Amplifying the Amazon: An interview with Lily Ross from Amazon Voice
In 2009, Jeremy Jensen and Shena Turlington went to the Amazon to make recordings of indigenous people from several different communities, including Shipibo and Shuar. They sampled traditional singing, instruments, nature sounds, and spoken word from tribal communities. These recordings were sent to electronic music producers around the world. Indigenous sounds were woven together with modern rhythms to create a series of albums released as Critical Beats, with 100% of the proceeds going directly to Amazon conservation.
In 2010, Jeremy and Sheena came back.
"When Sheena and Jeremy returned to the Amazon, they brought tears to so many eyes because they were the first people to come back. Everyone promises they're going to come back and then gets vortexed somewhere else doing something else."
I'm in Monterey, California with Lily Ross, Development Director of Amazon Voice. Lily has been working with Jeremy and Shena to help create an ambitious new outgrowth of Critical Beats called Amazon Voice. The mission of Amazon Voice is to ensure the survival of indigenous communities by amplifying their cultural presence and organizing grassroots action.
Lily chooses her words carefully when describing the mission of Amazon Voice.
"We're really working to remove ourselves from the language and the discourse of "help." People have such good intentions, and want to help, but even the desire to help comes from a place of privilege, of white guilt. It can be patronizing. It's about sharing, both cultures supporting each other."
When Jeremy and Sheena returned to the Amazon to meet with COICA, Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, they asked "What can we do to support you in your struggle for protecting your land?"
"The same tools that you've been using to record us, we want the technology, we want to be able to do it ourselves"
This was the reply of Tzama, an Ecuadorian tribal politician of whom Lily speaks glowingly. As secretary of the Shuar Federation, Tzama represents 17 Shuar tribes to the Ecuadorian government. He is also chief-to-be of the Shuar community Tawasap. Tawasap is a village in the Ecuadorian Amazon, 2 hours outside of Puyo, and is the site of Amazon Voice's pilot project, a solar-powered multimedia center. It will serve as a production house for Kantza, a short film wholly conceived, directed and produced by the Shuar people. Lily is emphatic about the need for Amazon Voice to provide the tools and then step aside. Rather than presenting indigenous peoples of the Amazon through a Western lens, the mission is to make them real players in the global cultural dialogue.
"It's letting the indigenous people tell their own story. It's not anthropology, it's not people with outside agendas and interests. It's giving people in the Amazon the opportunity to self-define their image to the world, because there are so many conceptions about indigenous peoples. Even the term indigenous is problematic because we begin to talk about indigenous people as though the many hundreds of tribes that are existing, living and thriving on the planet today are all the same people. They're radically different cultures, even within 50 miles of each other.
"The Amazon in general is this blanket buzzword that is losing its buzz. Everybody knows that there's a crisis in the Amazon, everybody knows that horrible things are happening there. This is the first time that people are going to have the opportunity to engage in the stories and to see peoples' faces and to know about their families and what they've seen and their mythology and songs and whatever else wants to express itself through the land and through the people."
Almost as important as amplifying Amazon culture for the whole world to hear is to build an inter-tribal communications network, the second half of Amazon Voice's mission. Currently, only 1% of the people in the Amazon have internet access.
"One of the strategies of corporations has been to instigate conflict between indigenous peoples in the Amazon, to divide and conquer. And in some ways that's not hard to do because there really is not a way for tribes to be in communication with each other, and they want to keep it that way. So another part of this is establishing a grass-roots network of people on the ground in the Amazon who are fighting for their land so that they can communicate with each other and work together. This has never happened before, and the implications are very far-reaching.
"We're talking with some major solar companies about getting solar panels donated. The solar piece is huge because part of what is being fought down there is the oil mining, so it's important that the struggle be powered by something other than oil. Right now it's generators."
Kantza will be a proof-of-concept short film that will eventually lead to a feature-length film. Amazon Voice is raising money to buy recording and post-production equipment that will help form a fully connected, fully sustainable production house in the middle of the jungle, serving as a model for other villages. The people of Tawasap are not strangers to technology. However, with both Critical Beats and the first efforts of Amazon Voice, the Shaur have received an unprecedented education in multimedia tools, and the short-term results of this education have been dramatic.
"One of the miraculous things is that, right now as we're working with Shuar community, their second language is Spanish, and these programs are all in English, Logic, Ableton, film production programs. The last time they went down, Jeremy and Evan Bartholemew, who is also known as Bluetech, they were both doing a lot of teaching for music production. The members of the community that were learning it, they learned it in a day! They learned a lot of it in a day. And when Jeremy said to them 'How are you learning so quickly?' They said 'We've been doing this in our dreams. We've just been waiting for someone to come along and put the program in front of us.'"
"Shuar culture is a dreaming culture and they use their dreams to guide them in their daily lives. Putting the cameras in their hands makes all the difference. They saw Avatar, they hated it! We have the opportunity to tell our story every day. They don't have this base of tools to take for granted."
Lily is very interested in the concept of right relationship. She recognizes how films like Avatar re-inforce an imperialist power structure. Even the language the team uses as they work is under scrutiny, with Amazon Voice collaborators catching each other using the language of "helping" or "allowing". Lily's vigilant desire to withhold her own agenda reveals Amazon Voice as an opportunity for us as Westerners to examine our own assumptions about indigenous people, to start a real cultural dialogue. It goes way deeper than us sending down some cameras and then consuming entertainment products being sold by the Amazon. As T'Sama puts it,
"We are not calling upon you to help us because we are in need, we are inviting the world to collaborate with us to help themselves. We all work for the benefit of all. We want the world to know that we the Shuar are here, existing, living."
Visit the Kantza Kickstarter and watch the introduction video.