Psychedelic Songs and the Promise of Ayahuasca

The traditional plant medicine ayahuasca is becoming increasingly known and used worldwide, accompanying increasing knowledge and use of traditional healing songs called icaros. What promise does ayahuasca hold as it furthers the entrance of psychedelic experience and musical trance into popular culture?

Musical trances and psychedelic experiences are prominent, though often implicit, presences in popular culture. I have written previously about how the influence of African religious traditions on blues, jazz, rock, hip hop, and dance music brought trance into popular culture through the use of complex grooves (polyrhythms) that those traditions use explicitly to induce trances for the purpose of healing. Another source of the growing popular cultural phenomenon of musical trance can be found among the healing practices of the indigenous traditions of Latin America, specifically practices that use healing songs (icaros) in conjunction with a psychedelic brew called by various names: yagé, natem, and perhaps most popularly, ayahuasca (a comprehensive anthology on ayahuasca can be found here).

In the language of the Quechua people of the central Andes, aya refers variously to souls, spirits, and dead people, while huasca refers to a vine. Accordingly, ayahuasca can be defined as the vine of souls, spirit vine, or the vine of the dead. However, that name can be misleading, because the psychedelic brew called ayahuasca is made up of more than a vine. It is a brew in which the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) is mixed with the leaves of a bush (Psychotria viridis). When combined, they form a potent brew that is used commonly among Amazonian peoples and increasingly in mestizo and non-native contexts.

Ayahuasca is one among other psychedelics such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin mushrooms, which have been fixtures in popular culture since the latter half of the twentieth century. Some of their popularity is due to their hallucinogenic properties, which have entered into the aesthetics of mainstream media with vibrant color schemes, kaleidoscopic patterns, and images overcrowded with streams of information (e.g., concerts, festivals, and artwork). However, their popularity is not merely aesthetic.

To some extent, the popularity of psychedelic drugs is due to their acclaimed capacity to intensify one’s awareness and open one’s mind, a capacity that has been attested to by scientists, musicians, poets, environmentalists, therapists, corporate executives, and many others for whom psychedelics have had positive influences (see The Harvard Psychedelic Club and Manifesting Minds for details). Research into the therapeutic and creative potentials of psychedelics is currently on the rise as well.

The term “psychedelic” means something like “mind manifesting” or “soul showing” (psyche: “soul” or “mind”; deloun: “to reveal” or “to manifest”). Psychedelics, then, intensify or expand awareness, like a magnifying glass of consciousness or a telescope of the soul. Aside from this expansion of consciousness, another factor in the popularization of psychedelics is that their use is often transgressive, breaking down the barriers of social conventions. Since most psychedelic compounds are illegal in many countries, psychedelics seem like a forbidden fruit, popular precisely because they have been marked off as dangerous and untouchable. But, since some governments actually allow ayahuasca, specifically, to be used in religious contexts (including the United States), it becomes transgressive in another way.

Like psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline-containing cacti (e.g., peyote), ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant medicine that has been used in traditional cultures for thousands of years. The transgressive appeal of ayahuasca is not the appeal of the illegal. It is the appeal of the culturally exotic, the allure of the mysterious other or the long-forgotten past of primitive or archaic societies. Accordingly, Terence McKenna considered the popularity of psychedelics to be symptomatic of a multifaceted archaic revival, which includes the use of psychedelics along with many other trends that revive traditional cultural practices and values (e.g., tattoos, body piercing, abstract expressionism, jazz, rave culture, etc.). The archaic revival is culturally transgressive, in short, countercultural. It counters the status quo by retrieving and reconstructing ancient and indigenous practices.

The aesthetic, consciousness-expanding, and countercultural popularity of ayahuasca is audible in the popularization of traditional healing practices that utilize ayahuasca, practices that are often grouped with others under the term “shamanism.” ((This term can be misleading since most traditional healers do not describe themselves with the term “shaman,” and traditional healing practices are not all part of one school or “ism.”)) Musical trance is a common feature of shamanic healing rituals that use ayahuasca, wherein shamans (or, “ayahuasqueros”) perform songs called icaros, which invoke spirit allies to facilitate healing and divination while sending away any unwanted spirits or energies. Ayahuasqueros say that they learn their songs from the plants, and a typical ayahuasquero has a repertoire of multiple songs, even hundreds. The melodies are whistled or sung, and they are often accompanied by a rapid rhythmic pulse, which is performed with a shaker or rattle that is made up of bundled leaves. Those connections with plants are not incidental. The healing facilitated by ayahuasca is not merely personal. It is ecological and even cosmic, reconnecting individuals to the natural world, finding healing in a sense of wholeness.

Like African spirit possession rituals, Latin American ayahuasca rituals have brought musical trance into popular culture. However, the sounds that occasion those trances differ considerably. Whereas African spirit possession rituals use complex rhythms, ayahuasca rituals use simple repeating pulses. The former rely heavily on drumming and dancing, while the latter rely more on the voice of the ayahuasquero. As a result, these sounds show up very differently in popular culture as well.

The sounds accompanying spirit possession rituals made their way into the syncopated rhythms that pervade popular music, while the shamanic psychedelic influence can be observed, one might argue, anywhere that psychedelics and musical performance go together. But, the influence of shamanic singing might be more specifically observed in the power of a charismatic lead singer. From Jim Morrison to Taylor Swift, lead singers do not merely sing melodies. They guide audience members, leading them through a journey of perceptual and emotional intensity. In that sense, the influence of shamanic singing is nearly ubiquitous in popular music. However, icaros have more than an implicit influence on popular culture. They are becoming an explicit part of people’s lives.

Ayahuasca retreats and ayahuasca tourism are becoming trendy, with people planning excursions into Latin America to seek interesting aesthetic experiences, consciousness expansion, and revivifying contact with traditional cultures. Icaros are making their way into cities as urban shamans practice their own individually-styled ayahuasca rituals, and they are showing up in the global marketplace as people purchase MP3s of icaros.

But, the popularization of psychedelic songs and ayahuasca use is not without problems. As with African spirit possession traditions, the traditional cultures that use ayahuasca have been subject to much cultural misappropriation, leading to their loss of land, languages, and traditional knowledge. Ayahuasca tourism has a dark side. It can be detrimental to local communities who are vulnerable to exploitative consumers, and it can also be detrimental to gullible travelers who cannot discern greedy or fake “shamans” from those who are fair and authentic healers. People can hurt themselves and others if they use ayahuasca outside of a safe and supportive setting.

Nonetheless, the popularization of ayahuasca and icaros also holds much promise for our socially and ecologically wounded civilization. Religious, medical, and therapeutic promises can be found in the healing potentials of the altered states of consciousness occasioned by psychedelic and musical experiences. There is also the promise of the integration of archaic wisdom into a global context, supporting multicultural dialogue and mutual understanding between indigenous ways of knowing and contemporary scientific perspectives (see Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent).

Ayahuasca and icaros hold promises of wholeness, the wholeness of health and wellbeing as well as the wholeness of a multicultural global civilization. Attending to the problems involved in the popularization of ayahuasca and icaros, we can also nurture their promises. Potentials for healing and for cross-cultural understanding can change everything, facilitating a shift away from the socially and ecologically destructive values of consumer civilization and toward values that cultivate love of the world, nurturing healthy, vibrant forms of coexistence for humans and the whole Earth community.

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