Music of the Warao of Venezuela: Song People of the Rain Forest

    -- by Dale Olsen, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996, 444 pages + CD.

A major concern in this interdisciplinary ethnography is the question, “What is power in Warao music?” To find the answer, Olsen suggests that we must consider all types of Warao organized sound since different Warao music types have different powers according to local perspective.

Close to 20,000 Warao people live in houses built on stilts in the Delta swamps of the Orinoco River of Venezuela. The name of the language group means “canoe people,” which is fitting since the dugout canoe is their only mode of transportation.

Before getting into the details of Warao music, Olsen provides a context by describing three broad categories of native South American music: pleasure (such as music for personal amusement and social dancing); utility (such as lullabies, work music, songs for social control); and theurgy (communicating to the supernatural via song, whether through a shaman or someone else). Olsen states that in general, among Native inhabitants of South America, the first category has the fewest number of songs and song types and the last category has the most. Among the Warao, some examples of theurgical song genres are songs for magical protection, magical love songs, religious festival music, magical songs for canoe building, and four types of music for curing illness. A chapter on each of these theurgical music genres, plus a chapter on lullabies (utility category) and another on a social dance (pleasure category), make up the bulk of the book. Each of these chapters has transcriptions and analyses of the genre under study. The accompanying CD has 24 recorded examples that demonstrate most of the song types.

A large chapter on musical and sound-producing instruments demonstrates extensive research with sections on manufacture, cosmology, mythology, playing technique, and tuning systems. This chapter alone has forty photographs as well as charts and transcriptions.

The book includes personal touches such as diary entries and details on his fieldwork methods. This fieldwork was conducted during portions of 1972-1974 while Olsen was a student at UCLA. He worked with an anthropologist who has been publishing research on the Warao since 1956, and Olsen draws heavily on that research in this volume.

The first chapter includes a good discussion of views about shamanism and how it differs from spirit possession in local understanding. It is described as a “technique of ecstasy” (a definition by Eliade) that is associated broadly with animism and more narrowly with the curing of illnesses. Through transcriptions and analyses, a significant section of the book demonstrates that shaman songs are rich in cultural meaning and musical complexity and do not deserve the derogatory stereotype of “monotonous chanting.”

Among the Winikina subtribe of the Warao that Olsen worked with, there are three different types of shamans, and each type has its own forms of song patterns. Each type of shaman song receives a full chapter in the book, with commentary and analyses by the local people (emic) and the ethnographer (etic).

Pages 192-93 present an interesting transcription of a 12-minute healing ceremony which is analyzed by contrasting differing rattle patterns as well as the AB-sections of the ceremony’s structure. “Stopping and starting (sound and silence), rhythmic accelerating, accenting, increasing and decreasing of sound and tone coloring, [which are] all common [rattle] performance techniques during the wisiratu curing performance event, are culturally produced identifiers of the wisiratu shaman’s power to control cosmic forces.” Musical healing is also done by non-shamans in the culture.

The section on the “Warao view of life and death” vividly makes it clear why the curing of illnesses (thereby postponing death) is the most frequent shamanistic context for song.

Spanish Capuchin missionaries began working in the area in 1925 and Protestant missionaries have not yet come. Based on the author’s observations and interviews, he states that, “Christianity has functioned mainly as a parallel pathway for assuring a happy life after death rather than replacing the more ancient and traditional Warao ideology” (p. 33).

Near the end of the book, Olsen shares a very interesting story about his personal encounter with a spirit being. He was reading from the biblical book of First Timothy when he heard certain sounds that he and his Warao friends interpreted as evidence of a hebu (spirit). “This experience confirmed my belief in the reality of the Warao spirit world and helped me to understand the Warao people’s belief in it as well…. For protection against the hebu spirits the Warao have their power songs, which they sing directly to the dangerous spirits, telling them to go away. My power source is God, my own form of warakitane [ritual communication] is prayer, and my protection is my guardian angel” (p. 413). It is somewhat uncommon but refreshing in musical ethnographies to be so forthcoming about how the researcher’s personal cosmology is similar and dissimilar to the cosmology of the people being studied.

The penultimate chapter, the first “peak” of the book, deals with Warao concepts of “music as power” and “power as music” by synthesizing all the analyses and conclusions from preceding chapters. The final chapter, the second “peak,” returns to Olsen’s original hypothesis that “much of Warao existence is held together by Warao music.” He concludes that, “If cosmology is the heart of Warao culture, then music is the blood that nourishes it and flows to, from, and within its multifaceted chambers. Music gives Warao cosmology its life and vitality and gives the people a way of existing… for the Warao, music is culture” (p. 417). Olsen analyzes Warao culture through the study of their music in four overlapping subsystems established for viewing culture: economic, social, political, and belief systems. One conclusion he draws here is that, “To be a Warao musician in religious affairs means high status, political leadership, and eternal bliss.”

The book closes with some thoughts about the precarious future of Warao music and culture as it struggles against encroaching “progress” in the wider rain forest context.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.3 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony