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John P. Murphy (1999)

Historical Sources: Pero Vaz de Caminha (1500); Johann von Staden (1557); Jean de Léry (1578); Fernão Cardim (1584); Gabriel Soares de Sousa (1587); Gaspar Barleu (1647); João Daniel (1776); Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Newwied (1820); Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius (1823); Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1917–28)—Twentieth-century ethnohistorical researchConclusions

EARLY ACCOUNTS OF ABORIGINAL LIFE in the territory that Europeans called Brazil since 1511 are precious documents for several reasons. Even in their fragmentary form, they reconstruct an approximation of musical practices among the first indigenous groups that Europeans encountered, thus preserving—in part—the history of peoples without a written language. Twentieth-century ethnographers, including those with a special focus on music, have used these accounts to reconstruct Amerindian life in the early decades and centuries after contact, and to formulate hypotheses about the historical consciousness of Amerindian groups. Moreover, European images of Brazilian Indians were a powerful element in the shaping of the “Invention” of America (O’Gorman 1961; Kuss 1993: 188–189, fn. 6, 7).

The chronicles that described aboriginal life in Brazil provoked as much interest as any of the reports from the New World, and their impact resonated in European intellectual life for centuries afterward. “Of all the New World peoples encountered by Europeans, the Tupinambá entered most freely into the European imagination. They were to be given memorable literary form by Montaigne: they are the ‘Cannibals’ of his famous essay [ca. 1580], for which [Jean de] Léry was probably an important source” (Whatley in Léry [1580] 1990: xxiv; Bohlman 1991). The following spectacle greeted the visiting Henry II at Rouen in 1550:

On an island in the Seine was set up a mock Brazilian village, where fifty real Tupinamba Indians, joined by two hundred fifty sailors in savage guise (naked and painted black and red) hunted, cut brazilwood, fought, and danced among trees swarming with monkeys and parrots (Whatley in Léry [1580] 1990: xxiv–xxv; Veiga 1981: 203–4).

The German mercenary Johann von Staden (ca. 1525–ca. 1576), held captive by the Tupinambá in 1549 for nearly a year, gave the world one of its icons of “cannibalism” in a woodcut by an unknown artist, reproduced in the 1557 edition of his famous account (Fig. 1) (Bruhns 1994: 354). (“Tupinambá” appears in the literature with and without an accent on the final vowel. The accent is included here; quotations follow orthography of the original. “Tupi” is sometimes written with an accent on the final letter, omitted here since the final “i” is normally accented in Portuguese.)

Chroniclers’ descriptions of music-making among Brazilian Indians have played an important role in music history and ethnomusicology. Their importance rests not in their accuracy, since few of the chroniclers were trained in music, but in the way they could inform contemporary ethnography to build a more complete description of the means and meanings of performance during the period between first contact with Europeans and the beginning of modern ethnomusicological research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Ethnohistory has been defined as “the history of peoples without a written language” (Millones 1982: 200). In the case of Brazil, the early history of Amerindian peoples was written primarily by chroniclers, colonizers, missionaries, and travelers, each of whom entered the contact situation with a particular set of expectations, motivations, and sensitivities toward music. Very few chroniclers, if any, understood these musical practices from the native—or emic—viewpoint, but from the perspective of observers lodged in Western European frames of reference. Most important, when these observations were recorded, the modes of thinking of many peoples without written languages—whose concept of time was cyclical and concentric (at least in its manner of formulation)—were transferred to an “irreversibly linear” European discourse, and subjected to systems of interpretation that justified the historical and pragmatic goals of the conquerors in Judeo-Christian rhetoric. Modern ethnology has challenged the incontrovertible authority that the “written” word of the chronicles acquired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly on grounds that these documents substantially affect (subvert) the internal logic of indigenous discourse. What is now called psychohistory, or cultural psychoanalysis supported by the evidence of history, anthropology, and archaeology, seeks to answer such questions as how were indigenous modes of thinking altered and modified by the imposition of Western European, linear logic, and what patterns of indigenous thought can be rescued from these linear presentations of their cultural practices (Hernández, Lemlij, Millones, Péndola, Rostworowski 1987: xiii–xviii). Consequently, any attempt to understand the musics of Amerindian groups in the first centuries of contact with Europeans through the evidence of chronicles must account for the motivations, cultural preconceptions, and varying levels of musical accomplishment of a diverse set of observers.

This essay presents a selective overview of written accounts of the music of indigenous peoples in Brazil during the period bounded by the first written description (in the letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha, 1500) and the early twentieth century (Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s Vom Roroima zum Orinoco [1917–28], based on travels in 1911–13). Indigenous music, as described in the chroniclers’ accounts, was never just “instrumental” music, or “singing,” or “dancing,” despite the European disposition to categorize them separately. All the reports reviewed here stress their integration in most Amerindian musical events. This article is organized in two sections: the first contextualizes and recounts the observations of the chroniclers and scientists who mentioned music in the most detailed manner; the second summarizes recent research on history, myth, and music in Native South America that carries an ethnohistorical focus.


Most musical descriptions in the chronicles are fleeting observations, subjective impressions of singing, quick verbal sketches of instruments, and the like. Even if a thorough sampling of them were possible, a coherent picture of Amerindian musical life in the centuries following the arrival of Europeans in Brazil would be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. Readers of Portuguese can consult copious citations of these sources in Helza Camêu’s Introdução ao estudo da música indígena brasileira (1977), an important collection of early writings on Brazilian Amerindian music. Manuel Vicente Ribeiro Veiga’s Toward a Brazilian Ethnomusicology: Amerindian Phases (1981) contributes a critical approach to the treatment of indigenous musics in Brazilian research, and also includes many extracts from the chronicles. The source for many of the English translations of writings cited below is Veiga (1981); unless otherwise indicated, translations from the Portuguese are by John P. Murphy.

