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Reviewed by:
  • Burst of Breath: Indigenous Ritual Wind Instruments in Lowland South America edited by Jonathan D. Hill and Jean-Pierre Chaumeil
  • Bernd Brabec De Mori
Jonathan D. Hill and Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, eds. Burst of Breath: Indigenous Ritual Wind Instruments in Lowland South America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. 440 pp. ISBN 978-0803220928.

Two renowned scholars in lowland South American studies, Jonathan Hill and Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, have joined forces to present an impressive collection of essays about the tantalizing topic of how ritual wind instruments are used and performed among lowland indigenous groups. The result is an indispensable contribution to lowland South American studies, a book that anybody interested in this area of research should read. It reaches well beyond describing wind instruments, their use, and the sounds they produce to provide a comprehensive and detailed compendium of indigenous rituals, cosmologies, and social relationships. Hence, the book’s title is somewhat misleading. It is not an ethnomusicological book or an organological study. The main topic, which would deserve to be mentioned in the book’s title, is the issue of gender construction and differentiation among the aforementioned communities.

The implicit focus on gender topics is because wind instrument performance in the lowlands is exclusively the duty of men, and in many indigenous rituals, women (and other noninitiates) avoid seeing the instruments in order to “allow” the men to become spirits and the music and sounds they produce to become “the spirits’ voices.” One well-known ritual, the Yuruparí (various authors in the volume describe variations in detail), implies the threat against women of being gang-raped should they see the instruments. Most essays in the volume devote some space to analyzing and deconstructing this alleged domination of men over women. As it turns out, there is only one report of rape actually being carried out “sometime between 1947 and 1953” (70), related in Menezes Bastos’s chapter. While that author maintains a surprisingly perspectivistic interpretation of the event—the men were turned into dangerous spirits when a woman saw the flutes—another contributor, Ulrike Prinz, interprets the taboo and violence connected to it as “the fear of trespassing over the established limits of gender roles and the secret longing for this experience” (286). This accounts for both men and women, as women also enact female-only rituals in which they aggressively turn on the men. It results that the ritual [End Page 286] interaction involving taboos and symbolic violence is generally accomplished to minimize interventions of dangerous forces in everyday life that would result in illness and misfortune, and to foster and nourish fertility while maintaining (more or less) egalitarian gender differentiation.

Another eminent question raised in the volume is the problem of the “sacred” and the “secret.” In reading the essays, I had the impression that the term sacred, along with shamanic, was abundantly used (especially in the editor’s introduction) though never explained. Only Acacio Piedade, in a footnote, briefly declares, “I use the term shamans in the sense of ‘those who can see clearly’” (253). Nicolas Journet explores in his essay how the “sacred” is made manifest through secrecy, an argument based on linguistic explorations around dissimulation, lying, evidentiality, and evidence obtained through “hearing” and “seeing,” respectively. What sacred would mean in a general but explicit sense is, however, left to readers. Jean-Michel Beaudet states in his afterword that “‘to control,’ ‘to punish,’ ‘masculine power,’ ‘shamanic power,’ ‘rape’ and ‘forbidden’ are all terms whose definitions are not given and whose pertinence is not demonstrated” (373). Maybe this problem is linked to the fact that still much has to be learned from lowland South American indigenous peoples about their cosmologies and rituals, and precise terminology is therefore not yet well established.

Many contributions address hearing versus seeing, and there is specific emphasis in the editors’ introductory chapter. Here, the editors provide a historical summary, some organology, and a broad overview interspersed with detailed examples. They aim to theorize many of the issues found throughout the book: “The general theme of ‘seeing’ versus ‘hearing’ cuts across the entire spectrum of naturalized, lexicalized sounds and is prevalent throughout Lowland South America” (2). Many “natural sounds...


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pp. 286-288
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