“She’s as Sweet as Tupelo Honey, She’s an Angel of the First Degree”
It is 1.30am on Sunday morning. I am sitting in the dark on the cement floor of a wooden house in the indigenous area of Pucallpa listening to Maestra R. sing to her aunt, Maestra A. There are five of us in the ceremony and Maestra A. has recently finished singing to each of us in turn. Whilst Maestra A. sang to us, Maestra R. sang to two of Maestra A.’s daughters and is now singing to her aunt.
The moment is exquisite. I feel that the two of them are keeping a candle flame alive that has been flickering throughout the night. Maestra A. is one of many Shipibo people who have left their riverside, rural communities to come and live in the city. Because of her work as a curandera (healer), especially with foreigners, she has access to a reasonable, even if highly fluctuating, income and can live relatively comfortably in the city. This enables her, like many Shipibo curander@s, to be able to support her large family of five daughters, one son, and many grandchildren.
As the ceremony took place on a Saturday night, and as it is the week before San Juan – the largest fiesta in the Peruvian Amazon – the noise outside the house has been terrible. Apart from the loud bass sounds thumping from a nearby party, motorbikes have been revving on the street corner outside all through the night, prompting at one point the paranoid thought that they were assembling to attack this house where they knew there were five gringos drinking ayahuasca.
But the revving is mainly for macho posturing. I am reminded of a video by Helena Norberg-Hodge, called ‘Ancient Futures’, about the destruction of the traditional culture in Ladakh. She makes the telling and convincing point that the worst aspects of Western consumerist culture enter the veins of ancestral Ladakh culture via the adolescent young men who are drawn to the technological gadgets and machines of the West. They, the ‘boys with toys’, are the weakest link in the chain that sustains the traditional culture.
In addition, these young men now lack the initiatory rites of passage from their traditional culture which would have helped root them in their cultural identity and make them less vulnerable to the glitz and false promises of the West. In and around Pucallpa, it is the same. In many indigenous communities at night, the alcohol-fuelled sounds of the braying laughter and shouting of young men are common.
So, all through the night of this ceremony, I have felt besieged by the noise of motorbikes, stupid drunken laughter and loud, crass music. These two women, sitting gently together, whilst one sings to the other, feels like a necessary counterpoint.
Possibly, rather fancifully, I think that the forces of darkness are now no longer content to do their work secretly. They are announcing their presence amidst us. I have the slightly mad thought that if the motorcyclists were to attack us, I would tell them that I did not want to deal with amateurs and get them to send us the real powers behind them. Fortunately the situation did not come to that.
I had a similar feeling doing a recent dieta in a community ten hours downriver from Pucallpa. One night the electrical generator in the village was turned on all night – I later found out the petrol to work it was donated by one of the candidates to be District Mayor.
The ceremony took place accompanied by the constant hum of the generator and the ghastly yellowish electrical light of permanently lit street lights outside. It is an example of all that is wrong with traditional models of development where access to electricity is seen as an unequivocal sign of progress. As a typical political slogan says: “Donde hay luz hay progreso” (“where there is electricity there is progress”).
The only compensation, I thought, in all this is that we can longer pretend there is somewhere in the world unaffected by the ravages that globalization, neo-liberal economics and climate change are causing. There is no escape, no safe haven. Our noses are being rubbed in it.
And this song of Maestra R. adds a further compensation. The haunting sound of the icaro is saying – along with the movement against what globalization is doing to our planet – that “another world is possible”. The song actually evokes this world. There is an indescribable tenderness to the moment.
The character of Maestra A. helps provide much of this sweet tenderness. Everybody I have taken to work with her, especially women, loves her. Whilst she may not be the most powerful Maestra in term of the penetration of her icaros, she helps create a beautiful atmosphere of kindness, good humor and warmth. This works perfectly with the gutsy, earthy force that her niece, Maestra R., offers at times.
Over time, I have gleaned various aspects of Maestra A’s personal history. Her sweetness is not the result of a constant, secure, loving upbringing On the contrary. Her mother left her to live with her another man when she was a baby and her aunt came from another community to collect her and bring her up. Her husband died twenty years ago and she has not been with a man since. She has problems with her only son who in his craziest moment threatened her with a gun and has ousted her from the land on the outskirts of the city where she was growing medicinal plans.
Yet, despite these personal tragedies, which are common for many Shipibo people, Maestra A. lives with a grace and ease that is inspiring.
(With many thanks to the musical genius who is Van Morrison for his wonderful song “Tupelo Honey” quoted in the title.
When I heard it again recently, it seemed the perfect evocation of Maestra A. There is a great version of it here on YouTube from the album “Live in San Francisco” and another excellent longer version here from a concert in Ireland in 1979.)