- Women Who Heal: Musicians in the Urban Ayahuasca Scene - February 4, 2022
In the universe of new age religiosity, the uses of ayahuasca have been growing along with a global movement of the sacred feminine, which in broad terms refers to the rescue of an appreciation of the feminine through worship, reconnection with nature, its cycles and deities, as well as the search for the re-sacralization and human perception of the feminine. With this particular view of the feminine, we can believe that it “consists of a vigilant vital continuity that . . . derives its power from the intimate source of creation.” Maternity, maintenance of life, and fertility are intertwined in the relationship of the forest and the feminine. The growing interest in female leadership in the ayahuasca scene, moreover, has also shown that the sacred feminine is not, or at least should not be, only about cycles of nature, menstruation, and biological issues related to women. It needs to be, first and foremost, about race, politics, society, gender disparities, and social class.
Music and Gender Relations
Some areas of music scholarship have not yet dealt sufficiently with female musical production in Brazil. Works in musicology, such as those by Susan McClary (1991) and Suzanne Cusick (2001), point to a non-existence or supposed “irrelevance” of women in the musical composition scene in the Western classical milieu, as well as in the field of musicology, conducting, and music theory. In the popular music scene, women only became prominent as composers in the second half of the 20th century.
Scholar Laila Rosa has come at this topic from a feminist epistemological perspective, looking at new paths that embrace a gendered vision and the role of women in music. Since 2012 she has been coordinating a research project whose aim is to map the production of knowledge about women in music in Brazil in all subareas through the analysis of a database of MA dissertations, PhD theses, periodicals, and proceedings of scientific meetings. These studies foster the representation of diversity so that we can reconsider the historical perspective of traditional and popular music in Brazil and the invisible contributions of both cis and trans women.
In the field of anthropology, works such as that by Maria Ignez Cruz Mello (2005) have shown new ways to think about the female trajectory in terms of the implications that gender relations have on music politics and production. In her ethnography of the Iamurikuma musical ritual, performed exclusively by Wauja women (Indigenous people from the upper Xingu river in Brazil), she shows how gender issues are inextricably linked to music. The flute house (kawoká), common in the upper Xingu, is the men’s house, is restricted to the male gender, and the flutes cannot be seen by women, under the penalty of suffering collective rape. In the Iamurikuma ritual, the women occupy the center of the village and threaten the men with their songs, intoning provocations and denunciations in poetic-musical forms, taking control of their bodies through music.
The question that we always raise when problematizing the invisibility of studies on gender, body, and music from an intersectional perspective is that, as Rosa has pointed out, before there is music—a sound to be produced—there is a body, and this body is historical and political, crossed by social markers of gender difference, ethnic-racial identity, sexual orientation, social class, nationality, accessibility or lack thereof, among many other markers.
“Before there is music—a sound to be produced—there is a body, and this body is historical and political, crossed by social markers of gender difference, ethnic-racial identity, sexual orientation, social class, nationality, accessibility or lack thereof, among many other markers.”
Among the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, holders of knowledge on ayahuasca, I frequently listen to the narratives of Yawanawa women. In not such remote times, women’s participation in spiritual practices was limited to the making of clay vessels for rituals. Research by Cynthia Inés Carrillo Sáenz has shown that the use of uni (ayahuasca) was forbidden to women and children: for men, it was a way to protect them because they were weaker, for women, it meant men’s desire to keep power for themselves.
The relationship between men and women is central to the social process of these peoples, based on female and male agency in production, distribution, consumption, sex, procreation, and reproduction. Hushahu and Putanny Yawanawa were the first women of their people to be initiated as shamans (spiritual leaders) on the muká diet, whereby they were isolated for a year in the forest with an extremely restricted diet. Sáenz quotes Hushahu as saying, “I was happy, I wanted to go, I wasn’t afraid of death. I knew that if I died at least I would have died doing something for women’s freedom. If we didn’t survive, at least everyone would remember that once there were two sisters who had the courage to carry out the diet. . .. But if I go back, I will bring something for women.” The learning of ancestral songs is closely linked to dietary processes, and the cultural revitalization of shamanic practices of the Yawanawa people owes much to women, as well as to the rescue of kenes (Indigenous graphics) in handicrafts, music, and body painting.
Although women are the majority in various religious contexts, they are often still in a subordinate position in this sphere. Men continue to be representatives of greater prestige, manipulators of the sacred, which leads us to critically assess the conceptions that make sense in the religious symbolic field but which often legitimize inequalities. It is up to women to challenge and deconstruct such stereotypes associated with the male domain that have been naturalized throughout history.
