In Anthony Seeger’s Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, a small Brazilian Indian community lends themselves to a musical anthropology that blends social life with ceremony and musical performances. Seeger’s fifteen years of research examining the Suya culminate into a study of music and its role in social processes. Music is the central theme throughout, but as an integral factor of the Suya community. The book addresses compelling questions about the Suya such as “Why do members of a particular group value song so much? Why do performances of songs have certain structures, timbres, and styles? Why do certain members of the community sing those particular things in those particular ways for that particular audience in that particular place and time?”1 These questions help to determine the distinction between an anthropology of music and musical anthropology. Seeger defines an anthropology of music as the way music plays a part in culture and social life. In contrast, a musical anthropology involves the way musical performances can create aspects in culture and social life. In other words, studying music in culture can be defined separately from studying social life as a performance in itself. The Suya embody a musical anthropology because they often define themselves “as a group by certain song genres and by body ornaments they associate with the production of and attention to sounds.”2 The study examined in this book can be derived from Seeger’s research and participation in the Mouse Ceremony that took place from January 24th to February 7th, 1972. The Mouse Ceremony encompasses many features of Suya musical performances and social life. An existing relationship becomes apparent between music and the role it plays in this ceremony and other social processes. The underlying question that Seeger desires to answer is: why do the Suya sing? Through his experiences, he is able to discover the connection between music and the Suya culture. Seeger warns that his study is merely a working hypothesis. However, he still offers relevant comparisons that are “not simply on our own ideas about music, but on what we can learn of other people’s ideas about music.”3 Seeger would ultimately come to the conclusion that the Suya “sang because they were happy; singing made them happy. It was creative, innovative, and interesting because it was never exactly the same.”4
The Suya community is made up of Gê speaking Suya Indians living on the Suya-Missu River in the state of Northern Mato Grosso, Brazil. A village with a population of 120 performs a rite of passage called the Mouse Ceremony. During the ceremony, a young boy begins his initiation into the male-oriented activities of the community. A Suya male’s life consists of many rituals; most of which during adolescence. The Mouse Ceremony highlights the relationships between an adult male and the boy receiving the man’s name, the relationship to other kin, and certain age groups within the community. The ceremony focuses on one boy at a time but each performance reaffirms the relationships between the men, their name receivers, and the village as a whole. Relationships between the Suya, the animals, the surrounding area, and the cosmos they have created are also reaffirmed during the performance. The ceremony begins with opening shout songs from Hwinkradi, a man around the age of 30 in charge of the initiation. Musical components during the Mouse Ceremony involve shout songs and seasonal unison songs. The music facilitates many ritual activities including the preparation of capes, other artifacts, and the distribution of food in the final days. The Mouse Ceremony’s structure consists of “a long period of learning and preparation that gradually builds up to a dramatic final day or night.”5 In general, this ceremony is unique compared to other cultures yet Seeger explains that he has witnessed many features in the Mouse Ceremony that are present in other South American ceremonies. He explains that “every performance involves specific actors who make particular choices about who will sing, who will be sung to, who will hunt, who will eat what, and the specifics of a myriad of decisions.”6 This particular ceremony was held for a young boy named Kogrere, whose mother is a half sister of Hwinkradi; this adds a level of significance to his initiation.
Seeger offers a first hand account of his experience during the first chapter. He attempts to gradually discover many of his intriguing questions through analyzing the different facets of the ceremony. While a methodology of participation then observation is used, it becomes apparent that the Suya apply a similar methodology of participation, observation, and curiosity. In his struggles to follow along, Seeger notices that mistakes are common among the people during music performances. What initially felt like an awkward situation turned out to expose Seeger and the Suya to a state of euphoria, known as kïn. Seeger recognizes that participating and making mistakes is actually an important aspect of the ceremony because “singing is fun; it is supposed to make you happy.” Along with singing, “eating as a group, and talking together in the men’s house … creates the male solidarity and euphoria characteristic of ceremonial life.”7 The Mouse ceremony builds up slowly, reflecting the increase in the amount of singers and the length of singing. In the afternoon of January 29th, a shout song performance highlights “Suya spatial domains, the identity of certain social groups, and the structure of the shout songs themselves.”8 Seeger highlights the fundamental dualism within the performance in reference to the places where these songs are sung and the groups that sing them. However, both the singing and the performance as a whole are still symmetrical, representing how the community is still connected regardless of social positioning. Later that evening, the Suya asked Seeger and his wife to contribute their own songs. They sang folk songs in English as well as two African songs that promote audience participation. It becomes apparent that the women were not singing, so the men instructed Seeger to announce the news to everyone; laughter ensues. Seeger and his wife continue to perform several more songs. They observe that the community enjoys listening and participating in the music. I personally struggle to empathize how the people are able to feel euphoric when listening to an unknown song in a