Monday, May 14, 2012

Spirit Voices

One of Simon's most purely lovely songs. Listening to it feels like watching a leaf float down a sparkling river. I would not be surprised to find it in compilations of music meant for meditation.

Simon's songs expand both our musical and lexical vocabularies. The terms we learn this time are "banyan"-- a type of fig tree that takes root, not in the ground, but in other trees-- and "brujo," a warlock (male witch), but of a healing magic; a more accurate translation would probably be "shaman." The word is Spanish.

The song begins by taking the listener up a "wide" river (the Amazon?) through a tropical jungle. After the ride, there is a nap on soft leaves. Falling asleep, the narrator hears night sounds and attributes them to the voices of spirits. Evidently, to pass the time on the voyage, the sailors told, or sang, ancient stories of mystery and magic, and these were of some suggestive influence.

The travelers were resting up for another leg of the journey, by moonlight, and this time by foot. The path is made of "river stones," so we assume that the path is near the river. 

The destination is the cabin of the brujo, the mystical healer. Not surprisingly, at least to those of us with children, nursing mothers are found there awake, feeding their babies. The other patients include victims of "fevers" and "broken bones," common sights in any emergency room in the world.

It seems unlikely that a tourist or visiting researcher would visit so late. We can only assume, at this point, that the speaker is in need of healing himself.

Our speaker begins to wait his turn, and he watches the healing rites as he does. First, it is so still that he can perceive the flicker of the candle that illuminates the proceedings, and hear the distant cry of a falcon, and notice a small lizard flick by. 

And these sounds, now that he is attuned to them, seem to sing. They, not the voice of the brujo, seem to be the ones singing about the unity of the world's waters: "rainwater, seawater/ River water, holy water." Not that this is water especially blessed to become holy-- but that all this water already is holy. 

"Wrap this child in mercy" seems a universal enough prayer of healing. As does "heal her," the fact that Moses prays this for its leprosy-stricken sister Miriam in Exodus notwithstanding ("Please, God, please-- heal her, please.") But then comes a decidedly Western line: "Heaven’s only daughter." This seems incongruous, given the setting, but it may be the speaker, moved by the plight of the sick child and the brujo's caring ministrations, injecting his own prayer, taken from his own understanding of the spiritual.

Whatever symptoms the speaker had that brought him to the "brujo's door" were mild enough to allow the trip. Now that he is there and he is relaxed enough for his adrenaline to subside, they manifest: "My hands were numb/ My feet were lead."

The brujo now waits on our speaker. He gives him a dose of "herbal brew." There is now a noticeable "sweetness in the air"-- possibly some sort of aromatherapy incense lit by the brujo. This "combine[s] with the lightness in my head"-- the potion is taking effect! 

The result is a sort of auditory hallucination: "I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo." The voice of this breath is performed by Brazillian musician Milton Nascimento (more on him below), in a falsetto that recalls that of Rev. Claude Jeter from "Take Me to the Mardi Gras." 

The Portuguese is available at Simon's site, but it's short, so here it is:
"Greetings! Excuse me, one moment. 
I remind you that, tomorrow, it will be all or it will be nothing. It depends, Heart. 
It will be brief or it will be great. It depends on the passion. 
It will be dirty, it will be a dream. Be careful, Heart. 
It will be useful, it will be late. Do your best, Heart,
And have trust in the power of tomorrow."

Ordinarily, I would say that the "Heart" is one's beloved. But this is a medical situation! I think that the brujo is speaking to his patient's actual heart, which he believes can hear and understand him, after a fashion. In Western terms, this is a role play of sorts, or a visualization. A Western therapist might say to a patient: "Imagine your heart healing" or "Talk to your heart and tell it you want it to heal." Studies show that this can help!

In any case, the herbal medicine and talk therapy are powerful. There is a strong reaction in the patient. He imagines himself in an earthquake, he is shaking so much! Then he realizes that only his bed is "trembling," and no others. This realization seems to indicate that consciousness has been regained... and a corner turned in his illness. 

This is symbolized by a spider, evidently disturbed by his spasm to the point at which is was simply hanging on to the bedstead and trying not to be shaken loose, now feeling confident enough to "resume" spinning the web it began earlier. The use of the word "rhythm" can also indicate his own heart, now pumping evenly. 

