Category Archives: Healing Spirits

Bansuri Meets Recorder

Rana Mahal Ghat, Varanasi.
Photo by Mark Mardon.

Varanasi, India
January 2007.

The thin, wavering, reedy, warbling sound of a bansuri, the genuine sound of India, wafted up from the river’s edge every night for the eleven nights I slept in Varanasi, in a guest house overlooking Rana Mahal Ghat.

After the ceremonial fires of the big puja at nearby Dasaswamedh Ghat had been extinguished, the crush of onlookers had gone home or to their hotels. The ghats emptied and the din turned to silence. The boatmen had tied up their boats until morning, settling into the bottoms with their blankets. The masseurs, haircutters, vendors and other denizens of the Main Ghat had rolled out their mats to sleep. All the water buffalo herders had settled their beasts and rolled into corners with their thin blankets pulled over them. The burning ghat in the distance heaved a perfume of wood fire and charred corpses into the dark — then the flute player came out.

He would sit on a platform, under a lamppost, surrounded by his acolytes, gently playing. I couldn’t see him clearly. Sometimes I couldn’t see him at all. On the far side of his platform, steps descended to the Ganga, the water lapping the stone, inviting prayer as it had for centuries. He and his troupe sometimes occupied the steps, out of my view. Yet hear him I could. The flute-playing sadhu, holy man, chillum smoker, musical guru sent sweet strains floating into the night, echoing across the river and back. Ma Ganga herself rode that sound, a goddess on a swan.

For several nights without leaving my room or its old, crumbling stone balcony, without seeing the face of this flute player on the ghat, or knowing anything about him, without knowing for sure where the sound was coming from, I played concerts with him. For, as clearly as I could hear his flute, he could hear mine. He led the dance. I gently followed. He created the melody; I offered accents. The way I play recorder, alternating different rates of vibrato with pure tone, bending some notes, as well as the deeper sound of the tenor, creates a sensuous voice, the plaintive sound I brought back from the Andes decades before. It’s non-Indian, but worshipful, full of power and emotion appropriate for Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi.

Finally I went to meet him. We became fast friends. He treated me as if I were another sadhu, a respected spiritual elder. His group crowded around us to watch and hear us play and talk about music. We played the Peruvian Andean song “El Condor Pasa” together. Most of all he wanted to hear me play “A Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and when I did he exclaimed with delight. I played my tenor recorder, which everyone admired and handed around to examine, its beautiful African blackwood turned in classic English recorder fashion. We discussed its monetary value and decided it was worth a great deal. I gifted him a plastic alto recorder, nice quality, good sound, and he treated the gift as an honor worthy of a king. He in turn gave me one of the bansuris he sells to tourists. I tried to play it but as always found the transverse flute defied my puckering ability. I’ve never been able to get such a transverse flute to sing. He helped me, though. He turned the flute just so against my lips, and for that instant I found I could make the instrument soar.

About that time some young girls came by offering little leafy bowls bearing flowers and flaming votive candles to be set afloat on the Ganga, another way to worship Shiva. I took a few and offered silent prayers for peace, harmony and healing as I watched them bob and drift onto the current. The flute player and his acolytes watched and applauded.

Still Haunting After All These Years: Arthur Evans

It’s Witchcraft!

Arthur Evans

“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”

Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”

Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.

Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.

Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.

The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.

When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.

Midnight hags

Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A powerfully influential book in the gay counterculture of faeries, pagans, witches, and rebels.

Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.

The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.

“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”


“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”


Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”

In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.

Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.

By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.

“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”

Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.


 Sodom and SF

Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.

“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”

As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.

“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”

Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.

“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”


A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.


Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Acupuncture for music lovers: Matmos

Björk collaborators Matmos take an acupuncture break.

MatmosonLettermanIt’s karmic that I encountered Matmos in my acupuncturist’s office. They look ordinary enough, but you know just by listening to their albums that if anyone is entitled to claim the word “alternative,” it’s this gay San Francisco electronic-music duo.

Appropriately, by weird coincidence, when I called licensed acupuncturist Joseph Chang one weekday to see if I could get him to stick his needles in me after work, at that very moment, Matmos boys Drew Daniel and M. C. (Martin) Schmidt were occupying the two tables in Joseph’s place, the House of Qi, just around the corner from the Jon Sims Center for the Arts. “Come on over early, Joseph said, and I’ll get them to hang around for an interview. Bring your tape recorder.”

It helps to have such pull, especially when your interview subjects are in the midst of a world tour along with icy-hot music goddess Björk, serving both as her opening act and as her band. The day I met them, they just happened to back in town for a short break during the middle of their tour. They had come to Joseph to get body tune-ups and energy overhauls in preparation for the next leg of their journey.

They’re just regular guys, but they’re not. They’re sexy and sweet natured, confess to naughy behaviors, and brainy but not show-offy (at least off-stage), and they welcome the chance to talk about acupuncture.

“Keep in mind we’ve known Joseph since he started acupuncture school,” said Drew, the younger of the two young lovers. They’ve been letting Joseph poke them all these years. And that, too, is an odd fact in light of the fact they both are the progeny of medical doctors. Nevertheless, they have a healthy respect for Joseph’s profession, and a particular fondness for Joseph’s methods.

