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From Sneinton to Xingu: Notts Musician Nathaniel Mann and his experiences with Brazil's Wauja Indigenous Community

23 August 20 interview: Ashley Carter

When Sneinton-based musician and radio broadcaster Nathaniel Mann responded to a 2018 British Council + PRSF opportunity for a musical residency with the Wauja Indigenous Community in Xingu, Mato Grosso, Brazil, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. Two years later, he collaborated with the Wauja’s principal Akari Waura, assisted with the recording and preservation of his traditional songs and produced a BBC Radio 4 documentary about their work together. Now, as the community faces the threat of COVID-19, he’s working with the Wauja to help raise awareness and funds to ensure the long-term protection of a people whose descendants have lived in the Xingu territory for over a thousand years…

Firstly, how did a musician and radio broadcaster from Sneinton end up working with the Wauja Indigenous Community in Brazil?
I originally applied for a musician residency from the British Council in 2018, but the outline for it was all very colonial and pretty crappy. They wanted someone to go out to Brazil for a month, live with the indigenous community and write a piece of music about their experience, which would be performed by an orchestra in a rich Brazilian city. To me, that was quite problematic in itself, and I actually applied to try and make sure that, even if I didn’t get it, their plan didn’t happen that way. 

I did a lot of research and was quite critical of their approach during the interview. I said, “Look, whatever you do, whether you pick me or not, please don’t do it the way you’re planning to”. From my perspective, going over there, taking aspects of their culture and repackaging it with an orchestra format was very much the wrong idea. 

Even though I was critical, they selected me, and I ended up going out there without knowing exactly what I was going to do. My general idea was to enable the community to write a piece of music that embodies their own message.

How did that plan manifest itself once you arrived?
The community paired me up with Akari Waura, who is the Wauja’s historian, elder and singer. He invited me to stay in his home with his family. Their houses are ocas which are almost like churches – they’re definitely bigger than my home in Sneinton! There were about fifteen of us staying there, all side-by-side in hammocks, so I really felt like I was living in the heart of Akari’s family. I was told that I was the first person outside of his family who had ever been invited to stay with him there, which obviously meant a lot. 

One of the first things Akari did was tell me his own story, which included the fact that he wasn’t interested in music as a child, but came to it in his thirties after his father – who was a traditional singer – passed away. He learned the traditional songs from old recordings, and he told me it was his dream to be recorded too – for future generations. I told him that I had the equipment, so that’s what we did. 

Can you explain the process of recording the songs?
Akari decided he wanted to do the recording. I wasn’t there to direct him, just to try and facilitate what he wanted to achieve, which was to make a recording that would ensure the music wasn’t lost. A lot of the songs would normally be performed in a ritualistic social context, accompanied by dances from the entire community, with rattles, shakers, hollering, whooping and shouting, but Akari just want to record the songs themselves.

The thatched space we recorded in was acoustically dead, so there were no sound reflections, but it was also acoustically transparent, so any outside sounds, those of kids, dogs or motorbikes could also be heard. 

I recorded the songs, which were all about half an hour long, with four or five different microphones, and when I played them back for Akari, he looked me in the eye and said, “They sound okay, but it’s missing this,” and touched his chest. He’s such a physical, powerful performer, so when he sings in front of you, he’s also stamping his feet, and that sound goes through the ground and up into your own feet, so you’re listening with your whole body. I decided to bury a mic, which is usually used for recording underwater, in the ground beneath his feet. Once that sound was added to the mix, he said, “Okay, that’s it.” That was beautiful because it made me feel that he was comfortable enough to criticise me and say what I’d recorded wasn’t quite good enough. That was a really important moment. 

How is their way of life currently being threatened?
In so many ways, it's hard to know where to start. The Xingu territory is huge, and slap bang in the middle of Brazil surrounded by industrial agriculture. There are over thirty different communities with three different language families, and over thirty different languages. Their land was the first Indigenous territory to be officially recognised and protected by the Brazilian Government in the 1950s, but a sacred cave site was left out of the protected zone.

No one knows how old this cave site is, but it forms part of the Wauja creation story and is of huge significance. The inside of the cave is covered with engravings which represent their history, so it’s a place of learning. Every year, children from the village are taken there to learn these incredible, rich stories about their heritage. There were plans to create a road and a railway, as well as a gold mine, which would have meant flooding the site, so this incredibly important cave was facing a real threat. 

I have connections to a company in Spain which creates 3D scans of cultural heritage sites, so I got in touch with them to ask if there was any chance they could do something with the cave so, if the worst did happen, there was at least a record of the cave engravings. They said yes and sent out two technicians, who worked with the community and showed them how to use the technology so it wasn’t just two white people coming in to save the day – it was empowering and enabling for the community. But when they got to the cave, someone had destroyed all of the engravings with a hammer and chisel.

