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Mana vol.3 Rio de Janeiro  2007


Music in the indigenous societies of lowland South America: the state of the art*


Música nas sociedades indígenas das terras baixas da América do Sul: estado da arte



Rafael José de Menezes Bastos

Professor of the Department of Anthropology of the Federal University of Santa Catarina. E-mail: or

Translated by David Allan Rodgers
Translation from Mana, Rio de Janeiro, v.13 n.2, p. 293-316, Oct. 2007.




The last thirty years have seen a remarkable growth in the ethnomusicology of the South American lowlands. The region has emerged from relative obscurity — a state in which it languished for decades, despite possessing some of the world's oldest descriptions of 'primitive' music — through the publication of a wide variety of texts on the musical production of its indigenous peoples, along with various attempts at regional and sub-regional comparison. This ethnomusicological output — much of it originating in Brazil from the early 1990s onwards — has been complimented by monographs and regional comparative studies from anthropologists specialized in other areas, whose work has frequently highlighted the importance of music (typically in connection with other art forms, cosmology, shamanism and philosophy) for a clearer understanding of the region. The resulting panorama is promising. However it also requires analysis, a fundamental element in determining paths for future research. Divided into two parts, the article approaches this endeavour by focusing on written production, making secondary use of phonographic, videographic and other documental forms. The first part of the text surveys the literature produced on the region's music over the period. In the second part, I reflect on the main features of indigenous music to emerge from the literature and propose a number of working hypotheses for future investigations.

Key words: South American lowlands, Music and ritual, Cosmology and philosophy, Indigenous ethnomusicology


Durante os últimos trinta anos, a etnomusicologia das terras baixas da América do Sul experimentou um forte crescimento. O fato está contribuindo para que a região venha a deixar de ser, definitivamente, uma das mais desconhecidas do planeta quanto às suas músicas, embora detentora de algumas das descrições mais antigas do mundo sobre música "primitiva". Um número importante de monografias e outros tipos de textos foram produzidos no período sobre a etnomusicologia da área, especialmente no Brasil e a partir de 1990, assim como tentativas de comparação regionais e sub-regionais. Também uma quantidade significativa de monografias e estudos comparativos sobre a região, feitos durante o período por antropólogos com outras especializações que não a etnomusicológica, apontou para a música — em conexão típica com as demais artes, a cosmologia, o xamanismo e a filosofia — como um domínio cujo conhecimento é estratégico para a compreensão da região. O quadro resultante desses esforços é promissor e está necessitando de análise, tarefa fundamental na direção da projeção de novas pesquisas. Este texto, dividido em duas partes, aproxima tal tarefa, centrando-se na produção escrita. Somente de passagem ele leva em conta as produções fonográfica, videográfica e similares. Na primeira parte do texto, levanto a literatura produzida no período sobre a música na região, assim como suas características. Na segunda, com base na literatura reconhecida, reflito sobre as principais marcas da música, e lanço hipóteses de trabalho para investigações futuras.

Palavras-chave: Terras baixas da América do Sul, Música e ritual, Cosmologia e filosofia, Etnomusicologia indígena




Although the ethnomusicology of the South American lowlands possesses some of the world's oldest descriptions of 'primitive music' – Léry's account of the songs of the Tupinambá of Rio de Janeiro (1578 [see 1980]) and Montoya's depiction of the categories of the Guarani acoustic-musical world (1639 [1876])1 – until recently its modern incarnation lacked the same pace and depth of development found in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, North America and South-East Asia. I have no intention of exploring the reasons for this discrepancy here. Over the last thirty years, though, this academic area has expanded considerably and seems likely to continue to grow, particularly in Brazil. This growth has been evident in the increased publication of monographs and other types of ethnomusicological texts – essays, articles and so on – along with works of other specialization that have included the theme of music.2 The panorama resulting from these efforts is promising; what is now required is an analysis of the overall profile of music in the region as a basis for developing new research.

Divided into two parts, the following article looks to begin this task, focusing on written works and making secondary use of phonographic, videographic and other documental forms. The first part of the text surveys the literature published on the region's musical production over the period. In the second part, I consider some of the most notable features of the region's indigenous music.


Part one — The main characteristics of the literature

The first characteristic of the ethnomusicology in question is its predominantly ethnological source. To explain: ethnomusicology as a discipline is basically rooted in two broad academic areas: anthropology and music, the latter specifically via historical musicology (Menezes Bastos 1995). The ethnomusicology of Brazilian popular urban music, for example, has been produced more or less in equal proportion by scholars working in these two areas – and to a lesser degree other disciplines such as sociology and history (Menezes Bastos 2005b). However, the literature on the indigenous music of the South American lowlands has mainly been produced within the disciplinary area of ethnology,3 some of the key entry points into music being studies of myth and cosmology, philosophy, linguistics, the arts as a whole, ritual and shamanism, symbolism and cognition, history and politics. An inquiry into the reasons for this virtual monopoly of lowlands ethnomusicology by ethnology is also left here for another occasion.