When they’re in town, they both regularly come to Joseph for treatments, and he lovingly pokes and prods them and twists and massages them to move their qi (chi) around and get them feeling refreshed. His treatments have been instrumental in Matmos’s stunning, meteoric rise to fame.

They do things with sounds you wouldn’t expect, generating all kinds of strange clicks and beeps and electronic hisses and pops and rhythms that somehow coalesce into listenable albums. Their mixing abilities and odd choices in instruments are what got them noticed by Björk, and why Matmos is now recognized as one of the most creative forces in the New Music genre.

And they have Joseph to thank for one of their hits, the piece they open all their solo sets with, and that’s prominent on their latest album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (Matador). It was from Joseph that they acquired a key noise-making instrument for the song ur tchun tan tse qi, Chinese for “acupuncture point detector.”

“At one point in the process of becoming an acupuncturist,” said Drew, “Joseph used as a teaching aid an acupuncture point detector that helps you find acupuncture points. The way it works is that you hold a metal rod in one hand and you move a pin across your skin – your skin is completing the circuit, and your skin is more conductive at acupuncture points than at other places on your body. This machine makes little clicks, and the closer it gets to an acupuncture point, the more clicks and faster, and it makes this incredible noise. We thought, wow, this noise is really cool. Can we borrow that? And we made a song entirely out of it.”

“It was so long until we returned it that we bought another one,” added Martin. Basically we stole it.”

Joseph produced one of the devices for my inspection, but the boys quickly dismissed it as inferior to the one they stole.

“We looked for other acupuncture point detectors,” said Martin, but none of them made the right noise. This one was perfect. So we pretty much stole his technology, and we use it every night on the Björk tour; it’s the first song of our set when we open for her.”

As Martin spoke, Joseph ran the device over, in and around one of Martin’s ear’s, and the thing occasionally beeped at an annoyingly high pitch.

“Right now everything is kind of healthy,” said Joseph of Martin’s health, as determined by the beeps (and his extensive knowledge of how to interpret those beeps). “But the lungs definitely make more noise. The liver is healthy. Stomach is good. Beep! Ah, the kidney has something, so you need to cut down on salty foods.”

Drew winced at the sound, and shook his head. “The version we have makes these pops and clicks like bacon frying,” he said. “It sort of goes from being rhythmic to being tonal. The clicks are so constant it has tonal qualities, and the higher the pitch the more conductive it is. And I sample that and build up a song.”

The duo pride themselves on bringing blatant homoeroticism into their act, and the Acupuncture Point Detector helps them do it. On national television, they’ve been captured by cameras indulging in blatantly homoerotic music making, as Drew sensuously runs the device over Martin’s skin, lovingly producing the kinds beeps and groans that distinguish their songs.

“We do it macro,” said Martin, making a gesture with his thumb and forefinger. “It only shows this much of my skin at a time.”

The album liner-notes for A Chance to Cut presents their technique more dryly: the song “Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi” is “composed entirely from sounds generated while measuring the galvanic response of Martin’s skin to a constant flow of electricity. Changes in pitch are produced as the detector pin moves closer to acupuncture points.”

This is just the sort of techno-geek speak much appreciated by New Music enthusiasts. Dry and to the point.

For those not attuned to the niceties of electronic music in the 21st century, keep in mind that melody is out, rhythm and tonalities and textures are in. When you buy a Matmos album, or go to their show, you’re not expecting violins; you’re expecting all manner of weird devices employed in ways that have nothing to do with their originally intended uses.

Apart from the Acupuncture Point Detector, the boys gather sounds from actual liposuction surgery, refractive eye surgery, and plastic surgeries (rhinoplasty, endoscopic forehead lift and a chin implant, all performed in California); a hearing test booth; pieces of human skull, goat spine, connective tissue, and artificial teeth; and the plucked and bowed cage of their late pet rat Felix.

As they confess on their website (, presenting such eccentric music live on-stage present extraordinary challenges. They have “survived on-stage computer malfunction and recalcitrant helium tanks” in locations as diverse as Paris, London, New York, Stuttgart, Lausanne, Frankfurt. Their sound effects alone do not make a song; the success they enjoy comes from a strong sense of musicality mixed in with a desire to channel distortion in interesting directions. It’s their technical skill – sampling, sequencing, mixing, editing – mixed with their keen music sense and a smattering of guitar and keyboard effects that keeps their sound sharp and distinct, if not for the masses, at least for all those unemployed computer geeks searching for inspiration. 


This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, November 22, 2001

Sweat Lodge Ceremony

Big Heart Circle campfire. That’s me in the rear accompanying the guitarist/singer.


One day near the end of August I took a kayak out on the big beautiful lake at Omega Institute in the heart of the Hudson Valley and played my flute — my wooden recorder — meditating, hearing the bird sounds, the wind, the far-away fountain, the far-away people on the beach.

All of my focus was on breath and clarity of sound. I practice the Chinese healing art of qigong (chi kung) when I play, channeling energy through myself into the recorder, achieving a deep meditation, the flute an extension of my being and breath.

