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Ethnomusicology Forum
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Focusing Perspectives and Establishing

Boundaries and Power: Why the Suyá/
Kïsêdjê Sing for the Whites in the
Twenty-first Century
Anthony Seeger
Published online: 18 Oct 2013.

To cite this article: Anthony Seeger (2013) Focusing Perspectives and Establishing Boundaries and
Power: Why the Suyá/Kïsêdjê Sing for the Whites in the Twenty-first Century, Ethnomusicology
Forum, 22:3, 362-376, DOI: 10.1080/17411912.2013.844442

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Ethnomusicology Forum, 2013
Vol. 22, No. 3, 362–376,

Focusing Perspectives and Establishing

Boundaries and Power: Why the Suyá/
Kïsêdjê Sing for the Whites in the
Twenty-first Century
Anthony Seeger
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Looking at Lowland South America as a whole, it appears that instrumental and vocal
music are essential components of the relationships between kinds of beings and realms.
This is one reason why music in the region is important and so often at the heart, rather
than the periphery, of social experience. New music is produced and learned at the
interface between kinds of beings, and music is used to transition from one realm to
another or one kind of being to another. But how does one move from the apparently
sacred sphere intrinsic to these societies to the conflicted struggle of these Indigenous
communities to survive the assaults on their lands, their health and their livelihood
brought by agroindustry, large dam projects and oil drilling? What is the place of music
at this interface, and what does that use tell us about music as a whole for the region?

Keywords: Brazilian Indians; Music; Kïsêdjê; Perspectivism; Identity

This paper considers the questions of why a group of Brazilian Indians that feels
threatened by the encroachment of potentially violent Brazilians with their mechanised
soy-bean plantations, poaching of fish and game, and pollution of rivers sing and dance
for them? And why have they done so for over 50 years? What is the relationship of
music and dance to outsiderness? What is the purpose of singing and dancing for past
or potential enemies? I will first examine the usefulness of a concept called

Anthony Seeger is Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology, Emeritus, at the University of California Los
Angeles and the Director Emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He holds a BA from Harvard
University and an MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. He has undertaken research
among the Suyá/Kïsêdjê intermittently for over 40 years and is the author of several books and over 120 articles
and book chapters on them, on ethnomusicology and on audiovisual archives as well as intellectual property.
Correspondence to: Anthony Seeger, 2 Kimber Ridge CT, Annapolis, MD 21403, USA. Email: aseeger@arts.

© 2013 Taylor & Francis

Ethnomusicology Forum 363

‘perspectivism’, widely applied and debated during the past 20 years in Amazonian
research on Indigenous societies, and then will reflect on some of the implications of
focusing the White’s gaze on one facet of themselves through performance.1
Before examining the particular case of the Suyá/Kïsêdjê2 referred to in the title, I
begin with some reflections on the recent and remarkable transformations of our
understanding of Amazonian Indian history and music and a discussion of the
significance of perspectivism and its applicability or not to the Gê-speaking Kïsêdjê.
One of the pleasures of aging is to see earlier certainties challenged and to watch
one’s own students devise better ways to address the ethnographic representations of
the Amazon region, including one’s own earlier work. The presentation of the Kïsêdjê
case follows the discussion of perspectivism (Lima 1996, 2005; Viveiros de Castro
1996, 1998, 2004, 2012), which has been presented in the introduction to this volume.
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Perspectivism and What Suyá/Kïsêdjê Sing

Why do I find perspectivism important enough to discuss it in the context of Kïsêdjê
songs and stories? Because it allows me to make better sense of three things that have
puzzled me for decades in my own ethnographic work and writing. These are: the
relationship between humans and the ‘natural world’ as defined by them; why all
music is said to be obtained from animals, enemies and monsters rather than from
human creativity; and why the Kïsêdjê have sung for strangers on so many occasions
over the decades I have known them, even though they had ambivalent or negative
opinions of them. These are old questions of mine for which I have provided answers
in a number of publications (Seeger 1981, [1987] 2004, 2010 respectively). But
perspectivism suggests somewhat different new responses to these old questions.
For the past 40 years, I have been endeavouring to understand the relationship
between Kïsêdjê definitions of human beings and the ‘natural world’ (aspects of
certain humans, animals, plants and things) in order to learn how they organise their
cosmos, themselves and their music. My first ethnographic description of the Kïsêdjê
was entitled Nature and Society in Central Brazil (Seeger 1981). I was particularly
puzzled by the way all music was said to come from natural species (animals and
plants that have their own ceremonies and songs), enemies, monsters or Kïsêdjê in
transformation to other states of being but was performed by the Kïsêdjê in the least
transformed and most ‘humanised’ events and places: during ceremonies held in the