The second characteristic of the ethnomusicological production in question – undoubtedly closely linked to this quasi-monopoly – is that it frequently eschews the label 'ethnomusicology,' preferring to go under rubrics such as 'the anthropology of music,' 'musical anthropology' and so on. But whatever the disciplinary affiliation or label of the work, the interest in indigenous music seems to have matured into a central theme of investigation within the teaching and research systems responsible for the intellectual production surveyed in this article – in the Brazilian case, postgraduate programs in social anthropology. In effect, this anthropology of music appears to have acquired a position similar to that of the sociology of music (Adorno 1983:259): it is one of the diverse anthropologies of something, the 'something' in question here being music.

The third characteristic of the regional ethnomusicological literature is that – like the works relating to the ethnology of the South American lowlands as a whole – it has been produced in academic institutions located in a range of countries, involving professionals of different nationalities on an equal basis. This has lent a strong international flavour to the region's ethnomusicology. Leading these countries are Brazil, France, Great Britain and the United States, the first being where the literature seems to have proliferated most – particularly from the 1990s onwards – thanks to the expansion in postgraduate programs in social anthropology and their increasingly strong production of master's dissertations and doctoral theses (see Beaudet 1993, Menezes Bastos 2005a, Coelho 2007).4

The comparative perspective, generated from within ethnography itself,5 is the fourth characteristic of the ethnomusicological production under consideration. This dimension is sustained by the theoretical-methodological conviction – shared by Americanists of every theoretical extraction – that the South American lowlands constitute a huge relational system, communicating as far as the Andes (typically over the longue durée). This relational system is dependent on the existence of a wide network of communications in which the arts and artisticity play absolutely crucial roles (Menezes Bastos 2001). By artisticity I mean a general state of being that involves thinking, feeling and making in the general pursuit of 'beauty,' the latter understood – far from its customary and typically academic Western formulations – as no more than an entry point into the universes of art (as much as 'monstrosity,' 'prototypicality,' 'efficacy,' 'formativity' and other rubrics). This general state of being, manifest in studies covering a wide variety of themes, including areas beyond those designated as 'fine arts' by the West, is a pronounced feature of the region's cultures for whom the things and beings of the cosmos are (and continually become) works of art. This applies from the person to the cosmos and affects the whole of social life (see Overing 1989).

Finally, it is worth noting that the growing recognition for ethnomusicological studies has received further input at the level of the political relations between lowlands indigenous societies and the 'white world:' the musicality and artistic expression typical of these peoples have in themselves been important conduits for increasing awareness and solidarity among the 'civilized' population and turning many of the latter into allies of the Indians in their fights for citizenship. As part of this process, the Indians, with the help of their allies, have begun to produce their own compact disks and videos, as well as shows and other events (see Mello 2003).6 Hence the fifth characteristic of the ethnomusicology of the South American lowlands over the period under study possesses a markedly political aspect.

As I stated at the outset, the future for ethnomusicology in the South American lowlands appears extremely promising. As well as a significant number of pioneering studies produced from the 1970s onwards – such as those by Camêu (1977), Menezes Bastos (1999a [1978], 1990), Smith (1977), Beaudet (1997 [1977]), Travassos (1984), Aytai (1985), Fuks (1989), Hill (1993), Seeger (1987), Estival (1994), Olsen (1996) etc. – we can observe a blossoming of research from the mid 1990s conducted by a new generation of ethnomusicologists, most of them anthropologists. This growth has been particularly evident in Brazil. New research includes Espinoza (1991), Salivas (1995), Silva (1997), Lima (1998), Montardo (2002), Piedade (1997, 2004), Mello (1999, 2005), Cunha (1999), Véras (2000), Werlang (2001), Dallanhol (2002), Coelho (2003), García (2005) and Herbetta (2006)7 among others.

The existence of this new generation of ethnomusicologists suggests that the ethnomusicology of the lowlands region has moved beyond its phase of primitive capital accumulation, enabling its reproduction and development. The work of the current generation should lead to an expansion in the ethnographic coverage of the region's ethnomusicological production – still small, though far from negligible, as this text aims to show – as well as the definition of new analytic themes and theoretical-methodological approaches to music, and the construction of interconnected regional and subregional comparative frameworks.

