Roughly every culture in known history recognized song and sound as a communicational medium of the spirit to the other world. It was also through song that a cultural paradigm could be narrated for the education of the young or healing of the ill. For the Shipibo-Conibo and other cultures of the Amazon, singing is the primary medium of healing, coupled with an extensive knowledge and application of plants remedies, who are considered to be the the true healers and beholders of the healing melodies known as the icaros.1
The icaros are incantations learned directly from the master plants aka plantas maestros or doctorcitos (“little doctors”). They can be learned during a dieta, from a teacher, an ayahuasca ceremony, or even in the course of a normal day. They may come in parts; first as melodies, words, or altogether.2 The icaros are a reflection of a singers relationship to the plant spirit world, animals, and elements of the natural world (sun, moon, fire, water, earth, stars, etc). They are sung during an ayahuasca healing ceremony, to invoke said spirits and forces of the natural world in order to heal. The singer listens for the melody and is guided by ayahuasca throughout the course of the song. In other words, the singer is a song catcher; they may know many songs, but it is ayahuasca that informs the singer when and how an icaro is to be sung. However, it is not necessary to consume ayahuasca in order for the icaros to have an effect. ayahuasca simply heightens the healers awareness to the subtle energetic and spiritual dynamics of their patient, which in turn informs them how to precede with their singing and prescription of plant remedies. Once an ayahuasquero (affectionate term for a healer who uses ayahuasca to heal) develops their relationship to ayahuasca, they have the ability to work with the plant at all times.
In order to understand the healing nature of the icaros, we must first understand what we mean by healing. According to Frank Fools Crow, a holy man of the Lakota Sioux, healing is the cultivation and coming into an inner peace that arises from the freedom of fear. Thus, healing can be achieved even in the face of a terminal condition by resolving the conflicts of the spirit.3 Further, within the Shipibo belief system is the understanding that the root of all illness is spiritual affliction. Thus, the intention of the icaros is to access information regarding spiritual affliction while transmitting the healing power of plants and the natural world through the rhythm and language of song and sound.
Consider the dynamics of form and function to understand the nature of the icaros. If form is a container or vessel, then function is the transformation or energetic dynamic that manifest through the form (this is not to say that function requires form, but rather that they require one another, that form follows function and function follows form; A river needs a bed through which to flow, a river bed needs a valley with which to form, and a valley needs a mountain). Applying the concepts of form and function to the icaros, the form of an icaro is the singers intentions which come in the form of the desire to heal, which then shapes the melody, tonality, rhythm, linguistic content, and register of the song, which allows the functional element of the icaro to arise: the entrance into and invocation of the spirit world for healing.
Singing an icaro is also a means to communicate with ayahuasca, both within one’s self and the other participants in the ceremony. It is a way to ask ayahusaca for help in diagnosis and treatment. Drinking ayahuasca produces a heightened sensitivity to the ways in which external stimuli influence the contents of the internal terrain (i.e sense organs, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, endocrine, cardiovascular, visceral), the psychological landscape (i.e quality and quantity of habitual emotional states and cognitive patterns). Thus, the various elements of the icaros (mentioned above).
The essence of the icaros is that they are a language of medicine and a vehicle of intention. The icaros are sung to clean protect, to cultivate or dissipate, to untie or unite, to tonify and rectify, open and close, to make what is hot or cold, warm; to bring what’s stuck on the inside to the surface, to establish healthy boundaries and dismantle walls built of fear, isolation and disconnection. The icaros are a means to invoke forth and send away, to reach up and bring back, to dig down and uncover, to stimulate and resolve; to inspire rebirth and the embrace of one’s mortality; to bring what has fallen out of harmony back to resonance. The icaros are acoustic roads to navigate the darkness of undifferentiated chaos, illness and confusion; they are a language of medicine, the plants language of medicine.
1. Luna E., 1984, The Concept of Plants as Teachers Among Four Mestizo Shamans of Iquitos, North-eastern Peru. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol.11, pp. 135-156.
2. Demange, F. Amazonian Vegetalismo: A Study of the Healing Power of Chants in Tarapoto, Peru. See p. 45. University of East London, 2002.
3. Mails, T. Fools Crow: Wisdom and Power. See chapter 10: “How Big.”Millichap books, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, 1991.
4. Maestro Armando Cerrano. http://songoftheamazon.com/icaros-of-maestro-armando/
5. Beyer, S. Singing To the Plants blog. http://www.singingtotheplants.com/listen-to-songs/