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The Leaf-Bundle Rattle
Two rhythmic instruments are used in shamanic performance in the Upper Amazon — the shacapa (ed. note: alt. spelling chacapa), the leaf-bundle rattle; and the maraca, the seed-filled gourd rattle. Whether shacapa or maraca, rattles are the most important shamanic tool in the Amazon — the equivalent of the shaman’s drum elsewhere. Anthropologist Lawrence Sullivan, in his work on the history of religion in South America, calls them the paradigm of sacred sound, the epitome of the link between sacred sound and shamanic power; ethnographer Alfred Métraux descibes them as the most sacred object among the tropical tribes of South America; anthropologist Jacques Chaumeil says that, among the Yagua, the rattle is held to be the voice of the spirits. As one teacher, doña María Tuesta put it, in her typical way, “My shacapa is my pistola.”
Mestizo shamans use the shacapa exclusively. Other Amazonian peoples use leaf-bundle rattles as well — for example, the Aguaruna, who use a rattle of sampi leaves; the Shuar, who shake a bunch of shinku leaves; the Yagua, who use a rattle of chacapa leaves; the Napo Runa, who use a huairachina bundle; and the Akawaio, who in fact abandoned the seed-filled gourd maraca in the mid-1950s in favor of “shaman’s leaves.”
The shacapa used by mestizo shamans is a bundle of leaves from the shacapa bush (Pariana spp.) tied together at the stem with fibers from the chambira, fiber palm (Astrocaryum chambira). Mestizo shamans reportedly also make leaf-bundle rattles from the leaves of carricillo (Arthrostylidium spp.), albaca, wild basil (Ocimum spp.), and achiote, annatto (Bixa orellana).
The word has become an Amazonian Spanish verb — shacapar, to heal by rattling. When don Roberto initiated...doña María Tuesta, already a plant healer, into ayahuasca shamanism, two of the key things she learned were shacapar, healing and protecting with the leaf-bundle rattle, and soplar, healing and protecting by blowing mapacho, tobacco.
Indeed, blowing, rattling, and singing are synergistic modes of sound; elsewhere in the Amazon, too, tobacco, rattle, and song are mythologically interconnected. Among the Makiritare of the Orinoco Valley in Venezuela, Nadeiumadi, a messenger or emanation of Wanadi, the heavenly creator, dreamed his mother into existence: “He gave birth to her dreaming, with tobacco smoke, with the song of his maraca, singing and nothing else.”
Among the mestizo shamans, the wordless rhythmic rustle of the shacapa — like the breathy whistle of the song, or the almost silent whispered blowing of tobacco smoke — approaches pure sound.
There is thus a continuum of sound from the concrete, verbal, and intelligible at one end, to the abstract, sonic, and unintelligible at the other. The continuum begins with intelligible lyrics in Castellano, Spanish, and progresses through non-Spanish but human language such as Quechua; purported languages of indigenous people and unknown archaic tongues; the languages of animals and birds and computers; pure vocables; whispered sounds; whistling; breathy whistling; the silent pshoo of the blowing of tobacco smoke; and the susurration of the shacapa... .
From Singing to the Plants, Steve Beyer's Blog on Ayahuasca and the Amazon http://www.singingtotheplants.com/2008/01/the-leaf-bundle-rattle/