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Paths of healing, voices of sorcerers

The ambivalence of Shipibo curative songs in Amazonia
Bernd Brabec de Mori
Traduction(s) :
Voies de guérison, voix de sorciers [fr]


Western Amazonian indigenous people often use song to “cure” people. Healing, however, depends on perspective: as healing is often achieved by overthrowing an assumed original causer of the illness, one’s benefit may result in another’s disaster. Being able to sing powerful healing songs implies that the reverse process is known too.

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Shipibo "fighting song"
Chipotitian iká (fighting song), performed by a Shipibo-Konibo healer, Peru 2006.
Crédits : Recorded by the author. Courtesy of the Phonogrammarchiv Vienna, archive nr. D 556

  • 1 From 2001–2006 I worked with various indigenous groups, mostly with the Pano-speaking Shipibo-Koni (...)
  • 2 I prefer to use the local Spanish term médico instead of the more common shaman (...)

2During my research among indigenous people in the Western Amazon lowlands,1 I came across a number of opportunities to witness activities of healers and sorcerers. At a time when I was ill myself, for example, two Shipibo médicos – local healers applying traditional medicinal knowledge – agreed to help me. 2 They staged three nightly curing sessions in my home, and soon discovered that my problem had been caused by somebody who (and they refused to tell me who) had bewitched me. During the last session, I heard the older médico performing a song that caused me a great uneasiness. The melody seemed swirling, circling, seeking, catching and binding, in a way harmful. I could understand parts of the lyrics, and he sang that he “had got him”, that he would “tie him up”, and similar dire insinuations. Worried, I asked the younger healer, who kept silent at this point, what his brother was doing. “Sending back the sorcery, he does”, was the reply, and I understood in that moment that my healer was just transformed into the deadly nemesis of somebody else. The performance was part of a healing song sequence for me, and at the same time the climax of a sorcery assault for the person held responsible for my illness.

3When starting to work with healers in the Western Amazon, a kind of “social perspectivism” was among the first things to startle me. I often heard things like “You are lucky to come here, my uncle is a very good healer. But over there, they also say they were healers, but don’t let them trick you, in fact they are sorcerers!” Being an investigative person, I could not just believe, but ventured “over there”, just to hear exactly the same, but reverse, accusation. Of course, a visitor usually provides some economic benefit for the host. Notwithstanding, there is another reason more deeply rooted in indigenous ontology: illness, harm and healing are conceptualized as a balance of power managed by people and entities capable of sending magical items and beings over distances. They may be humans, animals, spirits, entities of the forest, the river, the clouds. Wellbeing in one own’s community may best be achieved through quenching such forces among potential enemies: preventive striking and evading retaliation. “Healing” is intrinsically linked to magical singing. Therefore, one who commands the power of song at the same time wields the forces of sorcery and disaster.

  • 3 Dale A. Olsen, “Music Alone Can Alter a Shaman’s Consciousness, Which Itself Can Destroy Tape Reco (...)
  • 4 The lyrics are not complete, and for the listening example (cf. appendix), the singer did not appl (...)

4Recording plain sorcery songs is often difficult. Olsen (2004) tells us how a Warao sorcerer destroyed the researcher’s tape recorders through singing. Sometimes one encounters such songs by chance like Lewy, whose recordings, along with historical ones by Theodor Koch-Grünberg,3 were later identified as “Canaima’s killer songs” by knowledgeable research associates. Here I present some lyrics from a counter-sorcery song: 4

51 Thebobinzana (bush, species)
2meráya-person, so it is told, is singingikaro songs:
3 “nanainanai nananainai
4 tinkontinkonti tinkontinkonti”

65 I, so it is told, am singingikaro songs
6 on the very river of great metal;
7bewá songs are approaching,
8 and when they arrive,
9 we begin right now.

710 Thebobinzana-meráya (says):
11 “I am theyashingo (plant)”,
12 this is what themeráya says.
13 In order to roll the great rocks,
14 the person rolls forward, […]

817 Demons (yoshin) rise (in my way),
18 (but with) the sharp-edged rocks
19 I have put on as a shirt,
20 rolling, we advance,
21 finishing off the demons,
22 advancing, finishing them off […]

  • 5 Bernd Brabec de Mori, “Tracing Hallucinations: Contributing to a Critical Ethnohistory of Ayahuasc (...)

9Sorcery and counter-sorcery are a complicated issue. The singer obscures his identity in multiple ways: he says that (instead of him) the plantbobinzana, personified as a powerful healer-sorcerer (meráya), is singing (lines 1–2), although the singer is first person (line 5), but at the same time another plant (theyashingo, line 11). Musically, something similar happens, when the first two sequences (lines 1–9) are performed in theikaro melodic style borrowed from down-river Kukama5 (see Brabec de Mori 2011). Lines 3–4 quote the ikaro singing style of mestizo people who often pronounce vocables rather than verses, as if the Shipibo identity of the singer should be shrouded. From line 10 on, a Shipibo repetitive mashá style is employed, and the lyrics engage the concrete topic of fighting: the Shipibo singer who says he was a plant entity pretending to be another plant entity, clad in a disguise of rocks (line 19), attacks the demonic forces he faces.

