Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ayahuasca and Cumbia Amazónica

Perhaps one of the most peculiar Ayahuasca songs is Vacilando con Ayahuasca, by Peruvian Cumbia pioneers Juaneco y su Combo. The Peruvian cumbia sound sprung as a distinct style in the early 60´s, when Henry (Los Destellos) Delgado took the accordion -which was the staple sound of the original Colombian Cumbia- and substituted it with the electric guitar, creating a sound that, by our standards, is reminiscing of surf music.

Soon there were regional variations of the Peruvian sound. Juaneco y Combo, together with the fantastic Los Mirlos were the major originators of the Cumbia Amazónica, also known as Cumbia de Oriente or Poder Verde, a style which appeared in the 70´s together with the first oil boom of the Peruvian Amazon. It was characterized by the incorporation of traditional dresses, as well as mythical characters and figures of amazonian lore.

Juaneco y su Combo was founded in Pucallpa in the 60s by Juan Wong Paredes. Their first LP El Gran Cacique (1970), contains the classic Vacilando con ayahuasca. A very groovy tune that would not be out of place in a Tarantino movie.... though to this day I fail to see what the sensual female moaning has to do with Ayahuasca.

juaneco y su combo - vacilando con ayahuasca by INFOPESA

Now for something truly bizarre here´s a recent video of the song. Although the original was recorded in the 70s, the band is still going strong even after 40 years and the death of some of its original members. Check out the Shipibo shirts. That´s some amazonian funkiness right there.

Yikes! I just never thought I'd see curanderos and go-go dancers in the same shot!
Via Grandes de la cumbia peruana

If you'd like to hear more of that Peruvian cumbia sound Barbes Records out of Brooklyn is putting out compilations re-issuing the classics.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Kogis, documentaries, and voluntary isolation

Early this year, while going through a Ralph Metzner Interview we recorded in 2003 my curiosity was piqued by his mention of the documentary: "From the heart of world." In Google I found the documentary, about Colombia's Kogi Indians, had been shot in 1991, broadcast by the BBC, gone on to video(released in the US by the fantastic Mystic Fire Video) and gone on to become somewhat of a lost cult classic. Never reissued, the VHS used to fetch quite outrageous prices (used to be more than $100, lately around $39)

Since the doc seemed out of my reach. I bought the book instead (reviews here, but buy it here and give back to the Kogi)

I cannot recommend the book enough. Much is amazing about the Kogi: The fact that they have managed to keep their culture alive by a practical form of voluntary isolation... while living right next one of the first places where Europeans disembarked into the Americas. The role that the "Mamas" (priest/leader/healer) play in their culture, not to mention the extreme training to become one, which includes keeping future Mamas living inside a cave, in perpetual darkness, throughout much of their childhood. During their training years they´ll never see the light of the day, while being taught every night, "concentration". Can you imagine what the world must look like after 10 years of darkness. Nothing short astounding, and that is precisely what they are being taught.

"...told me that Mamas are educated from infancy in the dark, and only allowed into the light when their education is complete, after two periods of nine years. Nine is the number required for completeness, as a foetus spends nine lunar months in the womb, and there are nine worlds. There are also characters called moros, he said, whose education continues for two more periods of nine years. These I would never meet; they live high in the Sierra, and speak only with Mamas. These are the oracles who determine ultimate policy. These creatures are the ones who have seen the approach of the end of the world. I later discovered that moro is the word for any pupil studying to be a Mama. It does seem quite possible that some students are not released into the light until they are over thirty. . . . The Kogi are profoundly ascetic, and prepare themselves for important moments by fasting, meditation and sexual abstinence; contact with anyone who is still locked into the gross physical world can, they believe, render this preparation useless. Javier's moros would be in this heightened state all their lives, and it would therefore be impossible for me ever to set eyes on them, but he suggested that they would have their eyes on me" -- pp. 77-8

