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Visual Music

The Visual music of the Shipibo people of the Amazon
By Howard G Charing

The Shipibo are one of the largest indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon. These ethnic groups each have their own languages, traditions and culture. The Shipibo, who currently number about 20,000 are spread out in communities through the Pucallpa - Ucayali river region...

In their visionary art the Shipibo create complex geometric patterns which convey an all pervading magical reality which can challenge the Western linguistic heritage and rational mind. These intricate patterns are more than an expression of the one-ness of Creation, the inter-changeability of light and sound, or the union of perceived opposites.

They are an ongoing dialogue or communion with the spiritual world and powers of the Rainforest. Their art forms bring this paradigm into a physical form. The Ethnologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer calls this 'visual music'.

All the textile painting, embroidery, and artisan craft is carried by the women. From a young age the Shipibo females are initiated by their mothers and grandmothers into this practice... The intricate designs have their origin in the non-manifest and ineffable world within the spirit of the Rainforest and all who live there.

The designs that the Shipibo paint are channels or conduits for this multi-sensorial vibrational fusion of form, light and sound. Although in our cultural paradigm we perceive that the geometric patterns are bound within the border of the textile or ceramic vessel, to the Shipibo the patterns extend far beyond these borders and permeate the entire world.

One of the challenges for the Western mind, is to acknowledge the relationship between these designs and music. For the Shipibo can 'listen' to a song or chant by looking at the designs - and inversely, paint a pattern by listening to a song or piece of music.

An astonishing demonstration of this I witnessed two Shipiba paint a large ceremonial ceramic pot known as a mahueta. The pot was nearly five feet high and had a diameter of about three feet. Neither could see what the other was painting, yet both were whistling the same song. When they had finished both sides of the complex geometric pattern were identical and matched each side perfectly....

The Shipibo believe that our state of health, both physical and psychological, is dependent on the balanced union between mind, spirit and body. If an imbalance in this occurs - such as through emotions of envy, hate, anger - this will generate a negative effect on the health of that person.

The shaman will re-establish the balance by chanting the icaros, which are the geometric patterns of harmony made manifest in sound, into the body of the person. The shaman in effect transforms the visual code into an acoustic code.

A key element in this magical dialogue with the energy which permeates Creation and is embedded in the Shipibo designs, is the work with ayahuasca by the Shipibo shamans or muraya. In the deep ayahuasca trance, the ayahuasca reveals to the shaman the luminous geometric patterns of energy. These filaments drift towards the mouth of the shaman where the metamorphose into a chant or icaro...

The vocal range of the Shipibo shamans when they chant the icaros is astonishing; they can range from the highest falsetto one moment to a sound which resembles a thumping pile driver, and then to a gentle soothing melodic lullaby. Speaking personally of my experience of this, it produced a feeling as if every cell in my body was floating and embraced in a nurturing all encompassing vibration, even the air around me was vibrating in acoustic resonance with the icaro of the maestro....

The main figures in the Shipibo designs are the square, the rhombus, the octagon and the cross. The symmetry of the patterns emanating from the centre (which is our world) is a representation of the outer and inner worlds, a map of the cosmos. In the Western tradition, from the Pythagoreans and Plato through to he Renaissance, music was used to heal the body and to elevate the soul.

It was believed that earthly music was no more than a faint echo of the universal 'harmony of the spheres'. This view of the harmony of the universe was held both by artists and scientists until the mechanistic universe of Newton.

Joseph Campbell, perhaps the foremost scholar of mythology, suggested that there is a universe of harmonic vibrations which the human collective unconscious has always been in communion with.

Our beings beat to the ancient rhythms of the Cosmos, The traditional ways of the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples still reflect this primal rhythm, and their perception of the universal forces made physical is truly a communion with the infinite.

This is an edited extract from Communion with the Infinite by Howard G Charing which originally appeared in issue 47 of Sacred Hoop. www.sacredhoop.org If you would like to discover more about Howard's work and his Plant Spirit Medicine journeys to the Amazon Rainforest working with the Shipibo people, visit his website at www.shamanism.co.uk or telephone (01273) 882 027