Witchdoctors, Wooden Robots and Cannibalistic Stew


Karitiana child weaving a basket

Now I grew up with a tribe of indians. My parents were missionaries. During the 1970’s, we lived with a small tribe of indigenous people in the interior of Brazil. They were called the Karitiana and these 80 people lived in the middle of the jungle in the state of Rondonia which is up near the Bolivian border. It was like the wild west at that time. A new frontier land opening up. Brazilians were pouring into the interior on the offer of free land. There were gold and tin prospectors, cowboys, and great bandit logging operations all forging into the jungle and opening up new land. Everyone had a gun- I held my first gun aged 8. The Indians had to join the army in order to become legitimate Brazilian Citizens.

Back from a succesful hunt

Back from a succesful hunt

In the tribe, the Karitiana lived in mud huts, owned very little, grew some basic crops and hunted and foraged for the remainder of their food. When a hunting trip came back fruitless the tribe would go hungry.

This was a rich and formative experience for me. As a child I grew up playing with the Karitiana children; fashioning toys from liana and banana plant stalks, catching tropical fish from the rivers for my aquarium and collecting bugs.The nature was incredible: toucans and wild parrots, emerald green snakes and alligators with eyes that glowed when you shone a torch at them. There were catfish the size of sharks. I once saw a black panther cross the trail behind me whilst I sat in an open-topped pick up truck.

Washing the pots

The Karitiana’s arts and crafts were beautiful. They wove ornate baskets and spun their own cotton, threw and painted pots. They made headdresses from parrot feathers and jewelry from the teeth of monkeys and the local seeds and nut pods. They made stone axes and bows and arrows tipped with bone barbs.

Decorating a Bow and Arrow

I remember the songs and chants of the Karitiana witch-doctor, Barabada, as he prayed for a sick tribesman, and his use of peculiar roots which contained an agent capable of  temporarily paralyzing fish when beaten into the waters of the river.

During my time there I saw peculiar things which I cannot satisfactorily explain to this day. Once I saw a wooden man almost robotic, a tropical wicker man, walk ‘head and shoulders’ above the 70ft treeline until he disappeared.

Karitiana Tribal Scene

Karitiana Tribal Scene

Childhood visions such as these, although fantastical, were not the scenes of crazed moonlit voodoo ceremonies. Neither were the missionaries boiled up in a pot to make a cannibalistic stew, but because of my peculiar upbringing, there is a particularly odd and ironic resonance for me in the type of music which people term Exotica.

Les Baxter - The Exotic Moods of...
Les Baxter – The Exotic Moods of…

Exotica was mainly made in America in the 50’s and 60’s. It sought to make a musical tie with an imagined tribal utopia full of nubile Amazons (as opposed to Amazonians) clad in leather loin cloths. Tarzan and Jane dancing in a frenzy to ritualistic tribal beats.

From Yma Sumac and Les Baxter in America, to Arthur Lyman in the UK, these artist took jazz sensibilities and Latin rhythms and interwove them with an invented tribalistic dialogue and a highly stylized and romantic jungle fakery. Lush strings and complex orchestral arrangements abound, the antithesis of the simplicity of the  witchdoctors’ voice taped by my parents. The jungle noises on many of these tracks cross across continents with ‘wild’ abandon.

Yma Sumac - Legend of the Jivaro
Yma Sumac – Legend of the Jivaro

This was a studio music composed to appeal to the unformed aspirations and imaginings of a new jet-setting class of first-worlders which, with the advent of jet travel, were able to vacation for the first time in exotic locations in the tropics of South America or India, and the deserts of Marrakesh.

What is particularly ironic is that my childhood experiences relate directly to this expansion of tropical tourism in two ways.

Firstly, as a child I  traveled on these same tourist flights which took early adventurers to Brazil in search of the unknown. Secondly, like the tourists, there is a sense in which my parents were romanced by the allure of the exotic to become missionaries in a far away land. Put simply, if you are a believer, you can do missionary work anywhere, North Wales, where they both lived as teenagers is equally as important as Nairobi. Quite literally, it’s Rhyl or Brazil. My parents were seduced by the allure of the tropics, the possibility of adventure and a life less ordinary. The call of the wild.

Various Artists - Jungle Exotica

Various Artists - Jungle Exotica

Don’t look down your nose though dear reader as no doubt you too have holidayed in the tropics. Cambodia  or Peru perhaps? As the world has opened up to first world back packers, it has become de rigeur for them to embark on a voyage of self-discovery and this trail to the self often runs roughshod over indigenous populations. Perhaps you visited sub-Saharan Africa and dreamed of ‘going native’. If you don’t get what I’m talking about, watch Bernado Bertollucci’s film “Under the Sheltering Sky” which accurately portrays the seductive appeal of skipping your own life for that of another. What the Victorians were doing in a microcosm, we have transformed into a world-wide adventure playground for adults.

Arthur Lyman - Taboo
Arthur Lyman – Taboo

What’s funny for me is that somehow I’ve come full circle. I grew up in a childhood Xanadu. Now, living in the concrete jungle of London, I sometimes yearn for the innocence of this tribal upbringing and the camp imaginings of Exotica play heavy on my heartstrings. I love this weird ‘totally tropical’ music. It appeals on many levels.

I love the vibrant visions that the music evokes. I love the brilliant musicianship on these tracks, which were often made by bands comprising the best players and house musicians at the best American record labels. I vastly enjoy the use of heavy reverbs and other technical effects to evoke distance and transport your thoughts to faraway lands. I love the imagination and visionary nature of the composers who, used state of the art equipment and modern sensibilities to evoke what is essentially a life in the stone age. A dark and forbidden land of Tiki and volcanoes mixed with feather head-dresses and mambo. The erotic enchantment of jungle fever and forbidden fruit.

Les Baxter - Tamboo

Les Baxter - Ritual of the Savage

Perhaps these glorious visions are best left in the mind or expressed through music for it is in the imagination that they are most strongly formed and deftly realised.

That being said, the combination of innocence and complexity to be found in these exotic stylings is somehow reminiscent for me of the actual tribal experience, it’s just that for me, everything is in reverse.

Posted in Afro-Latin, Music Blog, Other Worldly |

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