The worst over, the speaker drifts off to sleep, lulled by the night sounds-- the spirit voices-- of the jungle.

Singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento had national acclaim in his native Brazil before he broke internationally on a 1974 album by Wayne Shorter. He has worked with everyone from other jazz cats like Quincy Jones and George Duke to folkies like Simon and Cat Stevens. 

In 1993, Nascimento worked with Duran Duran. On his own 1994 release, everyone from jazz's Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock to folk-pop's James Taylor and Peter Gabriel sat in. 

Next Song: The Rhythm of the Saints


  1. I've read that this song is specifically about Paul Simon taking Ayahuasca. I can't find the primary source, but there are articles like the one below that quote him talking about it.

    "His song "Spirit Voices" is based on his experiences taking the drug [ayahuasca]. He said: "We went to see a [shaman] in a shack in a jungle. He chanted these beautiful melodies and then they made up this brew, and they said the anaconda will appear to you ... but no anaconda appeared."

  2. Drew-- Interesting! I'd love to see the original article-- Simon did spend some time in Brazil recording this album, so it's possible he sampled the local... practices, out of curiosity or respect or both. I wonder if he worked any of the shaman's melodies into the album's songs, too.

  3. Just saw him in concert and confirmed the ayahuasca thing - from the horse's mouth, he mentioned it by name.

  4. Michael-- Thanks for the confirmation! At least we know the part about the herbal medicine being true. Whether the whole boat trip was part of it is another story, but of course the song has meaning whether it tells a factual story or not.

  5. The Amazon trip was definitely real. It is recounted in the new Paul Simon bio "Homeward Bound" and Carrie talks about it as well in her one woman show Wishful Drinking. Whether the brujo and subsequent was truly the breaking point to their relationship is an interesting question.

    Seeking happiness, Simon and Fisher visited a brujo (a spiritual healer) in the Amazon where Simon was recording an album. Under a shroud of darkness, Carlin writes that the brujo sang as the couple drank a special tea made from the leaves of a psychedelic plant and caapi vine — a recipe designed to cleanse their spirits. While Simon rested his head in Fisher’s lap, she said she had a vision.

    She described “feeling pinned beneath Paul’s ever-spinning, ever-controlling brain; about the way he, like so many powerful men she knew, assumed his expertise and control over every situation,” writes Carlin. After this revelation, they left Brazil and Fisher left Simon for good.

  6. Elizabeth-- I'm not saying Fisher didn't tell this story, but I am curious as to when it took place.
    The Rhythm of the Saints album came out in 1990. Simon and Fisher divorced in 1984; even Graceland came out after that, in 1986.
    So... I guess what I'm asking is: when did Simon and Fisher visit the Amazon together? They were married for a year or less.

  7. They started dating and then living together off and on for 6 years within months of the divorce. I am pretty sure the trip was 1990. Carrie talks about in in several interviews of the time (late '90, early '91).

  8. Elizabeth-- Thanks for clearing that up. I knew I should have gone to Carrie Fisher's one-woman show when I had the chance...

  9. I didn't think about it either until rewatching that 1991 60 Minutes piece with Paul and wondering why he was still nearly in tears talking about the power of their love. It would be really interesting to go back and read more interviews or other first hand accounts of the time because there have to be at least nine songs over the three albums haunted by their relationship (although according to Carrie only nine :).

  10. Elizabeth-- I know about, but have not yet read, the new biography on Simon. Maybe something is in there. I also have a book that's a compilation of his interviews.
    It is amazing how some people should not be together, yet can not stay apart...

  11. She has said they both worked very hard to save the relationship but 12 years is still unhealthy enough when two people can't live with the situation, can't see a way to permanently leave, and can't bear the anguish of what they are experiencing. The book emphasizes drug use and personality conflicts but the exhaustion of keeping up with her bipolar disorder was probably what finally frayed their remarkable connection almost to the breaking point.

  12. Elizabeth-- You want to love the person, but so much about them gets in the way as to make it impossible. Love can conquer almost all, but like Neil Young said about rust, mental illness never sleeps. What a shame.