10Within an indigenous animic ontology, singing techniques similar to this example are perfectly suited for healing by retaliating against the original causer, and at the same time quite useful as an assault technique.

  • 6 Bernd Brabec de Mori, “About magical singing”.
  • 7 The singing and sorcery techniques mentioned above were often employed by master healer-sorcerers (...)

11It is sometimes said among indigenous healers that certain “musical aesthetics” can serve to identify the purpose of magical songs. Many singers use sonic transformation, for example, or “voice masking”6 (Brabec de Mori 2012), thus suggesting contact with a certain kind of entities: among the Shipibo, a high falsetto voice indicates the sonic presence of divine, “good” helping spirits, while rough accentuated chest singing means aggression. However, this only helps for some heuristics: in any healing procedure, aggression against the spirits of illness (or an enemy healer-sorcerer) is a necessary part of the sequence of songs. This is usually called “cleaning”, “driving away the malign”, or “summoning the illness in order to cage it”. But how should one judge whether this happens for the purpose of healing a present client or of harming an absent (or why not even a present?) person? I remember many reports from visitors – mostly white people from North America or Europe – who attended ayawaska sessions 7 with Shipibo healers, telling that they became scared when the singer started to sing in low, fast, staccato voice, mentioning demons and evil. It is practically impossible to judge whether the song would aim against you, or against your enemies. Here, in order not to panic, it is crucial to work with the “right” guy: with the healer who ascertained that perhaps the others are sorcerers, but that he was the “good” healer (given you believe this).

12As our example lyrics show, it is also possible that the voice mask deceives. In this case, the singer puts the finally fourfold identity (man,bobinzana,yashingo, rock) into words. Likewise, a singer can mask his voice with divine-sounding sweetness while he instructs his allied forces to destroy some specific target. Another way to tell good from bad, many healers told me, would be their appearance during the hallucinatory experience: good ones would appear white, light-clad, and with beautiful designs on their clothes and skin, while bad people would appear white-faced and in dark attire, with red bloody scarves or ties around their necks. One of the first tests for becoming amédico, however, is to tell if those entities who appear in divine garment are not disguised demons, or if those vampires are perhaps not good allies covered by illusions created by a deceptive enemy. One experienced healer I worked with called the hallucinogenicayawaska “janson rao” – the lying remedy. It may show what you wish to see, or exactly what you fear, or something completely far-fetched, or even some truth. The year-long training that traditionalmédicos had to endure ensured that they were able to tell the difference.

13Western Amazonian singers who work in healing and sorcery are masters of seduction and deception. Although their songs may sound so sweet and beautiful for your personal taste, such singing is quite prone to manipulation, deception, and in cases of bad luck even to sorcery and severe harm.

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1 From 2001–2006 I worked with various indigenous groups, mostly with the Pano-speaking Shipibo-Konibo who live along the Ucayali river in the Peruvian lowlands.

2 I prefer to use the local Spanish term médico instead of the more common shaman . See Roberto Martínez González, “El chamanismo y la corporalización del chamán. Argumentos para la deconstrucción de una falsa categoría antropológica”, Cuicuilco , 16/46, 2009, pp. 197–220.

3 Dale A. Olsen, “Music Alone Can Alter a Shaman’s Consciousness, Which Itself Can Destroy Tape Recorders”, in Jeremy Narby & Francis Huxley (eds.), Shamans through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge , New York, Penguin, 2004; Matthias Lewy, “The transformation of the ‘worlds’ and the becoming of ‘real humans’: Amerindian sound ontologies in Guiana’s songs and myths”, in Antenor Ferreira Corrêa (ed.), Music in an Intercultural Perspective , Brasília, Strong Edições, 2016, pp. 49–60, especially p. 51.

4 The lyrics are not complete, and for the listening example (cf. appendix), the singer did not apply the voice mask necessary for efficacy. I also refrain from displaying the original lyrics for ethical reasons. The song is also analysed in a prior paper within a broader theoretical frame: Bernd Brabec de Mori, “About magical singing, sonic perspectives, ambient multinatures, and the conscious experience”, Indiana , no. 29, 2012, pp. 73–101.

5 Bernd Brabec de Mori, “Tracing Hallucinations: Contributing to a Critical Ethnohistory of Ayahuasca Usage in

the Peruvian Amazon”, in Beatriz C. Labate & Henrik Jungaberle (eds), The Internationalization of Ayahuasca , Zurich, LIT-Verlag, 2011, pp. 23–47.

6 Bernd Brabec de Mori, “About magical singing”.

7 The singing and sorcery techniques mentioned above were often employed by master healer-sorcerers ( meráya ), without ingesting drugs. Due to the high importance given to the hallucinogenic ayawaska after it was “discovered” by scholars and tourists, today most magical singing (at least when visitors are around) is performed within a ritualized drug-intake session (see Brabec de Mori, “Tracing Hallucinations”, among others).

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Bernd Brabec de Mori, « Paths of healing, voices of sorcerers  »Terrain [En ligne], 68 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2017, consulté le 07 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Bernd Brabec de Mori

University of Vienna

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