Let us dance toward the land of no evil…
- Mbyá song
Arturo and Marta’s eyes glisten as they sing. Each note of the chorus is given extra force, drawn out a little longer. Arturo concentrates on strumming the guitar — a role reserved for Mbyá men — while his wife rhythmically pounds the red dirt at her feet with a large bamboo tube known as a tacuapú. The song is called “Oremba”, and it is about how the land belongs to all the people of the forest.
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I don’t know any of the words in Mbyá except for one that is repeated again and again: “Ñanderú”, which signifies “Our First Father, Creator”. An empty wine bottle lies alongside a cut-off plastic coke bottle with a chunk of ice in it. The wine might explain why their song is notably passionate today, as if they are singing for themselves and not just for a foreigner who has come to document their music.
Most days the aldea is a hot and sober place. Men go out to the monte, or forest, in the cooler early morning and return dripping with sweat, carrying huge logs over their shoulders for the cooking fire where a large black kettle is perpetually boiling water for mate. The also bring other wood like cedro, pindo and chincha that are used for carving and weaving baskets, crosses, furniture and animal figurines to sell in the local tourist market. For most Mbyá this is their only source of income.
It’s hard to imagine a people less deserving of their tragic post-colonial history (marked by periods of slavery, sequestered religious indoctrination and disenfranchisement from the land) than the Guarani First Nation of South America. Life in the New World prior to the arrival of European settlers had it’s trials too — there were times of starvation and bloodshed — but these traumas are small when considered in the greater context of human history, and were arguably the natural consequence of a way of life so intimately tied to the harsh cycles of nature.
Prior to the appearance of Europeans, Guarani life in the subtropical forests of the Amazon basin was one of the richest on the planet and yet, as a civilization, they constructed no great monuments to their existence. They had no empire and did not seek to dominate the land. They simply moved from one place to another, hunting, fishing and harvesting.
Their only relentless pursuit was of a mythical “land of no evil”, where the necessities of life were so abundant that they could live there peacefully, in perpetuity. It is romantically ironic to think that perhaps this is the land in which they had lived all along. The land they have now lost.
Arturo is playing an old six-string guitar that is splitting apart at the seams and could be bought at any pawn shop in the West for $30. One string, however, has been purposely removed. This little detail, and the way it is tuned, makes it a part of a cultural legacy that dates back to Spanish conquest of the XVII century. This guitar may have come from China, but it is merely a stand-in for an instrument that originally crossed the seas from Spain, and which the Guarani subsequently turned into something uniquely theirs. They can in fact build an mbaraka, or 5-string guitar, entirely from materials found in the forest.
I’m here to find out how they make these instruments, how they are played, and what the songs mean to them. I’m not a musicologist or anthropologist, but I believe that these traditions are vital to the preservation of a culture that is under siege by the globalization of the West and the usurpation of ancestral land for commercial interests. Not only do I want to document these traditions, but I’d like to draw attention to them from both the outside world and the Mbyá community itself.
My interest in Mbyá music was prompted by the work of a recently deceased Argentine ethnomusicologist named Rubén Pérez Bugallo. A musician himself, Bugallo spent years with the Mbyá and other indigenous groups, gathering instruments and studying their culture. His collection shows a diversity of instruments ranging from simple flutes and percussion devices to unique versions of violins and guitars descended from the European Baroque period. I know these instruments must still exist among the remaining fifty-some aldeas in Misiones, but are they still being made?
The Guarani were such skilled artisans that they could produce replicas of European manufactured items that were in some cases indistinguishable from the original.
So the Jesuits set their indigenous congregation to the task of copying everything from maps, paintings and embroidery, to organs and other complex musical instruments. When the Jesuits were ultimately expelled from the Americas in 1767, the Guarani abandoned the reductions along with most of these wares…except for the musical instruments.
Arturo is the cacique, or elected chief of aldea Andresito, a village that lies a few kilometres by dirt road from the small town of San Ignacio in the province of Misiones, Argentina. The last part of the road is too rough for most cars and is more like a moist tunnel through the insectile hum of thick subtropical forest. It opens onto a series of clearings that are home to a dozen families and some sixty Mbyá. There are couple brick structures, but the houses in this place are mostly simple wooden shacks with walls made of sticks and roofs of sheet metal. The huts are scattered over pockets of open ground, or hidden among the trees, as if the community wasn’t meant to be here. Indeed, the people who live on this land do so on the good graces of a local church.
In the middle of the village is a more traditional hut with a thatched roof and walls that are a lattice of twigs, stuffed and smoothed over with the ubiquitous red mud of Misiones. “This is our opy”, explains Arturo. “It is used by the opygua”.
An opygua is a shaman, a traditional healer who furnishes medicine as well as connections to the spirit world. One of his most important duties is consulting the Heavens for the names of children, which they only receive when they are about two years old. Opyguas are important elders in the Mbyá community as sources of traditional knowledge. They are often well-versed in the construction and playing of musical instruments.
“Where is the opygua?” I ask Arturo, hoping to find what I seek. But he answers that there is no opygua living in Andresito and that, when needed, the remaining opyguas in Misiones must travel from village to village, much like country doctors.
I’m disappointed. Both Arturo, his brother Javier, and at least one other man in the village play the guitar. There are a number of anguapu and maracas around, but I have not seen a violin, or rabé, the beautiful three-stringed vibraphone who’s swaying creole notes somehow found their way into the New World jungle. It is this instrument in particular that drew me here.
We are all a little tipsy from the wine and even though I have been to the aldea several times before, inquiring about the music, I decide that this is an opportune moment to ask Arturo straight-out if there is someone in the village who knows how to build a rabé.
He thinks for a moment. As usual, it’s hard to read his expression. “Maybe”, he says. “Yes, maybe Angel knows how to make it.”
We cross the clearing to Angel’s home and Arturo introduces me. I recognize him — a man I’d filmed playing tangará on the guitar in the shade of a tree several weeks ago, who didn’t speak much. In his calm, modest voice, Angel tells me that he indeed trained as a carpenter and has built numerous rabé.
It doesn’t take us long to hatch a plan. Arturo has begun organizing a choir of children in the village and wants to add a violin to the ensemble. Angel’s teenage son is eager to learn to play and I of course want to film how the violin is made. I offer to gather donations back in Buenos Aires so that we can hire Angel to build this jungle rabé while I film the process. When it’s done, the instrument will remain in Andresito under Arturo’s care.
The wine is long gone and rain clouds are starting to form. This is my cue to hit the dirt road before it turns to mud for the remainder of the day. Angel tells me that he’ll need a hand saw, some sand paper and wood glue, which I agree to bring him from town. Arturo talks about forming an indigenous musical group to take part, for the first time ever, in the regional carnaval parade. As the air darkens, I get on my bike and pedal through the thick grass, impressed by how little is sometimes required to ignite small initiatives that might play on well into the future.
Upcoming: The Making of an Mbyá Violin (rabé)