Eventually another kayaker drew close and we exchanged greetings. He appreciated my sound, the spirit I was generating. About 70, with clear eyes and a strong yet soft voice, a penetrating look and a huge aura of native wisdom, Carl Big Heart said that he conducts Native American sweat lodges for the staff at Omega, as well as workshops for the public, and he very much wanted me to attend an off-campus 5-day sweat-lodge ceremony he was conducting deep in the wild woods of the Ashokan Center‘s big campus in the Catskill Mountains, in the vicinity of Woodstock. His circle of people would be gathering there and he felt I’d fit right in. He felt the spirit of my flute would resonate with the folks.

So the very next day I packed my old car with camping gear, extra food for donation to the camp kitchen, and a few items for the camp auction (which raises money for the sweat lodges), including a copy of Dina Falconi and Wendy Hollender’s Foraging and Feasting, the wild foods cookbook now being hailed by wildcrafters. I mention it not just because I am proud to be the book’s editor, but because many of the folks at the gathering practice wildcrafting, tracking, and other primitive skills long lost in the crush of western so-called civilization.

A mandala created by everyone in the camp contributing bark, moss, leaves, branches, mushrooms and sunflowers.

I worked the first day at camp helping a crew repair the already existing sweat lodges. The structures had been built years before but needed repairs. We bent cut saplings to create the lodge skeletons, a process that took much sweat and many hours. The core crew included some big, husky bearded men with big trucks and a young woman who put more energy and muscle into orchestrating the building than any two or three men combined. Eventually folks started pouring in and a small village emerged, with a central kitchen supplied by a cistern brought in by the big men with their big trucks, who also schlepped in a water heater for showers they constructed by the stream, lumber to create showers and food racks, picnic tables, huge shade/rain shelter structures, and a load of carefully selected “grandfather” stones to be fired up and used to heat the lodges.

Carl Big Heart tends the campfire.

Two lodges served the camp, one for women only, and the other, larger one a mixed lodge, for all genders. In the mixed lodge, the women sat together on one side, the men on the other, the stones were brought in one-by-one ceremonially, red hot from the fire, the door was closed, and the space was plunged into darkness but for the glowing stones. Many prayers were said in native tongue, the voices reminding me of my youth in Arizona when Navajo/Dine people would sing and dance at the pow-wows in my home town.

Our individual and collective prayers in English were powerful in that enclosed space, appealing to the Great Spirit on behalf of our loved ones, the four-legged tribes, the winged and finned tribes, grandmother earth, grandfather sky and the like. My first response was one less of worship and more of panic — a sense of claustrophobia and fear I would overheat, suffocate, or want to flee. That sensation lasted through round one, but after the break, the next few rounds went great. Each break we got to wash off the sweat and forest litter from our bodies in the gentle creek.

Over the course of the weekend my music made a big impression on a lot of folks at the ceremony. They responded with gratitude to my flute’s plaintive call in the woods — like a bird, like a shepherd in the Andes, like the flute sound on the Navajo reservation near where I grew up, reverberating off of cliffs and among trees. I made many new friends, experienced a great tribal ritual with a big, friendly community of all ages, where elders were accorded great respect, and where I was offered the chance to do workshops with my music. I did, and they turned out great! On both Saturday and Sunday I conducted small groups of folks in learning to play recorders in sync with one another. None of the folks had played recorders — except in grade school like almost everyone in the U.S. — but I passed out alto recorders to everyone (decent quality plastic recorders made in Japan) and got them all to play just a few notes.

At first there was a cacophony of noise, everyone squeaking and squawking, and for a while I despaired of getting them to make the sound I knew they could make if they only relaxed and focused.  Then I broke away from the recorders and had everyone do standing qigong exercises with me, moving limbs to bring in energy from the four directions, breathing fresh energy into the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys, and exhaling stale energy. The rhythmic motions and breathing got everyone into sync, and when we returned to the recorders, it was like magic how suddenly everyone was able to harmonize! My new friends really took to learning how to play. Our sweet harmonies filled the camp and I knew I had found the secret to getting newcomers to relax into their groove.

How to age and die with grace: Ram Dass

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, by Ram Dass, Riverhead Books, 2001.


What happens after death is a central theme of all the world’s religions,” writes the guru of psychedelic experience and Soul awareness, Ram Dass, in Still Here, his elegant swan song, written from the perspective of an old man confined to a wheel chair, having endured a stroke, now looking back upon his life and evaluating the prospects for death – and the Soul’s existence after death. He quotes Goethe, who once avowed that “I am just as certain as you see me here that I have existed a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times more.”

He observes: “Every attempt to describe what happens after we die – the bardos in the Tibetan texts, the mansions in the Kabbala, the heaven and hell of Christianity, the ground of being in Buddhism – point to the same source: that is, a realm that the Soul enters after death in some form of continuing evolution.”

He quotes a Japanese Zen Master who, on approaching death, picked up his pen and scribbled:

“Birth is thus. Death is thus. Verse or no verse, what’s the fuss?”

The fuss is all in our minds, Dass assures us in this profoundly wise and elegant book. It’s the Ego at work, that force within us that shouts out so loudly we forget to listen to the Soul, making us forget that all the things the Ego works toward are transitory and ultimately burdensome, while all the Soul wants is to be liberated, to become fully Aware, to exist peacefully for all eternity. Ego time is immediate, short-term; Soul time beats with the pulse of infinity. The Soul, unlike the Ego, carries no baggage, and acts quietly. It is thus easily overlooked in the din of our chaotic lives, with our minds so overwhelmed with distractions. Those who approach the end of their mortal lives without having calmed their Egos and gained Awareness, warns Dass, will meet death badly.

