffer when it gets a fright. The spirit of a child is not so fixed in its body as that of an adult, therefore a small fall can easily cause it to fly. Manchare is a common reason for taking children to ayahuasca sessions.
Tracks 18 Llamada de mareacion in which the spirits of various healing plants are called, here the huacapurana, a tall tree with hard wood, whose bark is used for arthritis. Huacapurana is also used as an arcana, or spirit to protect the body. Also the remocaspi whose bark is used to reduce fever and cure malaria.
More info on the CD:
The Shamans of Peru - Ceremonial Chants, Icaros and Music
Howard G. Charing is a partner in Eagle’s Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism. His initiation into the world of Shamanism was sudden, which was caused by a serious accident, which resulted in severe injuries and a near-death experience. After many months of physical pain and disability, he had a transformational experience, which started him on a path to healing. If you like to know more about his work, Howard conducts “Plant Spirit Medicine” journeys to the Amazon Rainforest.