I use the word ‘White’ throughout this paper to mean ‘all non-Indians’. In Brazil, many of these are not
Caucasian, but the word is a gloss on the commonly used Portuguese term brancos and has the advantage of
including both Brazilians and foreigners.
Members of the group known for over a century in the literature as the Suyá now prefer to be called by one of
their own names for themselves, Kïsêdjê. I use both names in titles and this paragraph in order to be clear that I
am discussing the group formerly known as Suyá and to help with bibliographic searches. I had written
extensively on them before they wished to have their name changed (Seeger 1980, 1981, [1987] 2004, and many
articles). The Brazilian anthropologist Marcela Coelho de Souza, who currently works with the Suyá/Kïsêdjê,
uses the name Kïsêdjê in the titles of her publications. From this paragraph on, I refer to the group by the name
Kïsêdjê, in accordance with their request.
364 A. Seeger

cleared-off plaza within the circle of residential houses. I initially suggested that the
Kïsêdjê cosmos could be organised along a continuum between ‘nature’ as defined by
them and ‘society’—I purposefully did not contrast nature with culture (Seeger 1981).
But in a subsequent book on Kïsêdjê music, Why Suyá Sing (Seeger [1987] 2004), I
suggested that instead of being ends of a continuum, the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’
seemed to be in constant interaction in space and time.
To a certain degree, perspectivism addresses my puzzlement. According to the
Kïsêdjê, animals have ceremonies like Kïsêdjê because they see themselves as such. If
all species had similar ‘souls’ and saw themselves as Kïsêdjê, then they would sing
that way. The two ends of the spectrum of ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are in some ways
the same, if asymmetrical.
Some other things began to make sense from a perspectival perspective as well. The
Kïsêdjê always maintained that the animals I could see and hear, and the sounds they
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made, were not their real language and song. Kïsêdjê songs did not imitate the actual
sounds of animals I heard in the forest, the way Steven Feld has described for the Kaluli
whose songs follow the contours of the muni bird (Feld 1982). I was told by a number
of Kïsêdjê that animals live in villages like the Kïsêdjê and look a lot like them when
they are in those villages. Some described them as taking off their animal appearances
like removing their ‘skins’ to reveal a human body. Even generally solitary animals, such
as jaguars and tapirs, were said to have villages. They look like humans to one another
(and to human visitors to their village) but have a different perspective on certain things
—just as Viveiros de Castro (2004) and Lima (1996) describe. One man recounted how
he turned into a vulture, flew up into the sky, learned some of the vultures’ songs and
joined them around a rotten carcass to eat. The vultures exclaimed ‘Yum! This is good
ceremonial food!’ (Seeger 2004: 56, from a description of Bentugarara). His report was a
classic example of perspectivism: both humans and vultures have ceremonies, and both
of them have ceremonial food, but the ceremonial food of vultures looks like carrion to
humans. Every time the man told the story of being invited by the vultures to share
their ceremonial food, the listening Kïsêdjê reacted with disgust and laughter—
resembling reactions to animal behaviour songs described by Brabec de Mori in this
volume. But full Kïsêdjê songs were not considered to be funny. A few children’s
shout songs (akia) were purposefully funny, but they were taught to them by their
Kïsêdjê relatives, not learned from animals. They were thus not ‘real’ songs.
There are some impediments to wholeheartedly fitting perspectivism into an analysis
of Kïsêdjê music. One of the most important is that the Kïsêdjê are one of the Gê-
speaking societies that once occupied a broad swath of Brazil inland from the coasts,
extending from near the Amazon River to Rio Grande do Sul.3 In South America, the
language family to which any given group pertains is to a degree an indication that
certain characteristic social institutions and cosmological beliefs will be present. This is
certainly not always the case, as there have been fruitful and creative interactions

Terence Turner has written a very detailed and thoughtful review of perspectivism in the journal Tipití (Turner
2009), and also observes that the descriptions of perspectivism do not translate completely to his own
ethnographic area, the Gê-speaking Kayapó.
Ethnomusicology Forum 365