To highlight further the promising situation of the region's ethnomusicology, I note a final two points. Firstly, the training of a burgeoning group of young anthropologists who, though not ethnomusicologists, are carrying out research of considerable interest to our understanding of music in the South American lowlands (see Barbosa 1991, Ribeiro 1992, Oliveira Júnior 1998, Romano 2000, Arcanjo 2003, Cesarino 2003 and Gorham 2005). Secondly, the existence of very interesting rare documents, many published through restricted outlets or publications with a narrow circulation. These include the studies by Avery on the Mamaindé and Pareci (1973, 1974, 1973-1974, 1974-1975a, 1974-1975b)8 and those by Aytai on the Xetá and the Nambikwara (1978a, 1978b, 1978c, 1978d, 1979a, 1979b, 1979c, 1981a, 1981b, 1982a and 1982b). The sheer volume of these references for just two authors suggests that these documents are merely the tip of a much larger and more diversified iceberg.

To conclude the first part of this article, it is worth adding that lowlands ethnomusicology has been gaining a higher profile through an ever increasing number of articles in recent collections on the ethnomusicology of South America and Latin American in general (cf. Kuss 2004; Lühning & Rosa 2005; Lucas 1999; Lucas & Menezes Bastos 2000; Olsen & Sheehy 1998; Sandroni 2006; Tugny & Queiroz 2006). Attempts at comparison at both regional and subregional level, though, are still limited in number and scope. Among those available are: Menezes Bastos (1996), focusing on the music of Gê Indians; Menezes Bastos & Piedade (1999), on Tupi-Guarani peoples; and Montardo (2002), on the Guarani. There are also a few works on the region as a whole, namely: Beaudet (1993) and my own work (Menezes Bastos 1994, 1999b). In conclusion, the foundations of regional ethnomusicology are sound and its future assured.


Part two — Music in the South American lowlands: key characteristics

As I mentioned above, the attempts at comparison involving the indigenous music of lowland South America are still few in number and limited in scope, both at subregional and regional levels. Having surveyed and described the literature on the area's musicology in the first part of the article, I shall now embark on a modest attempt to overcome this limitation, highlighting and discussing some of the features that I consider most notable and outlining a number of ideas for future research. I should emphasize that given the still relatively low – though, as I intend to demonstrate, significant – ethnographic coverage of the subarea of the Americas under study, the characteristics described below take the form of working hypotheses.

The first characteristic I shall consider, a topic on which I have written on various other occasions (Menezes Bastos 1994, 1996, 1999b, 2001; Menezes Bastos & Piedade 1999), concerns the role – and what is generally seen as the strategic value – played by music in the intersemiotic chain of rituals in the region. This question was originally studied in two geographically distant and culturally distinct lowlands areas by authors working independently: in Peruvian Amazonia, by Smith (1977) among the Amuesha (Arawak); and in the Upper Xingu, by myself (1978 [1999a]) among the Kamayurá (Tupi-Guarani).9 Smith defines the role of music in the Amuesha ritual complex as the integrating centre of the various discourses pertaining to the complex; a centre that weaves, so to speak, the unity of ritual expression out of the diversity of elements traversing these discourses. It is as though music were the centripetal force enabling the convergence of the visual, olfactory and other kinds of discourse composing the rites. Following convergence of these elements, this force becomes centrifugal, recomposing the diversity of ritual discourses. In the Kamayurá case, music likewise functions as a pivotal system mediating the universes of the verbal arts (poetry and myth) with plastic-visual expressions (graphic design, iconography, feather art) and choreological expressions (dance, theatre). What the sources from the 1970s highlight, therefore, is music's exemplary role in integrating and intermediating the different discursive channels involved in the intersemiotic chain of ritual in the indigenous lowlands.

Basso (1985), studying the Kalapalo, a Carib people also from the Upper Xingu, confirms these initial ideas while simultaneously refining them: for the author, the very nature of ritual performance is musical – hence her important concept of musical ritual, where music comprises the key to ritual performance, effectively setting it in motion.10 Gebhart-Sayer (1986, 1987), writing about the Shipibo-Conibo (Pano) of Peruvian Amazonia, extrapolates further on these connections. For her, the relation between music and visual designs is essentially one of translation; in the shamanic rituals of these people, songs are the reversible acoustic translation of pictorial motifs. Hence it could even be said that the latter are the visual transcription of the former, thereby functioning as their musical score or annotation (non mensurata, so to speak). Similarly, among the Yekuana (Carib) of Venezuela described by Guss (1990), basketry and song are so closely connected that it is almost as though, for the Yekuana, to make baskets is to sing them into being.