They’ll sometimes sing for five hours with village-life carrying on around them. It’s an integral interface with the spirit world

Do you know who did it?
We don’t know, perhaps even someone was paid to do it, there was no evidence at all. But there were a lot of motives from people who stood to benefit. Together with the digital technicians, we worked with anthropologists, archaeologists, activists, indigenous historians to collect old photos of the engravings, and eventually we were able to create a digitally restored 3D replica which was then changed and corrected by members of the community. It was like bringing the destroyed engravings back from the dead. 

It’s probably fair to say that, for most people in the UK, hearing about an indigenous community living in Brazil conjures up a certain image that’s been perpetuated by travel documentaries and literature. Did you have your own preconceptions before visiting, and how different did you find the reality once you’d arrived?
The Wauja integrate a lot with the modern cities in Brazil. A lot of the younger members spend time in Sao Paulo, and they’ve got smartphones, Facebook, touchscreen TV, satellite dishes. They’re also entrenched in these traditions, like music and dance, and they’re living by subsistence farming and fishing, but they’re able to utilise technology to communicate with me here in Sneinton. You know, I get WhatsApp messages every day. Technology has just allowed them to have a platform outside of Brazil. But even inside the country, you’ll find a lot of people in Sao Paulo who have no idea that indigenous people still live in Brazil. They think they’re almost like fairy stories that don’t exist anymore. In an age where social activism plays such a large part in the world, with movements like Black Lives Matter, we’re trying to make sure that people, both inside and outside Brazil are paying attention to indigenous activism too, and providing a platform to raise money and support, particularly now when they’re being threatened by COVID-19.

How have they dealt with COVID so far?
Luckily, they’ve had no cases so far in the village itself, and one of the members who visited the city caught it but recovered. The older generation remembers the measles pandemic that killed a lot of indigenous people, and some of the younger members are aware of what is going on through social media. It’s the middle generation, who has the most influence, that don’t really understand it completely. So there’s been a lot of work going on to help them understand that this is serious, and to ensure that they don’t need to travel to big cities to trade or secure supplies. 

We’ve set up a JustGiving page, which has raised over £10,000 so far, as well as a T-shirt campaign to raise more money. So far that money has purchased medical supplies, food, and helped to establish new supply routes that don’t go through the nearest big city. 

On one hand, it’s a sad indictment, because there are only two communities in the Xingu territory that haven’t had any cases, and they’re the two that have had this external help. On the other it’s likely that, without the help, they would probably have COVID in the Wauja villages right now. 

Can you tell us more about the T-shirt campaign?
It was an extraordinary privilege to be accepted into Akari’s home, and I refused to allow myself to go out there, soak in their culture, and just come back to England again. They’ve had plenty of people go out there over the years and make big promises and not deliver, or photographers taking shots of the community, selling the prints and keeping the money. That’s nothing new for them, they’re used to it. I wanted to make a long-term commitment in whatever way the community felt was appropriate, to support and engage with them. So the T-shirts are designed with traditional Wauja motifs, designed by Kaji Wauja, and approved by the entire community. They maintain ownership of all the artwork, and benefit from all of the profits.

How have your experiences with the Wauja affected you personally?
I can’t pretend that I’m religious or whatever, but when you’re in the village you see and experience things on a completely different level.

There was one point during the work to create the 3D scan of the destroyed cave engravings when we ran out of money, everyone was volunteering and relying on donations and we were putting together a publication to try and raise awareness of everything that had been going on. I was working from my house in Sneinton on the day of the deadline to get this document finished, and it was really stressful. I’d been working all day with constant emails and WhatsApp messages coming from Brazil. 

So there’s a really important figure in Wauja mythology connected to the cave that takes the form of a green parakeet. Just as I finished my work, I closed the lid of my laptop and heard this noise coming from outside. I realised I’d been listening to it for a while without noticing, but I didn’t recognize the sound – I thought it might have been some kids making weird noises. I decided to go for a walk to find out what it was, and as I turned the corner I heard it again. And right there sitting in a tree is a green parakeet. For me, it was the most profound and incredible thing. I know there are some in London, but I’d never seen one in Sneinton before. It was such a remarkable moment, and it felt like I was on the right track. It was pretty mind blowing. 

You have until Monday 24 August to purchase a T-shirt and help raise funds for the Wauja Community's Fight against Covid-19 and to raise awareness of the continued struggle for the Xingu's autonomy and recognition of traditional Indigenous rights and territory

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