among groups speaking languages of different families for a long time—the Upper
Xingu region is an example. But there are often striking differences across language
families. The cosmologies and social institutions of the Gê speakers are very different
from those of most of the Tupí, Arawak and other language groups whose speakers are
the objects of the other papers in this volume. The Gê-speaking societies do not
typically have the same focus on predation and the incorporation of affines (although
they do hunt and marry) as the other groups reported on here. Most of them do not
have any sacred flute traditions such as those reported in Acácio Piedade’s and
Jonathan Hill’s papers in this issue (see also Piedade 2004), and their myth-chants are
quite different from those described by Guilherme Werlang da Fonseca Costa do Couto
(2001). Some Gê-speaking groups use non-melodic whistles to intensify the sound
at their ceremonies, but very few even use melody-producing flutes, even though
they may know of their existence from contact with other groups. Most of the Gê do
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not have an important institution of shamanism, and most of them do not use
hallucinogens or tobacco as important parts of ritual life. That is what they do not have.
On the positive side, what the Gê-speaking groups characteristically do have is
large circular villages and a cosmological vision that I would characterise as being
(in Weber’s terms) more ‘this world oriented’ than that of most of the other language
groups in Lowland South America. Their cosmos is laid out on the earth’s surface
through village design and attitudes about space and time. Many of the Gê-speaking
groups have one or more pairs of ceremonial moieties and a complex social
organisation famously discussed by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963) in three essays in
Structural Anthropology, in which complex relationships of naming were the
organising features of ceremonial groups rather than kinship or affinity. Many of
the Gê speakers were very hostile to the invasion of their lands and mobilised strong
opposition to Brazilian incursions; today they continue to be at the forefront of such
conflicts as the Belo Monte dam (where some Kayapó groups have been especially
active). The Central and Northern Gê were the subjects of a collaborative study by the
Harvard-Central Brazil project under the leadership of David Maybury-Lewis and
Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira (described in Maybury-Lewis 1979). During the ensuing
decades, studies and restudies have been done in most of the rest of the Gê-speaking
groups in Brazil, as well as in groups characterised as macro-Gê. Eduardo Viveiros de
Castro and many of his students studied Tupí-speaking groups, and their work was to
a degree a response to studies of the Gê.4
Gê music is virtually all vocal music rather than instrumental. Most singing is
accompanied by some kind of rattle and rhythmic stamping or dancing. Music and
dance are often inseparable in language and in performance. Many groups have

I can vividly recall a long discussion with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro when he was still a graduate student
beginning his research among the Araweté, the Tupí-speaking group described in his ethnography (Viveiros de
Castro 1992). I kept asking about the spatial layout of the villages, to which he responded that there was not
much apparent system to it. He described a shaman’s cure and said it happened ‘in his back yard’, to which I
responded with disbelief. The complexity of Tupí cosmology is in other realms, not laid out on the ground and
enacted within that layout. We then began to come to grips with how a Gê-centric view of Lowland South
America was not going to answer all of the questions either.
366 A. Seeger

several genres of heightened speech and song, and they are often restricted to people
of a certain age and gender.
In spite of this, the Gê speakers are not from another planet—their cosmological
thought bears strong relationships with that of the other Indigenous peoples of
Lowland South America. They, too, make strong contrasts between human beings
and natural species, but without as much emphasis on spirits. Humans, most animals
and some things have ‘shadows’ (sometimes glossed as ‘souls’) that can be separated
from their physical bodies. The separation can have an important impact on the
person or thing that has lost its shadow.
The Kïsêdjê are an unusual Gê-speaking group. While many aspects of their cosmo-
logy and ritual life have parallels among other groups of the Northern Gê branch (the
Timbira and Kayapó groups), for much of the past 150 years or so they have interacted
and intermarried with members of groups from other language families in the Upper
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Xingu (described by Rafael Bastos and Acácio Piedade in this issue). A great deal of their
material culture was adapted from the Upper Xingu, as well as some of the ceremonies
they perform. I am not certain whether perspectivism resonates so well among the
Kïsêdjê because of what they have incorporated (in somewhat changed forms) from
the Upper Xingu, or if the ideas can be applied to other Gê-speaking societies.
Crucial to most discussions of perspectivism is some human personage (or spiritual
being) who can make a connection between the perspectives of different entities—
someone who can actually see or experience multiple perspectives. In many cases this
figure is glossed as the ‘shaman’ or, as among the Shipibo described by Bernd Brabec
de Mori, using the Spanish terminology, médico. Shamans are widespread in Lowland
South America, but not as often found among the speakers of the Gê family of
languages in Brazil. The Kïsêdjê do not have them, although they may have had them
before about 1900, and they consult shamans of other tribes when their own
medications fail them. But a different kind of person does have at least two
perspectives. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that two linked personages can
have two perspectives: a person and his or her spirit.
Kïsêdjê say they have one spirit/soul (garon), which in most people resides in the
chest and leaves the body only when a person dies. But certain Kïsêdjê have
permanently lost their spirits. Their spirits have been taken from them and ‘thrown’
to live with some class of animal, insect or plant species. In this case, the ‘person’ (the
physical body) lives in the Kïsêdjê village; the spirit lives in the village of the bees, the
birds, game animals, trees and other natural species. The person is said to be ‘without
a spirit’ (katon kidi) because he or she lacks a spirit. The spirit, living with another
species, learns the language, music and perspective of the natural world to which it
has been sent. The Kïsêdjê ‘people without spirits’ who introduced new music to the
village share certain features with the shamans found in communities like the Upper
Xingu and the Shipibo described in this volume. The difference is that the Kïsêdjê
spirits taken to live with animals never return to their human bodies—they are
permanent residents in the villages of the natural species. This is very different from
most ideas of shamanism in Lowland South America.
Ethnomusicology Forum 367