In the universe of ayahuasca, the feminine is of great importance. In a more Andean defining, this happens through devotion to Mother Earth, Pachamama, and the awareness of the unity of the whole. The drink is also commonly associated with the Queen of the Forest, a designation given by Santo Daime in reference to the feminine present in ayahuasca and also related to the Virgin Mary. In a 2019 thesis by Camila de Pieri Benedito, whose title follows Suzana Pedalino’s hymn, “Maria who teaches me to be a woman,” she addresses gender relations within the framework of the Santo Daime’s binary essentialism, the introduction of the sacred feminine into the doctrine, the healing of the injured feminine, and the empowerment given by the Queen of the Forest.
Engaging with this new era, several female archetypes also appear in the neo-ayahuasca scene. One is the figure of the Triple Goddess of the Wiccan tradition, known as the Great Mother, representing the phases of the moon in three faces: the maiden and the crescent moon, portraying purity and innovation; the mother and the full moon, portraying maternal protection; and the old lady and the waning moon, symbolizing wisdom and knowledge.
The hymn “The Flower of Kali,” by Jagadananda Saraswati, is part of the Baul trans-religious movement, which consists of translations of songs from eastern religious traditions. In many of these songs, the Hindu goddess Radha is also analogous to the Queen of the Forest, along with the Hindu god Krishna, who is compared to Juramidam, the father and the totality in the Santo Daime tradition, and they represent sweetness in the form of the divine couple.
Among the different symbologies of the feminine that are manifested in these traditions that adapts oriental, Indigenous, African, and European practices through devotion to female deities, there are also archetypes of animals such as the jaguar and tatanka (female buffalo), representing female strength, very different to the dualism in which the woman is always seen as sweet and weak. In Brazil, the “mestizo” use of ayahuasca gave rise to the ayahuasca religions in 1930 (Santo Daime, Barquinha, and União do Vegetal), and from the 1990s onwards it went beyond the borders of Indigenous traditions or ayahuasca religions, through the interchange of different traditions alongside the movement of contemporary redefinition. Below is an excerpts from an ayahuasca song from this urban circuit:
Female Strength (Dan Sonora)
I came here to salute the female strength
This strength is delicate, the mother who teaches us
The jaguar scratched, perfumed the forest
The same jaguar roared, shook the earth.
When dealing with peoples and cosmovisions that live and think about gender relations so closely enmeshed with music, we are invited to reformulate the social attribution of roles, power, and prestige that are supported by a wide network of cultural practices associated with the feminine and masculine, toward a decolonial and Latin American perspective on music and the body that needs a more profound examination.
Women Who Heal: Musicians in the Neo-Ayahuasca Scene
Forest medicine and the valorization of the feminine seem to enhance artistic abilities, and in the neo-ayahuasca scene, among new ritual arrangements arising from the spread of the drink in Brazil’s urban centers, there is a growing movement of female musicians and composers. Focusing on the feminine and fertile symbology of Easter, in 2020 the Portal Yoni instagram channel promoted the “Feminine Voices at Home Festival,” which, according to its directors, took place because of Pachamama’s call to bring together art as medicine for the soul, with praying women, singers, and songwriters. There were three days of activities, beginning with Marina Guadalupe, Clan Colibris, Mari Quetzal, and Cris de Holanda; on the second day Andrea Cathala, Kalinne Ribeiro, Tereza Raque, Ayla Schafer, Prem Tarika, and Clarice Nejar; and ending with Luiza Rosa, Suzan Flores, and Ana Muniz.
These women believe that art is an act of service that contributes to feminine and planetary healing, introducing the concept of “medicine women,” women who heal and help others to heal. In addition to their original songs, the women brought a theme of sharing and reflection to times of profound transformation, emphasizing the importance of the female voice, singing, and poetry in the daily struggle. The freedom of free curative expression, about letting the soul and heart speak, which releases the birth cries of humanity, was one of the central themes of the event, among other issues in the feminine sphere.
The Rezo Brasil Instagram channel, in honor of Mother’s Day, launched the “Divine Mother Prayer Festival” in May 2020. A whole afternoon of live performances from Vanessa Moutinho, Flávia Muniz, Bruna (Crystal Family), Passarinho Rezador, Carolinne Caramão, Vozes de Raiz, Rô! Barcellos!, Rebecca Durães (Two Suns), Cris de Holanda, Rafaela Schiavinatto, Khali, Maria Rita Castro, Amanda Leal, Joana Freire, Marcela Chassotar, One Soul Band, and Ana Muniz, singing for different female deities and symbologies.
