Heart of the Amazon
Peter Culshaw meets the extraordinary composer bringing the music of Brazil's shamans to Europe
Marlui Miranda is telling me about taking some of her indigenous Amazonian friends to São Paulo to a performance of Stravinsky quartets. "They loved most of the music, but they could n't understand why no one was dancing. And they kept saying, 'Isn't anyone hungry or thirsty? How can they just sit there for so long?'"
As we sit talking in a comfortable São Paulo hotel room, Miranda is full of stories about the Amazonians with whom she has been working for more than 30 years. On her last trip to the jungle, she saw a shaman smash a TV after something offensive appeared on the screen. But the tribesmen love radio. The group she is working with, the Mehinakus, who live in Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park reservation, have very specific tastes: Madonna is "too noisy", but they enjoy the countryish music of the rubber-tappers and the popular forró of north-eastern Brazil.
We know all this largely thanks to Miranda - a singer and musician who, in 1994, was adopted by the Mehinakus as a musical apprentice and daughter of the shaman Karanai Mehinaku. She is also in the front rank of contemporary Brazilian composers and has recorded and toured with Gilberto Gil (who will be appearing in the UK in June; see page 53) as well as Milton Nascimento. Her best-known solo project is the award-winning Ihu: todos os sons (Blue Jackel), which mixes the structures and tonality of Amazonian music with her own sensibility. It sounds like a gorgeous collision between Steve Reich and the world of the indigenous Amazonians. The word ihu, incidentally, is from the Kamayurá language and means "sound . . . all that reaches the ear, including the sound of the spirits and the magical entities of the forest".
In Brazil, Miranda is famous for being the foremost performer of Amazonian music, and the only outsider who speaks many of the indigenous languages. She is, therefore, uniquely placed to "translate" the people's little-understood ways of life. While the groups she works with have many, very different cultures (the languages of neighbouring tribes can be as various as Chinese is different from French), they share a distinctive shamanic world-view. "They move easily from the natural to the supernatural world, and each is as real as the other," she explains. "They also have a different idea of time, somehow inhabiting at the same time the present, the past and the future."
Miranda feels this very rich, very non-western understanding of the world has been ignored. In July, however, western audiences will have the chance to hear the Mehinakus' music for the first time, as part of a Contemporary Music Network tour. Their performances will mix music - from flute, kora, double bass and drums - with fragments of tribal ritual. The tribespeople, she says, "don't see music as separate from body-painting and dance". The show and the accompanying album are entitled Neuneuneu, a Mehinaku expression that means "human plurality".
Yet this is not just entertainment. Part of the purpose of the tour is to highlight the critical problems faced by the Mehinakus: although they now have their own land and their popu lation is increasing, the Xingu River, upon which they depend, is being severely polluted by toxic chemicals used by the soya farmers upstream. Miranda hopes that the group can earn money from cultural productions such as Neu neuneu; she has to deliver royalties to them by hand, however, as none of the tribespeople has a bank account. "The tribe as a whole receives the money, because the music belongs to their tradition and not to a specific person," she explains.
Just getting the cash to the Mehinakus' remote home is fraught with difficulty. Often, "if the river is too dry or the boat breaks", Miranda has to postpone trips, and she has had to walk 60 kilometres to reach them. But the journey can offer unexpected delights. Before her first trip to see the tribe, Miranda had heard ethnographic recordings of their music. When her 4x4 got stuck in the mud near the Mehinaku village, she sang one song over and over again. After several hours, the tribespeople appeared. "They had heard me singing and had been hiding for hours listening to me, astonished to hear a white person singing their music," she laughs.
Miranda was born in a small city in the Rondônia region of the Amazon Basin, but moved away as a child, reconnecting to the music of the Amazon only as a teenager. The Amazonian impact on Brazilian culture has been complex, she says.
"The African influence in our country's mainstream music is more obvious because Africans were closer to the colonists, inside the homes of the white people," she explains. "The Indians were ignored because they could not be enslaved, and were seen as something very primitive and savage. But their influence is deep in Brazil, in the language, the food, the customs, the way the Brazilians are . . . the sweetness."
She laughs for a moment and then her open face becomes serious. "Working with them has brought me so much - it is my life now."
Neuneuneu will tour Britain from 6-14 July. For more details visit the Contemporary Music Network website: www.cmntours.org.uk