Pero Vaz de Caminha (1500)

The first written descriptions can be found in the letter from Pero Vaz de Caminha to King Manoel I of Portugal of May 1, 1500, which describes the arrival of the explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral on the coast of Bahia. Caminha was a Portuguese notary headed to Calcutta with Cabral’s fleet of thirteen ships and 1200 men (Veiga 1981: 127–28). While traveling south toward the Cape of Good Hope, the expedition veered westward and eventually landed on the coast of present-day Bahia. Cabral called the land Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross) (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 5). In medieval Europe, trees that provided a red dye were given names derived from the Latin braxile or brasilium, which referred to an East Indian dye-wood tree called sappan (caesalpinia sappan). The tree that became the first export item from the newly discovered land was used to make red dye, and therefore called pau do brasil, or brazilwood (Hemming 1978: 8). Thus, the Terra da Vera Cruz became Terra do Brasil, named after the tree. The name Brazil first appeared on a map in 1511 (Burns 1980: 27). Caminha’s letter was sent back to Lisbon with a cargo of brazilwood before the rest of the expedition continued to India (Hemming 1978: 8), where its author died in battle shortly after his arrival (Parry and Keith 1984: 5).

The people encountered in Brazil by Cabral’s party were probably the Tupiniquin, one of the groups that comprised the Tupi peoples who resided along the coast from present-day São Paulo to the northeast and into the Amazon region; among the others were the Tupinambá, Caeté, Potiguara, Timinino, and Carijó (Veiga 1981: 130; Wagley 1977: 27). The coastal Tupi no longer exist, their descendants having migrated inland or succumbed to the various negative effects of the Europeans’ arrival, but they are recalled in the modern linguistic designation of Tupi-Guaraní speakers; other principal native language families are formed by speakers of Gê, Carib, and Arawak languages. The use of the Tupi-Guaraní language by non-Amerindians became widespread during the colonial era, when it was referred to as língua geral, or lingua franca.

Caminha was a meticulous and sympathetic observer who found the Indians physically attractive:

In appearance they are dark, somewhat reddish, with good faces and good noses, well shaped . . . nor do they eat anything except manioc, of which there is much, and the seeds and the fruits which the earth and the trees produce. Nevertheless, with this they are stronger and better fed than we are with all the wheat and vegetables which we eat (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 6, 13).

He described the natives’ lip piercing, body painting, feathered headdresses, and communal houses. About the land itself he had nothing but praise.

The potential for converting the Indians to Christianity is a prominent theme in Caminha’s letter. His image of an “innocent” and “natural” people antedates Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s myth of the “noble savage” by more than two centuries:

They seem to me [to be] people of such innocence that, if one could understand them and they us, they would soon be Christians, because they do not have or understand any belief, as it appears …. For it is certain [that] these people are good and of pure simplicity, and there can easily be stamped upon them whatever belief we wish to give them … (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 13).

Caminha’s letter describes music-making by both the Tupiniquin and the Portuguese, who played and sang sacred and secular music. During the first Mass celebrated on Brazilian soil, on April 26, 1500, some two hundred Indians witnessed the event from a beach, approximately 150 meters from the small island where the Mass took place (Veiga 1981: 138):

While we were at Mass and at the sermon, about the same number of people were on the shore as yesterday with their bows and arrows, who were amusing themselves and watching us; and they sat down, and when the Mass was finished and we were seated for the sermon, many of them arose and blew a horn or trumpet and began to leap and dance for a while … (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 8).

According to Veiga, the horn was probably a shell trumpet, the uatapú. Perhaps the distance of the Tupiniquin from the site of the Mass was responsible for the fact that Caminha made no mention of vocal music, which both Camëu (1977: 20) and Veiga (1981: 149) find remarkable.

Diogo Dias, one of Caminha’s companions, joined in music and dance with the Tupiniquin:

… on the other side of the river were many of them, dancing and amusing themselves before one another, without taking each other by the hand, and they did it well. Then Diogo Dias, who was revenue officer of Sacavem, crossed the river. He is an agreeable and pleasure-loving man, and he took with him one of our bagpipe players and his bagpipe, and began to dance among them, taking them by the hands, and they were delighted and laughed and accompanied him very well to the sound of the pipe. After they had danced he went along the level ground, making many light turns and a remarkable leap which astonished them, and they laughed and enjoyed themselves greatly. And although he reassured and flattered them a great deal with this, they soon became sullen like wild men and went away upstream (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 10).

More dancing followed a few days later:

While they were there that day, they continually skipped and danced with us to the sound of one of our tambours, in such a manner that they are much more our friends than we theirs (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 13).

The Portuguese made music for their own enjoyment as well: “We came to the ships to eat, playing trumpets and pipes without troubling [the Indians] further” (Caminha 1500 in 1938, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 9).

Johann von Staden (1557)

Unlike many chroniclers, Johann von Staden (Hans Staden, ca. 1525–ca. 1576) was not a missionary but a German mercenary who was captured by the Tupinambá in 1549 and threatened with death by cannibalism for almost a year (Camêu 1977: 23; Veiga 1981: 177). He managed the artillery at a Portuguese fort on the island of Santo Amaro, near the port of Santos (Hemming 1978: 31). Given the intense European interest in cannibalism, his Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft der Wilden / Nacketen / Grimmigen Menschfresser Leuthen / in der Newenwelt America gelegen … [True History and Description of a Country of Primitive Peoples in the American New World …] (Marburg, 1557), an account of two voyages to Brazil in 1546–48 and 1549–55, is one of the most famous chronicles. Staden’s descriptions of musical events and instruments, together with the woodcuts by an unknown artist, provide valuable information on Tupinambá musical practices.

Donald W. Forsyth, in “Three Cheers for Hans Staden: The Case for Brazilian Cannibalism” (1985: 17–36), makes a methodical case for the reliability of Staden’s chronicle, which had been attacked by William Arens in The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979). By means of a close reading of Staden’s text and comparison with other sources, Forsyth establishes that Staden was the author of the chronicle; that he knew the Tupi language; that Tupinambá cannibalism was practiced as Staden describes; and that Staden did not plagiarize his account. We can speculate, then, that the descriptions of music-making in the 1557 chronicle also are reliable (Fig. 1).



