February 23, 2011

Sacred Flutes Redux: Cultural revival among the Baniwa of the Upper Rio Negro

Laureano, dignified with a parrot-feather crown and thick horn-rimmed glasses, paddles from the bow of the canoe while his skinny younger brother Oliver, in sweat pants and a baseball cap, rows aft.  Moacir, Laureano’s son, and I are filming from a second aluminum speed boat.  Funded by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture to document his people’s revitalization of ancient rituals banned by Christian missionaries, Moacir’s professional high-definition video camera is much more impressive and expensive than my own humble palm-corder.  We are paddling up this narrow tributary of the Ayari River, reddish-black but translucent like Coca Cola, to the place where Laureano concealed the sacred flutes nearly three decades ago in the icy depths of the creek.  The spot is marked like buried treasure with cryptic scars on a half-submerged tree trunk that only their maker can decipher.  Moacir, himself over thirty, was the last of his village to be initiated in the grueling ceremony of fasting and ritual privations that culminated in the playing of the flutes.  The same flutes that initiated Moacir also initiated his father, and his father’s father.  Nearly a hundred years old, these flutes lie hidden under three fathoms of cold black water directly below the rickety carcass of Laureano’s canoe.
Japurutu, Baniwa instruments not subject
to the restrictions surrounding sacred flutes.
They have come to show me where the flutes are buried, but they will not dive to retrieve them until I have left. Women, children and non-initiates like myself are banned from seeing the flutes, an offense punishable by banishment or even death.  The three of them, all initiated, will return later to recover the flutes, clean, tune and decorate them, and play them tonight for the first time in twenty-five years.