But death need not be so feared. Dass offers a prescription for aging and dying with grace: “We each bring to the moment of our passing the summation of all that we’ve lived and done, which is why we must begin as soon as possible to prepare ourselves for this occasion by waking up, completing our business, and becoming the sort of wise elders who can close their eyes for the last time without regrets.”

Everything else in Still Here leads up to this conclusion. Dass laments that the real value of elders of our society – who more and more are treated (and come to view themselves) as “obsolete, like yesterday’s computers” – is sadly being overlooked.

“Wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age,” writes Dass, whose body has failed him but whose mind is not only lucid, but aware of larger truths: “While everything else falls away, wisdom alone increases until death if we live examined lives.”

In Dass’s worldview, ultimate wisdom equates with “Awareness,” otherwise known as “God, Brahma, Paramatman, the Nameless, the Formless, The Unmanifest, the Nondual, the Absolute. Ego and Soul are inextricable parts of Awareness, just as Awareness is the very essence of who we are.”

The reason wisdom has ceased to retain its once-exalted stature in human society, according to Dass, is because “at root we are a secular society whose deepest leanings are toward the school of thought known as philosophical materialism . . . the idea that reality is limited to what we perceive through our senses.”

Our Egos prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves. “The Ego is what ages and dies,” Dass asserts. “It doesn’t continue. It is nearly impossible for the Ego to imagine this. When the Ego thinks it’s dying, it mistakes itself for the whole – body, Soul and Awareness – and often people who are beginning to go through the long process of ripening into God run around to different doctors (and maybe even shrinks) because they develop an even more intense dread of death.”

Throughout the book, Dass serves up examples from his own life. Yet, thankfully, his anecdotes are kept to a minimum, his own Ego kept in check. Primarily he takes stock of his own situation to launch into reflections on universal issues: learning to face and conquer our fears as we age, expanding our consciousness, coping with depression, accepting the changes in our bodies, working with pain, adjusting to dependency, enjoying our eccentricities.

Dass’s core advice, though, centers on letting go of the past, lest memories intrude and discolor the present, and ceasing to worry overmuch about what the future holds.

“Prolong not the past./Invite not the future,” quotes Dass from a Tibetan Buddhist verse. But how is one to achieve these goals? Dass’s advice contains the beauty of wisdom: “Getting the Ego to release its grip can be as simple as being able to experience what’s present at any given time. It sounds simple, but volumes have been written about just how to do this, some of them thousands of years old. It’s called meditation.”

Kay Pacha: Quechua Spirituality

The power of the earth is infinite and encompasses all. That which has no roots in the earth is not sound, has no worth.

 saying in the Quechua Indian community of Pinchimuro.

Kay Pacha, by Rosalind Gow and Bernabe Condori; preface and index by Henrique Urbano (Center for Rural Andean Studies, Cuzco, Peru; 1976). Bilingual edition in Quechua and Spanish, 200 pages, paperback, illustrated.

Earthly Gods: Quechua Indian Spirituality According to Kay Pacha


Reviewed and translated from the Spanish by Mark Mardon

kay-pachaIN THE QUECHUA LANGUAGE OF THE CUZCO-COLLAO REGION OF PERU, Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” The spirits and demons that inhabit this world are of the earth and close to the people, not remote and of the sky as with the Judeo-Christian god.

The book is a collection of legends, anecdotes, and spiritual beliefs of the inhabitants of the tiny Peruvian community of Pinchimuro, which lies within the shadow of towering Mt. Ausangate. Replete with a pantheon of gods, spirits, demons, and witches, the book is a serious anthropological study of a traditional Andean society.

Authors Gow and Condori, who assembled the stories and elaborate on their meanings, never introduce us to the story tellers, who remain nameless and faceless. Yet this seeming lapse is explained by the fact that the stories we read in Kay Pacha belong to the community, not to the person who transmits it to the researcher.

“The individual relating the story,” writes Urbano in his preface, “assumes the collective word to express the sentiments, desires, aspirations of the whole community.”

Ancestors, rocks, rivers, and mountains all command reverence from the peasants of Pinchimuro. The people exist at the mercy of nature, to which they attribute divine powers, sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel and avaricious.

Most of the book’s legends and anecdotes, taken by themselves, are far too sketchy to be easily appreciated by the uninitiated, but Gow and Condori divide the book into several sections and provide an essential and enlightening introduction to each. These cover such topics and concepts as mother earth, regional history, Apus, divinities, and festivals.

These help the reader learn the names and characteristics of the various spirits that exert influence over the land and people of the community.

Omens and portents, offerings, cures, and witchcraft are all the domain of paqos, human shamans within the community. If their ability is keen, they command respect and wield authority. They look for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains, in the direction of the wind, in the rain and the hail, and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of Pachamama, mother earth. It is Pachamama that is revered above all: “Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms of the earth, so too are we begotten.”

Apus are spirits of the hills and mountains, whose powers increase with the height of the landform they inhabit. Thus Apu Ausangate, god of the snow-capped, 20,906-foot peak, is the most powerful Apu, and the one most pervasive throughout the community’s folklore.