Here is how the separation of person from spirit occurs. A person and his or her
spirit get separated through the action of an angry and jealous ‘witch’ (wayangá),
who is angry when he or she does not receive something others have in abundance.
Many examples were given to me about how this happens, but they all have the same
basic structure as the following example using a male subject (women could lose their
spirits and teach songs as well): a man robs a bees’ nest and takes the honey to his
family, observed by a ‘witch’ who does not receive any of the highly valued food.
Angry at not being given any honey, the witch comes at night and takes the man’s
spirit from his chest and ‘throws it’ to the bees.5 Once there, the spirit cannot usually
return. The man who has lost his spirit gets very thin and weak. After wasting away
for some time, the person ‘sees himself’ among the bees and can suddenly understand
their language. He thus knows that his spirit is living with the natural species he can
understand. At that point the man starts to get better. His spirit, meanwhile, has
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learned the speech and songs of the bees, and the man can understand the speech of
the bees and can hear them singing, too. When he walks outside the village he can
hear, and sometimes see, the bees singing and dancing. Upon learning that the man’s
spirit is with the bees, people start to ask him for songs, which he teaches them. He
can only teach bee songs, because he only knows the bee language. If they like the
songs he teaches, more and more people ask him to teach them new ones. The person
in the village does not create the songs the way a composition student in a music
department creates a piece, according to what I was told. Other people-without-spirits
in the village would understand the language and singing of another class of species
and would teach people the songs of those species. In this way the songs of many
different species were part of the Kïsêdjê repertory. Both men and women could
become teachers of songs, even though women did not perform all of the song genres
they taught. The Kïsêdjê also said that children could lose their spirits quite young,
and then when they were older they would begin to teach songs.
The critical feature for the Kïsêdjê perspective is that a human being can have
different perspectives because his body and his spirit each have one. Importantly, in
the Kïsêdjê case the dual perspective relationship revolves around ceremonies and
songs rather than curing diseases or finding lost souls. Kïsêdjê remedies for the body
are either herbal or quietly uttered ‘invocations’ performed by a knowledgeable—but
not necessarily dual-perspective—man or woman (Seeger 1981: 100–5 and 212–19)
and transmitted from one generation to the next by the Kïsêdjê themselves.
The relationship between a person and his or her absent spirit is complex, however.
The actions of the spirit seem to have a direct impact on the person long after they
have been separated. When I recently listened to my 1970s interview tapes again,
I ‘discovered’ (in the sense of hearing something I had not paid much attention to
before) that the person and the spirit are not completely separated. Instead, the
actions of the species with which his or her spirit lives and shares experiences affect

The Kïsêdjê do not specify the species of each group in which spirits reside. They refer to larger categories—all
bees (mben), all birds, all game animals, all fish and so forth. The spirit learns the language the group shares. For
example, all bees and wasps were said to live together in a single huge village to the East.
368 A. Seeger

the person-without-a-spirit in the village. When the bees swarm and go to perform a
ceremony in the sky, a person whose spirit is with them may faint or act ‘like a bee’
and tie his hair in front of his face and stand rocking in the doorway of his house for
hours. When fish or birds move quickly in a school or flock, a man or woman may
faint. I never heard of anything that a person did affecting his or her absent spirit,
however. When the Kïsêdjê sing or take a long trip, their spirits seem to be
unperturbed. Losing one’s spirit was a frightening experience, and having one that
was living with a natural species was also. Several of my research associates told me
that in the old days, when the villages were big and there were many witches, life was
very frightening (Seeger 1982). Today, they said, there are many fewer Kïsêdjê and it
is less frightening. There are also fewer people without spirits—perhaps only one.
It is possible to extend the principle of perspectivism from animals to other kinds
of beings, among them other humans. Like most people, the Kïsêdjê think of
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themselves as true people (me) and other kinds of people (referred to by the term
kupen) as substantially different. In her discussion of Yudjá perspectives, Lima
describes a similar delineation of other Indians as less-than-truly human by the Yudjá
(Lima 2005: 47ff). For the Kïsêdjê, other Indians have their own languages,
ceremonies, foods, customs and their perspectives. Under some circumstances—in
armed conflicts—other Indians are referred to as ‘our game’ because they are hunted
and killed (but not eaten). The Kïsêdjê also learn songs from other Indians, whom
they classify as kupen. According to the origin stories of several ceremonies, some
Kïsêdjê have visited animal or enemy villages and brought back ceremonies or
captives who teach them (see Seeger 1984: myth numbers 60, 82 and 158). But they
have not lost their spirits because their physical bodies (with spirit inside) travelled to
the non-human village. In some cases, a lone hunter is out in the forest when he is
invited to join a given animal species in a ceremony. By carefully watching and
listening, and by avoiding being permanently trapped there, he learns new ceremonies
and is able to return to his villages where he teaches them to his fellow Kïsêdjê.6
The Kïsêdjê like to learn and perform songs from other Indians the same way as they
learn those of animals: they learn by watching and listening, or they learn them
from captives or affines from other villages that live with them. Or, today, they may
purchase a tape from a member of another community and learn from that.7 Following
a perspectivist approach, it would be possible to imagine that, for the Kïsêdjê, enemy
Indians, monsters and Whites are all ‘others’ with their own perspectives.