In sum, we can identify the general role played by music in the intersemiotic chain of ritual in the South American lowlands, revealing a semantic functionality that encompasses the nexuses of integration, intermediation, elicitation and other like processes, synthesizable by the generic nexus of translation. In a text published in 2001, I suggested that in this context the idea of translation helps emphasize the interdependent semantic relation between the subsystems active in the chain. This concept, however, applies

[…] in tautegorical rather than allegorical form, meaning that the kind of translation involved should not be conceived in synonymic terms or as the reproduction of the same meanings by the different signifying subsystems. It amounts to neither of these notions, since each of these subsystems constitutes a separate way of expressing meanings from other channels, dislocating them, however, from the subsequent meanings that they mimetically produce (2001:348).

This idea of translation is similar to the kind advocated by Benjamin (1968), as the "search for resonances and reverberations between distinct systems and codes, and for totalizations from partial points of view" (see Carneiro da Cunha 1998:16).

The second notable characteristic of the music of the South American lowlands that I outlined in this text can be called sequentiality: this concept refers to the musical organization of rituals at the inter-song level – that is, at the level constituted by the interconnections between the respective component songs (or instrumental or vocal-instrumental pieces). Notably, Basso (1985:246-253) identifies Kalapalo rites as musical, arguing that communication is enabled precisely through musical performance. Extending Basso's point, the sequentiality to which I refer is explained by the fact that the region's musical repertoires – in the vast majority of cases, as we have seen above, part of complex semiotic chains – are organized in sequences (or sequences of sequences) of chants (whether these are songs or vignettes), instrumental pieces or vocal-instrumental pieces. These sequences, as well as the sequences of sequences, frequently anchor the chronology of day and night and are anchored by it. They may also be adapted to the chronologies of other temporal cycles, such as months, seasons and so on, thereby composing musical calendars.

Everything suggests, therefore, that isolated musical pieces make little sense for lowland indigenous peoples. This sequentiality at inter-song level – whose type of organization evokes that of the Western suite (Fuller 2007) – was first described by myself in systematic form among the Kamayurá (Tupi-Guarani) of the Upper Xingu (Menezes Bastos 1990, 1994, 1996a, 2004a, 2004b; Menezes Bastos & Piedade 1999). It was then later studied among the Kulina (Arawak) of Acre (Silva 1997), the Yepamesa (Tucano) (Piedade 1997), the Upper Xingu Waujá (Arawak) (Piedade 2004; Mello 1999, 2005), the Guarani (Tupi-Guarani) of the Brazilian south and central-west (Montardo 2002), the Arara (Carib) of Pará (Coelho 2003) and – precisely, so – among the Kalankó 'mixed Indians' of Alagoas (Herbetta 2006).

It is my working hypothesis that this type of organization is disseminated much more widely than the range of this sample leads to suggest (although this sample is undoubtedly considerable, it is perhaps somewhat self-replicating insofar as it is made up of my own ethnographies or those of scholars who are or were my students and collaborators).

A significant number of other ethnographies can be listed here – none coming from the Santa Catarina circle, or indeed making up part of any other circle, but involving indigenous groups geographically distant and culturally diverse from each other. These include works by Beaudet (1997 [1977]): on the Wayapi (Tupi-Guarani); Halmos (1979): Nambikwara; Aytai (1985): Shavante (Gê); Basso (1985): Kuikúro (Karib Xinguano); Seeger (1987): Suyá (Gê); Estival (1994): Arara (Carib); Cunha (1999): Pankararu – the latter once again an example of 'mixed Indians.' All the evidence is that sequentiality is one of the primary rationales for the organization of the region's rituals at inter-song level. Detailed studies on the theme are now needed, though, to consolidate this proposition. In the Kamayurá case investigated by myself, sequentiality assumes an extremely complex form, following a pattern I have denominated a sequential structure. Below I provide a small example of this pattern, though one of great interest from the cognitive point of view, and suggest that, as a pattern, it is typical rather than exceptional in the lowlands (see Menezes Bastos 1990, 2004a, 2004b).

The ethnography of the Yawari ritual that I studied is massive, the ritual being one of those rites – very common in the lowlands – with a long duration, whose preliminary phases may occur years before their execution properly speaking.11 However, when analyzed more closely, the ethnography in question shows striking regularities: the song system involved is a complex set of sequences of sequences of chants (songs or vignettes) composed of repetitions – performed with large or small changes – of the sequences making up part of the set. These repetitions are performed daily over the space of 11 days. The component sequences are repeated isonomically and isotopically as variants of each other. By isonomy, I mean the relation of structural pertinence between sequences, characterizable as transformations (in the Lévi-Straussian sense) of a structure (in the case at hand, a sequential structure).12 The term isotopy refers to the sequence's temporal localization during the same part of the day. Homologous sequences are simultaneously isonomic and isotopic. Changes are produced by operations performed during the reiteration of the reference sequence of each subset of variants.13 Songs or vignettes are thereby included, excluded, substituted, resequenced, retrograded or repeated.