different language. Seeger discovers that the community generally shows no interest in the translations of the songs. We learn that the Suya people sing many songs in Indian languages they do not understand. Seeger’s music is simply just “another set of sounds and a different vocal style.”9 The culmination of gathering, singing, and participating have more of a lasting euphoric impression than understanding the translation of a particular song. That same night, Seeger tells the myth of Abiyoyo to the children. A giant named Abiyoyo sleeps in a nearby lake occasionally waking up to eat the children of the village. Children scream as Seeger walks around screaming. He dances and leaps around while singing off rhythm and off pitch until he is out of breath. The magician father can now make Abiyoyo disappear and save the village. The performance concludes with everyone singing together. The following day, January 30th, began at 5am. The men are gathered in the men’s house to sing a rainy season unison song before going off to fish. Seeger admits to having difficulty with tasks that become trivial to Suya people. He acknowledges that it’s best if he gives his full attention to observing the specifics of the village’s activities. As his Suya improved, the community found more interest in Seeger’s questions. However, it was still difficult to fully understand each other. Chapter 1 concludes with more experiences and interactions within the Mouse Ceremony such as the Yawalapiti recording session, the Seegers playing music in the jungle, and the production of A Arte Vocal dos Suya. Seeger returns to his account of the Mouse Ceremony in chapter 6. He first describes the previous few days he had witnessed; all of which included ceremonies comprised of singing songs and performing ritual. It is now February 6th and the commencement of the Mouse Ceremony has begun. The last phase of the ceremony involves the formation and painting of the capes. The mouse singers proceed to the forest camp where they eat and sing more songs. They later return, dancing around the village wearing capes. That night, the mouse singers and dancers are transformed into mice; the Mouse Ceremony has commenced. Seeger highlights the importance of music throughout the ceremony, including the final day. He explains how the music helps facilitate the euphoric feelings brought on from participating in the ceremony. As a result, there was a ” successful transformation of men into men/mice, an infant into a boy with names, and the men/mice back into men again.” 10
The Suya’s Mouse Ceremony is clearly authentic to their culture. Seeger’s account in chapters 1 and 6 offer us the specific events that occurred throughout the two weeks of the ceremony. Chapters 2-5 address the many aspects of the Suya’s vocal art forms. Many aspects of the ceremony, the music, and their relationship with altered states of consciousness share both similarities and differences among many of the situations we examined in class. The next section of this essay will include a comparison of the Suya’s Mouse Ceremony to the Gabonese Bwiti Iboga initiation and the Ebo Ceremony in the Bahian Candomble of Brazil. I reference the Iboga Initiation to discuss two direct points of similarity and one point of contrast. I then site the Ebo Ceremony to explain two more points of contrast.
I asserted that the Mouse ceremony and Iboga initiation share two points of direct comparison within the overall goals of the ceremony. In class, we learned that the main purposes for Bwiti rituals includes, “creating “one-heartedness” for community, and initiating members”11 These goals can also be witnessed through the Mouse ceremony. The theme of one heartedness resonated throughout the ceremony. We learn that “every performance reestablishes certain relationships between human beings and animals, between the village and its surroundings, and between the Suya and the cosmos they have created.”12 Both ceremonies also involve an initiation of some sort. Although the initiation processes are different, their end goals are actually quite similar. The Iboga initiation “should not be considered as a direct form to heal but as a method to broaden one’s self-concept. … They had become more adult, had given up bad habits like chatting up women, lazing around etc. They had started a serious life, gotten married, and searched for a job, etc.”13 Both ceremonies represent a change in the level of maturity for whom is being initiated. This is why Suya men experience many rituals especially around the time of puberty. The Mouse ceremony “focuses on the relationship between an adult male and a boy to whom he has transmitted his own names.”14 The process symbolizes the maturity of the boy as he becomes initiated into the male-oriented activities in the community. A clear difference from these two ceremonies involves the music that is played throughout. Bwiti instruments include the Ngombi (harp) and the Mougongo (mouth harp). They also carry a rattle, drums, and other local percussion. The music serves as a “safety-rope reaching from this life to the hereafter and serves as a means of locomotion in the visionary space.”15 It helps the initiate maintain a sense of reality in the physical world during an altered state of consciousness. In contrast, the Suya focus on speech, hearing, and song. This could help explain “why the Suya had not developed much of an interest in instrumental music”16 The Iboga ceremony also utilizes music to “reactivate the faltering visions, facilitate remarkably spiritual communication and improve mental and physical well-being.”17 But for the Suya, “noise was characteristic of the public, the collective, and the euphoric. Silence was the mark of strong but socially disruptive emotions”18 The Suya didn’t utilize music to enter a different state nor to keep themselves in their current one. Seeger argues “that the musical performance is as much a part of the creation of social life as any other part of life, and that the creation and re-creation of relationships through the ceremonial singing creates a social context which influences other such contexts”19 Both the Iboga Initiation and Mouse Ceremony share similarities and differences that help to clearly define the originality of their respective ceremony. Highlighting the key similarities and differences also helped me further conceptualize what these ceremonies are really about and how music plays an important role in each.
