May 08, 2006

Notes on the Warao and their Music

Warao Violin

From_ Olsen, Dale A. Music of the Warao of Venezuela : Song People of the Rain Forest . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

One poem that I am interested in analysing of Pacale Petit's in 'Self–Portrait as a Warao Violin'. Perhaps these notes will shed light on this poem.

Ideas About the Warao Violin

Dakotu – a dance song, sometimes played on the violin. (35)
Sekeseke – a kind of violin that uses a viola de gamba bow (convex curve), played somewhat like a lute.

For Amerindians it is 'the song–text that is believed to carry the weight of evoking the spirits’. (17)

‘Stringed instruments or chordophones have been documented for the Warao since the nineteenth century. [Ö] [Descriptions presented by Hillhouse, Bernau, Roth of stringed instruments.] [Ö]Regardless of the particular provenance of this ancient Warao chordophone, the concept of a string instrument has been so embedded in Warao culture that today they consider their European derived violin, called sekeseke, to be one of their traditional instruments. This phenomenon also prevails among the Mexican Huichol, who claim that their violin is as ancient as their culture [Ö]. As explained by the huichol and as I interpret its presence among the Warao, a musical bow was the forerunner of the violin in both cultures. With the arrival of the Spanish the violin replaced the musical bow as a sound maker, while the musical bow’s ancient function as a shaman’s instrument remained among the Huichol and disappeared among the Warao.’ (104)

Olsen quotes Wilbert in discussing the uses of the musical bow, who writes that ‘the Warao hunter uses his bow and arrow as a lure to attract his prey. [Ö] With the animal in shooting range, the hunter quickly converts the musical bow into a deadly weapon and lets fly.’ (qtd in Olsen, 105)

The Origins of the Warao Violin

Olsen goes on to tell a folk tale that explains how the first violin came to the Warao tribe. (106 –110 )The story tells that a creature – half–man, half–monkey – named Nakurao brought the violin from a foreign country. Nakurao learned how to make the sekseke in a dream; he found a cedar growing nearby, carved the sekseke’s shape and made notches for the strings to fit. When he woke, he knew that he had to make his dream sekeseke and he decided to make a boat, so that he would astonish the people of the country where he was living.

So Nakurao began to carry out the actions of his dreams. He found the cedar and though the ‘real’ wood was not as good as that in his dreams, he began to carve a violin shape using his machete. He put holes where holes should be and he attached a bridge. Eventually he strung it with four strings and its name came from that four – seke–seke. Then he made a bow and when he drew it across the strings, it made a pleasant sound.

Meanwhile, the jaguar had decided that Nakurao was lazy and useless. He had not heard of Nakurao’s endeavours and decided that he was going to eat the monkey. At dawn, the jaguar sent a message: ‘My friend, monkey, I am going to eat you today.’

Nakurao asked, ‘Who would attack me today?’ The answer came: ‘The jaguar.’

Nakurao replied: ‘Well, at least I have made my sekeseke. If he comes to eat me, no matter. I can still make beautiful music for me. He can eat me later.’

The jaguar decided at last that the time had come. ‘Now I will go and eat that monkey’, he said. So the jaguar arrived, but the monkey had his music prepared. ‘This is the last day of your life, friend monkey’, the jaguar said. ‘It’s true’, replied Nakurao, ‘but just give me a little time. Before you eat me I am going to play you some music. Then you can eat me.’ So Nakurao began to play and all agreed that it was the best music that they had ever heard. Many animals began to dance: all kinds of birds, the jaguar, the deer and the howler monkey. They danced until they could not take another step.

‘Oh stop’, cried the jaguar. ‘We’re tired, but such beautiful music. My friend monkey, I thought that you were lazy and useless. I did not realise that you were a musician.’

‘It’s true my friend’, replied Nakurao. ‘I have been a musician since childhood. I made the sekeseke, the bow, the music, the song. So you must not eat me.’

‘Certainly not’, replied the jaguar ‘as you are a musician.’

Olsen analyses the story and states that ‘Music (in this case instrumental music) has the power to pacify the animals and alter Brutish behaviour.’ (418)

Further Reading

Bernau, Rev. JH. Missionary Labours in British Guiana . London: J Farquhar Shaw, 1847.

Hillhouse, William. ‘Memoir of the Warrow Land of British Guiana.’ Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London . 1934. 4.321–333.

Roth, Walter E. ‘An Enquiry into the Animism and Follore of the Guiana Indians.’ Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute . Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1915. 103 386.

Wilbert, Johannes. ‘The House of the Swallow Tailed Kite’. Animal Myths and Metaphors . Ed. Gary Urton. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985. 145–182.

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