Yajé and the Harmonica: A Study in Sound and Ritual

Andrés García Molina

Forty one percent of the Colombian territory is part of the Amazon rainforest, while less than 2 percent of the country’s population lives there. The region has been, historically, a strategic site of natural resource exploitation, and its difficult access and particular living conditions have always placed it as a remote and unknown, yet highly coveted, area. From colonial times, when the famous golden city of El Dorado was often hoped to be found at the river’s next bend, to the atrocious rubber plantation operations of La Casa Arana, the Amazon has excited the imagination of travelers, explorers, entrepreneurs, and governments alike.

In present-day Colombia, the area is often thought of as one of the more thriving hiding spots of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and as a site of armed conflict between FARC guerrillas, the Colombian Army, and paramilitary groups. While recognizing the region’s strategic political, military, natural, and economic significance, my work this summer focused on some of the actors that have been historically considered less important: some of its older human inhabitants.

My work took place amongst the Kamsá and Inga, two indigenous groups that live in the municipality of Sibundoy. Sibundoy is located in the Upper Putumayo region, a lush valley where the Andes and the Amazon meet, at a place known historically as the gateway into the Amazon. But what else about these inhabitants? Most of the country’s population has known little to nothing about them; what has been a characteristic ignorance has recently turned into an exoticization through the circulation of yajé, a traditional psychoactive brew used by many indigenous peoples, and a substance that has seen an increased popularity and use in the nation’s villages, towns, and urban centers during the last decades.

It would be very difficult to trace how long yajé has been used in the Amazon: diverse studies quote a range that goes from centuries to millennia. What is undeniable is that yajé (also known as ayahuasca), has become a global phenomenon. Yajé can be consumed in the Amazon basin, but it can also be found in large cities of South America, North America, and Europe. It is also possible to order it online, casually, at sites like Amazon.com. When people think of yajé in Colombia, they are often quickly polarized: they either equate it with sorcery, therefore a dangerous drug and yet another proof that the indigenous population is savage, or they see it as source of spirituality and contact with nature, new-age tendencies and sensibilities being in vogue within certain sectors of Colombian society.

My work dealt less with the motivations participants had behind attending yajé ceremonies, or with the kind of economy that circulates around the ritual consumption of yajé — both worthy topics in and of themselves — and more with the way the shamans conduct the ritual. Years ago, what struck me as most puzzling was the fact that the harmonica seemed to be the shamanic instrument of choice. And the way shamans played it was certainly unique. How did the harmonica get there?

Drinking yajé is a physically and sensorially intense experience that happens throughout an entire night, usually at the shaman’s house. The nocturnal scene looks something like an improvised hospital ward; people often lie down and eventually fall asleep while in a common room, mattresses or sleeping bags lining the walls of the place, while the shaman stays awake, always keeping a watchful eye, near an altar containing elements from indigenous traditions and Catholic icons and imagery. The taste of yajé is bitter and pungent, almost indescribable, and it remains in the palate for several hours after it is consumed; nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and vomiting are frequent side effects. The place where the ritual takes place is constantly perfumed through burning diverse penetrating herbs and fragrant resins. Most people that drink it see visions or hallucinations, vocabulary preferences always depending. In any case, it is a situation of the most veritable sensory overload. The music and sound shamans play is, on the other hand, repetitive and simple.

The use of sound is central to the ritual practice of the shamans I encountered. While most shamans will generally allow participants to play any music they want during the ritual, it is understood the shaman’s sounds should prevail. Shamans also have the authority to stop someone from playing if they find the sounds they are producing intrusive or distracting. Sound was revealed by many participants and shamans alike to provide an anchor for those experiencing an overwhelming and unique experience. Others remarked on how playing the harmonica in specific ways recalled the sounds of the deeper Amazon, leaving a particularly experienced participant to mention how, when drinking in smaller villages of the rainforest, it seems the environment comes with its own built-in harmonica, making it less necessary for shamans to play throughout the night.

Shamans develop signature sounds throughout their lifetime that identify them. Invariably, when asked how they learned how to play, they will answer that the plants taught them how they should play. Nobody seems to know with certainty when the harmonica was adopted by indigenous shamans of Colombia, but it is not difficult to see how the instrument fits well with predominant ideas pertaining wind, smoke, and breath throughout the Amazon. The harmonica in yajé rituals to the high porousness and agency characteristic of shamans. Their sounds are slowly playing an ambassadorial role — being featured in some museums and even in popular music — in a country where, despite drastic changes effected in the latest constitution (1991), indigenous peoples are still characterized by a lack of visibility and audibility.