Fig. 1: “The classic Western icon of cannibalism” in Johann von Staden’s Wahrhaftige Historia (1557), reproduced in Bruhns (1994: 354).

In Staden’s account, music-making is associated with the treatment of the maracá (gourd rattle) as a sacred instrument, the use of music in battle, and the ritual killing of prisoners:

They believe in a thing which grows, like a pumpkin, about the size of a half-quart pot. It is hollow inside; they pass through it a stick, cut a hole in it like a mouth, and put therein small stones, so that it may rattle. Herewith they rattle when they sing and dance, and call it Tammaraka [maracá] (Staden 1557 in 1874, cited in Parry and Keith 1984: 41).

Pajés [shamans] traveled from village to village and blessed all the maracás that were presented to them. The maracás were used in rituals for predictions, for ceremonies preceding the killing of prisoners, and for war preparations (Veiga 1981: 188).

Shell trumpets called matapú or uatapú were played in battle, as were trumpets made of gourds: “They attack amid great shouting, pounding on the ground, and blowing on their instruments which are made of gourds” (Staden 1557 in 1963, cited in Veiga 1981: 179, 182). Staden himself was forced to wear fruit-shell rattles called uaí:

From the place where they shaved my eyebrows, the women took me in front of the hut where their gods, the Maracás, were, and made a circle around me. I stood in the middle. Two women next to me tied one leg with a string sewn with rattling devices, and they placed a square fan made of parrot feathers behind my neck and going over my head, which they call araçoiá. Afterwards all the women started to sing. I had to stamp down with my leg to which the rattles were attached in time to their beat, so that the rattling and their singing fit (Staden 1557 in 1963: 60, cited in Veiga 1981: 183).

Manuel Vicente Ribeiro Veiga Jr. summarizes Staden’s contributions as follows:

… the Tupinambá between Rio and São Vicente spent long hours in dancing and singing. Most of it was of a ritual sort, supporting their belligerent way of life. Rattles were sacred instruments invested with power. Made according to specific conventions regarding color, decoration, and shape of the opening, they were kept in isolated huts; only men played them. During the dancing … [that preceded] prisoners’ killings, more modest jingle garters called uaís also played their roles as communicators with the spirit world; the beat of the uaí coincides with women’s singing during the long ritual of preparation. To incite war or inspire terror, aerophones—complex trumpets—were the paramount instrument; leaders such as Cunhambebe included trumpeters in their retinues (1981: 190).

Jean de Léry (1578)

Jean de Léry (1534–1613) served as a Calvinist missionary near present-day Rio de Janeiro in 1557–58. He lived in a time of intense conflict between Catholics and Protestants in France. The Huguenot Léry’s chief rival as chronicler of Brazil was André Thevet, a Catholic. Throughout his Histoire d’un Voyage faict en la Terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique (1578), written two decades after his return from Brazil, and during a period in which he survived religious massacres and famines, Léry mingles descriptions of Tupi warfare with references to religious cruelty in his homeland. The third edition of Léry’s chronicle (1585) is famous for its inclusion of the earliest notated transcriptions of Amerindian music.

Jean de Léry and other chroniclers figure prominently in two of the grand narratives of Brazilian civilization. In Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves], Gilberto Freyre relies heavily on Léry, Staden, Cardim, Soares de Sousa, and others, for insights into Brazilian life during the colonial era:

For a knowledge of the social history of Brazil no source is more dependable than the travel books written by foreigners—although it is necessary to exercise great discrimination between superficial writers and those whose work, though suggestive or informative, is vitiated by preconceptions (the Thevets, Expillys, Dabadies) and the good and honest ones like Léry, Hans Staden … (Freyre 1933 in 1987: xlviii).

Thoughts of Léry filled Claude Lévi-Strauss’s mind as he arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1934: “I walked the Avenida Rio-Branco, once a site occupied by Tupinamba villages, but in my pocket I carried Jean de Léry, the anthropologist’s breviary” (1974: 81). In Tristes tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss compares his encounters with indigenous groups with those of the 16th-century chroniclers:

However little was known about the Indians of the Pimenta Bueno, I could not expect them to make the same impact on me as they had made on the great chroniclers, such as Léry, Staden and Thevet, who set foot on Brazilian territory four hundred years ago. What they saw then, no Western eye will ever see again (1955 in 1974: 326).

The authenticity of Léry’s account of his stay in Brazil has caused considerable scholarly debate. According to Francisco Rodrigues Leite (1946: 92, cited in Veiga 1981: 192), Léry’s perceptive compilation of Thevet, Gómara, Staden, and a few others, could account for everything in his work, except for the musical notations—which do not appear in any other source (Figs. 2 through 6).



Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6: The earliest known transcriptions of Brazilian Indian music, as notated by Jean de Léry in the third edition (1585) of his 1578 chronicle, reproduced in Camêu 1977: 87, 89, 91–93.

Léry’s transcriptions were analyzed by Luiz Heitor Corrêa de Azevedo (1946) and are discussed by Veiga (1981: 191–220). Best known as “Luiz Heitor,” this revered architect of Brazil’s music history searched for the most reliable versions of the Tupinambá melodies notated by Léry. The inquiry led him to compare the notated melodies found in the French editions of 1585, 1600, and 1611, and in the Latin editions of 1586 and 1594, with 20th-century Brazilian versions (Azevedo 1946: 90). He found many divergences between them:

In [the first and fourth melodies], the modifications introduced in the Brazilian version are such as to make the melody more singable and especially more acceptable to the European feeling for measured rhythm (1946: 94).

Luiz Heitor’s explanation is that the melodies were modified when they were included, along with Léry’s account, in the third part of Theodor de Bry’s Great Voyages, a famous compendium of travel lore published between 1591 and 1600:

Now, it is precisely in this beautiful volume, in which all was done to charm the eye, that we find the “falsification” of our Tupynambá melodies …. The purpose of the editor was most probably to make more pleasing to European ears the rude and asymmetrical songs of the Indians of Brazil. To do this he [the editor] modified the value of some notes or added a few notes to alter the plainchant that would have been incompatible with the anti-Gothic spirit of the century (Azevedo 1946: 95).

