“Songs are a shaman’s most highly prized possessions, the vehicles of his powers and the repositories of his knowledge. They are usually sung under the influence of a hallucinogenic brew (shori) made from lianas of the banisteriopsis family and a shrub, psychotria viridis. Learning to be a shaman is learning to sing, to intone the powerful chant rhythms, to carefully thread together verbal images couched in the abstruse metaphorical language of shamanic song, and follow them.” “A song is a path — you make it straight and clean then you walk along it. What a shaman actually does when he cures is sing” (Graham Townsley, 1993).
In 2005, shortly after the opening of Espiritu Anaconda (now Anaconda Cosmica), a native Shipibo healing center near Iquitos, Peru, I interviewed the shaman, or curandero, Don Ricardo on the theme of the healing songs or icaros used in the Shipibo healing ceremonies. The songs are an important element in the traditional healing system of the Western Amazon known as Vegetalismo, which also includes the use of the entheogen Ayahuasca to enter into a trance state in which communication with the plant teachers becomes possible.
In 2011, Don Ricardo opened Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual, a new Shipibo healing center near Iquitos. Some accounts of people’s trips to Nihue Rao have been appearing on blogs such as Guy Crittenden’s and an interview with Dr. Joe Tafur who helps manage the center can be found here (interview starts about 10 minutes into the program).
Bill: How important are the songs to the healing process? Is there a definite relationship between the healing songs and the specific ailments you hope to cure people of?
Ricardo. It depends on the plants that the person is taking in their diet. If you are dieting on Coca or Ayrie Sacha or Chiric Sanango then I sing for those plants. I can also sing from my own plants. I am taking a diet of Toe so I can also sing from Toe. So the songs vary or the words vary with the plant the person is dieting on. The blowing at the end of the song signifies that it is the end of the cure of that song. For example,
This song is from Toe. It says, I want to cure you from the disease that afflicts you – a pain in the stomach, a pain in the head, pains in the body – to heal those. I can sing the same song, in the same voice, just changing the words, if I sing for a different plant. There also always a pause in the song. Without this pause, without this moment of silence, it is not as strong.
Bill: What is the difference between singing any song and singing this particular song? What makes this song curing and another song just a song?
Ricardo: Without a diet the song has no value. If someone sings the song without having done the diet, then the song does not have the same value. It is only the person who diets on the plants who can sing from the plants, because through the song the plant that is in my body can come out through my voice. This makes it a healing song. If a person doesn’t diet on the plant, then the song doesn’t have a connection to the plant.
Bill: Because they don’t know the plant?
Ricardo: The song is the medicine. I sing from the plants. If I diet on one plant then I can sing from that plant, but I take seven or eight plants. I bring them all together when I sing and I ask the plants to heal your illnesses – to heal your head, your heart, your stomach, whatever your ailment is – for each ailment, I sing again. If I diet on more plants, then I bring them together, and I can ask for more and make it stronger.
Bill: These are plants that you have dieted on?
Ricardo: They are plants that I am dieting on now.
Bill: But you also have a repertoire of plants that you have dieted on in the past?
Ricardo: Yes, they are incorporated into my body, literally in my body, so I can work with them – me and plants work together to heal. I ask the plants for their knowledge in order to heal you. The plants are the source of the medicine.
Bill: I want to ask about the way you heal with the songs. You mentioned the pause in the middle of the song. What is the significance of that in this context?
Ricardo: The pauses are to sing more softly, as a little break, at the end of the word. Then you start with something else after. But you have to go down, go very softly, make a break first. It is like taking one step and then another step. You don’t just go forward the whole way.
Bill: So when you pause, do you have in your mind a specific effect this is having on the patient?
Ricardo: Yes. The plant gives the words, gives the idea for what to sing. So during the pause I listen to the plant for what the next word will be.
Bill: So the songs are not fixed? You are spontaneously following what the plants tell you to sing?
Ricardo: No, they are not fixed. The words change everyday, every time I sing. It is the ayahuasca that gives me what I feel and see, that inspires me, that tells me this is what I am going to sing, this is what I need to sing. So it is always different.
Bill: There is something that I read about twisted words in the Icaros, there is a constant twisting of the imagery in the words that twists the meaning. So the words do not have a simple literal meaning.
Ricardo: It is not so much the twisting or the turning around of the image. The words change, just like the visions you get change. The visions change everyday and continuously, so the words change every time too. It’s not so much that they are playing with an image, or that they twist things around – upside down trees or whatever – that is not it. When I am singing, as I change words, as I am going more and more into the images, I will raise the tone. The song will always be up and down.