Like the nuclides of certain chemical elements, homologous sequences (or exceptionally, any sequence) swap components among themselves (chants) as free (or almost free) particles that they incorporate or release. I should note that the Yawari song system comprises nine subsets of homologous sequences – variants of each other – which I also call cantos, in the sense of macrounits of a protracted musical-poetic composition (one evocative, indeed, of classical Mediterranean epopeias): dusk (types of opening and return), night, deep night, early morning, dawn, late morning and afternoon (types of reopening and continuation). Since for the Kamayurá the day starts at twilight, dusk is the first song of Yawari; night, the second, and so on until afternoon, the seventh and last canto.

As I mentioned, the song system is organized according to what I call a sequential structure. This can be seen as both an account – a 'history' ­– and as a program – a 'structure' of a composition of sequences (of chants [songs and vignettes] and sequences of chants), administering two processes, repetition and differentiation, taking chants as processing units. This results in three types of succession: progressions, regressions and stagnations, which constitute the 'future,' 'past' and 'present' tenses respectively. From the cognitive viewpoint, the sequential structure is a teaching machine (like the Western suite and sonata forms), in the sense used by Minsky (1983), while simultaneously comprising a complex grouping (Snyder 2000:31-46) operating with long-term memory (2000:69-71). Differently to the Western suite, though, it not only produces inter-song progression, but also the return or regression, as well as stagnation – when the internal time of the rite is itself annulled. As part of this process, the kinds of memory employed involve both recognition (or identification) and forgetting (or effacement). Or, to evoke a magnificent text, the marble and – because not or – the myrtle.14 In order to explain my analysis more clearly, I briefly describe the first Yawari canto, of opening (dusk) type. I produce a diagrammatic formula of its sequential structure in which the inclusion (I) of chants regulate (→) their exclusion (E).15



Expanding this formula, the opening (symbol AB) of the Yawari song system has two main alternatives, namely:

1st : Its reference sequence (SR5),16 when no (~) operation (OP) is performed with any of its chants (~OP5) [index 5].

2nd : Its other sequences (which follow the bifurcation signalled by the indices 1 and 2).

The latter are generated in the following way: depending on the inclusion (I) effected between chants 1 and 2 or 1 and (-Rv) – Rv being one resequencing of chants – there are two possibilities concerning the elements to be included (represented by indices 2, 3 and 4):



In these possibilities, s is a sequence of chants (1', 2' and 3') with a high degree of stability, 4' is a chant and Ø signals the absence of any chant. Both possibilities present a combination with the first choice (index 1). However, only (s-4') combines with the second (index 2).

These inclusions regulate (®) the exclusions (E), which are as follows:

E (3)3 for the combination of index 1, subindex 3, in which the 3 in brackets is another chant.

E (3, 6-7)4 for the combination of index (1) again, subindex 4, in which 6-7 is the sequence of chants 6 and 7.

E (2, 3, 10)2 for the only possible combination of index 2, in which 10 is another chant.

This formula, written in function of the inclusions, can be transposed into another formula – just as valid as the first – written in function of the exclusions.

The third characteristic of South American lowland music I wish to discuss – what I have called the nucleus-periphery structure – characterizes the types of relation between the individuals and groups of performers making up the musical-choreographic groupings (solo, chorus, etc.). From the outset, it is worth noting that this characteristic is not purely musical, but also strongly choreological, that is, linked to dance.17 Drawing from my studies of Upper Xingu music and dance (Menezes Bastos 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999b), the relation between the individuals and groups of performers making up the musical-choreographic groupings in the indigenous lowlands is complex, unable to be reduced, for example, to the two successive and alternating terms of the antiphonal form (solo and chorus) frequently found in many other parts of the planet, such as sub-Saharan Africa or in the West (Lomax 1968).

The nucleus-periphery structure is constituted by the relation – determined successively or simultaneously – between what I term the nucleus and the periphery. The former is composed of a male or female soloist (or master of music) and his or her helpers; the second by the other performers (male or female). In the nucleus – made up of mature adults – the soloist generally enters alone with the introduction (caput) to each song or vignette, at the end of which he/she is followed by the helpers, who the soloist typically repeats heterophonically.18 Meanwhile the soloist continues his or her song. Most of the time, this nucleus sings songs, here and there intermediated with vignettes, which are generally onomatopoeic musical-linguistic configurations with a high degree of stability.