Several Kïsêdjê ceremonies have an origin story of this kind. Much to my surprise this turns out to be true of
the Mouse Ceremony, described in Why Suyá Sing.
Late one night in 2008, I heard flute-playing in the men’s house (a rarity among the Kïsêdjê), but with strangely
long pauses between the pieces. In the men’s house, an older man with a cassette tape recorder was listening to a
tape and reproducing the melodies on a small bamboo duct flute. He gleefully told me how he had managed to
get the tape from a member of another tribe for very little money. The point was less the money than the
subterfuge of getting the music he could play to the whole village from another community (an Upper Xingu
society that has an extensive wind instrument tradition). The process of obtaining music from strangers persists,
but the methods have changed.
Ethnomusicology Forum 369

The symmetry between humans and animals is not perfect, however. I never heard
of an animal species learning songs or ceremonies from human beings. As far as
I know, animals have never asked a human to sing them songs in order to learn
them, or captured a human for that purpose. I have also never heard that any of the
Kïsêdjê’s contemporary neighbours have performed any of their songs, even though
the Kïsêdjê frequently perform songs learned from many of their neighbours. Why
that is, and how it might be explained by perspective, is still not clear to me.
When the Kïsêdjê sing in their villages, virtually all of their music is part of long
ceremonies. The social life of ceremonies is very different from the social life of
everyday domestic living. Domestic groups are made up of people who have specific
kinship relations to one another—parents, children, in-laws and the like. The
differences between kin and non-kin, and between birth family and affinal family, are
very important. But in ceremonies, relationships are very different. Membership in a
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particular ceremonial group is determined by a person’s names, which are received at

birth from some real or classificatory maternal uncle. Brothers are often in different
ceremonial groups, and in-laws that are separated most of the time may be in the same
groups. The name groups themselves are self-perpetuating through time. As men and
women pass their names to their young nephews and nieces, the young children join
the groups of their name-givers. They paint themselves the same way, ornament their
ceremonial regalia the same way, sing the same ceremonial group songs together and
eventually pass their name set to young nieces and nephews of their own. During
ceremonies, a man or woman is a name-giver and/or name-receiver, and the everyday
kinship relationships are far less relevant. The one important kinship relationship that
remains is that between brother and sister; sisters play important roles in a number of
ceremonies. The recruitment to groups through name sets makes singing, dancing and
doing ceremonies a way of overcoming time and transforming human relationships. By
displaying the paint, paraphernalia and sounding the appropriate songs, Kïsêdjê are
also abandoning some of the individuality of their relationships to each other, and also
to Brazilians. When men (for whom moiety membership is especially important) sing,
they are to a certain degree channelling all of the men who have had the same names
and done the ceremony before them. This is a little like the ‘cosmic flow’ Piedade refers
to in his paper on Wauja sacred flutes and women’s songs—but it is done ‘in this
world’ by human actors. When the Kïsêdjê sing for Whites, they usually do one of the
songs sung in the morning and evening of most ceremonies. These have important
significance, but are not associated with the final transformational night characteristic
of most of the major ceremonies.
One of the ways humans and animals interact through singing is that on the
final night of several ceremonies the participants ‘become’ animals—or they
become beings that combine aspects of the animals about which they are singing
and human beings. I have described this for the Mouse Ceremony (Seeger 2004:
104–27), but it is also true of the Savannah Deer ceremony, and some others. For
a short time—usually between dusk and dawn—the singers experience the
ambiguity described for shamans in some of the other papers. Their songs are
370 A. Seeger

ambivalent references. Who is singing ‘I leap and sing the ceremony of the
mouse?’ Is it the human, or is it the animal? Or is it, at some point in the evening,
both combined? Although the Kïsêdjê do not have shamans, they do have
transformative experiences—temporarily as singers and more permanently as
‘people without spirits’ who teach new songs to the rest. None of this, however, is
shown to the Brazilians for whom they perform. They are shown the body paint,
the dancing and the unison singing.