The book tells the story of how the Kogi decided to break their silence to issue one last warning to "the younger brother" (that's us) how Alan Ereira was chosen to deliver that message to the world. The message itself, one of upcoming ecological apocalypse brought by the warming of the earth is all the more spooky when taking in consideration no one had told the Kogis about global warming, they observed it. I was completely fascinated by the book, and so was my gf who got it after me.

this point I went on a quest to to find more about the Kogi. First I looked for Reichel-Dolmatoffs pioneer study on the Kogi. Now *that* was a difficult book to track, by pure chance I found out it had been republished by a small-print literary magazine in Spain a decade ago. I ended up finding a copy in an appointment-only second-hand store in Madrid. The book added a whole new layer to my understanding of the Kogi, and also put a lot of things in perspective, there are many tribes who feel they live literally, at the center of creation, and see themselves holders of the world order (that old ethnocentrism), also the whole warming up and drying of the earth message that the Kogi delivered 20 years ago, and that seems so prophetic nowadays, can be as related to local weather changes caused by erosion in the Sierra de Santa Marta (already at work in the 60s) as to global circumstances. None of this makes the Kogi less extraordinary.

Then I found out a copy of the documentary could be had by donating more than $50 to The Tairona Heritage Trust, an NGO set up by the film director, Aran Ereira. I donated, and that´s how I got to see the film, which is well worth it.... and so is the cause the it supports.

Last week I received a letter form the foundation describing their purchase of large tracks of land to create an "environmental and cultural cordon" of "border towns" to literally manage the encounter between the outside world and the restricted zone they hope to have declared as Kasankwa (sacred territory) by the UNESCO.

Do donate

Meanwhile, in a recent talk at TED, anthropologist superstar Wade Davis tells of his encounter with the Elder Borthers, and -guess what- he claims the Mama's do not spend childhoold in the dark, but isolated, working in Aluna. However, Davis wasn´t with teh Kogs but with teh Arhuacos. Here´s the video starts at 10:30. He also spoke about the Kogis in 2003 here starts at around minute 8 but the whole talk really is must.

In the last year, the wonderful Free University in the Internet has posted a full copy of the doc (along with many other wonderful things)

And the blog socially responsible films.. has followed suit which doesn´t mean you shouldn´t contribute to the cause if you can (and you can).

In spite for the obvious call to being left alone that the Kogis made at the end of the doc the story has continued, "L. Condor" a former Ford employee is putting together a documentary with a *second* older brother´s message, the prophecy of the eagle and the condor, and apparently some mamas made it to Georgetown University (!) Here's an Australian homeopath's strange story .. and a healer named Sequoya Trueblood claims to have been telepathically contacted by the Kogi


In a more serious and worthwhile note, the French geographer Eric Julien has shot 2 more documentaries and written two books about the Kogi, has also started an NGO with the purpose of purchasing land for the Kogi

Indeed, in spite of that the first documentary might have implied the Kogi are not completely isolated, they regularly engage in commerce and interchange, have missionaries and nuns living with them etc. In Colombia they seem to be well known. Here's a TV news clip form a recent ceremony by Kogi Mamas to cleanse the mountains of the toxicity left by FARC guerilla land mines. It was attended by Colombia´s vice-president, and Carlos Vives on of the country´s biggest pop stars. The news anchor even uses the term "younger brothers" without feeling the need to explain its meaning. Indeed "La muralla" a Kogi settlement for the benefit of tourism is in the process of being built (newsclip in Spanish). Seems like the older bother´s message has penetrated the collective unconscious (or pop culture)

It couln´t be any other way. Everything about the Kogis, from their ecological message, their poetic rejection of industrial culture, their matriarchal mythology (a goddess of creation, at last!) their voluntary isolation, etc. position them like no others to become, quite against their will, the poster tribe of all things New Age. They don't even posses all those other qualities (like penchant of warfare) that make other indigenous cultures so unconformable to westerners. They are an indigenous culture like we would like all indigenous cultures to be, pacific, spiritual, and ecological.

My recomendation? Read Ereira's book.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Ayahuasca: Shapeshifting or egotripping?