The periphery, on the other hand – composed of young adults, adolescents and children – chant onomatopoeic sounds with varying levels of musical-linguistic stability and/or improvise them, producing an extensive polyphonic fabric. In the Upper Xingu case studied by myself, the nucleus and the periphery are irreducible to one another, though they undoubtedly make up part of the same whole. Their relation, which strongly evokes the Amerindian conception of twinhood as an asymmetric duality (Lévi-Strauss 1993; Menezes Bastos 1996), is given by the fact that both dramatize in their own way – through the song and the musical-linguistic onomatopoeia, respectively – the myths at the base of the rites.

The nuclear-periphery structure can assume a variety of forms, produced through the multiplication and/or cancellation of its terms. Hence, individual solos and multiple individual solos (as in the Suyá akia [see Seeger 1987]), as well as choruses (such as the Suyá ngere) and other forms, can all be seen as variants of this base structure. In these variations, the periphery ceases to exist: in the first case, the nucleus is reduced to the solo; in the second, the solo – also chorus-less – is multiplied; and in the third, only the chorus is present without the solo.

From the choreographic viewpoint, some of the most common dance patterns associated with this structure and its variations are line, file (procession), wedge and block formations. Indeed, as emphasized earlier, the third characteristic of the region's music is strongly choreographic in nature, a sign that dance, as much as music and the other nodes of the intersemiotic chain of ritual, is also a strategic area of interest in terms of understanding the indigenous lowlands. In the Upper Xingu case (Menezes Bastos 1990, 2001; Véras 2000), dance is manifested, including in native discourse, as the ultimate reducer of the intersemiotic chain, a kind of limit of the latter beyond which nothing more can exist.

The third characteristic of the music found in the South American lowlands region, systematically described in my work on Upper Xingu music and dance, also seems to have a broad spectrum, spanning from the Amazonian Northwest and Northeast (Piedade 1997; Beaudet 1997) to the south of the lowlands (Montardo 2002); from the Brazilian Northeast (Cunha 1999; Herbetta 2006) to the southeast and southwest of Amazonia (Smith 1977; Silva 1997; Werlang 2001), covering numerous subregions within Amazonia (such as the cases studied by Coelho 2003; Mello 2005; Seeger 1987; Véras 2000, as well as others).

The fourth key characteristic concerns the main process found in the region for composing musical pieces: variation. In this process, the thematic material – typically the motifs,19 usually exposed in the introduction to the pieces – is developed through various procedures, including repetition, augmentation, diminution, transposition, retrogradation and so on, with the resulting transformations retaining the essential characteristics of the core material.20 This feature is widespread in the region, spanning from Northern Amazonia (Piedade 1997; Beaudet 1997) to the south of the continent (Montardo 2002); from the Brazilian Northeast (Cunha 1999; Herbetta 2006) to the south of Amazonia (Silva 1997; Werlang 2001), including many subareas within the region. For a deeper analysis of this question, the reader may confer, among many other works, the studies by Avery (1977); Halmos (1979); Aytai (1985, 1978a-d, 1979a-c); Travassos (1984); Seeger (1987); Menezes Bastos (1990); Véras (2000); Werlang (2001); Coelho (2003); Piedade (2004); and Mello (2005).

The detailed studies by Menezes Bastos (1990, 2004a, 2004b [Kamayurá]), Piedade (2004) and Mello (2005) [Wauja] reveal how the process of variation lies at the base of musical composition at an intra-song level among the Upper Xingu peoples. In the case of Kamayurá vocal music, what I called diatonic dyadism is one of the most common procedures for generating motifs, the diatonic dyad being constituted typically by notes ranging across an interval of a third. Among the Kamayurá, this is the way par excellence of constructing the tonal centre of a piece, whether ascending or descending, and preferentially minor (major thirds tend to be much rarer). Once the piece's initial motif is generated, its variations are then produced, forming sentences and clauses, which usually regulate the process I have denominated chromatic serialism, in which the original motif (or series) is varied by a gradual chromatic infilling, which may result in the composition of completely chromatic motifs derived form the original.

Among the Wauja, Piedade (2004) in his study of instrumental music shows with brilliance and rigour how motif variation lies at the core of the process of musical composition of the so-called 'sacred flutes.' The motifs – not necessarily equivalent to minimal segments – are here of two types: theme-motifs and play-motifs, understood respectively as signatures of the individual pieces and of the suites (sequences) of which the former comprise part (2004:150). Among the variational principles, the author notes those of augmentation, diminution, transposition, inversion and many others (2004:201). Also among the Wauja, Mello (2005) shows how the process of variation described by Piedade in relation to male instrumental music also applies to female vocal music. On the other hand, developing analyses begun in her 1999 text, Mello (2005:9-11) demonstrates pursues an elegant musicological inquiry to show how part of the male and female Wauja repertoires, typically those of the so-called 'sacred flutes' and those of the female Amurikumã ritual, strictly speaking, are variants of each other, as though women among this Arawakan people sing vocal transpositions of the flute music, while men do the inverse, performing flute renditions of the female vocal music.21

In other words, the process of variation traverses musical genres and sexual genders. As well as variation distinguishing the process of intra-song composition in the region, it also seems to mark it at the inter-song level, that of the sequences, as in the case described above. In this sense, each of the sequences making up the same universe of sequences is, as a rule, a variant of the reference sequence.


