Three Ceremonies

The ayahuasca ceremony can be a powerful auditory experience — the sounds of the jungle in the night; the hushed breathy whistling, the singing of the icaros, the magical songs of the ayahuasquero; the rhythmic shaking of the shacapa, the leaf-bundle rattle; the auditory hallucinations, the synesthesias induced by the ayahuasca drink itself. Musicians who have participated in these ceremonies have sometimes tried to capture this distinctive soundscape in their music, often with the idea of conveying, too, something of the psychospiritual effects of their experience. I thought I would share three examples.

Jarguna is an Italian martial arts teacher, herbalist, and sound therapist who was inspired by an ayahuasca experience to create Introspective Course, the only album he has produced. "I've been inspired by a journey I have made along the Amazon River," he writes, where a curandero led him to a ceremony with ayahuasca — the sacred plant that "is capable of joining the two worlds." The result is a highly conceptual album, intended to reflect the journey of an everyman from despair to strength, with a trajectory passing through a single ayahuasca ceremony. The cut presented here, called Ceremony of the Ayahuasca, is the core of this narrative, and Jarguna describes it as follows:

The ceremony begins when the night falls. The shaman's verse slowly overwhelms bodies and souls; the perception of himself and what is around him becomes confused. Oblivion and ecstasy merge into euphoria, fears become something real while reality becomes a bizarre image. Persecution complexes, Devils and Angels appear to the traveller who, thanks to the guide, the curandero, is not allowed to cross the limit of madness, where his mind would be permanently separated from reality. For I believe that madness can be reached via two different ways: by pain or by revelation.

Iris Disse is an actress, director, theater and radio writer, creator of experimental radio programs, and a composer of what she calls acoustic artworks. From 1982 to 1993, she worked on theatrical productions in Berlin; then, from 1994 to 2000, she lived in Ecuador, where her feature reports on the indigenous peoples of the region won international prizes. Her album Ayahuasca Noche de Ritual, with the subtitle A Trance Journey in the Amazon Jungle, includes icaros sung by her ayahuasquero, whom she calls don Yachak de Duran. The album is a mixture of song cycle, radio play, and an ambient electroacoustic mix, with field recordings of jungle sounds — crickets, the cries of birds, the sound of the rain — overlain with the singing of icaros and acoustic instruments and percussion. Conceptually, the journey of the subtitle takes place during a single ceremony, which she describes in part like this:

Night. I’m walking down a narrow path in the jungle. A broad river, the Agua Rico, shimmers nearby in the moonlight. Shadows play around us. Huge trees tower above us. Twigs snap. I cling to Miguel. The path is no longer visible: nothing but moonlight, like flecks of silver on gigantic leaves. How long have we been walking? Time no longer exists.

The piece that follows, South Kiva—Mother Ayahuasca, is from the conceptual album Kiva, which is the product of a collaboration among three musicians — Steve Roach, Michael Stearns, and Ron Sunsinger. The album is a journey through what the musicians call four kivas or sacred underground spaces — a traditional peyote ceremony; an ayahuasca ritual; the Central Plains sundance; and a series of intense group musical improvisations in a man-made cave. Brief Passages sections and a final return to The Center link the major ceremonies into a single sound world. The three artists took field recordings of traditional shamanic practices and incorporated them into their synthesized landscapes with the intent of giving the entire album the aura of an extended visionary experience.

Steve Roach is a pioneering and prodigiously prolific ambient musician, composer, and performer. He learned to play the didgeridoo during extended trips to Australia, and was an early proponent of its use of in ambient music; he worked with Mexican ambient musician Jorge Reyes in a collaboration that introduced folk-influenced whistles, wood flutes, and wooden percussion to his work — fusions which helped establish Roach as one of the founders of the contemporary tribal-ambient sound. His approach to ambient music has typically been beatless and atmospheric, but he has also produced rhythmic and trance-based groove and tribal-ambient releases. Some recordings are strictly synthesizer based; others include ambient guitar experiments and other ethnic crossovers.

Michael Stearns is a synthesizer player, film composer, sound designer, and soundtrack producer for theatrical films, documentaries, and commercials. His ambient music is interwoven with instruments and sounds from other cultures, newly developed instruments, the human voice, and the sounds of nature. He writes:

What I hope is transferred to the listener of my music is a certain depth. I think the depth that I am really speaking of is that we as human beings are the artistic process here on the planet, as individuals, groups, countries and as a global experience. What we create and think of as our artistic outpouring, be it music, the painted art, a sculpture or just a beautiful dinner that we might create for somebody, are really metaphors or hieroglyphics for the depth of our own participation in the moments that we create them. I hope that this depth creates a context for other people to experience deeper things inside of themselves.

Ron Sunsinger — who is affiliated with the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Hopi peoples — has collaborated with Roach and Stearns on three albums, all using Native American themes as a basis for imaginative soundscapes — Singing Stones, Sorcerer, and Kiva. He worked with Robbie Robertson to produce the soundtrack of the television documentary The Native American: Beyond Myth and Legend, and he is a skilled pipemaker, who has designed and created numerous ritual objects for the Native American Church. In 1990, he made a pipe that has been used by the United Nations as a human rights award.

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