A similarity with other native religions is evident, and Christianity has had an influence, especially in that aspect of the Apus‘ nature that serves as a moral guide. Yet the Christian god plays but a minor role in Pinchimuro cosmology. The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. The campesinos say: “They live in the heavens, they are not like us, how can they affect our lives?”

The campesinos divide their history into five periods: creation; the first men; the period of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest; independence; and the future. The story of the first men is especially interesting: called the “Gentiles,” the first men were few but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared over the horizon and the rooster crowed; they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by pumas, llamas, and alpacas, the Gentiles dashed for the darkness of the jungle, cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but most were immobilized when the sun struck them and burned them or turned them to stones.

The book gives a glimpse into the kind of ritual offerings still practiced within traditional Andean societies. On the 31st of July of each year, for example, the campesinos of Pinchimuro supplicate their individual stars with offerings of 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. They are rewarded with a sacred rock, inkaychu, in the shape of a vicuna, an alpaca, a sheep, or a cow that contains the essence of the vital force of the Apu. In celebrating the rites of the festival of The Lord of Quyllur Rit’i, many campesinos believe the Lord desires human sacrifice. It is felt the celebration has been a failure if during it no one dies.

Kay Pacha’s greatest achievement is the insight it gives into the campesino’s view of the world. In one instance that view encompasses what the campesinos view as the follow of mountaineering gringos who attempt to scale Ausangate, one of the world’s great climbing challenges. In a tale called “The Lion of Ausangate,” oral tradition in Pinchimuro recounts the predicaments of foreigners attempting to scale the peak. Alas, they encounter the mountain’s guardian, The Lion:

Nevado Ausangate, Peru

Well, then came the gringos from other nations. These gringos upset him [the lion]. Climbing halfway up Ausangate they watched, but the lion didn’t let himself be seen. He does not want them to see him easily. It angers him. Even Ausangate himself would not let himself be seen by the gringos. Dense clouds concealed him. Then came the snow. 

All this happened to the poor gringos. Weeks and weeks they were there suffering. They say they wanted to climb Ausangate and see the lion. They were not allowed to see. Then, erecting their tent above the lake, the poor gringos became unhappy. They took photographs of the viscachas [a type of rodent].

There they were passing their lives. The never were able to climb Ausangate. They climbed halfway. There they became ill. At times they returned on a stretcher. At times they came back tied to a horse. The gringos suffered greatly in this remote corner. They hiked Ausangate saying: “I will go up.” They were not able. Flags were raised.”

When they wanted to climb to the top, Ausangate caused two golden bulls to block their way. Because of this they could neither climb upwards nor remove the golden bulls. Nor could they see the lion. For pleasure, they suffered there. They did everything possible, but neither could they climb nor see. 

At the time they became ill, they saw that their provisions were finished. Now they had nothing to eat. They lived for weeks sucking candies, nothing more. A few times, shortly after they arrived, the inhabitants of that remote place robbed them of their sleeping bags and supplies — they robbed them of everything. The poor gringos suffered a lot in that remote place.

So they returned to their land because they had nothing more to eat. Carrying photographs of alpacas, rocks, and snow, they returned.

This is the account of the riches of Ausangate they desired.


The Cosmology of Pinchimuro

Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” 

Pachamama is Quechua for “Mother Earth.”

“Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms in the earth, so too are we begotten. She has bones and blood. And hair too. The pastures are her hair. She has milk as well. She lives in August from the first to the sixth. After Christmas she lives no more. She receives offerings. Wine and drink for her ceremony of pouring liquor, this is what Pachamama wants. Pacha Tierra [another term for “mother earth”], like us, knows how to masticate coca; she knows how to drink. The offering must contain feed, incense, sugar, fetus of vicuna, fetus of vizcacha, and the wool of the vicuna.”

Urbano makes clear Pachamama’s importance to the people of Pinchimuro: “Isolated, exploited, dominated, the man of Pinchimuro lives with hunger, illness and death at his side. Pachamama briefly comforts the hunger, the hills protect against the dangers of an ungrateful nature, the rivers and the rains provide the water necessary for the farms, the sweet coca makes one forget the pain and the harshness of the work.”

The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars (except “las Cabanillas”) and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. According to Gow and Condori: “The campesinos say: ‘They live in the heavens — they are not like us — How can they affect our lives?'”

Apus: gods of the hills and mountains.

Apus have three levels of existence:

1. In the first level, they are human beings, appearing to the campesinos as men, children, or women. They are treated as members of the family with the same needs and behaviors. In the past, they appeared frequently in the pueblo. Apu Ausangate, most powerful in the region, appeared frequently as a mestizo child, with blond hair and clear skin, wearing white clothes and adorned with ferns or a white headband, and mounted on a white horse. The human aspect of Apu Ausangate is important: he suffers and is happy with the pueblo, loves and is loved by all.

2. In the second level, the apus, especially Ausangate, are symbols of ideal life. Moral guides. They punish those who commit incest with an eternity of living in agony and desperation, dragging their chained, naked bodies to the frozen slopes of Ausangate, where they are obliged to devour friends and neighbors, like it or not.

The campesino must select the star that represents the affinity between his destiny and that of his closest apu. Without altomisas — intermediaries — he must select on his own. He must certify his selection is correct. So, on July 31st, he makes offerings to his star, including 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig, or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. If his selection is correct, he is compensated with a sacred rock (inkaychu ) in the form of a vicuna, alpaca, sheep, or cow that contains the essence of the vital force protected and created by the apu.

3. In the third level, the apus are all-powerful gods, above and beyond human understanding. They accomplish miracles or heroic actions or may be bad and cruel. This explains Ausangate’s two names: Apu Ausangatesymbol of virtue, benevolence, and peace; and Inca Qahasymbol of the passing, the destruction, and the insecurity of the future.

Ausangate is the name given to a group of mountains that include Kayankati, Hawaykati, Qulqi Cruz (5,960 meters), and Ausangate itself (6,372 meters). These apus exercise little influence over the fertility of cultivated lands. The second level of lesser mountains do this.

Rugales: divinities of the rocks, lakes, and hills.

Hail, snow, and lightening: demons living in dangerous and isolated high altitude lakes where they form a family. The snow is the grandmother, the hail is the daughter, and the lightening are the grandchildren. They are cruel, avaricious, and their homes are full of the animals, harvests, and people whose vital forces — souls — have been robbed.

Elemento — The rivers whose sources are in Ausangate are called Elemento. In a region where the water inundates the land half the year and the other half the animals lose weight and go hungry for lack of water, Elemento is perceived as an all-powerful but irrational god: a semi-god and semi-demon. 

Rocks, in campesino cosmology, are the domicile of ancestors and have the power to control the fertility of the earth and the destiny of the campesino.

The Virgin of Pinchimuro, Mamacha Concebida: came down from the heavens and, according the thinking of many, lives in the temple, acquired certain power linked with the earth. As a woman, she is associated with Pachamama and helps to assure the fertility of the fields.

El Señor [Lord] de Quyllur Rit’i: each year attracts some 10,000 faithful campesinos to his sanctuary. Identified by many of them with the rock in which he disappeared, and on which he had previously painted his cross.

Spirits and demons:

1. The anchanchu live in the rivers.

2. The quwa live in the wind.

3. The sirinu live in the lakes.

4. The Incas are waiting in the earth, but must make their presence felt by means of tapados , sacred stones and manifestations in the form of animals.

5. The deadly soq’a — tumor — is a spirit of ancestors, living in the earth, appearing frequently at nightfall in search of living souls.

In the belief system of Pinchimuro, according to Kay Pacha, “One must care for the dead members of a family as if they were living, and even more, because they are dangerous, they must not be irritated. These dead live, and during the year they must be remembered with respect, by making offerings of their favorite foods and beverages, and in this manner all can live together in peace.”

The First of August: This date lives, and all the men make Vespers on the night of the thirty-first. At dawn they leave in search of idols (inkaychu ); every rock lives, every crag and cliff lives, and every spring lives. From these places they look and inspect the pampas. On this day the pampas live. Everything lives. The Pachamama lives too. For this the Pachamama makes presents of idols to the lucky people. What is more, on this day the cow has its stone, the sheep has its stone, the fish and every one of the animals too.

Las Cabanillas: A constellation, probably the Southern Cross. Depending on which of three stars — Collari, Incari, and Mistiri — shows first after the new year, the people say the year will be bad, good, or regular, respectively.


The Community of Pinchimuro

“A small community of 65 families, Pinchimuro belongs to the district of Ocongate, province of Quispicanchis. . . . Undulating and naked earth at 3,900 meters above sea level, it is adorned by valleys to the north and south, while to the east it is dominated by the majestic Ausangate, Cayancate, and Qolque, snow-capped mountains a few hours away by foot.

Preparing chuño on the Andean altiplano.

“Life is hard in these remote regions. The community possesses only 250 hectares of poor land that permits only the cultivation of potatoes and the lowest proportions of cereals in the most sheltered places. Rotation is made every six years. Each family cultivates more or less a half hectare and in that rears a few animals. The majority of these only manage to survive thanks to the sale of meat and wool (for one or two ponchos a year), and to money acquired in possible migrations to the jungle, their only sources of income. The potatoes are generally small and worm-ridden. For the most part there is a resistance among the commune dwellers to employing fertilizers, cause by the loss of 17,000 soles suffered by the neighboring community that tested them on a field of garlic. Before the harvest of the potatoes, from January to April, chuño [freeze-dried potato] is the only food.”

In Pinchimuro there were formerly two levels of shamanism: the Altomisa, with superior powers, who eventually turned prideful and so lost the faith of the people and had his powers limited, and the pampamisabetter known as paqothe most important person in the community.

Paqo: a person who looks for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains and the lakes, in the direction of the wind, of the rain and of the hail and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of the Pachamama, of the hill-gods, and of the demons of the hail and wind. The election of a good paqo is supremely important. The paqo is many times a political leader, or justice of the peace.

Paqos come in three classes:

1. Those who cure human illnesses.

2. Those who make offerings to gods and demons for the prosperity of crops and animals.

3. Fearsome witches who bring death or illness, who fashion images of their enemies, attaching them to a cross and interring them in a cemetery.

El Ararihua: the person responsible for the protection of the farms.

Qollana and Kaywa: conductors of the daily communal tasks.