I posted a new video from a recent conference in Madrid organized by Asociación Eleusis of which I am member.

The speaker is Josep María Fericgla, a Catalonian author, anthropologist and (almost) psychologist. His work falls in the area between those two fields, he calls it ethnopsychology or cognitive anthropology. Though less known in the English speaking world Fericgla is quite an institution in Spain. He did fieldwork with Shuar shamans in Ecuador, and wrote "The dream hunters" as well as "Al trasluz de la Ayahuasca" a multidisciplinary study on Ayahuasca. On his return to Spain he began to work on finding ways to adapt what he had learned about modified states of conscious into a western context. He founded the Society of Applied Ethnopsychology where he runs a number of seminars and workshops, as well as 2 to 4 year course as a "Director-Guía de Experiencias Estructurantes Activadoras" something like: director-guide of structural activating experiences.. hard to translate. As can be seen by the language Fericgla´s tries to stay as much as possible on the scientific, non-fluffy, non new-age, approach to entheogens and the therapeutic use of altered states of consciousness.

I interviewed him in 2003, and recently bough his book "Los chamanismos a revisión" (shamanisms under revision) where he systematically disassembles most of the romantic western ideals around shamanisms (in plural, he says there is no such thing as shamanism, there are only shamanisms) Unfortunately the book hasn´t been translated to English, but I plan to post a long review of it soon, as it brings up some very interesting ideas.

Anyway, during his talk he mentioned forms of regressive and narcissistic tendencies among entheogen consumers. I was curious about this. I think his answer is very interesting.

His view on shapeshifting is, to say the least, quite unique. But he should know what he´s talking about, at this point he has more than a decade of continuous experience on the therapeutic use of altered states of consciousness.

There´s a hand-me-down idea often repeated among what McKenna called "psychedelic people" (i'd be one of them) the idea says something like: "entheogens are ego dissolvers." Though that can be sometimes true, the ego is strong, and soon finds ways around it. Hence "many people take ayahuasca and are still full of shit." -As Evgenia succinctly said in the YouTube comments.

PD I have been wondering lately how come I only seem to post negative stuff: ego tripping this, appropriation of indigenous knowledge that, fake shamans etc. Don´t I have anything positive to say about Ayahuasca?

I certainly do.

There is just so much of that already online (and in my tapes) that I figured it'd be a better contribution to bring new ideas to the debate, rather than to rehash the same old ones...

Update: A video of the whole conference (in Spanish) can be found here

Monday, 1 September 2008

Jaguars consume ayahuasca

Most fascinating video of a jaguar eating and then reacting to caapi leaves.

Nature documentaries are notoriously staged affairs pulled together form many sources recorded at different times. Obviously part of the shot is staged, the vine itself is too perfectly placed before the camera, with the leaves just at the right height... But I´d really like to find out if this behavior has really been observed in the wild. Taking in consideration the relationship between ayahuasca and jaguars in many native Amazonian cultures the fact that jaguars would purge on Caapi vine would be -I´d say- a most significant discovery.

Any zoologists reading this who could scan the literature and confirm?

UPDATE 4/1/09: We´ve gotten confirmation that somewhere it was published that it was observed that jaguars like to sniff ayahuasca leaves.... any additional info will be much appreciated

Ayahuasca is declared cultural patrimony of Perú

This is old news by now, but very important news. The Peruvian government has declared Traditional Ayahuasca use as part of the national cultural heritage.
It really is a cause to celebrate, for it is an official recognition of the highest degree. From now on any legal discussion about Ayahuasca use that takes place in other countries will have to take this into account. It no longer is a matter of the activities of a few groups of individuals more or less underground. Ayahuasca now has official recognition at the national level.

I am including a translation of the entire official text but those with short attention span can jump directly to the paragraphs in bold.


National directorial resolution

Number 836/INC

Lima, June 24 2008-07-14

Having read Report No. 056-2008-DRECP/INC dated May 29, 2008, prepared by the Directorate of Registration and Study of Contemporary Culture in Peru:


That Article 21 of the Political Constitution of Peru indicates that it is the function of the State to protect the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation.

