Long time ago the dream of finding a city made of gold beneath an Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest became the realm of literary and cinematic fantasy. Nowadays, the bearded conquistadores have been replaced by oil company workers, farmers and tourists looking for a cheap shortcut to narcotic nirvana. The remaining original inhabitants of these territories try to adapt their lives to the changing conditions of poverty, pollution and colonisation. Television sets and radios meddle in the sonic landscape of wild life and the rich chorus of indigenous languages, while keepers of the ancient tradition and songs rebel wondering why boxes without heads and feet can be preferred to their fiddles, flutes and drums. Musicians like the 60 year old Mishki Chullumbo (kichwa for “Sweet Bee”), who goes also with the official name Carlos Alvarado, as the authorities refused to register his kichwa name back in the 1950's, decided to revive their traditional tunes and put together their first band: Los Yumbos Chawamangos. The chawamango is a bird capable of mimicking many sounds, much like the famous lyre bird, and Yumbo is the rhythm that is played in the ecuadorian amazon. According to Mishki, the drum patterns recall the beat the shaman hears when he communicates with the spirits.
I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating lecture by Mishki, organized by the Sisterhood of Music and Dance Appreciation Guandul in Quito. The Sweet Bee of kichwa music spoke about his song, poetry and projects. He told us how his instruments were built, how his sacred dresses were sewn and how he would wake up his wife early in the morning playing the pingullo flute:
I do not know if Mishki Chullumbo and the Yumbos Chawamangos released a lot of records but the one that we share here is a very special one. It is not the usual ethnographic work where a scholar/producer deals with the mixing, playlist, arrangements, etc. It is as free and independent as any Saturn or ESP album you could think of. After sixteen years of intense musical activity, Mishki crafted a songbook both raw and delicate, a visionary statement about his struggling culture and himself. As the best songwriters, Mishki reappropiates the stories of his elders, revives their rich mythology (where jungle devils sometimes kidnap children to teach them how to play music). No wonder, he sees his music as a work of magic resuscitation.
At the end of his lecture he wondered how powerful his songwriting magic would be if his people went back to the jungle and learnt again how to hunt, fish and live in the wild. He even thought of proposing the governement to assign a territory where this voluntary isolation could take place... and “then we would leave our radios, jeans, sport shoes and even our instruments at the forest's gates and start again... Wait no, not the instruments!”