Listen to the Songs

One of the most striking features of Amazonian mestizo shamanism is the icaro, the magic song, whispered, whistled, and sung. The term icaro may come from the Quechua verb ikaray, blow smoke for healing, or perhaps from the Shipibo term ikarra, shaman song. The icaro is given to the shaman by the spirits of the plants and animals, and the shaman uses it to call the spirits for healing, protection, or attack, and for many other purposes as well — to control the visions of another person who has drunk ayahuasca, work love magic, call the spirits of dead shamans, control the weather, ward off snakes, visit distant planets, work sorcery. As one mestizo shaman puts it, you cannot enter the world of spirits while remaining silent.

Communication between the shaman and the plants through the icaro is two-way. Francisco Montes Shuña says that the icaro is the language of the plant. “If you have dieted with the plant and have not learned its icaro,” he says, “then you know nothing.” The icaro is the language by which the shaman communicates with the plant, and through the icaro the plant will reply.

In possessing these songs, the mestizo shaman is not different from shamans found among indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon, for whom songs are a key element of the healing ritual. Anthropologist Jean Matteson Langdon considers the South American shaman to be distinguished from the ordinary person in three ways that constitute the shaman’s power— the visionary experience, the acquisition of spirit allies, and the acquisition of songs. Among the Araweté, “the most frequent and important activity of a shaman is chanting.” Anthropologist Graham Townsley puts it this way: “What Yaminahua shamans do, above everything else, is sing.”

There are thousands of icaros, and shamans assert their prestige depending on how many they have in their repertoire; an experienced shaman will haves scores of icaros, perhaps more than a hundred. The uses of these songs are as varied as the needs of shamans. When the icaro arrives, one may know its use immediately, or its use may become clear as one continues to sing it. There are icaros for calling, for protection, for learning, for exchanging knowledge, for healing. Here are samples of healing songs — and note the different styles — by doña María Tuesta Flores, my plant medicine teacher, and by don Roberto Acho Jurama, my maestro ayasquero, my teacher on the ayahuasca path.

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More songs by doña María — and a review of her life and work — are here.