Despite questions raised about how much in Léry’s account represents transmission from previous sources, a modern reader can learn at least three things from his Histoire. First, Léry describes performances, such as the mourning ritual from which three of the transcribed melodies were drawn, as well as the tradition of drinking cauim (manioc beer). Second, he describes the treatment given the maracá. Finally, and predictably, the account reflects that the worldview of each party in the contact situation shaped their participation, as in the words and actions of Léry and his associates, and in the pervasively Christian interpretations of what they observed.

The mourning ritual described in Léry’s Chapter XVI took place every three or four years, involving from 500 to 600 people. Léry and a companion, confined with the women,

began to hear in the men’s house (not thirty feet from where we stood) a very low murmur, like the muttering of someone reciting his Hours. Upon hearing this, the women (about two hundred of them) all stood up and clustered together, listening intently. The men little by little raised their voices and were distinctly heard singing all together and repeating this syllable of exhortation, He, he, he, he; the women, to our amazement, answered them from their side, and with a trembling voice; reiterating that same interjection He, he, he, he, [they] let out cries, for more than a quarter of an hour, [such] that as we watched them we were utterly disconcerted (Léry 1580 in 1990: 141).

Léry found the music sung next more appealing, so he moved closer:

Now since I promised earlier, when I spoke of the dancing at their drinking bouts and caouinages, that I would also tell of their other way of dancing, the [one] to represent them more fully, I will describe the solemn poses and gestures that they used there. They stood close to each other, without holding hands or stirring from their place, but arranged in a circle, bending forward, keeping their bodies slightly stiff, moving only the right leg and foot, with the right hand placed on the buttocks, and the left hand and arm hanging: in that posture they sang and danced.
Because there were so many of them, there were three circles, and in the middle of each circle there were three or four of these caraïbes (or chieftains), richly decked in robes, headdresses, and bracelets made of beautiful natural feathers of various colors, holding in each hand a maraca or rattle made of a fruit bigger than an ostrich-egg …. So that (as they said) the spirit might thereafter speak through these rattles, to dedicate them to this use they made them sound incessantly (Léry 1580 in 1990: 142).

Along with short musical examples, Léry provides an illustration that shows two Tupinambá men playing a maracá and a fruit-shell rattle (Léry 1580 in 1990: 143) (Fig. 7). An interpreter summarized the meaning of the songs:

He told me that at the beginning of the songs they had uttered long laments for their dead ancestors, who were so valiant, but in the end, they had taken comfort in the assurance that after their death they would join them behind the high mountains, where they would dance and rejoice with them. Likewise, they had pronounced violent threats against the Ouetaca (a nation of enemy savages, who, as I have said elsewhere, are so warlike that they have never been able to subdue them), to capture and eat them, as their caraïbes had promised. Moreover, mingled in their songs there was mention of waters that had once swelled so high above their bounds that all the earth was covered, and all the people in the world were drowned, except their ancestors, who took refuge in the highest trees (Léry 1580 in 1990: 144).

Elsewhere Léry provides melodies associated with a large fish, camourou pouy-ouassou, and with a yellow bird, canidé ioune (Fig. 2), upon which the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) composed Canidé-Ioune-Sabath, the first of Três poemas indígenas (1926), in two settings (for voice and piano; and for voice, chorus, and orchestra) (Azevedo 1946: 90).

Léry describes the ritual feeding of the maracás: the ritual specialists ask each family to decorate a maracá, fasten it to the ground in front of their house, and make offerings of food to it for two or three weeks. Léry and his party would take some of this food and eat it, offending their Tupinambá hosts:

If, when we seized the occasion to point out their errors, we told them that the caraïbes, who gave it out that the maracás ate and drunk, were deceiving them; and also, that is was not the caraïbes (as they falsely boasted) who caused their fruits and their big roots to grow, but rather the God in whom we believe and whom we were making known to them—well, that had about as much effect as speaking against the Pope over here, or saying in Paris that the reliquary of St. Geneviève doesn’t make it rain (Léry 1580 in 1990: 145).
Fig. 7: Tupinambá Indians playing maracás (globular rattles) and string rattles, reproduced in Camêu (1977: 205) from Jean de Léry’s 1578 edition of his chronicle.

The Tupinambá countered the Frenchmen’s exhortation to pray to God with a myth of their own:

… another old man spoke up: “Certainly you have told us of marvels that we had never heard of. Still, your discourse has recalled to me something we often heard our grandfathers tell of: a long time ago, so many moons ago that we cannot count them, a Mair (that is, a Frenchman or a stranger) dressed and bearded like some of you, came into this country, and, thinking to bring them to an obedience to your God, spoke to them in the same manner that you have just done. But, as we have also heard from father to son, they refused to believe. And so there came another who, as a sign of a curse, left them the sword with which we have been killing each other ever since. And we have entered so far into our possession of it that if we were to desist and abandon our custom, all neighboring nations would mock us” (Léry 1580 in 1990: 147).

The chroniclers’ accounts may be as useful in tracing similarities in patterns of mythico-historical consciousness over a long time-span, as they are in illuminating musical practices.

Fernão Cardim (1584)

In 1553, Brazil became the “first foreign province” of the Society of Jesus, whose organization by Saint Ignatius of Loyola had been approved by the Pope in 1540 (Hemming 1978: 97). Led by Manoel da Nóbrega to Brazil, the Jesuits devoted much energy to learning about the new land and its inhabitants, and produced important early works on natural history and Indian languages and customs. As the Portuguese settlers expanded their holdings along the coast, the Jesuits resettled Indian groups in aldeias or aldeamentos (mission villages). Their work among the Indians continued until their expulsion from Brazil in 1759 (Burns 1980: 106–7).

