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Stobart, Henry - A view from the Bolivian Andes – The inspiration from the sirens



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Bodies of sound and landscapes of music:  a view from the Bolivian Andes – Henry Stobart

This [article] is based on several years of fieldwork, spread over the last decade, in a rural hamlet of ayllu Macha, northern Potosi, Bolivia. In this harsh highland environment (altitude 4100 m) most families live by herding sheep and llamas, and growing potatoes and fodder barley, with some wheat, oca and quinoa in lower-altitude fields. Several men also periodically travel to the larger towns to work as builders' labourers or porters.

The inhabitants of this hamlet are monolingual Quechua speakers, and in many ways their lifestyle is highly traditional; for example, dried llama dung remains the main fuel for cooking, water is collected by hand from the water hole, huts are made from local materials (mud bricks or stones, thatched with mountain grasses) and there is no electricity.

Music is of immense importance, but rarely heard outside the context of major social gatherings, such as fiestas or weddings, which amount to a total of about 30 days a year.  On these days music, singing and dancing are almost constant. Young women are the principal singers and men exclusively the instrumentalists, most knowing how to play at least four types of instrument. Music is intimately associated with agricultural production and each instrument, genre and dance form is linked with specific activities or times of year.

New melodies are collected each year, their origin attributed to magical spirit beings called sirinus ('sirens'). These sources of musical creation are linked with the creation of new food crops - as assurance of good health - but inappropriate contact with such musical beings may lead to illness, madness or death.

Appropriate music played in the correct contexts, as 'consolation' (kunswilu) for the forces which oversee the fortunes of the community,may be seen as directly related to the maintenance of bodily health.

However, although sound is an important dimension in ritual healing, to my knowledge music is not performed in a clinical context. 

Western European medicine is available from two small health out-posts, some two and four hours walk from the hamlet, and a hospital - at a distance of some eight hours' walk. In practice my hosts were extremely wary of these institutions, and tended to treat the hospital as a last resort.

This serves to reconfirm the local belief that people only go to hospital to die.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps