La Medicina Meets La Karimba

Playing Karimba for Ayahuasca Ceremonies – PART 1

Learning to play the karimba and facilitating Ceremonies for the local Ayahuasca Church accompanied each other into my life. The karimba brightened my days during a particularly explicit flare-up of an old state of auto-immunity (see the blog post “Thumbing the Karimba at Chronic Pain”). The beads rattled like yapping puppy teeth, wanting to cuddle, and I was delighted. We made noise together. It was a good, wholesome, and healthy noise.

In contrast, the Ayahuasca Ceremonies held by the Church lasted all night, ended at dawn, and were conducted in silence. Under the influence of medicine that expands your senses like so many ear, eye, and nose trumpets, the crickets became cicadas calling to each other across valleys, and coyote howls became gaggles of young giants throwing boulders over cliffs in jest.

 The Medicine (La Medicina, Madre Ayahuasca), an old Amazonian plant tea used for healing and communing with Spirits, would playfully and emphatically twist my reality into a flurry of disorienting colors, sounds, and images. My hands were so busy finding themselves again that, in the beginning, playing an instrument during Ceremony would have been nearly impossible. But I learned. I learned to stay balanced. I learned to be what the Medicine needed me to be and to let my body serve the process of Ceremony, that sacred space that all humans have sat in with All That Is, since all the beginnings, and the beginnings of those beginnings too.

For our lead facilitator, stepping into Silence was equivalent to stepping into Love. The founders preferred silent ceremonies, Silence being, for them, the highest ideal of a peaceful mind. (I personally found this to be a very English conception – who coined the term ‘peace and quiet’, after all?) However, all of the traditional ceremonies I am familiar with – the Ayahuasca Ceremonies of the Achuar, the Shipibo, the Quechua, the Ceremonies of the Dagara, the Shona, the old Slavic rituals – they all include music. Lying in a sleeping bag in an open geodesic dome out in the desert, listening to wind dance dust across the Earth, I sighed louder and louder, longing for the sacred songs I had heard in Brazil and Mexico, and that I had played on my ipod during solo ceremonies out in the Sonoran Desert.

(I have never really been able to be quiet on demand.)

From the beginning, songs began coming to me in Ceremony. The early generations would wander out of me in the form of sighs, inhales, cacophonous exhales, murmurs, assents, discontents, and other primeval vocal cartwheels. Pretty soon, my body was brimming with music that needed to be expressed. I began to sing in Ceremony. At first it was the melodies and harmonies and rhythm that came into my heart during my time with the Medicine, and only during ceremonies that I facilitated with another musically-inclined facilitator. One night, the spirit of Chiwoniso Maraire stepped into my awareness, and I sang her song, Ancient Voices, as a way of closing the circle at dawn. ‘You must be brave, you must be strong…’ – those words met the participants just waking up to the morning activities of the desert. Soon after that, I began bringing the Karimba to Ceremony.

When I talk about sacred music in sacred Ceremonies I do not mean music as a constant trivial accompaniment to whatever is going on, the way you enter a grocery store and are greeted by air conditioning, hurried and harried people, and the latest hits playing to soothe whatever anxiety that silence might induce in you. (In a word, to keep you going the way you are supposed to be going according to the strictures of the society.) Music in Ceremony can be just as harmful as it can be healing, if it is the wrong music played with the wrong intention, or if the musician is not a part of the Ceremony.

Plato and Aristotle both observed the healing and harming potentials in music a long time ago. Aristotle wrote, “Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul…when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.” Because of our current addiction to noise, we tend to think they were exaggerating.

However, in Ceremony, it becomes clear how right they were. Because sound changes with the Medicine. Participants describe our voices and our instruments’ sounds coming into their bodies and breaking up old stagnant blocks or energies. They say that the music shifts them out of sadness and into light. They speak of sounds coming into dark and secret places in their bodies, places inaccessible to words or thoughts, and healing old pains.

I can feel these things as well – my voice changes in Ceremony. Every sound I make is accompanied by a color, an energy, an intention, and often the sound itself is directed by the Medicine. Sometimes I sit with the Karimba and simply invite the instrument and the medicine to lead me into a song. And the song comes. Often wordless, often cyclical, often sweet. The song comes and uses me. I am an instrument, playing an instrument, being played by an instrument larger than both of us.

When I began to bring the Karimba to Ceremony, the music took on a more sacred, colorful, and vibrant feel. Bringing an instrument for accompaniment is like inviting a friend to perform with you – the Karimba brought her lovely character, so open to people, mysterious and playful all at once.

The Karimba is an instrument that knows itself so well that it does not judge the hands that hold it – it will play anyway, even if your skill level (like mine) is not very advanced. In Ceremony, my hands, still fresh with the instrument and even more clumsy with the Medicine, somehow managed to thread together two-part phrases, four-part phrases, and pretty soon my voice accompanied the instrument.

What is the effect of Karimba music in Ceremony? The mbira family – of which the Karimba is a part – has been used in Ceremony and as a healing instrument since its beginning. The beads or metal that causes rattling and buzzing on the wood are meant to invite Spirits, and to create a shimmering, trance-like effect (similar to the metal wands stuck into djembes.) Because of its history, as well as its sound and its accessibility, the Karimba is wonderful for using sound for therapy, for using music to honor, to heal, and to celebrate.

In Ceremony, people describe the Karimba as sweet. They describe the music as a thread or string they can hold onto, when all is chaos within them. They describe the music as coming and permeating their bodies, and going into spaces and healing dark things. They describe the music as all powerful. They experience what other ghosts must have felt when Orpheus came down into the land of the Dead and played his harp. A well-played song, on an instrument given by the Spirits to woo and honor the Spirits, allows access into the darkest, deepest places and hearts.

Stay tuned karimba heads!  I’ll be sharing more on Sacred Music, Sacred Ceremony, and the Role of the Mbira in Ceremony in Part II…

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