Los carquyoq: functionaries. They provide food, beverages, and coca as necessary, but haven’t the wisdom or power to diving the meaning of agricultural evens or strange climatic changes.


The Folk History of Pinchimuro

The people of Pinchimuro divide history into five periods:

1. Primordial time and creation. A time of chaos that terminated with the creation of all the elements. The Creation is attributed to God. For many campesinos this is His only important role. After creating the world, God entrusted the Pachamama and the apus to govern as they saw fit.

2. The time of the Ñawpaq Machula, also called Gentiles and Machu Inca. The Ñawpaq Machula were the first men to inhabit the earth. They were few, but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods, they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared on the horizon and the rooster crowed — they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by large rocks, and by pumas, llamas and alpacas, the Ñawpaq dashed toward the jungle cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but the majority remained immobilized when the sun struck them atop their heads and they were burned or transformed into stones and rocks where they still dwell.

3. The Age of Gold; the time of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest. The Incas lived in order, love, and harmony among themselves as well as among the gods.

4. Modern period: from the hacienda to independence. There is no community record or relatings of the period from Conquest to 1870. Reports about life on the haciendas is a mixture of rage against the abuses of neighboring hacendados who robbed great extensions of Pinchimuro’s land, and of respect and fear towards the hacendados, and yearning for the order and control of this period. With the disappearance of the haciendas, older generations lament the breakdown of the strict social-political hierarchies, of obedience, respect, and equality. They try to live as of old, fulfilling their obligations and being respectful, and they feel resentment of the shift of the youth towards independence.

5. The future. The future is still unclear.

Each period, epoch, or chapter has been described similarly in Catholic terminology, with epochs 1 and 2 corresponding to Dios Yaya (the Father), epochs 3 and 4 to Dios Churi (the Son), and epoch 5 to Dios Espíritu Santo (the Holy Spirit). But this merely chronological division does not reflect the manner in which the campesinos consider their history.

According to the campesinos, each chapter has something in common with the anterior and the posterior. The past always lives and a part of the present and the future exists now and has always existed. The vision of history, then, is at once cyclical, in which a catastrophe closes one cycle and inaugurates another, and accumulative, in which the anterior cycle has not been destroyed but integrated and continues exercising powerful influence.


It’s a raver’s life

In 1998 Aaron Schirmer attributed his having lived and thrived for 13 years with HIV — without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications — in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

Rave promoter and long-term HIV survivor Aaron Schirmer.
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller.


IT’S AROUND 5:30 A.M. SUNDAY, July 26, near sunrise in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and Freaky Chakra is going wild. His stand-up mop of black curls thrashes to the thundrous beat he’s creating. His fingers move deftly across synthesizer panels and mixing boards. He pops a sampler button and tweaks a knob and suddenly the bass plummets an octive, high notes go shrieking everywhere, and the floor seems to drop out of the room. Everyone dancing feels under the influence, their minds zooming off into space.

Chakra’s pure dope. Everybody at Vibrator gets high off him, especially the guy dancing directly in front of the right speaker, facing the sound. He’s Aaron Schirmer, 28, promoter and mastermind of Vibrator, who persuaded techno-master Chakra to do his first-ever live sunrise set, tailored for Vibrator, the already legendary rave born a mere five years ago in San Diego.

Even more dope is Mark E. Quark, Schirmer’s friend and the DJ whose early morning vinyl spinning set Vibrator ablaze. Everybody felt the energy, deep down and all around. Quark’s mixes went over the top, magnetically drawing people to the speakers and turntable setup. Schirmer’s core group of friends moved close en masse, swept into the groove. Quark was setting loose the incendiary progressive house sounds that most signify what Schirmer wants Vibrator to be all about: a spiritual healing place, where the mind and body can repair themselves.

Some people find spirituality in nature, others in monasteries and ashrams. Schirmer finds his path to expanded consciousness – even the key to sustaining his life – right in front of the speaker, his whole being saturated with noise, as he dances ecstatically among the members of his tribe, flailing his arms and swaying trance-like to rapid-fire electronic rhythms and sound samples.“Vibrator is where I can free my mind and let go of my life’s problems and just be in that realm of beauty, just be out there, dancing and raving, separated from AIDS, from all the problems that come with living on this planet, everything. I just dance and let my body move and the music take me.”


New religion

If Vibrator is Schirmer’s church, raves are his religion. Indeed, raves are where a host of Bay Area youth – gays and straights, women and men together – go these days to transcend themselves and, very likely, partake of the sacraments: acid, ecstasy, and other mood-altering, mind-opening substances (crystal meth is virtually absent at the smaller, better raves. Ditto alcohol).

On this weekend alone, Vibrator is just one (and, with only a few hundred select participants, by far the smallest) of at least three raves taking place in the city, all of which are attended mainly by hard-core ravers who learn of the events through word-of-mouth.

But Vibrator, as all its attendees know or soon discover, is a rave with a difference. Few coming to it fresh would likely be able to pinpoint its source of singularity, but those fully in tune with its vibe understand its creative twist: not only is its promoter, Schirmer, an authentic raver, fully of the fold since his teenage years; not only is he cute and queer; not only is he sweet natured, loving, and open with all kinds of people; he’s also a long-term survivor hell bent on staying alive.

Schirmer attributes his having lived and thrived for13 years with HIV, without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications (though he was diagnosed as having AIDS more than a year ago when his t-cell count briefly dropped below 200) in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

“I don’t know how to explain it, really, in words,” he says. “It’s just this feeling I get when I go dancing sometimes, especially at outdoor parties where there’s a sunrise, and there’s this sense of tribalness. That’s when I start to think I have a key. Like, hey, I know exactly what I’m doing now, and I’m able to access this kind of energy that heals me. It makes me feel, like, shhhh, craazy girl! There’s nothing like it.”

Schirmer’s ex-boyfriend and current roommate Josh, 25 (they and Vibrator DJ Kevin West recently turned a former punk-rock venue on Valencia Street, the Def Club, into a live-rave space), shares the attitude: “I can have all this stuff in my head, day to day crap that stresses me out, and then go to a party like Vibrator and it won’t matter any more. It’ll be wiped away. I consider it a spiritual healing. It’s my form of meditation.”

Another close friend, Anna, who has traveled from San Diego to attend her fourth Vibrator party (though she insists she’s not part of the rave scene), says she’s not sure how motivated Schirmer is by having had a death threat hanging over him all his adult life, but “I’ve often heard Aaron say things like, ‘I need to go out and dance. I need to go hear some music.’ I think there’s a restlessness that comes from the distraction of HIV, and the dancing and the music are partly an escape. But it’s bigger than that, and it’s bigger than HIV. Like any non-HIV person at a rave, he’s having a really good time. But he feels the music more than most people. It’s very healing to him.”


Holistic response

Aaron Schirmer
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller

While he fully accepts the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Schirmer remains deeply ambivalent about the pharmaceuticals now being widely prescribed to keep the virus in check. On the one hand, he recognizes their potential to keep AIDS patients alive, at least for a while, and he understands they have dramatically reduced AIDS-related deaths. Still, in large part because he’s done so well without them, he can’t help wondering if others with asymptomatic HIV wouldn’t do better pursuing alternative therapies.

“My doctor feels that whatever I’m doing is working,” says Schirmer, “so to stick with it. And that means making decisions like not taking the drugs right now. He said that if you get a gut feeling that you should be on these medications, then go with it. But if you’re getting a gut feeling that now is not the right time, go with it. So that’s where I’m at as far as deciding when to take medications.”

Schirmer’s twin brother, Mike, who’s also gay, HIV-positive (for 12 years), and a raver (or, rather, “former club kid,” as he puts it), went ahead with the coctail therapy after he came down with crypto and was told he had only a 20-percent chance of recovery. The drugs worked, and he’s in decent health, dancing with abandon at Vibrator, his hair the brightest Day-Glo orange in the room.

Unfortunately, Mike Schirmer couldn’t adhere to the drug regimen, so recently gave up trying – a decision most medical experts warn is fraught with risk.

“Going on medications is a huge decision,” says Tim Teeter, RN, a treatment support services specialist at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “All of the medications have side effects. You have to believe that what you’re doing is something you can stick with. At this point, that means for the rest of your life.”

“A wrong take on the situation,” cautions Project Inform’s Brenda Lien, “is, look, this guy [Aaron Schirmer] is living a long time without drugs, so drugs must be bad for you.

A possible explanation for Schirmer’s longevity, Lien offers, quite apart from his raving, is that “some people, for whatever reason, have immune systems better able to function [with HIV].” Moreover, the younger a person is when they’re infected, the better situated they are to fend off the virus. Schirmer was only 16 when he got the virus from his first sex partner.

Statistically speaking, Lien adds, Schirmer is only slightly beyond the normal survival curve: “Before combination antiviral therapies, the average time from initial HIV infection to death ranged from 10-12 years. At 13 years, Aaron’s clearly falling outside the norm, but only slightly.”

Still, Lien acknowledges, “Aaron’s system has clearly been able to control the disease. He’s probably a living example that one of the most potent antivirals is the immune system itself.”


Positive state

Keeping one’s immune system intact, in Schirmer’s view, is best achieved through a positive state of mind, which is why music and dancing help. He refuses to be a victim, instead concentrating on healing energies within himself (which has not prevented him from smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and indulging in recreational drugs, though he wants to cut back on those habits).

Later this month, Schirmer will travel with his lover Christian, a former punk-rock devoteé who’s not into raves but is way into body piercing and tattoos, to Borneo, a journey he hopes will introduce him to tribal people who, for the most part, never lost their connection with native spirituality (and who have their own style of raving).

“If you’re able to find an outlet,” says Schirmer in his gentle, boyish voice, gazing pensively into the near distance, “to seriously get down to the nitty gritty in your spiritual world and understand why you’re here, what matters, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more connected to your spirit than anything, you have a much better chance of survival, or at least accepting that you may die.”

A big part of what keeps Schirmer going, according to his friend Sarah (who is attending her first Vibrator), are the people he chooses to have around him: “He’s very emotional, and very open, and he needs people a lot, but it’s selective. His friends are his family. They’re a support group for him that he doesn’t really have from his natural family.”

What draws people to him, Sarah adds, and what makes them want to be with him at his parties, is that “he’s a big dreamer, which I love. There’s a sense of escapism with him. It’s an attractive thing to be around. This person has a depth of feeling and wants to share that.”


This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 6, 1998