Focusing the Gaze of the Enemies

Perspectivism posits that each species (and perhaps by extension every group of
humans) regards the others from its own perspective. What would be the Brazilian
perspective on Indians? I present the following observations with some diffidence—
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they are mostly taken from my experience between 1970 and 1982, and are stereo-
types. Some of this has certainly changed following the subsequent Indigenist
political activity, debates during the elaboration of a new Brazilian constitution and
the education of the world’s population. On the other hand, stereotypes die hard and
popular sentiment seems not to have changed that much in the rural areas of the
country. With those cautions, I would say that for many Brazilians in the interior the
stereotypical Indigenous peoples of Brazil are thought to be very different from non-
Indians—they are ‘others’, not ‘us’. Those living close to Indigenous people often
fear them and characterise them as animal-like. By those more distant from them,
they are exoticised and fantasised about in everything from literature, cartoons and
television shows to journalistic reporting. In the popular imagination, ‘real’ or
‘authentic’ Indians are ‘forest people’ (Portuguese silvícolas), an idea with roots in
the German Naturvölker and Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage. Their ‘purity’ and
Indianness is expressed by nudity, feathers, body painting, bows and arrows, and—
very important for this article—collective singing and dancing (it is no accident
that this is how Carnival dancers in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere represent
themselves as Indians).
If ‘pure’ Indians are represented by nudity, feathers and unison singing, then
‘degraded’ or vice-ridden (viciados) or ‘acculturated’ Indians wear clothes, speak
Portuguese, have driver’s licenses and university degrees, are reported to commit
criminal acts familiar to Brazilians, play Brazilian (rather than Indigenous) music and
ask for things individually such as money, employment or land. Alternatively,
clothed, educated and Christian Indians may be called ‘civilised,’ since they have
become ‘like us Europeans’. For Brazilians, ‘pure’ Indians strip down, paint up, put on
feathers and dance and sing and are watched by them; civilised Indians join them in
church and other activities, albeit in subordinate roles.
The Kïsêdjê perspective on Whites begins with their designation for them. When
they met their first Whites, probably in the nineteenth century (but possibly much
earlier, before they arrived where they currently live on the Xingu river), they called
them ‘big skinned people’ (kupen kawti) referring to the clothing that they thought
Ethnomusicology Forum 371

was a large, baggy skin.8 Whites characteristically are considered to be powerful,

armed and have a lot of wealth and goods. Since their first recorded meeting with
Whites—with the German explorer Karl von den Steinen in 1884—they have worked
hard to obtain the material goods that Whites possess. Part of the Brazilian peace-
making process with isolated Indigenous peoples has been to seduce them into
permanent contact through giving gifts of steel tools, clothing and other desired
goods, which reinforced the Kïsêdjê idea that Whites were essentially a good source of
goods. This relationship continues today in the form of a Kïsêdjê foundation
(Associação Indígena Kïsêdjê) that has been quite successful at applying for grants and
other kinds of support and at establishing relations with a variety of non-
governmental organisations and government agencies.
The Kïsêdjê sang and danced for the team of Brazilians that came to make peace
with them and give them presents in 1959 (discussed in Seeger 2010). They sang and
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danced at events organised by Claudio Villas Boas at the northern administrative post
of the Parque Indígena do Xingu between 1960 and 1980. Later, when the Brazilian
frontier advanced toward them and large agricultural endeavours as well as towns
came close enough to visit, the Kïsêdjê also sang there for inaugurations and other
political events. Kuiusi, the strategic-thinking leader of the Kïsêdjê, once commented
on why the Kïsêdjê sing for strangers. He said:

some other groups don’t want to sing for the Whites; they are ashamed to take off
their clothes and sing. We [Kïsêdjê] are not ashamed to take off our clothes and
paint ourselves. We will do it and sing for the Whites. (Seeger field journal)

They continued to sing and dance at the visit of government ministers in the 1990s,
at the inauguration of the mayor of the town of Querência, in the village for a major
television advertisement for sandals,9 and for many years on 19 April, the national
‘Day of the Indian’.
The Kïsêdjê, who today wear clothes most of the time, frequently speak Portuguese
quite well, have had open conflicts with local landowners, are knowledgeable about
(but do not play) Brazilian country music (música sertaneja; Seeger 2003), and are
known to the people in the region as individuals, focus the White’s gaze on them as
pure Indians by taking off their clothes, painting and ornamenting their bodies, and

Note how important the skin is for both Brazilians and Kïsêdjê—for the Whites, real Indians wear no clothes
but have painted skins; for the Kïsêdjê, Whites have distinctively baggy, non-Kïsêdjê, skins. In many parts of
Amazonia, the skin defines the person. Animals can take off their animal skins and become like humans, and
many Indigenous body paint designs define specific people and statuses. While some of these tendencies were
visible during the period of my research (1971–2005), they are the object of much greater self-conscious
community reflection today than they were in the past.
The complex negotiations around the preparation of an advertisement for a line of sandals launched by the
super-model Gisele Bundchen is described by Marcela Coelho de Souza in her fascinating article on the subject
(Coelho de Souza 2012). The video advertisement itself, which I played during my presentation at the
International Council for Traditional Music, features the Kïsêdjê singing in unison and may still be visible on
YouTube. See (accessed 12 April 2013).
372 A. Seeger

singing/dancing collectively. They present themselves as the truly Indigenous other in

terms the Brazilians can understand.
When their ornamented, singing, dancing bodies ‘capture’ the White’s gaze and
focus the White’s perception of them as Indians, the Kïsêdjê are focusing the
foreigner’s attention on their collective identity and on their peaceful but potentially
aggressive Indianness. This emphasises their rights as Indians, and their role in the
region as ‘original inhabitants’. It diminishes attention to them as individuals who
may owe money to local merchants, fail to give neighbours a ride in their trucks, or
be known for courting local women. It also downplays their presence in the region as
warriors acting to increase their lands and reduce the pollution of their rivers. A
negative view of their singing and dancing would note that it increases their exoticism
in the eyes of their neighbours—which it may do. But it also reminds their
neighbours and the officials of the towns of the Kïsêdjê’s important otherness and
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their special origins, their special rights as Indigenous peoples and their role in the
history of the region and the country. They focus the gaze away from their daily and
conflicted interactions with their White neighbours and to one that supports a
collective political and cultural stance.
To a certain extent, it is possible to argue that the Kïsêdjê played to the White
stereotype of them. By performing as ‘pure Indians’ they improved their chances of
obtaining certain concrete benefits for their community. These included material
objects, favourable local policies regarding land claims and environmental concerns, the
improvement of the road to their village, and the recognition of their collective status by
townspeople who otherwise know them as workers, clients and debtors who look much
like non-Indians. By singing and dancing collectively, wearing little besides feathers,
they focused the White’s gaze on certain aspects of themselves for their benefit.10 But I
would argue that the Kïsêdjê performances are not simply a strategic presentation of an
essential ‘ethnicity’ of the kind richly described by John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff
(2009) in Ethnicity, Inc. I am arguing instead that their performances are rooted in a
perspectival understanding of the world, in which species of animals and humans are
expected to look somewhat similar, but to have species-specific perspectives and
actions. The Kïsêdjê treatment of Whites may be part of a widespread perception of
essential similarity and difference found in Lowland South America.
Looking back at Viveiros de Castro’s observation that ‘multi-naturalism’ (where
every species and some classes of objects see themselves as human but are not so
regarded by other species) replaces ‘multi-culturalism’, it is worth considering that a
similar process may occur strictly within human communities. With the exception of
suggestive remarks by Lima (2005), I do not think this has been sufficiently discussed.
Where one community sees delicious food, another may see an inedible mess; where

After I gave this paper at the 41st International Council for Traditional Music World Conference in
Newfoundland, Canada, Jean Ngoya Kidula sat down next to me and said: ‘I heard your paper, and you have
given away our secret!’ Whose secret, I wondered. The ‘our’ in this case referred to communities in Africa who
are similarly aware of the stereotypes about them and similarly purposely focus the foreigners’ gaze on certain
aspects of themselves through performance.
Ethnomusicology Forum 373

one hears beautiful music, another hears noise; and where one sees the fulfilment of
its expectations of another group, the other group sees a clever manipulation of those
expectations for their own purposes. This is indeed a scenario of a multitude of
mirrors, and leaves room for conscious agents and innovative action.
I do not recall any examples of the conscious focusing of attention on certain
aspects of their perspectives by animals or other Indians, but they may occur. When
the Kïsêdjê travellers are invited to visit animal villages they see the animals in human
form, but they also have moments in which the human-looking animals reveal their
distinctive perspectives. Yet when the Kïsêdjê perform for Whites, they present
themselves wearing their Kïsêdjê ‘skins’—painted and feathered—and singing
Indigenous songs in unison. It made me wonder about the other cases of perspective
in the literature—do the vultures make the carrion visible to their human guest to
focus the gaze on their difference? It would seem that establishing a certain kind of
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difference is part of the effect of language, food and music. The purpose is to focus
the gaze of the other—and also back on the viewers in a particular way.
There may be more than just the possibility of obtaining pragmatic benefits from
performing for Whites. The Kïsêdjê and the Brazilians also may be enacting a shared
cosmological perspective that they are both applying to a new and difficult situation
through body ornamentation, song and dance: discovering how to live with peoples
with imagined different perspectives—the Kïsêdjê using their Amazonian perspecti-
vism, and the Whites influenced by a European past of theories of polygenesis, racial
difference and ethnic essentialism of its own. And the Kïsêdjê intend to come away
with the spoils again, as they always have in their presentation of their history.