  13. Paul goes into the details of that trip here: Timothy White, “The Rhythm Method: Paul Simon's Solo Expeditions,”. Goldmine 18, no. 7 (April 3, 1992). Apparently the brujo (spiritualist doctor) he and Carrie visited was about half a mile off the Amazon and suggested by an engineer on the boat. She didn't get the snakes either so don't know what is up with that.

  14. Elizabeth-- Thanks for that. It puts things in some context. As "Goldmine" a magazine?

  15. It is. And the interview is also reprinted (at least in part) on the liner notes of one of the issues of the CD. As soon as I get my copy back I will try to post more details, and which version. Or you can pay good money like I did and order a back copy of the magazine. Although it isnt ever clear what happened to the disorder which led them to the brujo in the first place. The Carlin biography chalks it up to a relationship issue but according to Paul what Carrie tried explaining apparently got lost in translation and the healer ended up thinking she said that he simply had a sore elbow. Which of course was far too trivial to access or be a conduit for various higher levels of spiritual energies (We dont deal with those kinds of problems here !...). But at least they got the drugs.

  16. Elizabeth-- It seems like a long way to go (a river trip, camping out overnight) just to treat a sore elbow, so it must have been more than that. But if she was the only one with a medical issue, why did he get the drug, too?
    And if it was a "relationship issue," why wouldn't they seek a therapist, or at least someone who spoke English? Although I admit there may be some relationship issues that are probably best dealt with using, shall we say, herbal remedies.

  17. First of all just let me say I believe the visit was to gather material for the song primarily. The book version of their relationship, and especially the Amazon trip, is a fairly typical unauthorized biographical account, filled with innuendo and rumor and sensation because that is what sells it. Unfortunately it has gotten more attention than deserved since her death but that is another story.

    And secondly just for the record I was the one that misremembered the events as recounted by Paul. What apparently happened was that Carrie talked to the brujo about her problem but that he misunderstood her as saying that it was Paul who had the issue. When Paul was asked it was then that he brought up the elbow and was informed we don't deal with things like that here. I know that he went to visit a Brazilian faith healer in 2014 at the urging of his wife who had gone after the domestic violence incident but that also inspired Proof of Love. It would seem very out of character for either he or Carrie to seek out a visionary/ psychedelic experience without getting anything else out of it I guess is what I am trying to say.

  18. Elizabeth-- Thanks for all the research you have done on this! You are certainly thorough.

  19. Thanks ! Although I'm still curious how closely the 'icaros' or Portuguese lyrics resemble the real ones in an authentic ayahuasca ceremony as they might have attended. Paul has said that he tried to remember what he could (in a foreign language and after drinking the brew, taking their problems etc !)...but that Nascimento actually ended up writing them. This is years before ayahuasca tourism became a business (ie led to an influx of Westerners visiting the Amazon to dress up like the indigenous people and bastardize their rituals) so it would probably be hard to retrace exactly what they might have heard that night but it would still be interesting to find a good quality recording from a native practitioner if those in fact do exist.

  20. Elizabeth-- It would be interesting to know how closely this chant or prayer echoes the traditional ones, yes. But would even those be in Portuguese-- or in a native, tribal language? Perhaps if it is clear that the person being prayed for is not a native speaker, the vernacular is employed so that the petitioner may understand the prayer as well.

  21. That is a good point. We don't know who came along to act as guide or translator except most likely the engineer on the boat that knew of the brujo and suggested paying a visit their last night in the country. But the ceremonial chant would have set the very different intention of calling upon the energy of the ayahuasca, along with various other natural forces, to create an altered state of consciousness in the mind of the participants. It would be a meditational space of healing and medicine that has no relation that I can see to the lyrics in the song.

  22. Elizabeth-- Well, then maybe it is just an additional thought or commentary added by the Portuguese poet. If nothing else, it lets the listener experience a beautiful language they might otherwise never have heard.

  23. What the 'tomorrow' reference signals we can't be sure but almost surely a reflection on his last night in Brazil as well as the imminent break with Carrie over the next several days.

  24. Elizabeth-- I haven't had a chance to read the book yet. Maybe I'll have more to say on this after I do.