Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

09 June 2016

Recording the past, representing the present: Indians of the Colombian Vaupés

 In January 2016 The British Library supported anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Brian Moser to take back digital copies of his Tukano recordings - British Library collection C207 Brian Moser & Donald Tayler Colombia collection which were made on an initial recording trip in the 1960's supported by the British Institute of Recorded Sound - to the Tukano peoples in the Pirá-Paraná region of the Amazon. 

Brian was accompanied on the trip by his son, Titus Moser, and  anthropologists Professor Stephen and Dr Christine Hugh-Jones. With both Stephen and Christine being fluent in Tukano and most of the sub-group dialects, the team hoped to observe the impact of returning these recordings. In this guest blog from the team they discuss their findings in the context of wider representation of Amazonian Indian culture and  the indigenous perspective.


 Indians at Piedra Ñi look at a projection of “War of the Gods” inside the maloca. 2016

2016 is a year to reflect on the culture and history of Northwest Amazonian Indians in the face of so-called "civilization". There are two reasons why we have a unique opportunity to question how we relate to Amazonian Indian culture through our all-pervasive media of photography and sound recording.

The first is the UK release (10th June) of The Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra's Oscar-nominated film about the history of Vaupés Indians. This feature-film, shot by a Colombian director in the Colombian tropical forest, complements several documentaries made by foreigners over the past six decades, the whole providing both a rich compendium of documented, interpreted and imagined historical events and a social history of film-making about Indian subjects. 

The second reason is that indigenous peoples now have access to these media themselves.


Stephen, Titus and Oliverio pull the boat over the Thunder rapids on the Komenyá River, Pirá-Paraná 2016    

In January this year, with British Library support, Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones accompanied 81 year-old documentary film-maker Brian Moser and his son Titus on a trip to return Brian's recorded material to the communities living along the Pirá-Paraná river and to make new sound recordings. Over ten days, we visited three different communities and, in each, people gathered in their traditional longhouse to watch Brian’s films starring famous shamans and chanters, no longer alive, and themselves as children. Each community was given a book of photos, a hard drive and an iPad with copies of Brian’s audiovisual records of their culture and, eventually, will have the film Titus made of our trip and their reactions.


Ignacio, a now retired but still revered shaman and headman, looks at “Piraparaná”. 2016

Besides this, two Pirá-Paraná communities have recently acquired Internet posts. These are intended to facilitate day-to-day-communications about travel, health, education and air freight but, inevitably, this is a journey of no return into our global village with all its powerful, exciting potential and terrifying negative consequences.

Traditionally, the multi-lingual network of Vaupés Indian peoples lived in communal longhouses, cultivated manioc, and had a particularly rich intellectual heritage of extensive mythologies, ritual exchanges and male initiation with sacred flutes. They were already suffering the traumatic onslaughts of rubber gatherers and missionaries when the German explorer Theodore Koch-Grünberg visited them in 1903-5 and made his extraordinary collection of artefacts, early photographs and pioneering wax-cylinder recordings. 

By 1960, when Brian and Donald Tayler first visited, Pirá-Paraná society was a still traditional refuge area compared with the mission-dominated Indian villages beyond. In spite of modern equipment and outboard motors, the expedition ethos had not changed so very much from Koch-Grünberg’s day (see Moser and Tayler's travel book The Cocaine Eaters. London: Longmans 1965). They made a collection of artefacts for the British Museum, photographs, sound recordings (now in the British Library) and a film of Makuna Indian culture.

Tukano Pira_0467

Indian dancers perform the maraca dance to celebrate the manioc harvest festival. 1970   

Eight years later, we started anthropological fieldwork in isolated Pirá-Paraná longhouses. The first missionaries had just settled - Colombian Catholic Xaverians in the centre of the main river and various North American couples from Wycliffe Bible Translators on tributaries - all busy employing Indians to clear the short jungle air strips which would accelerate change in unforeseen ways. In 1970, we arranged for Brian to come back to make a film in Granada Television’s groundbreaking Disappearing World Series

In traditional "natural-history" documentaries, exotic indigenous customs would be explained by a scantily informed visitor from the western world, with every discordant sign of the White Man carefully edited out. By 1970, the anthropological methods of fieldwork and participant-observation contributed to the climate-change in which filmmakers reflected on cultural imperialism and the nature of documentary film. Brian’s 1970 War of the Gods was a very different beast to his 1960 effort. Close-up photography and subtitled speech in Indian languages drew viewers closer to Indians. Cuts between the Catholic Eucharist, Protestant hymn singing and indigenous ceremonies where hallucinogenic yagé (ayahuasca) transports Indian chanters into the mythical world of ancestors, show the tension between the equivalence of the rituals and the inequality of the brute socio-economic power and "civilizing" ideology of the two Christian missions.

Tukano Pira_0480

Cristo, an expert chanter-dancer and Bosco, a renowned shaman, chanting origin journey of their ancestors through the night under the influence of yajé (ayahuasca). 1970

Later, we returned to the Pirá-Paraná to find Indian communities trading traditional coca crops to isolated cocaine labs. The nearest lab had usurped the Catholic mission airstrip! To our amazement, in a basic jungle encampment with ill-assorted vessels, sacks of chemicals and drums of aeroplane fuel, the grown son of a Colombian fortune-seeker we had known from the past was minding the project for his father. The father’s CV included policeman, rubber gatherer and jaguar hunter but now he was a cocaine-producer with an obsession about chemical purity. Brian’s documentary instincts brought him back and, against all the odds, in 1980 he managed to shoot a remarkable and risky film of the backwoods cocaine trade called A Small Family Business.

Now, 35 years on, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent seeks to turn the tables on box-office hits like Boorman's Emerald Forest, Herzog's Fitzcarraldo or Joffe's The Mission. Instead of indigenous Amazonians appearing through the distorting lens of Western cultural assumptions, the fatal impact of colonial forces is seen through the indigenous eyes of Karamakate, the shaman, played first as a young man by Nilbio Torres, a Cubeo Indian from the Vaupés, and then, as an old man, by Antonio Bolívar from further south. A hotchpotch of loosely historical themes twist through this beautifully shot, black and white film: the sympathetic characters of real-life explorers - Koch-Grünberg and Harvard ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes - contrast with the excessive brutality of missionaries and rubber traders and are woven into a story of jungle hardships, tragic cultural loss, and the cultural gap between Indians and White men. Resolution of a sort comes through hallucinogenic experience - the only sequence in colour. Meanwhile, we learn that Karamakate is the last survivor of his people who has forgotten his own culture - he stands for the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, what Jordan Hoffman in his 17 Feb. 2016 Guardian review calls the"unstoppable current of history".

But Vaupés history has not turned out like Guerra’s vision. There are some 30,000 Indians living in different states of integration into pan-Colombian culture. In War of the Gods, we see the very same Indian shaman singing hymns in shirt and trousers and then chanting about the ancestral anaconda-canoe, high on yagé in paint and feather ornaments. This shaman stands for a more realistic and nuanced fate than Karamakate’s: one in which people integrate the new in ways we may find difficult to understand. 


 Young panpipe players making music in the evening on the upper Pirá-Paraná. 1960

In 2010 UNESCO added the Traditional Shamanic Knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yurupari, the cultural heritage of the Bará, Barasana, Tatuyo, Taiwano and Makuna peoples of the Pirá-Paraná river to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a tribute to the intellectual power and persistence of traditional Vaupés culture. One certainty is that today’s Pirá-Paraná Indians are eager and grateful for past recordings of their culture. Having seen this so clearly in January, we shall do what we can to save our own sound recordings for the future by adding them to the British Library collection.

Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones

The recordings made during the 2016 trip will be added soon to the original collection  -  C207 Brian Moser and Donald Tayler Colombia collection which can be browsed online. 


Embrace of the Serpent  opens in cinemas on June 10th 2016

A copy of the Disappearing World film - War of the Gods can be viewed on-site at the British Library 


Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.