Final considerations

As I stated at the start of this text, the current situation of the studies on music in the indigenous societies of the South American lowlands – a typical rather than specialist theme in regional ethnology – is extremely promising. Although the ethnographic coverage available on the subject is still small – though in no sense negligible,22 as I have pointed out – it does allow an appraisal of the general profile of music in the region, a basic requisite for the development of future research. The present survey has highlighted four essential characteristics of this profile. Firstly, the role of music in the intersemiotic chain of ritual, pointing to the generic concept of translation. This role is generally agreed to be of great interest; however, it needs to be approached as a program for future investigation rather than an underlying and paralysing parochial intellectual motif. I then proposed that, throughout the region, sequentiality constitutes one of the rationales organizing rituals at inter-song level; that is, the level composed by the interconnection between the musical pieces (vocal, instrumental, vocal-instrumental) of the respective song systems.

The obvious and rather limited apprehension of music as the 'art of time' – where memory figures as recognition – can be surpassed through investigations into the links between this memory and the process of forgetting. The nucleus-periphery structure with its variations – that is, transformations – appears as the third characteristic in the present survey, anchoring our comprehension of the complex relations involving the constituent elements of musical groupings in the region. Not everything here can be reduced to the alternation between solo and chorus, but the relation of irreducibility between the parts is also an absolutely fundamental dimension. The structure in question signals that dance – as much as music and the other nodes of the intersemiotic ritual chain – is an area of strategic interest for understanding the region. This is a form of dance, however, in which we find both katabatic tendencies – directed towards the earth, with a desire for weight – and acrobatic tendencies – directed towards the air, in search of 'freedom.'

As the fourth and final characteristic, the present study highlighted variation as a basic process of musical composition in the region at intra-song level, referring to musical pieces, and inter-song level, relating to their sequences. It should be noted that the idea of variation adopted here does not simply discard the idea of development (see note 23). I suggest that intensive and extensive research on these four points are now needed to advance our specific knowledge concerning music and our general knowledge concerning the ethnology of the South American lowlands.

Clearly other topics need to be investigated with the aim of complementing these studies. For example, to what extent are linguistic-cultural divisions pertinent to the musical field and enable us to speak in a consistent way about, for example, Tupi, Gê, Arawak and Carib musical landscapes (Beaudet 1993:527)? What has been the impact of contact with the 'white world' on Amerindian musical systems, taking into account what the examples of so-called 'mixed Indians,' such as the Pankararu (Cunha 1999) and Kalankó (Herbetta 2006) seem to show? Finally, does Silva's findings among the Kulina (Arawak) concerning the localization in the singing of crickets of the pulsation for the music of a human ritual (Silva 1999) indicate a merely local phenomenon or suggest something more widespread, perhaps revealing another feature of the music of indigenous societies of the South American lowlands, linked to the incorporation into human music of acoustic-musical elements derived from nature?



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Received on 20th May 2007
Approved on 21st August 2007




1 On the first book – which Cooley (1997:6) argues is the world's first fieldwork-based ethnomusicological description – see Azevedo (1941), Camêu (1977) and Veiga (1981). For an ethnomusicological reading of Montoya's Tesoro de la Lengua Guaraní, see Montardo & Martins (1996) and Montardo (2002:220). On the two works, see Menezes Bastos & Piedade (1999).

2 Among ethnomusicological monographs, see Menezes Bastos (1999a [1978], 1990), Halmos (1979), Aytai (1985), Seeger (1987), Ermel (1988), Hill (1993), Estival (1994), Olsen (1996), Beaudet (1997 [1977]), Werlang (2001), Montardo (2002), Piedade (1997, 2004), Mello (1999, 2005) and García (2005). Among ethnological works, see Hugh-Jones (1979), Basso (1985), Viveiros de Castro (1986), Graham (1995), Pinto (1997) and Velthem (2003). See Aretz (1991), Beaudet (1993), Menezes Bastos (1994, 1999b and 2005a), Blasco (2000) and Coelho (2007) for partial surveys.

3 Pereira (1995), Magalhães (1994), Nascimento (1998) and Barros (2003) are some of the exceptions to this trend, the former coming from the area of communication and semiotics, the latter three from the area of music. See Higuita (2004) for research derived from linguistics.

