The Sound of Music: Suya Song Structure And Experience


The Sound of Music: Suyá Song Structure and Experience.

Is there anything about the sounds of a particular community's music that lends its performance a particular significance? Does it matter what kind of music people perform, as long as they perform something? While the obvious answer might be "of course it matters," the evidence isn't plentiful. I argue below that the structure of Suyá musical performance has deep cosmological significance; I shall show how the sound quality of a person's performance expresses his or her life experiences and current attitudes; and I shall argue that the feeling of "euphoria" that is supposed to characterize all ceremonies is partly derived from the experience of singing and dancing for long periods of time. Suyá singing (re)creates society, repositions the individuals within it, and (re)structures their cosmos in specific and significant ways. The purpose of the discussion is to focus attention on the sounds of music as well as on their context.

Anthropologists since Emile Durkheim have written at length about how ceremonies strengthen social ties and increase social solidarity. But few anthropologists have paid much attention to musical sounds. They have tended to focus on economics, religion, kinship, and other facets of musical performances. The Suyá certainly support the anthropological argument that rituals have important non-musical components. "When we sing we eat," an older Suyá man once exclaimed with enthusiasm, gleefully anticipating the way in which organized community labor would result in large village-wide feasts during the weeks of ceremony. "When we sing we are tough," stated a young bachelor, anticipating how the days of hard work and long hours at strenuous singing would make him stronger. A married man with young children remarked, "When we sing we are euphoric," highlighting the intense feeling of happiness and euphoria that are supposed to be felt by all participants when a ceremony is well performed. "When everyone sings it is beautiful; when just a few people sing it is bad," explained a political leader, always concerned that factional disputes might erupt during the ceremony and prevent and satisfying euphoria from being felt by all. "When we stop singing, we will be finished," said a man whose knowledge of Brazilian society was probably the best in the community, giving expression to the Suyá belief that community rituals are one of the defining features of the Suyá as a people.

To eat, grow strong, feel intense emotions, act together, and preserve a cultural identity, people need not sing at all. There are other ways these can be accomplished - even in silence. Yet the Suyá sing and dance (a single verb covers both) from the rise of the morning star to the first hint of daybreak; they sing in the evening; soloists sing during the daylight or night hours; the whole community sometimes sings through the entire night. They talk about songs and evaluate one another as singers; they admire those among them who can introduce new songs to the existing repertory. They claim that a defining feature of Suyá culture compared to their neighbors is the akia shout song.

The Suyá Indians of Brazil

The Suyá Indians belong to the Northern branch of the Gê language family. They live in the Parque Indigena do Xingu, on the Suimissu river, near where it flows into the Xingu River, which is an affluent of the Amazon River. I have been researching and collaborating with the Suyá over a period of twenty-five years, since I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. During this time I have watched them change from a small, virtually mono-lingual community at the very edge of the frontier, to becoming a larger village living near Brazilian settlers, whose clear-cut ranches lie only minutes away my motorboat.

The Suyá, like other Gê-speaking peoples such as the Gaviao, Kayapo, and Xavante, are able to mobilize their entire community and act together to protect their land. One of the ways they create consensus, and one of the ways they express their collective strength, is through singing and dancing. Both before and after decisive actions, such as retaking their traditional lands from neighboring ranches, the Suyá paint themselves, sing, and (re)create themselves as a powerful and united force. Musical performance - an important part of ritual life - is a key to their ability to act and to survive as a community.

The dual structure of songs

All Suyá music is vocal, and the only musical instruments commonly used as rattles that accompany singing. They perform two principal types of songs: individual songs (akia) that are sung solo or in groups where each individual sings a different song to the same beat set by rattles and stamping feet; and unison group songs (ngere). Although these song types are quite different in a number of respects, they share a similar overall structure.