The expressions “medicine music,” “prayer music,” among others, are terms often used generically to cover the different musicalities of the universe of forest medicine, especially ayahuasca. These collective manifestations, which are sometimes called “movements,” are gradually growing and appear to be a crucial contemporary way for women to become important agents of society and break normative standards in order for women to take part in the musical sphere. Below are lyrics from another example of “medicine music” that deals with these themes:
Women’s Corner (Two Suns)
I came to sing for the warrior woman
I call the strength of all guardians,
Woman of firmness
Woman woman woman
I invoke the strength of women, of Brazilian women
Yemanjá, Oxum, Eparrey Oyá!
With the profusion of chants and songs from the neo-shamanic universe, it can be seen that the increasingly less timid role of women in music has achieved visibility in the neo-ayahuasca scene, an area where so much is said about mother earth and environmental disaster but which still suffers from patriarchal oppression. These songs thus portray the times when women were seen as goddesses but also speaks to their being silenced and the violence they have suffered.
Holy Woman (Clarice Nejar)
Holy woman, female deity
Your dance brings beauty, and it also brings joy
I will bathe in your crystal clear waters
I will renew myself in your feminine strength
Flowers, fruits and seeds, divine nature
Your love is what supports me and gives light to my life
Get to Know the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas: Sacred Feminism
In the urban ayahuasca scene, predominantly centered on male leaders, cases of sexual harassment and abuse have become more evident, pointing to the vulnerability that can be caused through expanded states of consciousness, as well as to risks that emerge during therapeutic openness and the relations of power and hierarchy which are a potential space for such abuses.
Collectives such as the National Movement to Combat Abuse in the Ayahuasca Environment (MovAya), and organizations such as the Chacruna Institute, have set out guidelines on sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism in ayahuasca circles, outlining the structures that encourage such practices, proposing educational actions and ways to encourage denunciation and acceptance through the construction of peaceful and safe spaces.
The invisibility of this subject in the ayahuasca environment shows that there is an urgent need for a political position on these themes and on related sacred feminine movements for the silent oppressions that help to bring about abuse. The silencing of victims, encouraged by the impunity of the slow Brazilian justice system, as well as the lack of knowledge of rights, taboos, and spiritual pressure, strengthen these networks of silence. There is no prevention without educational action, without the visibility of cases, and without protection for victims.
A 2018 study by Böschemeier and Benedito emphasized the importance of linking ayahuasca as a “companion plant,” for building sustainable and dignified practices that strengthen a perspective of peace and security for all beings. In this sense, I see music as an important ally and those women who sing with their bodies for a conscious feminine in search of their emancipation as the vanguard of a brighter tomorrow. When talking about the ayahuasca universe, it is also common to identify a kind of “ecofeminism,” based on environmental issues that relate environmental disaster to patriarchal violence. As Böschemeier and Benedito explain, ecofeminism integrated “nature” and “feminine” into its political agenda, fostering a spiritualist conception of the need to care for nature in order to care for women, and to care for women in order to care for nature.
More than a “sacred female,” a “sacred feminism” seems to be what represents the strength of the “National March of Indigenous Women” that took place for the second time in Brazil in September 2021. This movement, the largest female Indigenous mobilization in recent decades, has boosted the political leadership of women in defense of Mother Earth, resisting Brazil’s constant civilizational setback engendered by violence against the rights of native peoples and the destruction of Indigenous and environmental policies. The march represents the union of body, territory, and spirit.
“Through some of the many examples of women’s struggles for a fairer society and a more diverse and tolerant world, we underline here, by way of synthesis, the fundamental importance of looking at women as protagonists in the central struggles of contemporary society…”
Through some of the many examples of women’s struggles for a fairer society and a more diverse and tolerant world, we underline here, by way of synthesis, the fundamental importance of looking at women as protagonists in the central struggles of contemporary society, such as the fights for social equity, Indigenous rights, and the protection of nature. These women continue to go against the grain of the mainstream environmental, spiritual, and musical constructs, expropriated and silenced by the white patriarchal hegemonic society.
Let’s listen to women! For the sacred that understands the concept of “Mother Earth” and that does not stay invisible, silenced, and oppressed.
Art by Fernanda Cervantes.
Discover the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas
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