The Jesuits used music as a means of catechization in the aldeias, where young Indian boys acquired considerable musical skill (Camêu 1977: 68–81; Hemming 1978: 117; Veiga 1981: 165–76). Their introduction of European music was gradual, however, and the catechists made room for indigenous performances on festive occasions. Father Fernão Cardim was a Portuguese Jesuit who worked in Brazil in the 1580s. His Tratado da terra e gente do Brasil, a description of musical life in the Jesuit missions of Bahia, published in 1584 (see 1939), provides many useful details on both Amerindian music and European music performed by Amerindians, such as Tupi music for end-blown flute and tamboril (Veiga 1981: 169–70). This instrumental combination can be heard today in the Caboclinhos of the Recife Carnaval (Oliveira Pinto 1992, Discography) and in the flute and drum bands (ternos and bandas de pífano) of Paraíba and Pernambuco.

The maracá appears in Cardim’s description of the feast of Epiphany or Reis (January 6) in 1584:

When these [Indians taking part in several games on the occasion of a party promoted by the Father Visitor] make their riots, they walk together in a single band, with their bows in [their] hands, and with bundles of arrows raised upwards. Some paint and feather themselves in several colors. The women accompany them, most being also naked, and they run together through all the village, singing to the sound of a gourd full of little pebbles (like the small tambourines of the children in Portugal). They keep time [compasso] so well that they miss not a beat with their feet, and pound the ground in such a manner that they make the earth shake. They grow so inflamed with bravery and show such ferocity that it is something dreadful and astonishing. Women and children also help them in these dances and songs; they make their exchanges [trocados] and movements [mudanças] with such antics [gatimanhos] and grimaces, that it looks ridiculous (Cardim 1584 in 1939: 270, cited in Veiga 1981: 173).

Musicians were held in high esteem among the Tupinambá, and captives with musical ability earned special benefits:

Singers are highly esteemed among them, both men and women; so much so that if an enemy is a good singer and inventor of ballads they preserve his life, and do not eat his children either (Cardim 1584 in 1939: 155, cited in Veiga 1981: 174).

Gabriel Soares de Sousa (1587)

Gabriel Soares de Sousa (ca. 1540–ca. 1590s) spent seventeen years as a sugar cane planter in Brazil and wrote an account of his experience, the Tratado descritivo do Brasil, in 1587. He described Tupinambá music-making in detail:

The Tupinambá pride themselves on being great musicians; they have good voices and, in their own way, they sing with bearable intonation; they all sing in unison [tone]. The musicians improvise mottoes, and [also improvise] their poetic glosses, which end in the rhyme of the motto. Only one sings the tune, the others answering with the end of the motto. The Indians sing and dance together in a circle, in which one plays a small drum without dividing the beats. Others carry in their hand a maracá, which is a calabash with some pebbles inside; they grasp its handle. They do not perform exchanges [they do not displace themselves], nor make any other reverences except the pounding of one single foot on the ground to the sound of the small drum. That way they all circle and enter the houses of one another, where there is wine ready to entertain them.
Sometimes, a pair of girls goes singing. Among the girls there are also great musicians, highly esteemed for that reason. The musicians are highly considered among these natives, and wherever they go they are well sheltered. Many of them have crossed the backlands among their enemies, without being harmed (Sousa 1587 in 1974, cited in Veiga 1981: 176).

 Gaspar Barleu (1647)

The Dutch Gaspar Barleu (1584–1648), a Renaissance humanist, observed the Tapuias in Pernambuco and noted their reverence for what appears to have been a maracá in O Brasil holandés sob o Conde Mauricio de Nassau (1647):

In the middle of the royal hut, a sacred gourd or chest is suspended, which no one is permitted to approach without royal permission. In it are contained stones which are only seen with reverence, called cehuterah, and a fruit called titseheyauh, which they value more than gold. I believe that something sacred and prophetic exists in them (Barleu 1647 in 1940: 264, cited in Camêu 1977: 31).

Camêu interprets this remark as a confirmation of Staden’s description of the maracá as a sacred instrument, but nothing in Barleu’s description, beyond the fact that it was a gourd, confirms its use as a musical instrument.

João Daniel (1776)

In his Tezouro descoberto no Máximo Río Amazonas (1776), the Jesuit Father João Daniel (1722–1776), traveling in an unspecified region of Amazonia, observed cane flutes more than a meter long and described how they were played:

The flutes they call Toré … are 4 or 5 palmos [one palmo is roughly 22 cm] in length and as thick as an arm, are made from taboca cane, and are normally played in twos or threes, without drums. The flutists play them with linked arms; with one hand they hold the flute tilted towards the ground and with the other hand around the neck of their comrade so that both or all three of them can guide themselves amidst the large group of people, raising and lowering their bodies and at the same time making measured steps, and changing their arms when they turn (João Daniel 1776 in 1840, cited in Camêu 1977: 33).

Similar flutes are played by the Kuikuro and Kamayurá in the late twentieth century (see the illustrations in Camêu 1977: 245, 246, 248).

According to Camêu (1977: 32), observations of indigenous musical practices appear less frequently after the eighteenth century. Warfare with the Portuguese and constantly diminishing land holdings drove coastal Amerindian groups into Jesuit aldeamentos, or further into the interior. Observers of indigenous music after this time were more likely to be scientific explorers than missionaries or settlers. In the nineteenth century, German-speaking travelers and ethnologists were the most prominent observers of indigenous musical practices.

Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied (1820)

Maximilian Alexander Philipp von Wied-Neuwied (1782–1867) spent the years 1815–17 in Brazil, and, in 1832–34, traveled in Mississippi and Missouri, where he observed the Mandan. In Viagem ao Brasil (1820), his comments on the music of the Brazilian Botocudos are less than complimentary:

… the men’s singing resembles an inarticulate noise, which oscillates invariably between three or four notes, ascending and descending, and seems to come from deep in the chest. The women sing very softly and in a less disagreeable manner, but they too sing no more than a few notes, incessantly repeated. Although it is recorded that the song texts include words that refer to warfare or hunting, it appears to me simply as wordless vocalizing (Wied-Neuwied 1820 in 1940: 308, cited in Camêu 1977: 34–35).

