Chance Encounters with Sound Shamans

I want to go back to that whole riff about accidents. The thing about accidents is, there are good ones and bad ones, and they happen to everyone, sometimes without us even being aware. Why? You may ask, but it beats me. All I know is that some people, for philosophical satisfaction or soul comfort or whatever reason, need to believe that everything happens for a reason. Some people refuse to believe in simple coincidence. It’s a form of intolerance, an allergy. Chance is really better suited to the weird logic of quantum physics than all the fantastical palimpsests of religion, say, and other manmade mythologies. I just think that whatever patterns may be woven in the skein of human destinies, they are not for us to know, so why dwell on it.

That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and steal fire from the Gods whenever the chance arises. Fortune favors the bold, so the saying goes, which is another way of saying that opportunity makes the thief; and life, being nothing if not an epic single sweeping opportunity unfolding in real time, makes thieves of most all of us sooner or later. The rest are quiet as kept. 

When you project too much meaning onto the passing of events, however, assigning significance where none resides, it becomes a schizo-slippery slope to nowhere.  Signs and auguries and personal revelations, they take on the force of gospel when the volume is turned up loud enough. Hell, we’re all of us looking for answers, and God knows you could wear yourself out trying to explain why things happen like they do!

All I know is that when someone gets up on the pulpit and starts ‘splaining God’s reasons for the events of this world by pointing out who is to blame, on His behalf, that’s when I start looking  for the exit. I think of the words of Thomas Wolfe, who said that we live beneath the senseless stars, and write our meanings in them.

Yet I must also accept that, religious bigotry aside, it is often simple human curiosity that compels us endlessly to decipher and decode and find answers for things even when they possess no inner truth. Something deep in our genetic programming cannot accept that there may be no answers to some of the biggest questions in life, like for example, why is there something instead of nothing? What’s really in the McRib sandwich? Why do the hottest chicks go home with the biggest douchebags? 

Sometimes, it’s better to let go of that tiger-tail of causality and merely try to enjoy the ride.

This past week, the Real Hotel Iquitos was host to the 8th annual International Amazonian Shamanism Conference. The conference brings together shamans, healers, artists, musicians, and curiosity seekers of all stripes. I dropped in on the conference at one point to hear Chillum do his presentation on diet, nutrition, and Amazonian superfoods, and how they relate to the learning curve of ayahuasca. Then on Friday night it was announced that there was going to be a free concert by a Peruvian musician named Tito la Rosa. He has some measure of fame for his music, having done world tours with the new age musician Kitaro and such. He is well known as a curandero de sonido, a sound healer. He’s on Youtube if you’re curious to hear it.

I knew Tito’s music because someone had given me a CD years ago of his icaros, a collection of songs inspired by and addressed to ayahuasca, datura, and other sacred plants. Those tunes became this here sailor’s personal favorite soundtrack for those long nights spent in psychonautical navigation of the far seas that lie beyond map´s edge. I loved the soulfulness of this music, possessed of so much intention and subtlety, so I was keen to hear Tito play live.

Corrina and I got there just as the show was starting. The conference room at the Real Hotel was full, people sitting in rows of folding chairs in a circle around a table which held a dozen or more varieties of flutes and pan-pipes, as well as a ten-stringed Peruvian mandolin called a charango, and other exotic musical instruments. In person, Tito was diminutive but projected a great presence. Dressed all in Shipibo garb, pacing about on small bare feet, he seemed totally at ease in his space. He tested each instrument on the table in turn, and then picked up a long bamboo flute three feet long and began to play.

The instruments, flutes and pipes and such, are really where Tito shines, but he was also pretty great on the charango, playing and singing. I won’t even try to describe the music, but to say it was soulful, meditative, and easily held the rapt attention of everyone in the room for over an hour.  

Tito had one instrument that I had never seen before. It was an Andean-style earthenware water vessel, twin clay gourds connected by a hollow tube, and a whistle installed at the top of one of the vessels so that when you tilted it, the water ran from one chamber to the other and caused it to whistle. It’s as basic as music can be, just one long, plaintive tone each time he tilted it. Tito held it in one hand while playing flute or pipes in the other. Although he showed himself a master at circular breathing with the flutes, he used the whistle to fill in the empty spaces while he took a breath with the pipes or to fill in the ends of long musical phrases. It was a really clever effect, and I could see that he was enjoying himself, walking slowly in circles around the table as he played.