That part 1, Article 2 of the Convention for the Preservation of Non-material Cultural Patrimony of the UNESCO, establishes that “it is understood that ‘Cultural Patrimony is defined as the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques—together with instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces that are inherent to them---that the communities, groups, and in some cases individuals, recognize as an integral part of their cultural patrimony’. This non-material cultural patrimony, which is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly re-created by communities and groups, by means of their location, their interaction with nature and their history, inducing a feeling of identity and continuity and therefore contributing to promote respect toward cultural diversity and human creativity”.

That Article VII of the Preliminary Title to Law NO. 28296

- General Law on Cultural Patrimony of the Nation disposes that the National Institute of Culture is charged to register, declare and protect the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation within the confines of its responsibility;

- That part 2) of Article 1 of Title 1 of the above mentioned Law establishes that part of the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation consists of the creations of a cultural community, based upon traditions, to be expressed by individuals unilaterally or in groups, and that consensually respond to community expectations, as an expression of cultural and social identity, in addition to the values transmitted orally, such as autochthonous languages, tongues and dialects, traditional knowledge and wisdom, be it artistic, gastronomic, medicinal, technologic, folkloric or religious, the collective knowledge of peoples, and other expressions or cultural manifestations, which jointly comprise our cultural diversity;

- That National Directorial Resolution No. 1207/INC dated November 10, 2004, approved Directive No. 002-2004-INC “Recognition and declarations of active cultural manifestations as Cultural Patrimony of the Nation”;

- That it behooves the National Institute of Culture, in order to carry out its function as assigned by law, with the active participation of the community, to conduct a permanent identification of such traditional manifestations of the country that should be declared as Cultural Patrimony of the Nation;

- That by means of the proper document, the Directorate of Study and Registration of Culture in Contemporary Peru requests a declaration as Cultural Patrimony of the Nation the knowledge and traditional uses associated with Ayahuasca, and practiced by native Amazon communities, according to the Report prepared by Dona Rosa A. Giove Nakazawa, of the Takiwasi Center-Tarapoto and submitted by the Regional Office of Economic Development of the Regional Government of San Martin to the Regional Directorate of Culture of San Martin;

- That the Ayahuasca plant—Banisteriopsis caapi—is a vegetable species which garners an extraordinary cultural history, by virtue of its psychotropic properties, used in a beverage associated with a plant known as Chacruna-Psychotria viridis;

- That such plant is known by the indigenous Amazon world as a wisdom plant or plant teacher, showings initiates the very fundaments of the world and its components. Consumption of it constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets, which is why traditional Amazon medicine has been structured around the Ayahuasca ritual at some point in their lives, indispensable to those who assume the function of privileged carriers of these cultures, be they those charged with communication with the spiritual world, or those who express it artistically.

- That the effects produced by ayahuasca, extensively studied because of their complexity, are different from those produced by hallucinogens. A part of this difference consists in the ritual that accompanies its consumption, leading to diverse effects, but always within the confines of a culturally determined boundary, with religious, therapeutic and culturally affirmative purposes.

- That available information sustains the fact that the practice of ritual ayahuasca sessions constitutes one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples, and that the ancestral use in traditional rituals, warranting cultural continuity, is closely connected with the therapeutic attributes of the plant;

- That what is sought is the protection of traditional use and sacred character of the ayahuasca ritual, differentiating it from Western uses out of context, consumerist, and with commercial objectives;

- That the Manager, the Director of Registration and Study of Culture in Contemporary Peru, and the Director of the Office of Legal Affairs, being cognizant of the above information;

- In conformity with the dispositions of Law No. 28296, “General Law of the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation” and Supreme Decree No. 017-2003-ED, which approves the By-Laws of the Organization and Operation of the National Institute of Culture.


Sole Article.

