luna icaros


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The Icaros or Magical Melodies

excerpted from

The Concept of Plants as Teachers among

four Mestizo Shamans of Iquitos, Northeastern Perú

by Luis Eduardo Luna

Perhonhatu 7B5, 00100 Helsinhf 10 (Finland)



Paper prepared for the Symposium on Shamanism of Phase 2 of the XIth International Congress of

Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Vancouver, August 20+13, 1983.

Taken from The Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 11 (1984) 135+156

Elsevier Scientific Publishers Ireland Ltd.

reprinted as a public service by your friends at SpiritQuest

In the city of Iquitos and its vicinity there is even today a rich tradition of folk medicine. Practitioners, some of whom qualify as shamans, make an important contribution to the psychosomatic health of the inhabitants of this area. Among them there are those called vegetalistas or plant specialists and who use a series of plants called doctores or plant teachers. It is their belief that if they fulfill certain conditions of isolation and follow a prescribed diet, these plants are able to “teach” them how to diagnose and cure illnesses, how to perform other shamanic tasks, usually through magic melodies or icaros, and how to use medicinal plants.

Four shamans were questioned about the nature and identity of these magic plants, what are the dietary prescriptions to be followed, how the transmission of shamanic power takes place, the nature of their helping spirits, and the function of the magic melodies or icaros given to them by the plant teachers.


The Icaros or Magic Melodies

I mentioned earlier that the spirits of the plants teach the initiate certain magic songs or melodies called icaros. Their role is extremely important, to the point that the number and quality of a shaman’s icaros is the best expression of his knowledge and power. In fact, when being initiated, the first thing that must be learned is these icaros, which are highly individualistic, a particular gift of the spirits, although it must be noted that sometimes a teacher can transmit an icaro to his pupil.

The icaros have a wide variety of functions. There are icaros for increasing or decreasing the strength of the hallucinations. For calling defenders or arhena, for curing specific illnesses, for reinforcing the effect of medicinal plants, for attracting the love of a woman (huarmi icaro), for calling the spirits of dead shamans, for causing rain, wind or thunder, for bewitching, for hunting or fishing certain animals, for curing snake bites, for protecting oneself before sexual intercourse, etc. Don Emilio knows about 60-70 icaros, most of which I have recorded. Don Jose, Don Alejandro and Don Celso all claim to know over 100. The Chilean ethnomusicologist Alfonso Padilla, of Helsinki University, studied the material collected during my first period of fieldwork. Based on that, he wrote brief descriptions and transcriptions of some of Don Emilio’s icaros, which are included as an appendix to this paper.

All four informants sing in the Quechua language. Don Emilio knows a few icaros in Spanish. Don Jose sings in Quechua, Cocama and Omagua and sometimes in a mixture of the three languages. Cocama and Omagua are two languages of the Tupi-Guarani family but are not mutually intelligible (Mason,1950). There is great prestige and power associated with the use of native languages and the shamans speakto their spirits in these languages. Both Don Jose and Don Celso claim that they learned the languages not from Indians but from the spirits. In my conversations with other vegetaIistas I found that the teaching of native languages by plants is quite a widespread belief.

As far as I have understood, some of the spiritual struggles the shamans have with each other are through icaros, and learning strong icaros is vital to survival. The number of icaros depends on the length of time of the diet. Don Alejandro told me that if you know the principal icaro of a shaman, you can attract his defenders when he dies, and can incorporate his knowledge.

I must add that some of the icaros I have heard are indeed of great beauty, and the recording of as many as possible of the magic melodies of the shamans of the area, with the proper contextual information, is a task which urgently needs to be carried out.



Specialists of native Amazonian shamanism will find many parallels between what I have described here and what they have found among different Indian groups. There is no doubt that the belief systems have lost much of their coherency, and only fragments can still be found here and there. Nevertheless shamanism as such has remained alive, and the transformation of some of its elements, as we have seen in the case of the arkana’s incorporation of modern weaponery, demonstrate its vitality. On the other hand there is the danger that the pressures of urban life must eventually put an end to this rich tradition. None of the four informants I worked with has a successor. They all complain that the young people are not interested or are not able to endure the diet and continence necessary for learning from the plants. Their roles are readily assumed by charlatans who do not possess even a minimum of their knowledge of the myths, legends, flora and fauna of the region.The disappearance of this shamanic tradition would be a great loss.




This analysisis based on 7 out of 56 icaros taped by Luna in July and August 1981.


(Translated from Spanish by Luis E. Luna)

Luis E. Luna has already explained the role and position of the music exployed in shamanic rituals among the mestizo shamans of the Peruvian Amazon (Luna, 1984). I will not refer to this question, although it is of crucial importance from the point of view of ethnomusicology. Don Emilio’s icaros, like the shamanic music of the area in general, present two main issues: first, what relationship exists between the icaros sung by Don Emilio and the regional musical culture; second, whether there exists any semiotical connotation of the melodies, scales, rhythms and the other musical parameters used by the shaman. This last issue demands the analysis of all the icaros known by Don Emilio, the exact function of each of them in the ritual, and the revealing of the precise meaning of the icaros sung in Quechua or any other Indian language. As it is not possible to treat all these problems in this brief paper, we will concentrate our attention on the relationship of Don Emilio’s repertoire with the music of the area, through the analysis of the “style” of his icaros.

Don Emilio has said that it was the spirit of the plants or doctores, not any human being, who taught him his icaros. Probably no particular individual taught him such songs and melodies, but he himself composed them, although attributing to a third person – the doctores – the creative function. The following analysis seeks to show that Don Emilio’s icaros present essential similarities with the Indian, folk and popular music of the area. This is not so by chance, as he seems to be rather familiar with the several types of music that it is possible to listen to in Iquitos. He himself plays the mouth organ for pleasure, i.e. it is not incorporated into the shamanic ritual.

It seems that the basic ideas of the “intonation theory” are applicable to Don Emilio (Ling,1982). Such theory maintains that the human being has in his mind, as a store-house, a number of the musical elements of a certain culture, such as melodies, scales, harmonies, harmonic functions, metric and rhythmic patterns, tempo, dynamics, timbres, etc. Such elements conform to the peculiar musical vocabulary of a culture in a given period, most of the components of which have been appropriated by the members of such a culture. In the traditional music (popular, folk and primitive music), these elements function as the ingredients or raw material which the popular musician uses when composing new pieces. That is the reason why very frequently a certain folk song resembles many others. Don Emilio sings or whistles icaros the primary elements of which are present in the musical culture that surrounds him. That does not prevent him, however, from using procedures that sometimes differ from the usual musical forms of the area.

In Don Emilio’s repertoire we find icaros that are tied to very old, even pre-Columbian, musical traditions. In others we find European (Hispanic) and African influences that came to Iquitos through the Creole folk and popular music. We will call the former “old”, and the latter “new”. But before starting the analysis, it is convenient to define the nature of the icaros. They are songs or whistled melodies used by the shaman during the ritual and other shamanic practices, and through which he increases the potency of the healing capacities of ayahuasca, tobacco or any other medicinal plant. Some icaros have other magical functions, such as the possibility of communicating with the spirits, to attract the spirits of people or game, etc. The shaman does not normally use any musical instrument except the schacapa – a bundle of dry leaves – which he utilises sporadically.



The “old icaros” ; in general, end their phrases in an ascendent shape (see icaros 1, 3, 4 and 6). The “new icaros”; on the other hand, due to the influence of popular music, have a tendency to end their phrases in a descendent shape. The construction of the phrases in the “old icaros” is more free than in the new ones. For instance the icaro del Brasileño presents a regularity that is typical of western music. The structure of the melodies is based both on steppy and leapy movements, sometimes very large. The minor second intervals are used considerably less than those of major second. The most used intervals are those of major and minor thirds. Quite common also are intervals of fourth. The larger intervals (from fifths to sevenths) are very infrequent in the music of the area. Don Emilio, however, uses them sometimes, which constitutes a peculiarity of his music. The abundant use of thirds is, on the other hand, in agreement with the Andean folk music. The internal relation of the intervals used by Don Emilio corresponds to those of the western tempered chromatic scale, which he assimilated through playing the mouth organ. The ranges most used by Don Emilio are those of fifth, sixth and octave, which agree with the regional music, but the two octave range used in icaro 5 is exceptional.

The scales used by Don Emilio offer great variety and include most of the scales found in the local music. In Don Emilio’s repertoire one can find the simplest of the scales of the Andean music, and one of the oldest: the triphonic, which comprises only the three notes of the major chord (Alvarez and Grebe,1974). The most frequent scale used by Don Emilio is, at the same time, one of the most characteristic features of Andean music, the diatonic pentatonic scale (icaros l, 2, 4 and 6). The tonal center of icaros 2,4 and 6 is fixed, but that of the icaro 1 alternates continuously between A and F#, a very common phenomenon in Andean folk music (The diatonic pentatonic scale contains both the major chord and its minor relative. It is possible therefore to modulate continuously from one chord to the other, and ccordingly, its tonal center too). Something very interesting occurs in icaro 4, in which two pentatonic scales are used successively, when the scale B-C#-D#-F#-G#, with B as the tonal center modulates the scale E-F#-G#-B-C#, with E as the tonal center. This modulation in pentatonic songs is very rare, if it occurs at all, in the music of the region. Another type used is the church modal scales. For instance the Db-Myxolydian scale is used in icaro 7. A variety of the modal scales is the so-called synthetic scale, which is found in the icaros 3 and 5. In icaro 3 we have a Dorian scale, which is modified in the seventh grade thus, consisting of 8 notes, E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D-D#. In icaro 5 appears an Aeolian scale, where the sixth grade is missing, and the seventh is altered so that the complete scale is G#-A#-B-C#-D#-(E)-F#-Fx.



It is easy to see that Don Emilio’s icaros do not belong to classic Western harmony. However it is possible to apply to these icaros a modal harmony, is it occurs in the music of the area. Although such a problem will not be treated here, it is sufficient to point out that it is possible to apply to the icaro del Brasileño a harmony which is used in popular music, since the relationship of this icaro to such a musical tradition is evident.



The analysis of the rhythm of Don Emilio’s icaros shows that it is possible to find in them, all the existing rhythms of the region. In the first place, there are icaros that use a regular rhythmic pattern. Once again it is the icaro which reveals its relationship with popular music. The melodic rhythm carries internally the basic African rhythmic cell that arrived in Latin America, i.e. the syncopated motif. In this specific case, its external form is the rhythm of the Brazilian baion. (It is not fortuitous that this icaro is called the icaro of the Brazilian!). The rhythm of icaro 5 is also regular.

Another type of rhythm used is the additive, the basic structure of which is regular but which is sometimes lengthened by one or more beats. For example the material icaro, no. 4 has a regular meter of 2/4, which is lengthened by 3/4 during one measure at the end of each phrase, but which returns tQ the initial 2/4. In icaros 2 and 6 we find examples of irregular rhythm, where there are frequent changes of different rhythmic patterns. The most astonishing one is icaro 6, where there is an alternance of 2/4, 3/4, 2/8, 4/4, 9/8 and 5/8 meters. This icaro is rhythmically very rich and difficult to follow mentally, because the listener has no way of anticipating what follows. Its clear phrasing differentiates it from an icaro with free rhythm, as icaro 3, the first one that Don Emilio learned. In this last case the phrasing is more diffuse and it is full of syncopes that modify the position of the strong beats. Icaro 1 is an example of prosodic rhythm, which is very much used in the shamanic seance when the shaman calls the name of spirits or persons. In such cases the rhythm corresponds to the number of syllables contained in the words. This rhythm is the most fluid one, and it is difficult to fit it into precise rhythmic patterns.


Expressive features

The dynamics of Don Emilio’s songs have few variations. He uses only piano and pianissimo. His singing is slow, quiet and denotes great security. It can be distinguished from the regional singing in that it does not use forte and fortissimo, or shouts. On the other hand it is possible to consider as part of the icaro the blows and suctions which often end the songs. The whistled icaros present more variation than the sung once, since they contain soft aspirations and inhalations along with strongly whistled parts. A very important expressive element is the constant variation and Don Emilio introduces in the execution of the icaro. Usually, an icaro consists of a few meiouic cells that are repeated several times. For instance icaro 5 consists of a 12-rneasures melody which is repeated five times. The 12-measures melody’s structure is AB (AB) CB. The five repetitions are different, because they contain subtle melodic and/or rhythmic modifications. This feature, repeated in each of the tcaros, is even more evident if one compares different versions of one and the same icaro, since the possibilities of variations ar2 even greater, including variations in dynamics, tempo, timbre, etc.



It is possible to conclude that the doctores who taught Don Emilio his icaros are none other than the thousands of popular musicians, most of them anonymous, who created, over the centuries, the rich musical tradition of the region where Iquitos is located. Here converge musical cultures from the jungle, the Andes, the coast and popular music containing European and African elements. Against this background Don Emilio has made personal contributions which proves that he is a person of great musical sensibility. A close analysis of his repertoire would certainly be of great interest, since his magic songs and melodies are a synthesis of the entire musical culture of the area.

the entire classic treatise …

The Concept of Plants as Teachers among four Mestizo Shamans of Iquitos, Northeastern Perú


Luis Eduardo Luna

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