Book Review Series
ISSN 2045-5755 (Online)

Johannes Neurath
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico

© 2017 Johannes Neurath
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

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Bernd Brabec de Mori. 2015. Die Lieder der Richtigen Menschen: Musikalische Kulturanthropologie der indigenen Bevölkerung im Ucayali-Tal, Westamazonien. Innsbruck: Helbling.

This is a massive monograph on indigenous music from a whole region of the Peruvian Amazon. The Austrian ethnomusicologist Bernd Brabec de Mori spent many years along the Ucayali River, mainly among the Shipibo-Konibo, but also among several other groups in the region. As endoethnonyms they all use variants of “The Real People”. This is why his almost 800 page book is called Die Lieder der Richtigen MenschenThe Songs of the Real People. Like many young Europeans travelling to the Peruvian Amazon, he too started out as a hippie experimenting with Ayahuasca, but soon turned into a despiser of such superficialities. He learned to distinguish “shamanism” for tourists from the ceremonies traditional healers or médicos perform for Native people. His accounts of Indian rituals for gringos from a native point of view are pretty hilarious, and a “must” for anybody interested in “Neo-Shamanism”.1

Brabec married and, as he explains, was incorporated by the Natives he studied. They “trapped” him and transformed him into a Neo-Shipibo, because they found him useful as an intermediate between them, academia and the world of White People at large. The project to document, preserve and revitalize musical practices was actually part of the Real People’s agenda, too.

When he first started in the early 2000s, plenty of ethnographic research had already been done, on visual culture, on “food and being eaten”, kinship, and economy; but almost nothing on ethnomusicology. Brabec argues that music should be regarded a central topic for Amazonist anthropology. In the first place, as it has been documented in other societies living in tropical rainforest environments, auditory perceptions are considered more trustworthy than visual ones. But in the Peruvian Amazon, music is considered no less than the spirits’ language. Singing enables contacting non-human beings and controlled transformation into animals. As he explains, it is even an engagement with the structure of the world. On the other hand, songs can also be a lethal sickness, capable of “piercing” a patient’s body like a spear. Brabec endorses Philippe Descola’s and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s works on Amazonian Animism, Perspectivism and Multinaturalism, but he suggests something like a “musical turn of the ontological turn”. Among the Shipibo and their neighbors, animist transformation is accomplished by singing, by taking on sonic perspectives. It goes without saying that it is not so much by the ingestion of Ayahuasca, as hippies and most researchers like to believe.

Following Anthony Seegers, Brabec practices Musical Anthropology, which is studying music as a practicing musician. He found out the music of the Real People is much more powerful than in the Western tradition, but it is also entertaining. He refuses to separate the magic from the “fun factor”. As in other Amerindian traditions, texts are rich in poetic metaphors, which are also amusing. Among the Shipibo there is a whole genre of “funny animal songs”: the red monkey sings about its fat nose, the vulture sings about its crown which is turned inside out, and the howler monkey sings about his wifes’ wobbling buttocks.

As it has been described in other accounts of Amerindian Perspectivism, animal transformation is actually not that difficult. The position of the singing subject shifts. During certain songs animals actually sing through the mouth of a traditional healer (médico). In other words, the singer has a first person account of how it is to be an animal. Engaging with powerful and dangerous animals like jaguars, river dolphins and anacondas requires more complex procedures, like voice masking. For Anthropologists who are not Ethnomusicologists, but interested in the Anthropology of Ontologies or Amerindian or Amazonian Studies, these parts are probably the most interesting portions of the book.2

The book is truly systematic and offers a detailed account of all types of musical practice of all Indigenous groups living in the Ucayali Valley: Yine, Ashénika, Amin Eaki, Kakataibo, Iskobakebo, Kikama-Kukamira, and of course, Shipibo-Conibo. It is not possible to resume the whole list of musical genres documented in this book: Catholic and Protestant church-songs, songs of festivals no longer celebrated (like female circumcision), lullabies, songs for drinking, for killing animals, and for love-making, as well as music that is played just for fun. Usually the documentation features detailed and vivid accounts of the whole range of performative musical praxis, from singing techniques, composition and transmission of songs, to how people get drunk, joke, and sometimes fight during fiestas. Brabec’s reflexions on the (im)possibility of Ethnographic comparisons are very illustrative, too. His regional approach seems to be totally justified. We learn to appreciate the importance of small ethnic differences and, in some cases, we see how historical processes can be traced and reconstructed through music. It might be surprising that cumbia amazónica and música típca are also included in this study. These genres of popular music are usually considered Mestizo, or as belonging to the Andean Highlands. But they are played by Amazonian Indians, too, or at least they are very popular among them.

It should be mentioned that this book is based on a Ph.D. thesis presented in Vienna. The Doktorvater (advisor) was Dr. Gerhard Kubik, a famous Austrian Africanist who is also a well-known Jazz musician. It is one of those many-hundred page long dissertations you don’t see in Anglo-Saxon countries any longer, and rarely in Latin America. Apparently, the text was not rewritten, nor abbreviated before it was published as a book. But there are not many parts that could have been scrapped easily. The publication also includes a CD with all of the music mentioned and analyzed in the book. The question remains if it is useful to publish such a voluminous reference work on Peruvian Amazonian music in German, and not in Spanish or English (or maybe in Portuguese). The argument in favor of not publishing directly in another language is Brabec’s unique and often ironic writing style that seems to oscillate between nostalgia for the old school of German-speaking Americanist ethnography and making an attempt to update it. I can only hope this book does not suffer the fate of so many important volumes of German Amazonist scholars that were never translated into another language. Maybe, in the times of von den Steinen, Preuss and Koch-Grünberg that was not such a big problem, because many scholars in the Humanities read German, but today this is no any longer the case.

1. This part of Brabec’s work is published separately in a book-chapter on “How Shipibo-Konibo Experience and Interpret Ayahuasca Drinking with Gringos” (in Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar, eds., Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, Oxford, 2014, pp. 206-230).

2. For English-speaking readers I’d like to recommend Brabec’s article “About magical singing, sonic perspectives,
ambient multinatures, and the conscious experience”, Indiana vol. 29, 2012, pp. 73-101, as well as the one published in Tipiti 13 (2), 2015: pp. 25-42.