To declare as CULTURAL PATRIMONY OF THE NATION, the knowledge and traditional uses of Ayahuasca practiced by the native Amazon communities, as a warranty of cultural continuity.

Be it registered, communicated, and published.


Manager of the National Directorate

National Institute of Culture

The Devil's Doctor

"The superstitious and sometimes harmful credulity of religious tradition can certainly be considered a poison. But for many of us moderns, hurtling towards a chilly posthumanism, a draught of the poetic and cosmic imagination that feeds religious credulity can wipe away the pain. And even, potentially, heal it. For though skepticism and empirical reason have cleared away many cobwebs of theological error, we are all swimming in the toxic sludge these cultural solvents have left in their wake. The alchemist can envision the gold growing in the sludge; the realist only marvels at the mess we've made, and turns up the collar of his coat."

Erik Davis here talking about this book

Why this post? It has everything to do with everything

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Ayahuasca tourism vs. traditional uses, and an online collaborative documentary

When I was invited last year to give a talk a the 3rd Amazonian Shamanism Conference I had no idea what I'd talk about. I had been invited because Jimmy Weiskopf recommened me to Alan Shoemaker, and he had liked some of the chacra diaries so I figured I'd talk a bit about amazonian dietas, a bit about the documentary project, and I'd use the chance to see if I could find people who'd like to help in a collaborative online documentary we've been thinking about for some time. Kind of like Echo chamber project, but different.

The project

The problem we have is that: 1- We have picked a huge topic (which keeps on growing! entheogens, traditional medicine, the link between health and spirituality, the colonization of the Americas and the new cultures that resulted form it, etc etc) and 2- The idea of trying to compress all that material into a standard-size 45-minute documentary, full of soundbite-size statements runs a real danger of over-simplification. You can't explain uses/misuses/abuses of ayahuasca, mention the churches, delve a bit into traditional medicine, what is happening to curanderos and what that says about western culture (and the failings of scientific medicine!) biopiracy, cultural appropriation... and of course reflect a bit on the part of us that actually gets touched by ayahuasca, and what that says about what it means to be human.

See? It doesn't fit in 1 hour, not without making a joke of everything.

So we started playing with a different idea, a sort of gigantic online video archive where we would dump all the tapes, and people could consult at their own pace, without middle men.

But how would people navigate around hours of video?

We needed: an indexing system, a tagging system, and a navigational interface.

Basically all the interviews would be transcribed (word by word), and all videos indexed/tagged (by topic). It would be just like the index at the back of a book, where you can find where certain topics are mentioned and jump to that page. I imagined an interactive index of all the videos, so that people interested on a certain topic could find all the interviews/parts where that topic was mentioned and go there. The interface could even queue the video segments for viewing one after another.

Once you have that built, you have a system to generate movies automatically. You are doing what an editor does with the raw video material (well, almost), but dynamically, on-the-fly. Any path can be transversed though the set of raw materials. So why not predefine a few? We could make a couple of documentaries (the one hour version, the five hour version, etc) and leave them as preset "paths" through the archive, also as starting points. Did you like what someone said during the doc? Would you like to hear the rest? You could jump out of the path, see as much as you wanted of the original interview, and then return. Would you like to see who else talked about that topic just mentioned? You could, etc.

That is more or less the new plan, it's a long project, but I am in no hurry. I see this pretty much as a life-long project. And I believe someone will program a platform that does exactly this sooner or later. It doesn't seem too complicated, basically it's a database that has tape numbers, and uses timecodes to mark in and out for transcribed text (word by word, very good for subtitles later) and in and out time codes for topic and/or tags. It should be fairly easy to give those time codes to a player (quicktime etc) and it would queue them for you. If no one gets around to do it I guess we will.