I reference the Ebo ceremony to highlight two differences between the Mouse Ceremony. I found it interesting that both communities inhabit Brazil, yet there are not many similarities with each other. The first key difference involves who is able to participate directly in the initiation. Ebo can be “carried out on anyone, independent of sex or age. Children, however, are particularly susceptible to negative spiritual powers. Adult initiates can protect themselves more effectively from negative influences through appropriate behavior, although they are never entirely free of these influences either.”20 Ebo is also practiced for sick or menstruating women. In the Mouse Ceremony, men are the only initiates that participate. A table summarizing “musical performances and Suya groups defined by sex and age”21 clearly shows the difference in roles between men and women participating in the Mouse Ceremony. In general, women are the audience; apart from specific female songs, Suya women typically do not sing during ceremonies. They accompany male dancers and fulfill important roles in the ceremony instead. Another key point of contrast between these two practices involve the esoteric and exoteric difference in the overall goal of the ceremony. Spiritual healing treatments by the candomble head always includes an ebo. An ebo relates to a transcendental sickness; it is not physical. “Such sicknesses of a non-physical kind, even unhappy life situations or negative wishes on the part of an unknown person, demand spiritual treatment.”22 When treating the sickness in an initiate, believers of the religion gain the ability to “enter a special spiritual state and embody the deity whose “child” they are.”23 The community becomes happy in the presence of a deity and hope they can positively affect society in the future. Condomble believers can enter a state designated as “religious trance or possession, verbalized within the congregation as a state of holiness.”24 The Ebo practice is esoteric because it involves more of a transcendence of inner consciousness and personality of the initiate. In contrast, the Mouse Ceremony proves to be much more exoteric in its practice and overall goals. The ceremony does not involve any transformation of consciousness; it is based on the everyday understanding of things. The Suya’s goals focus more on the outer surface of consciousness where a young boy can mature and take on a new name. The ceremony facilitates “the creation and re-creation of relationships through the ceremonial singing, creating a social context which influences other such contexts”25 The initiate is still transformed through the Mouse Ceremony but it’s on the surface of the individual and not because of a spirit possession.
The Mouse Ceremony shares many similarities with other situations we studied in class, but they are typically very fragile and lack a deeper connection. In general, I found that the Mouse Ceremony was much more different compared to other ceremonies and initiations. Most of the practices we studied this semester usually included more instruments and more esoteric transformations than the Mouse Ceremony. This aided in my understanding of the Suya’s goals during the ceremony. The shout songs became a vehicle for the Suya to enter an altered state of consciousness. This altered state relates directly to the euphoria people felt during the ceremony. In conclusion, Seeger eventually discovers ‘why Suya sing’: “singing is fun; it is supposed to make you happy.”26
1 Seeger, Anthony. Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People. University of Illinois Press, 2004, xiii
2 Seeger, Anthony, xiv
3 Seeger, Anthony, xv
4 Seeger, Anthony, xvii
5 Seeger, Anthony, 6
6 Seeger, Anthony, 8
7 Seeger, Anthony, 15
8 Seeger, Anthony, 18
9 Seeger, Anthony, 20
10 Seeger, Anthony, 27
11 Lucas, Ann; Week 3, Slide 35
12 Seeger, Anthony, 2
13 Maas, Uwe. “Chapter Nine Nine – Polyrhythms Supporting a Pharmacotherapy: Music in the Iboga Initiation Ceremony in Gabon.” Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions. London, GBR: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006.
14 Seeger, Anthony, 2
15 Maas, Uwe, 6
16 Seeger, Anthony, 80
17 Maas, Uwe, 6
18 Seeger, Anthony, 67
19 Seeger, Anthony, 83
20 Pinto, Tiago de Oliveira. 1997. “Healing Process as Musical Drama: The Ebó Ceremony in the Bahian Candomblé of Brazil”. The World of Music 39 (1, Music and Healing in Transcultural Perspectives), 12
21 Seeger, Anthony, 76
22 Pinto, Tiago de Oliveira, 12
23 Pinto, Tiago de Oliveira, 12
24 Pinto, Tiago de Oliveira, 12
25 Seeger, Anthony, 83
26 Seeger, Anthony, 15