Harmonica Gateways: Tales of the Amazon

Photos by Cassidy Rast, Sushila Mertens, Kathleen McIntire, Whitney Kear

When I went to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to spend time with the Achuar tribe, I did not bring my viola. I brought my harmonica, which until this trip was an instrument I’ve had for years, but have not properly explored in any way.

christen2_smallerAnd on this trip, my harmonica and I bonded. Several stories were born from the exchanges with the harmonica, both with the music that came out and the conversations around it. I can’t imagine this trip without it. And so I thought that I could share tales of the Amazon, to you, through what experiences the harmonica co-created.

And I want you to know; I am looking forward to sharing the tales of the Amazon trip through my music, opposed to the writing. I will record some songs on both the harmonica and viola. I need to do this, for words are limiting and cannot fully grasp what I saw, learned, witnessed and understood.

But for now, I’ll write. And if we touch upon a subject that you’ll want to dig deeper on, don’t worry, we will… this is the first of several blogs.

In the untouched regions of the Amazon rainforest resides an Ancient wisdom, spawned from nature herself. I hadn’t considered this before I left; I assumed I would learn from the people and their culture, from the Achuar themselves… but most of what I learned while in Ecuador and the Amazon was not only from people, but from nature, and its patterns. So you see, there is a lot to explain, because the Amazon goes waaaaaay deep.

Picture 2

Tale 1: Dreaming Awake and Wayusa [wai-YOO-sa] Tea

It was 3:30am on the 3rd day in the rainforest, definitely a magical hour to start a day. We were meeting for the canoe ride to an Achuar village called Kusutkau. Clad in our knee-high rubber boots (a must at all times when you are not at your camp), we loaded the canoes and set upstream to Kusutkau.

This canoe ride in the middle of the night was one of the greatest moments to be remembered. In my tribe of 17 women on this group were women of all generations – and let me tell you, these ladies are grand. Joined by a few Achuar men, and we cruised down the Capahuari River in silence for the entire ride, which I believe was slightly less than an hour long… but I’m not sure of the time… and it’s important to note that the Achuar (and other tribes) have a completely different relationship with time than we do. We see time as linear; they do not. And the main difference is how we look at our past and our future differently. We will get to this.

Butterfly_KMBack to the canoe ride. Imagine it…. imagine the night. There is fog in the air, but not so much that you cannot see the forest on both sides of the canoe, and if you’re lucky, the night life. The thousands of hidden creatures of the jungle: the pink freshwater dolphins, the snakes, birds, frogs, insects, monkeys, and once in a while, the jaguars… we were on their turf, and were traveling down their quiet river. None of us had ever been surrounded by such an immense quantity of life. The air was moist, and smelled of rich earth, petals and dew.

It was important that we arrived on time in the village of Kusutkau because we were invited to participate in a daily ritual of the Achuar community, which was the drinking of the sacred Wayusa tea and the sharing of dreams.

The Achuar are a dream community – they study and share their dreams with great intention. They believe the future can be written, and that they are the scribes of their own future. They sit as families and communities at the start of each day, and using their dreams as their guiding star, they decide how to act on their current issues and future potentials from what they interpret and learn through their dreams. It is a way of life.

Photo by Cassidy RastAnd so each morning, the Achuar wake up at 3am, and drink Wayusa tea (which has hints of a mate flavor, and has no reality-alternating or hallucinogenic effects). They drink many gourds of Wayusa, and as fast as they can. (Gourd = large dried shell from a fruit, and are used as bowls or cups).

The reason for the speedy and high-octane drinking is because the purpose is to purge, to vomit from their bodies what they did not need from the day before. After they vomit, they sit together, share and interpret their dreams, and decide on what to do next on whatever relevant issue of the family or the community.

On this morning, we participated in the ritual. Our group split into two smaller groups, and we each went into a hut of a village family. The hut I entered had no walls, which is very normal for an Achuar hut. Walls were a new concept that the missionaries brought in the recent past.

CL_Profile_WKInside at the center of the hut sat a man with a giant spear in his hand. The spear was as tall as me. I could not see much due to the lack of light, but I could tell in the back of the home was his wife and two children. The children were doing their homework by candlelight.

In front of us was a giant bowl full of tea. I scooped and drank one gourd. Then two. Then a few of the girls went to the side of the hut near the wooded area to vomit. I drank two more gourds.

I did vomit, and honestly, it was not a big deal. Remember, it was 4am in the jungle, the moon was bright, the stars were out, and the air was cozy. The experience was more of a purge than a vomit-session. Most women did purge, a few did not. On an intellectual and physical level, I could understand the reasons for the purge. It heightened my awareness in a detailed way.

Then we sat quietly, and went around the group and shared our dreams, and the Achuar man interpreted them. I will not tell you the details about the dream I shared, but it was about my music, I will say…

So here’s where the harmonica comes into the story.

Harmonica_Silhouett_CLAt the end of our interpretations, we asked the man many questions… about dreams, about his village, and the Achuar history and way. Then at one point, we asked if he had any questions, and he looked at me, and then said that he had one:

He wanted to know what my music sounded like.

The man said how he was aware that there are many sounds from the world, and he had not heard many. He had only heard Latin music and Achuar. And he wanted to hear mine… So for the first time, I brought out my harmonica.

Between us, my heart jumped when this happened! And it was because I got scared! It was because I did not think I was that good on the harmonica, and I wasn’t sure if I could represent… but I know that to not play, no matter how insecure I felt, would have been a foolish thing to do. So I grabbed my harmonica, sat up, and played a sweet, gentle song for the man and his family, and for the ladies of my group for the first time. The song was a pure lullaby, and was the first time I felt confidence in my harmonica skillz.

Isn’t that silly, that I had a hesitation and a bit of fear? I’m so glad I got over the fear, because that turned in to one of the most amazing musical moments of my life… to be asked to share music with one of the oldest tribes of the Amazon jungle… indeed, with gratitude.

Tree_SushilaThe sun was rising when I played; I remember the violet colors in the sky. There were chickens and chicks wandering freely inside and outside of the hut area – the family was raising them, and the children would shoo them around. Everyone in the village was barefoot. And as the sun continued to rise, I looked out in the clearing and saw Achuar children running in the open field.

When it got brighter and brighter, I could make the face of the Achuar man who had interpreted our dreams, holding his spear in his left hand the entire morning. I could now see his headgear, a thick bandana made of red, orange and yellow toucan feathers. He had striped skirt and two bandolier-looking ornaments on his chest made of giant seeds (or something of the like). His outfit was incredible.

And then as it got a bit brighter, I noticed on his blue shirt a small logo in the upper  corner. It was white. I leaned in and noticed that there was a Nike swoosh on his shirt.

Wow. It’s everywhere.

This was the start of one of the most adventurous days of the trip.

To be continued…

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