About the dance and music of the Camacã, he observed the following:

When they have a successful hunt or have any other reason to amuse themselves, they do not fail to celebrate a festival with dance and song …. [The dance is performed by] four men, leaning slightly forward, who advance and, with measured steps, arrange themselves in a circle, some keeping behind the others. All sing with little control “Hoi! hê! hê!” while one of them accompanies this song with the noise of an instrument. The women, at this moment, begin to dance in pairs, with their left hand on another’s back. Later the men and women, in turn, make turns without stopping, to the sound of this enchanting music, around the pot that contains the desired beverage. They dance this way, in direct sun, in the hottest season of the year, with sweat running off their entire bodies. The women accompany the songs with soft voices, without any kind of variation (Wied-Neuwied 1820 in 1940: 435–36, cited in Camêu 1977: 35).

Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1823)

Spix (1781–1826) and Martius (1794–1868) were two of the earliest scientists to explore Brazil. Their benchmark ethnography, Reise in Brasilien: auf Befehl Sr. Majestät Maximilian Joseph I., Königs von Baiern, in den Jahren 1817 bis 1820 gemacht und beschrieben, Part I (München: M. Lindauer, 1823), was translated into English by H. E. Lloyd as Travels in Brazil and published in London by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green in 1824. See–files/spix-martius-1824-travels/spix_martius_1824_travels_vol2.pdf

Spix and Martius observed musical practices of several Amazonian peoples. For instance, they described a dance on the Rio Negro in which men imitate fish:

The Indians form a circle around one of them, who plays the fish. The chorus asks what kind of fish he is, to which this man responds: I really am a fish [sou un peixe de fato]. While the onlookers sing all the names of fish in a monotonous voice and threaten to numb the prisoner with fish poison [timbó] or catch him in a net, he tries to escape the circle. If he succeeds, the person whose carelessness allowed his escape replaces him at the center of the circle (Spix and Martius 1938: 220, cited in Camêu 1977: 36).

This is similar to the paku wassu (fish) festival described by anthropologist Victor Fuks in “Music, Dance, and Beer in an Amazonian Indian Community” (1988: 166–70), in which dancers imitate fish and become inebriated with beer [caxiri], just as fish are drugged by fish poison [meku].

Spix and Martius recorded observations of indigenous instruments, such as a large bamboo trumpet among the Carauú:

One person summoned the people to the dance by playing the boré, a large cane trumpet with a rough sound, after which another made monotonous roars [urros], which finally the horde repeated in terrifying unison that echoed through the streets of the small, silent city, chasing a bunch of bats from their nests under the rooves of the neighboring houses. The leaps and turns of this excited band and the terrible noise, accompanied by the rattling of their maracás, could figure as a scene from the inferno (Spix and Martius 1938: 461, cited in Camêu 1977: 35).

They also described a large clarinet among the Mura of the Rio Negro, Solimões, and Amazon rivers:

The approach of an enemy is signaled by the turé, a nasal-sounding instrument, which they make from a length of a cane in whose pierced knot they fix a small piece of bamboo, as a reed, in such a manner that the whole makes a rustic imitation of a throat. To the sounds of this instrument they measure their savage dances … (Spix and Martius 1938: 183, cited in Camêu 1977: 36).

Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1917–28)

Koch-Grünberg was an ethnologist who made three research trips to South America, in 1898–99 (Xingu region), 1903–5 (northwestern Brazil), and 1911–13 (Guyana and Venezuela). Ethnomusicologists are familiar with Koch-Grünberg for his inclusion of an essay by Erich M. von Hornbostel titled “Musik der Makuschí, Taulipáng und Yekuaná” in an appendix to volume III of Vom Roroima zum Orinoco (1917–28). The myths collected by Koch-Grünberg were drawn upon by the Brazilian poet, critic, and musicologist Mário de Andrade in his Macunaíma (1927), a foundational work of Brazilian literature. The links between Koch-Grünberg’s ethnology and Andrade’s writings are noted by Manuel Cavalcanti Proença (1950 in 1987: 38) and explored in detail by Telê Porto Ancona Lopez in her essay “Makunaíma/Macunaíma,” included in the critical edition of this novel (Andrade 1988: 311–37). Mário de Andrade also translated Hornbostel’s essay into Portuguese.

According to Camêu, Koch-Grünberg observed “songs for dancing and improvised song among the Taulipang … [and] found the intonation imprecise when singing was unaccompanied by instruments” (1977: 48). He also recorded observations on gourd rattles, double-headed membranophones, several kinds of flutes, and bamboo clarinets (1977: 48).


The mutually complementary relationship between the information contained in the chronicles and 20th-century ethnohistorical research carries significant implications. These are threefold. First, some scholars make explicit references to the chronicles and to later travelers as they attempt to interpret new ethnographic data. Second, we can use what scholars are learning about the performing arts of contemporary Amerindian societies to fill in the context of the chronicles themselves, which, as pointed out above, can only provide partial and fragmentary observations, snippets from the totality of each complex indigenous universe. Finally, new research that combines archaeological, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic methods is revising our understanding of indigenous social organization before contact with the Europeans.

Several scholars have used chronicles and other accounts to illuminate their observations in the field. Noteworthy among them are Victor Fuks, Manuel Vicente Ribeiro Veiga Jr., and Anthony Seeger.

Victor Fuks, in his ethnography of Waiãpi musical instruments, draws a parallel between the maraca shaker used by the Waiãpi and those observed by the chroniclers:

Marakas are strikingly similar to the 16th-century shakers (also of the same name) that were used by the Tupinambá, the Tupinikin [Tupiniquin], and other coastal Tupi-Guarani speaking tribes. These peoples were among the first Indian groups to establish contact with 16th-century Europeans (Staden 1929; Léry 1910; Thevet 1953).
Like these tribes, the Waiãpi speak a language related to the larger Tupi-Guarani family, and we also find several musical similarities. The Waiãpi shakers and those found among the Tupinambá and Tupi-Guarani tribes are remarkably similar in appearance as well as in name. I assume that the concepts and sounds produced by each are also fundamentally the same (Fuks 1990: 166–67).