4 Among the Brazilian postgraduate programs in social anthropology, the program based at the Federal University of Santa Catarina occupies a leading position in this respect. See the site of MUSA (, its listing in the Research Groups Directory of CNPq ( and the abstracts of master's dissertations and doctoral theses on the Theses Database run by CAPES ( Over the last fifteen to twenty years, US, British and French ethnomusicologists studying the indigenous peoples of South America have tended to concentrate on the highlands region. My thanks to Anthony Seeger, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, Jean-Michel Beaudet and Henry Stobart for helping me clarify this point. Other Latin American countries have produced an increasingly rich literature in the area of indigenous music. Among them, Argentina (see García 2002, 2005; Novati 1984), Colombia (Blasco 2000; Higuita 2004; Melo 2005) and Bolivia (Sánchez 1998, 2001).

5 Viveiros de Castro (2002:121) has called this perspective 'immanent comparativism.'

6 See the site of the Instituto Socioambiental (, in the section referring to indigenous peoples, for information relating to Brazil on CDs and videos. Also see the website run by the NGO Vídeo nas Aldeias ( for information on this program ('Video in the Villages') involving the work of indigenous filmmakers. On the question of the indigenous appropriation of acoustic recordings and videos, see Gallois & Carelli (1995), Turner (1993), Menezes Bastos (2002) and Coelho (2004).

7 Note that many of the members of this new generation are still completing their doctoral research (see, for example, Barros [in progress] and Lourenço 2006).

8 The only text I have been able to consult by Avery, a missionary from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is a work published on the South American lowlands from 1977.

9 In note that my book from 1978 (see 1999a) transcribes ipsis litteris my master's dissertation defended at the University of Brasilia in 1976.

10 In arriving at her refined synthesis, Basso provides a fascinating study of Kalapalo verbal art, approaching their musicality with considerable sensitivity. For other key works that include musicality as one of their main themes, see Sherzer & Urban (1986) and Franchetto (1993, 2000).

11 Yawari is a funerary ritual, set in motion by the death of someone who is commemorated and 'co-forgotten' (since the Kamayurá invest in the ritual the mnemonic processes of both remembrance and forgetting). The preliminary phases of the rite I studied in 1981 could be traced back to a death occurring in 1977 (see Menezes Bastos 1990, 2004a, 2004b). Mello (2005) studies rites among the Wauja (Arawak) of the Upper Xingu whose eliciting events date from ten years prior to their present-day performances.

12 Inspired by Lévi-Strauss (1980 [1952]), I take the notion of structure as an abstract construction that makes evident the rules constituting a given phenomenal universe. For the author's concept of transformation, see the same text.

13 In the case of Yawari, the reference sequence is the one occurring first in the reiterations of a particular sequence of sequences of chants. The notion is obviously inspired by Lévi-Strauss's idea of a reference myth (1991 [1964]).

14 See Estival (2006) for a study of the question of musical memory among the Ayoré of the Chaco region.

15 As in elementary algebra, the curly brackets ({}) in this formula are hierarchically superior to square brackets ([]), and the latter superior to parentheses (()). In the formula, chants are represented by the numerals from 1 to 10 and 1' to 4'. The latter four chants are not found in SR, but are included in its reiterations.

16 The SR is formed by 10 chants – including songs and vignettes – represented by the numerals from 1 to 10. The AB as a whole is composed of 14 chants, with those making up the subsequence of 1' to 4' added to the 10 chants of the SR.

17 A dance, though, as Véras (2000) showed in her study of the Matipú (Carib) of the Upper Xingu, which combines katabatic tendencies – directed down towards the earth – and acrobatic tendencies – up towards the air.

18 Put simply, heterophony is the simultaneous variation of a melody.

19 I take the concept of motif from Lidov (1975), conceiving it as a minimal segment of the syntactic stratum.

20 On the process of variation, see Randel (1978:533-535). According to Rosen (1994:86-87), the polar opposite of variation is development; in the latter, the resulting transformations are differentiated from the original idea(s) by the intervention of new idea(s). This differentiation between variation and development is problematic, particularly in terms of the Schoenbergian concept of progressive variation, understood as a gradual process of motif development (Dudeque 2005:228).

21 Here we undoubtedly find the nexus of the auditory prescription on women hearing the music of the 'sacred flutes,' contrasted with their visual proscription.

22 On the distinction drawn by Popper between the "abundance of the known and the unlimitedness of the unknown," see Adorno's celebrated commentary (1986).



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* A previous version of this text was published in two parts (see Menezes Bastos 2006a and 2006b). My thanks to Carlos Sandroni for help with the bibliography and to Mana's anonymous reviewers for their suggestions concerning the present version.