Bill: When you are speaking about curing somebody in this context, what does it mean to be healthy? What is it to cure somebody?
Ricardo: I look first and study the body, and if what I see is ill or needs healing, I sing to those things. Then at the end, when I think that the body is free of illnesses, I look very carefully again to be sure that the body is healed, free of illnesses. Then it is cured.
Bill: When you say that you “see,” do you have your eyes closed?
Ricardo: I look with my eyes wide open (laughs), although with my eyes closed I can often see the same thing, but the best eye to look with is the third eye. If I look with my eyes open I can see devils, sorcerers, dangerous animals – things that make you afraid – but then I can close my eyes and still see the same things. It doesn’t matter. I am not afraid. I just look at them, and I sing at them, and I sing them away. They can come from the earth, from the sky, from the water, from space, from fire. I have to look at them and see them well, then I can sing at them and then they go away. Without fear.
Bill: So what you see is not the physical body of the person, like a medical doctor, but a spirit body?
Ricardo: I see the outside of the body, but I also see the inside. And if there is an illness, around the body I sometimes see tigers, boa constrictors, or other figures and animals that can be put there by Bruhos (sorcerors) that have created the illness.
Bill: When you see the animals can you tell from them what sort of illness it is? Can you use them to diagnose the illness?
Ricardo: Yes. If somebody is ill, then around the body it’s darker, and you can see the animals. Different animals mean different illnesses. For a baby for example some animals can be dangerous or mean an illness, but then for an adult those same animals do not mean an illness. For a healthy person, a cured person, a healed person, they have nothing around them. It’s white, bright, clean.
Bill: What kind of illnesses can be cured? Illnesses caused by curses or witchcraft? Physical illnesses? Psychological illnesses?
Ricardo: All of them can be cured. Even without ayahuasca, they can be cured by blowing or whistling, but only by someone who has dieted on the plant so that the plant is inside the person. That is what I blow, the medicine of the plant that I have incorporated through dieting. This gives the healing. The illnesses can also be cured with chants, or if the person is not ready for that sort of healing – they’re afraid for example – they can be cured by taking plants: natural remedies or plant remedies.
Bill: What is the most serious illness you’ve cured?
Ricardo: A Curandero was very ill. He was about to die because of a spiritual illness. He was possessed by bad spirits and couldn’t see anything any more. He couldn’t function any more. It was a very grave illness. I have cured him of that. I am still curing him of that using chants.
Bill: How often do you chant to him?
Ricardo: Every night. When there is too much to do, when there are so many people here, then I don’t. But the night after, I begin again. It’s a process of eliminating one malevolent spirit everyday. The illness has been caused by black magicians or black shamans who use the medicine to do damage, who have visited or infiltrated it in him. Because he’s open, he’s visible, he has been possessed. But he is much better now. These are serious illnesses. I see that the spirits are very bad, very frightening, but I am not afraid so I can sing at them and sing them away. Many people are too afraid to treat that kind of illness. The spirits are strong and bad. My teacher, Don Guillermo also sings to me to cure me.
Bill: You’ve already partially answered this question because you have said that the shaman can cure with or without taking ayahuasca, and the patient can be cured whether they take ayahuasca or not. In the case where the patient has taken ayahuasca, how ought the patient respond to the singing? What is the patient’s role in the cure? Does the patient also visualize their cure at the same time as the shaman? Or does it matter what the patient is doing?
Ricardo: Yes. It is very important to help the cure because it is like the proof for the one being cured that the cure is working. For example, when I am healing the ill Curandero I will ask him at the end, what have you seen? Are you cured? And he will say yes. He will describe his healing and his visions. It’s very important because it confirms the work I have been doing.
Bill: But you can also cure people who do not drink ayahuasca.
Bill: One last question. You were singing a song that you received yourself, that the plants taught you when you were in a visionary state. Do you receive many songs? Do you have one particular song? Where do the songs come from? How does that happen?
Ricardo: I have learned songs in two ways. I have learned chants directly from the plants. This is from the experience of the plant being a teacher that I described before. You can receive songs directly from the plant. You can also receive songs from a teacher. In my case I told Don Guillermo I wanted to learn to chant so I learned chants from him. He teaches me chants to cure the people. From Don Guillermo I learned the melody and rhythm of the healing chant. [Demonstrates chant with whistling and humming]. This is a chant I received from Don Guillermo and with this chant I can cure many people.
Opening quote from Graham Townsley, “Song Paths The Ways and Means of Yaminahua Shamanic Knowledge” L’Homme 1993, Vol 33 n°126-128. pp. 449-468.