Veiga (1981: 217) uses contemporary recordings of Kamayurá music containing semitones to argue for the reliability of Léry’s transcriptions (an issue that Luiz Heitor Corrêa de Azevedo had raised in 1941), as well as one of Hans Staden’s observations to show the persistence of bird-imitation skills:

Collaer gives a picture [1973: illustration 95, 171] of a young whistling boy from the same Kaingang, whose ancestors—the Guaianá—Staden had described …. Staden’s comments about the Guaianá imitations not only attest to their accuracy, but also to the persistence of customs over more than four centuries, despite the process of integration [undergone by] the southern Kaingang [which] started more than a hundred years ago (Veiga 1981: 189–90).

Anthony Seeger (1993) uses the occasion of Karl von den Steinen’s visit to the Suyá Indians of Central Brazil in 1884 to show continuity in both the Suyá’s reactions to outsiders, and in visitors’ impressions of Suyá life between von den Steinen’s day and ours, in order to elucidate how myths from a distant past can shape the Suyá’s reaction to new events, and also to contextualize the meaning of “appropriation” (what Europeans would call theft) in the Xingu region. Seeger’s writings on the Suyá (1987, 1991, 1993) also can become paradigmatic of the role that chronicles and travelers’ accounts play within recent ethnographic research on Native Americans that proposes new relationships between myth, history, and performance.

If “myth” conditions a pattern of behavior that (through repetition over time) becomes “history,” and “performance” recreates this pattern (by collapsing songs from different historical times that recreate a pattern of acquisition of songs in the present), then performance makes “history,” as conditioned by “myth.” This is what Anthony Seeger (1991) concludes, adducing ethnological data from his fieldwork among the Suyá of Brazil (1987). This exercise requires redefining history, that is, broadening the traditional European concept based on reconstruction of the past through written, “verifiable” documents, and one to which we can attribute the unimpeachable authority assigned to the chronicles before the advent of modern ethnology. In “When music makes history,” Anthony Seeger defines history as “the subjective understanding of the past from the perspective of the present” (1991: 23), which he qualifies “not as a simple sequence of events but [as] the creation of patterns of events that make sense of the past (in the present), and … implicitly of the future” (1991: 23, 28). The concept of history as recurring “patterns” (of events or behavior) liberates history from its implicit reliance on written documents. Through these recurring patterns, peoples without written histories can also project their historical consciousness.

Contemporary research is challenging the long-held assumption that, prior to contact with Europeans, Native American societies lived in “mythic” time, that is, devoid of “historical consciousness,” as Europeans understood it (Hill 1988). Greater attention is being given to the reenactment of myths through the mediation of musical performances, and, in so doing, scholars are discovering the importance of myths in projecting historical consciousness and in transmitting historical knowledge. Among the Suyá of Brazil, myth conditions the acquisition of items that are essential for the life and social reproduction and renewal of the community (Seeger 1991). Just as fire was mythically appropriated from the jaguar, songs have been appropriated from “individuals and communities whose attributes are apparently more mythical than historical” (28). An archetypal situation (its first occurrence) becomes myth; the second occurrence becomes an event; repeated recreations of the event become history (29, quoting Sahlins 1981: 14).

Myths recount how the Suyá acquired fire from the jaguar, corn and garden crops from the [mythical] mouse,… and songs and ceremonies from animals, enemies, and humans in the process of becoming animals…. [They] represent their history as the gradual incorporation of items taken from monstrous outsiders and used for the benefit of the entire community (1991: 29).

They appropriated cultural items by becoming, “as humans, their sole possessors,” that is, leaving those from whom they took them completely without them (30). These items included new songs that, Seeger concludes, constitute their “ideal collective expression” because through them the Suyá take possession of the knowledge and power of those outsiders from whom they are taken (32). Through performance of songs (of old and recent appropriation), the Suyá “reproduce the pattern of their history.” Myth intervenes in this process since songs were, in the distant past, learned from mythical creatures.

Every collective musical performance associated with a rite of passage is a recreation of a historical pattern, and every performance makes history, just as every telling of a myth contributes to the formation of the present (1991: 33).
The performing arts, including narratives and music, may occupy a special place in small-scale, nonliterate societies, where history can only be created and interpreted through repeated performances (24).

In the context of the mythical meaning that appropriation carries among the Suyá, Seeger sees “strong continuity in Suyá reactions to strangers, from the mythical mouse, to the 1884 encounter with Karl von den Steinen,… to the tumultuous events of recent years” (31). Karl von den Steinen (1855–1929) was a pioneering ethnographic explorer of Central Brazil in the late nineteenth century. His was the only visit to a Suyá village until their pacification in 1959 (Seeger 1993: 433). After his visit the Suyá suffered attacks by the Kayapó and Juruna, moved their village, and attacked other Upper Xingu groups, incorporating many of their women into Suyá society (434). While von den Steinen recorded important data on the plan of the village, body painting, and language, Seeger finds in a minor, but significant, episode a clue to the way in which the Suyá interpreted their visitors in a mythic context. When a group of Suyá visited von den Steinen’s camp, they stole a number of objects by hiding them in the sand and returning for them after the visitors had left (Steinen 1940: 257, quoted in Seeger 1993: 435–36). The problem of “theft” in the Xingu region is commonly attributed to the “‘decadence’ of traditional indigenous values” (1993: 436), but von den Steinen, probably the first European to reach the Suyá, was not observing a decadent society. Why the theft? The answer lies in the myths of origin of such important elements of Suyá culture as fire and maize. In each case of appropriation, an individual discovers that a non-Suyá (and therefore partly animal being) possesses a desirable item that the Suyá lack. They return in a group to steal it, leaving the original owner with nothing, while the item acquired is used for the benefit of the whole community. Seeger describes several contemporary examples of the same sort of appropriation:

It is essential to understand that the relations the Suyá establish with the whites, as individuals and as bureaucratic agents, are not simply the result of their contact with us. They are part of a historical process that involves the construction that the Suyá make of their past, since distant times. In this view, society is constructed by taking things from powerful beings, often animals or animal-like beings (1993: 441–42).