Then in the middle of the song he left the circle and walked to the back of the room where I was sitting with Corrina. He walked right up to me, playing the panpipes, and we considered each other. Without missing a breath or a beat, he held the gourd-whistle up to me, and pressed it against my chest in a kind of playful manner. This made me smile. I liked that this guy could hold the attention of a crowd with his music and also get up to some mischief with spectators.

He made those panpipes sigh and wail, and then he looked at me and turned the gourd-whistle upside down and poured water over my head. I smelled perfume. It wasn’t water, it was agua de florida, a flower essence-infused concoction that is used on church altars, in ayahuascaceremonies, and anywhere that sacred spaces are held. I was just grinning at the playfulness of it, and I think he was too, because he thought about it and then did it again, dumping more over my head. It was a funny gesture, spontaneous and charming and all in character with the music. He gave a little shrug like to say, hey, what can you do? And then he turned and went back to the circle. Later he approached other people in the audience, touching them on the shoulder or head and playing his flutes right against their chests, right into their hearts, so then I could see that audience participation was all part of the act.

That moment was equal parts priestly solemnity and mischievous prank. Corrina and I laughed about it a lot that night. Tito seemed like a great guy. Then the next morning, we stopped in at the Amazon Bistro and there he was, nursing a cup of the espresso for which the Bistro is so famous.  He saw me and grinned. I went over to him and he stood up and gave me a hug, and we had a chuckle about his little prank. All in Spanish, I told him the story of how I had listened to his recorded icaros so many times, how it had been the soundtrack to many a dark and stormy night of the soul, and I told him that I was a musician too, that I played the blues.

Ah, he said, maybe that’s it. I walked over there, out of the circle, I don’t know why, but I walked right up to you.  Maybe because we are both musicians, maybe I sensed it. And you play and sing the blues, which is another form of shamanism, you know. They are the same, different musical expression but the same, my music and yours, in how they call down the spirits.

Or call them up, I said. Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, the whole tradition is about naming pain, assuaging grief by evoking a spirit, calling in the mysterious forces that go unnamed till you give ‘em one with a song. I mean, shit, look at Van Morrison. In his prime, he was a shaman as powerful as they come. The love that loves to love.  Just calling it right out, channeling it from the deep within, until something amazing happens, and everybody that hears it feels it.

(I think of Lester Bangs’ classic review of Van’s Astral Weeks, in which he says: “Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he’s waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along.”)

He’s waiting for that vision to unfold, and nudging it along unobtrusively. I defy you to give me a better definition of the shamanic process.

So, having seen him perform live, I can see why Tito deserves the title of sound shaman. He really knows how to hold a space. When I met him in the cafe the next morning, it was like we already knew each other. I can´t explain it really. I´d like to think I could be that friendly and familiar around people I have just met. But it´s not an easy thing to do, to treat strangers like friends in one’s daily life, that sets the bar so high it’s practically saintly, and saints are crazy as everyone knows. But it’s a milepost worth aiming for.

Tito did mention that he didn’t normally pour agua de florida on people in the audience, that it was spontaneous and improvised on impulse. It was a baptismo, he said, laughing. A baptism, from one musician to another. He invited me to come and jam with him at his home in the high Andes, should I ever find myself in that part of the country. Maybe someday I will.

Why do some people feel like friends when we meet them for the first time, while people we have known for years remain virtual strangers? It could be a result of our own mental projection vainly seeking a mirror of itself, or a natural expression of two personalities with similar chemistry recognizing similar frequencies, or it could be something else entirely. I’m cool with not knowing how it all works. Certainty is for suckers. I just want to enjoy the ride.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ian on July 25, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Great blog Caleb! I believe that very Tito la Rosa album you mentioned has accompanied me on many a night of self discovery. It’s nice to hear you to humanize the man behind the music.


  2. You are brilliant. The caliber of of this writing brought tears to my eyes.


  3. Posted by Alfonso Moscoso on September 4, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I´m really impressed. Tito is my neighbour – he lives in the same building where I live.


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