Both akia and ngere are based on a melody, comprised of between three and six phrases, that is repeated a minimum of four times, and usually many more times. The melody is repeated until either the individual or the group's song leader wants to change to another section of the song or begin another song altogether. Sometimes the melody is repeated until a certain ceremonial action is completed, and then it is changed. Although the melody is repeated virtually identially throughout the song, both pitch and tempo may be altered during the performance. The text that accompanies the melody, however, usually changes in predictable ways, following the Suyá idea of song structure.

Virtually all songs have two halves, kradi and sindaw, which could be translated as "the first half" and "the second half" or "the beginning" and "the end." Each half is structured in a similar way. Most halves begin with a section that is "empty" or comprised of song syllables that do not refer to anything outside the song itself (what the Suyá called "song-speech"). In an akia these syllables are "te-te-te-te" with one "te" to every note of the melody. At the start of a repetition of the melody, an incomplete presentation of the text is added using everyday Suyá language. This describes an action without referring to the animal that did it - after the words describing the action. For example the text might be, "I paint my cape and leap and sing, I paint my cape and leap and sing." Later the text is amplified to include the name of an animal species, which completes the text and is the full text of that half. In an akia that might be, "Black forest deer, I paint my cape and leap and sing." After singing that one or more times, a short coda ends the section. After the first half, the singer or singers begin the second half and proceeding the same way. Figure I presents a single akia and shows how the text is sung in the eight text lines below the melody.

The reason Suyá song structure is significant is that the two-part song structure is an example of a dualism that appears over and over again in the Suyá belief system and social institutions. A Suyá once told me that "everything comes in twos: if you see one, you look around and say `where is the other one like this one?'" Time, space, and social groups are just three of the important domains that the Suyá structure in a dual way. They name two directions, east (kaikwa kradi or the beginning of the sky) and west (kaikwa indaw or the end of the sky). They divide the year into two large seasons, the rainy season (nda) and the dry season (ambedi). All Suyá men also divide themselves into two ceremonial groups or moieties, the piranhas (amban-yi) and the parakeets (kren-yi), which are associated respectively with the east and west side of the village plaza. There is an association between the piranhas and the east and the beginning or first half, and between the parakeets and the west and the end. At a certain moment in some ceremonies all singers sing the first half of their song in front of the half of the men's house belonging to the piranhas and located in the east, and then circle the plaza and go sing the second half of their song in front of the parakeet part of the men's house. In log races, the opiranhas always carry the lower or kradi side of the racing logs, and the parakeets always carry the top or sindaw. The superimposition of dual divisions (in space, in objects, and in sound) is an important part of ritual performance, where season of performance, movement in dance through space, and sounds each replicate the same patterns.

The division of music into two parts pervades all levels, from the verse level (meaningful words versus song-syllables) to the level of the song itself (the two halves of the song) to the genre level (one genre is only sung in the rainy season, another only in the dry season). Singing a song, in a very elementary way, replicates and reiterates the structure of the universe - it is an aural/oral representation of the structure of the entire cosmos - space, time, human society, and sound all expressed through sound.

Why sing dualism when it is so repeatedly expressed visually, temporally, and cosmically? The dualism of Suyá song structure makes the performance of a song the presentation (or re-creation) of an important cosmological structure. Singing the structured songs, Suyá create and express the dual organization of the universe and of their own ritual groups. But there is more to singing than just dividing a song in half. Singing style can also express individual perspectives and experiences, and music can also create significant feelings and motivations.

Singing who you are with happiness

If they structure of all songs is generally similar, the way they are sung varies according to the specific characteristics of the group or individual who is singing them. By "way they are sung" I mean the timbre, the attacks and decays of notes, and the loudness or softness of the singers.

Men and women sing differently and often sing separately, each gender with its own ceremonies. Sometimes they sing together, but form two separate lines of dancers. In general, men sing more frequently than women, who make other contributions to ceremonies through food preparation and gift giving.

Within a given gender, unison songs are generally sung the same way each time, with a great effort made by the singers to blend their voices. This is because the groups that sing together are enduring ceremonial groups - as some members age and die, they are replaced by younger members who have the same ceremonial identity. The men of the eastern moiety (piranhas) are said to sing songs slower and to sing songs about "beautiful" animals, while the western moiety (parakeets) sing faster, and name different animals. They are said to have maintained these differences for generations.

Individual shout songs, however, are performed differently by males of different ages, and performance varies also according to the mood of the singer. The singers stamp and sing separate songs. They maintain a unified rhythm by stamping in unison, but they make no attempt to blend their voices. On the contrary, the differences in their voices express differences in their age and social position. To a certain extent the development is cyclical - young boys sing "funny" shout songs with only one half while very old men (grandfathers with several grandchildren) also sing "funny" shout songs, or don't sing them at all. Figure 3 illustrates how different ages sing individual shout songs.

A man receives his shout song from a specialist who introduces new songs into the community. Since he does not make up his own, the length of the phrases and the structure are determined by a prestigious adult. He does, however, have considerable attitude about how he sings it.

When a man begins a ceremony he has a fair amount of latitude with regard to how he sings his shout song. He may sing like an adolescent to stress his enduring youth and strength, or he may being to sing like an elder to indicate his affiliation with the elders. Every time he sings, he re-states his social position - he expressed through his voice his perception of his position in the community.

In addition to expressing social position, a man can express his own personal feelings through the way he sings shout songs. Women may also express similar things through their participation (or not) in unison singing. (I use a male example here because the shout song is a male genre.) A man can communicate certain emotions that are rarely spoken, but may be expressed through song. The emotions he may express are sadness (as in sadness over the death of a relative), anger (as in anger about the distribution of food during the ceremony), or enthusiasm and euphoric happiness (the appropriate emotion for a singer). His options range from refusing to sing (and therefore publicly indicating that he is sad or angry about something) to singing with an exaggerated forcefulness that communicates his euphoria and complete immersion in the performance. When a man is very angry he remains quiet, an action that is interpreted as a very direct criticism of the event. When he is somewhat unhappy but not actually angry, he may sing an old song rather than learn a new one, or sing without energy and for a short time compared to "euphoric" participants. When he wishes to indicate his happiness and full involvement, his stamping will be exaggerated, his singing loud, and he will perform for hours without resting. When Suyá listen to a group of men singing individual shout songs, what they listen for are the individual melodies and songs, and the individual expressions of position and emotion.

Completely involved happiness

Euphoria is an essential component of Suyá music and dance, just as it is for a great deal of music around the world. According to the Suyá, participants in song and dance experience a physiological thrill, a special "flow," a particular satisfaction from singing and dancing strenuously for hours on end. To a certain extent this may be the result of an altered state of consciousness brought on by strenuous rhythmic singing and dancing for long periods of time. Unlike many other Amazonian communities, the Suyá rarely use home-made alcoholic beverages and never use hallucinogens as part of their ritual activities. The Suyá have said over and over again, "When we sing we are happy; when we are happy we sing." This circularity may explain the importance of singing the cosmological structure and not just talking about it, and of singing in rituals and not just walking through the events. They say there is a unique and enjoyable feeling derived from this physical and cosmological activity.


There are many other significant parts of Suyá musical performance that space does not allow me to describe - including body ornamentation, dance, the origin of songs and the way new songs are introduced - but these are discussed in a book (Seeger 1987). I have, however, demonstrated some of the ways in which the cosmos, the life cycle, and deep personal experiences are expressed through song.

While it has often been argued that singing and dancing can reinforce cultural identity by unifying participants around an event, scholars have rarely recognized that the sounds of the music are a part of the process. For the Suy, however, the sound and structure of musical performances are clearly a means of experiencing the cosmos and expressing individual attitudes. The act of singing in itself creates the structures and creates feelings that are important to the Suyá. It is no wonder they sing before embarking on collective activities, and it is perhaps prescient of the Suyá elders to say, "when we stop singing, we will be finished."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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