Thus, the “appropriation” described in Karl von den Steinen’s 1884 account can be interpreted in the context of myth and documents continuity in Suyá behavior.

Seeger’s visit, in turn, may have been received by the Suyá in a similar mythico-historical context:

Perhaps my own visit, when my wife and I were invited to sing night after night, has its parallels with the myth of the survivor of enemy Indian groups, who lived under the earth. He is brought to the village, and teaches his songs to the children and later to the adults—songs that accompany rites of passage that have been central to Suyá society for many decades. There is no reason why native groups would not have, in their mythologies, a place that permits them to understand and use anthropologists, explorers, enemy Indians, and government agencies, such as FUNAI [the Brazilian government’s Indian Affairs agency] (1993: 442, note 5).

Seeger’s convincing structural interpretation of appropriation as reproducing the pattern of myth, rather than as “theft,” would not remain uncontroversial and constitutes, in fact, an alignment with the position of Marshall Sahlins in a controversy that “pushes into view some of the most central and most divisive issues in anthropological study,” which, centering on how Captain James Cook met his death at the hands of Hawaiians in 1779, raises such questions as “How it is we are to go about making sense of the acts and emotions of distant peoples in remote times[?] What does ‘knowing’ about ‘others’ properly consist in? And, Is it possible? Is it good?” (Geertz 1995: 4). These are also the questions that, at an early point in the process of our understanding, we believed the chronicles would have answered for us.

Conversely, how can contemporary ethnography contextualize the chronicles? One example is the learning of songs from outsiders. In “When music makes history,” which also addresses changes in the pattern of acquisition of songs among the Suyá, Seeger shows how migration and warfare affect music-making. Just as the knowledge of fire and maize were acquired from non-Suyá beings, songs sung by non-Suyá captives also entered the Suyá repertoire:

Knowledge is power in much of lowland South America. By taking and performing the songs of other groups, the Suyá incorporate some of the power and knowledge of those groups for the benefit of their own community (Seeger 1991: 32).

With this pattern of learning songs from outsiders in mind, we can speculate about why the Tupiniquin described by Caminha were eager participants in music-making with the Portuguese in 1500, and why the song of a Xamacôco held captive by the Kadiweu would have attracted the attention of Guido Boggiani, a European observer. He recorded an episode observed in 1892 among the Kadiweu that shows Indian captives using songs as markers of identity:

In Joãozinho’s house, after night had fallen, a young Xamacôco, who had been enslaved recently by the Kadiweu, gave a great shout, a sign that he was starting to sing in the style of his tribe…. In an instant, all the Xamacôco in the village … moved closer to him as if drawn by a powerful magnet. It was the song of their country that called them (Boggiani 1892 in 1945: 121, cited in Camêu 1977: 43).

Boggiani showed little interest in the song itself: “Song is just a way to refer to it, since it resembled the imitation of the cries or roars of animals more than it did any music as we understand it” (Camêu 1977: 43).

New anthropological research that combines archaeological, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic approaches is confirming chroniclers’ accounts of large, complex settlements in Amazonia in perhaps the most far-reaching revision of our understanding of indigenous life before contact with Europeans. In Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to the Present: Anthropological Perspectives (1994), Anna Roosevelt writes:

This new understanding of culture history in Amazonia is directly contrary to the earlier idea … that due to the difficult tropical forest environment, indigenous [peoples] … had developed a common “tropical forest culture” of village societies relying on slash-and-burn horticulture, hunting, and fishing. In contrast, the archaeological findings from Amazonia document diverse occupations by humans, including some of the earliest foragers, farmers, and villagers yet known in the New World and culminating in populous indigenous complex societies in some areas in late prehistoric times (3–4).

Images of people playing musical instruments are found in the artwork of these complex societies (Roosevelt 1994: 7). New insights about the social organization of precontact indigenous peoples, such as the chieftainship among the Omagua described by Porro (1994: 86–88; also Porro 1993), may prompt new readings of the descriptions of musical events in the chronicles. Francisco de Orellana, who observed the Omagua in 1541, found music of considerable complexity:

They came making an enormous noise, playing many drums and wooden trumpets. [The drums] could be heard for a long distance and are so well-tuned that they have their bass, tenor, and soprano…. They brought many trumpets, drums and organs that they played with their mouths [panpipes] and three-stringed fiddles [arrabis] (in Carvajal, Roxas, and Acuña 1941, cited in Camêu 1977: 22).

The presence of a stringed instrument of ostensibly Iberian origin among the Omagua in 1541 remains puzzling.

Claude Lévi-Strauss noted the importance of the new archaeological findings in a 1995 essay accompanying the reprint of photographs he took of the Nambikwara and Caduveo between 1935 and 1939:

The peoples of Central Brazil and elsewhere are remnants—who have either sought refuge in the interior of been left stranded there—of more advanced and more populous civilizations whose indisputable vestiges are being exhumed or recorded at the mouth and along the whole course of the Amazon by archeologists, employing very up-to-date techniques (19–20).


What was Native American music, then, for the earliest European observers? About the music itself they give us primarily subjective descriptions, with the exception of Léry’s notations of short refrains from much longer performances. They correctly perceived music to be integrated with dance and narrative performance, and the performing arts in general to be an essential part of indigenous social life. The chroniclers understood how music functioned as a marker of ethnic identity, how musical talent was appreciated and rewarded, and how instruments such as the maracá were accorded sacred status. The missionaries took advantage of the musical gifts of Indian youths in their effort to convert them. According to Veiga, the resulting syncretism between Amerindian and European musics remains an unexplored aspect of Brazilian ethnomusicology (1981: 277–78). Recent ethnographic research draws on descriptions of encounters between Europeans and Amerindians that occurred a century ago to contextualize understanding of Amerindian societies in our own time. For this reason, we can expect a continuing dialogue between contemporary scholars and the earliest observers of Amerindian life.



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Oliveira Pinto, Tiago de 1992. Carnival in Pernambuco / Brasil, CD recording. Berlin: Internationales Institut für Traditionelle Musik; Hamburg: Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde.