Aboutface in Peru

Last year, Freerotation Artist, Aboutface (Ben Kelley), completed an ambitious and profound inter-cultural collaboration with the indigenous Wampis community in Peru. His project included a journey to Peru in June 2018 where he spent time and connected personally with the community. This was in direct co-operation with our partner charity, Size of Wales which supports the Wampis as part of their ongoing work to protect an area of rainforest twice the size of Wales. The project explores the evocative aural terrain of the rainforest and the sacred female songs of the Wampis, and is helping to raise awareness of the urgent threats to the Wampis’ forest home. Ben also raised money through the donation of his artist fee and record sales, and through a crowdfunding project which he set up in support of the Wampi community during the autumn of 2018.

Ben has written a beautiful and touching piece about his experience with the Wampi community with beautiful photographic pieces, which you can read below.

Los Bosquesinos Project experience:

Ben Kelly, or artistically known as Aboutface, is a conceptual artist and musician that undertakes immersive creative projects that aestheticize environmental themes, raising conservational awareness and articulating ecological narratives though live music performance and visual art. Ben often utilises his dreams as a staring point to develop an idea for his projects, then undertakes on an investigative journey that includes a field trip to capture creative materials such as field recordings, analogue photography, sketches and found objects. These materials then form the foundations for a live immersive mixed-media performance and exhibition. Ben did not anticipate that a dream of a talking forest, may lead him into traveling deep into the Amazonas region of Peru to spend time with the indigenous Wampis community on a project called- Los Bosquesinos, in collaboration with Size of Wales.

Los Bosquesinos (people of the forests) is inter-cultural collaboration with the Wampis people of Guyabal, Peru, to raise money for the community to aid them in their role of guardians of the forest.  Following time spent in the Rainforest, the project utilises captured environmental materials for varied creative output: a live immersive music performance broadcast on NTS radio; a multi-sensory immersive exhibition of diverse art works, and evocative music release, all raising awareness and funds for the community.

The Wampis are an ancient community that for millennia have preserved an ancient cultural obligation to eliminate deforestation and maintain the forest in balance with all living things. Through their ancient Nampet songs such as Wancha (Fish) Kutuir (Bird), Pinchichi (Monkey), the Wampis preserve their cultural ethos for conservation and empathy for all living things, in balance. I was fortunate and honoured to be allowed unprecedented access for a creative project with this amazing community, and to be the first person to record these ancient songs, along with capturing the rich acoustic ecology of Rainforest and communal habitat.

Following an arduous journey that included 5 hours in an off-road vehicle and 4 hours by chalupa (boat) though to the Rio Santiago, I arrived in Guyabal, a small Wampis community in a beautiful setting, occupied across both sides of the river.  When I first arrived I was terrified, the Wampis people were welcoming but I sensed some apprehension, it had taken many months of discussions and community meetings to grant this unprecedented access to the community and I suspected it wasn’t unanimously accepted. However, following my initial research I was aware of Amazonas indigenous peoples’ affinity with music, so I decided in preparation for the trip, to learn the Quena flute- a traditional musical instrument from Peru that I hoped was played in the community. This was proven to be a valuable assumption as important members of the community not only played these instruments, but also made their own similar instruments from local wild Bamboo.

Along with the fantastic work of my interpreter Carlos (also my Quena flute teacher), we developed a strong rapport through the universal language of sound and music- the family we stayed with were all musicians and performed in a band called Guyabita. We often stayed up late playing together with the rich acoustic ecology of the night-time forest performing alongside us; the community couldn’t believe that a ‘gringo’ could play the Quena flute!

Different members of the community took us deep into the forest to capture the sounds of nature and 35mm photography, communicating to each other through a series of whistles very much like birdcalls, and often accompanied by two beautiful birds that looked a little like grouse. These grouse followed us everywhere and slept near us; we we’re later informed by one of the leaders Fernando that he requested for them to protect us from snakes or other dangerous animals, to raise an alarm if one approaches. This was demonstrated when we heard the birdcall alarm one night while we slept- the precarious moment when wildlife visited us in the night looking for a meal. This is a great example of the Wampis perception of nature: all members of the community, human or animal have a role to play for benefit of the shared habitat. I think this is a powerful lesson to global communities who perceive nature as commodity not ecology.  

 We explored many areas of their territory- we swam in pristine rivers with fish gently nibbling on our skin, and walked to sacred sites that have never before been visited by a person outside of their community. One of these was called La Tuna, the sacred waterfall a tough 6 hours walk in the rainforest to reach. Before we could enter, we had to participate in a ritual to ask permission to enter the sacred pools of water; the moment felt surreal but was a beautiful experience. The trek took every last drop of energy from us, but we were informed that this was required as a sacrifice to the forest so we may in turn, receive good recordings and safe passage. Over the next 7 days I captured the most amazing environmental recordings of wildlife, rainforest and their community; the Wampis live with an ideology of balance similar to Karma, but more specific to sustainability and conservation of the forest. Not to scare my loved ones with detail, but there were a few close calls with a poisonous snake, a highly venomous spider and a few precarious walks along mountain ravines, but all in all I was looked after with the upmost care; the Wampis told us the forest gave blessings to the project.

The most privileged of recordings I captured was the Wampis Nampet – ancient songs from the perspective of being an animal in the forest and conservation of habitat, no one outside of their community has heard these so it was a great honour. Upon reflection, it makes me quite emotional that they trusted me enough for me to capture these songs and trust to utilise in the right way, a big honour and responsibility.

On our final day with the community, a big party was arranged where all different families cooked us food, shared Masato – a fermented wine made from yucca, and sugar cane rum called Junki. We played music together till the stars long illuminated the night sky and many tears were shed. The Wampis are so very kind but so very poor, I could see on occasion they would not eat so we could, this was a powerful thing for me to experience as a western white male of relative privilege, it humbled me greatly. The Wampis are enduring allot of hardship but In spite of this they are warm, generous and incredibly connected to the natural environment, probably more than we could every imagine.

On the 7th July at Freerotation Festival in Wales, I performed music alongside the sounds of the rainforest and the Nampet songs. Like in the Rainforest, I also was playing the Quena flute, this evoked feelings of returning to the community and playing alongside them once more. The performance was quite emotional for me which made it very challenging, but upon reflection I feel this melancholy was required in order to reflect all parts of the narrative I was trying to articulate.

Following the performance airing on NTS radio, I collected almost £900 of donations; this is a relatively substantial amount for the community. The utilisation of raised money will be discussed and scrutinised with both charities to try to affect a legacy of change and empowerment in the community, towards a self-sustaining future. Moving forward, I shall be exhibiting a multi-sensory exhibition at LCC, University of the Arts London next year, I am in talks to potentially collaborate on a charity Rainforest immersive dance/theatre project, and finally will be releasing music using the sounds of the community on my Coordinates record label, all of which I hope to raise additional funds and awareness with the support and guidance of both Size of Wales and Forest Peoples Programme, to gain the best exposure and invest the donations to facilitate the strongest legacy.

The community asserted that the primary threats in their community are access to clean water, and the retention of Wampis culture though education. Currently the community is only funded for 1 teacher in their schools but require 5; funding is so critical that a teacher has not been paid in over 5 months. So the money raised will be used to assist the Wampis to develop fresh water infrastructure, and to help fund a technical school to teach traditional Wampis techniques of weaving, instrument making and crafts; the retention of Wampis cultural identity and ancestral knowledge is vital to the preservation of a depleting rainforest.

Aside from raising funds for the community, the project’s on-going aim is pose a question about our role in the global ecology as consumers; how do our daily choices and attitudes affect the delicate ecology of global forests. If my work in anyway can stimulate this consideration in audience or recipient, I would consider the project a success. 

The Wampis unique conservational culture is under threat from a polarising ideology- the short-term urge for commercial profits and consumerism, which has now, lead to devastating rates of deforestation and I suspect contributing to the reduction of governmental support for the communities living in the Rainforest, facilitating poverty and consequently an urge for forest peoples to monetise the natural resources available to them, thus contradicting their ancient culture of sustainability that must be heart breaking for them.  It was my aim to aestheticize my experiences immersing in their beautiful culture and habitat to try to stimulate a feeling of global inter-connectivity, along with presenting their fundamental ideology of nature – that it is not for us, but we are a part of it.

Yuminsuajme (thanks in Wampis) to the amazing Wampis community, you’re kindness and humility will always be in my heart; this is not the end but only the beginning. To listen to the performance and read more, visit https://www.aboutfacemusik.co.uk/los-bos

In collaboration with charity Size of Wales 

Supported by:
Carlos ‘Canti’ Saldana – Peruvian musician from Lokandes
Shapiom Noningo Sesen of the indigenous Wampis Nation, Peru.
Forest Peoples Program
The London College of Communication (UAL)
NTS Radio