Sounds interesting? I am looking for volunteer programmers, designers, and very importantly transcribers. I need people to help me put into writing the dozens of hours of interviews I have with some of the most interesting people in the ayahuasca world. Including Benny Shanon, Johnatan Ott, Jacques Mabit, Luis Eduardo Luna, Ralph Metzner, Richard Yensen, Antonio Escohotado, Josep Maria Fericgla, dozens of curanderos, mestres and members of the 3 main Brazilian Ayahuasca churches, psychologists who use the brew to get people off drugs, former drug addicts, and a host of people from all walks of life whose lives have been touched by their encounter ayahuasca, plus rituals, masses, preparations, healing sessions, seminars, detox centers... the list goes on and on.

If you are interested in ayahuasca and you can type fast and you will probably enjoy the work, the interviews are really well worth it.

Back to the talk

That was more on less on my mind for the talk. At the Conference I met some very good people, but in Iquitos there is also a side of Ayahuasca that I actively try to avoid: Cunning locals looking for a quick buck (chamán + charlatán = charlamán) and/or sincere but (in my opinion) misguided westerners of new age-ish leanings.

Now, if you are interested entheogens chances are you too have what others would describe as new age-ish leanings, I certainly do, but some people are just more new age than others, I guess, and some people are just too new age for me. Which is normal, everybody knows somebody who they think "goes too far" into whatever. In life you'll always meet people you click with and people you can´t get along with. Attitudes you approve and attitudes you disapprove. It is perfectly normal (actually it is unavoidable) it happens in any field of human activity. There is no way out of it.

...And certainly in this world everybody should be able to pursue their own individual bliss as they see fit.

But that week in Iquitos I saw people that in my opinion were not properly prepared, make a farce, a theater play, out of something I respect and love very much, the work and practices of Amazonian curanderismo. All in order to feel better about themselves in front of people who didn't know any better (and get some of their money.) It wasn't necessarily in the conference, there was plenty of worthwhile people there, but some of it was around it, and that mix of the good and the bad is certainly an integral part of Iquitos ayahuasca scene.

So when the time came for my talk I though I'd try to clarify a few misconceptions that seemed rampant in the western-ayahuasca-seekers world (of which I am undeniably part of) Not to tell people what to think, but just communicate a few facts I found useful when facing "amazonian shamanism". Basically I wanted to:

1-Talk about how our western interest (read money) in shamanism is changing it from what it was, to what we would like to be.

2-Put shamans/curanderos first in their proper context:
a) As traditional doctors who practice a form of *medicine*, neither saints (they can be very flawed) nor proper gurus or spiritual guides (that is a different job, from a different culture) and
b) as *professionals* of their field, the result of years of training, not a few weeks or month long "courses" (This weekend-course format is perhaps the most defining factor of all things new age: they all seem to take place in the form of "courses")

3-Ask for some help with the doc project.

Below is a short reduction of the talk

the full talk can be seen here.

You be the judge as to how well I managed to get points 1 and 2 across. As to point 3 I was almost a complete failure. Only Susan offered help (thanks Susan!) She's helped me quite a bit already and I don't like to bother volunteers in excess. So, if you'd like to help with the project write to

If you wouldn't like to help but are interested on the topic of the appropriation of indigenous knowledge I recommend

Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances

Selling Native Spirituality

We do not have shamans

Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality

Newagefrauds has some updated forums full of denunciations, they take a very hard line and their positions are controversial even among some Native Americans. Indeed the whole topic is full of heated arguments Here used to be another popular forum, but the person who was running got tired of all the threats she received and decided to shut it down. Some of her parting words were:

"Let me make my position clear - I am not against non-Indians participating in ceremony. I know that puts me at odds with a probably rather large portion of the Native community. But if you are going to participate - do it in a safe and respectful manner. Please - wait until you've been invited by a member from a legitimate community. Don't pay, and look out for a few simple things that will let you know if you supposed Medicine Man/Woman is genuine or not. Do they speak the language of the people they claim to be from? Do they do these ceremonies back home for the people they claim to be from? Do they ask for money upfront - either as a "love offering" or any other "suggested donation."

I guess she meant something like this crap $90 down and $5 a month will get you adopted as a "Native American Medicine Man or Woman"

Utterly shameless (or shameon)