2013—In the Age of YouTube

The Kïsêdjê may be changing their minds on how they present themselves, and this
may be partly because of the way they are using video production to represent
themselves and their ideas. Building on early efforts of mine to provide them with
equipment and training to make videos in 1994, a number of Kïsêdjê are today excellent
camera operators and editors. This is a result of their interest, talent and perseverance,
and also of the very impressive programme of a non-governmental organisation called
Video nas Aldeias (‘Video in the Villages’) that since 1987 has devoted its efforts to
training Indigenous filmmakers (for a preview of their work visit their website).11
Some of these are available for sale, and many shorter productions are available on
YouTube (search ‘Kisedje’ without diacritics for those currently available). Almost
every Kïsêdjê production uses music (several use recordings from the 1970s I have
provided to them), and many depict dancing. But the Kïsêdjê are apparently no longer
dancing on some public occasions.

See (accessed 12 April 2013). They have also recently
published a wonderful 34-minute video on the 2010 performance of the Mouse Ceremony, which those familiar
with my book on the ceremony (Seeger 2004) would probably enjoy (Video nas Aldeias 2011).
374 A. Seeger

One of their recent video projects posted to YouTube was a report on the ‘Day of
the Indian April 19, 2012 Canarana Mato Grosso’ in the city of Canarana, Mato
Grosso.12 Using extensive narration in Portuguese, it describes the events of the
annual national ‘Indian Day’ that is commemorated in many parts of Brazil. In
Canarana that year it featured the sale of Indigenous handicrafts and an evening of
musical presentations that ranged from the municipal band to a number of
Indigenous groups presenting their own music. The evening events began with the
mayor giving a speech, with an important Kïsêdjê leader standing to his left—who
later also gave a speech. After presentations of several non-Indigenous municipal
groups, members of several Indigenous communities that use Canarana as a place to
shop and to catch a bus to other parts of the country briefly performed dances and
sang. The Kïsêdjê did not present any of their own music that day, however.13
Instead, some Kïsêdjê participated in a pan-Indigenous dance/song they learned from
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the Kayapó Indians. A number of their leaders were present wearing shorts but no
shirts and sporting feather headdresses. I suspect their non-participation in the
musical part of the evening was carefully discussed, tactical and creative, as Coelho de
Souza (2010, 2012) has suggested about other decision-making. They are facing many
pressures on their lands, on their livelihood and on many aspects of their individual,
family and community lives. They may well decide it will be their words that they will
contribute to non-Kïsêdjê events in the future, not their music.
Another recent example of Kïsêdjê public presentation is a really interesting video
prepared for the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development:
‘Amne Adji Kapẽrẽ Mba—Carta Kĩsêdjê para a Rio + 20’ (Come Listen to Our
Words—a Kïsêdjê Letter for Rio + 20)’.14 The video denounces the environmental
and lifestyle changes caused by intensive agribusiness in Mato Grosso and includes
dramatically presented angry speeches by a number of Kïsêdjê women, music from
my 1970 tapes, and also videos of singing and dancing.15 Whether this means they
will stop singing for the Whites is still to be seen—but it is clear they are adding a
powerful technological tool for communicating their ideas on current events to their
earlier repertory. Video, even more than live performance, can focus the foreigner’s
gaze exactly where they choose.

Final Observations
Humans everywhere construct their own cosmological views about the origin and
nature of the world and its many inhabitants, and there is an impressive variety of
these around the world. In Lowland South America, however, careful examination of

See (accessed 12 April 2013).
The filmmaker confirmed that there was no Kïsêdjê music at the event, but mentioned their presence in the
speeches and in the Kayapó dance.
See (accessed 12 April 2013).
The video is interesting in that it presents visuals of Upper Xingu Indians dancing, but overlays a Kïsêdjê song
on top of the visuals. This may have been because of concerns about intellectual property, or it may be because
they wanted their own music in the video.
Ethnomusicology Forum 375

those relationships reveals some striking commonalities, even across language

families. The relationships established among humans, and between humans and
not-quite-so-human others, are complex and filled with music. The music represents
and enables the cosmic flow (Piedade in this issue), or exchange relationships that are
central to many Lowland South American cosmologies. Perhaps this is why
Indigenous musical forms in this region are restricted to ceremonial music. While
they may be funny, and they often are exhilarating and transforming to perform and
experience, they are ultimately central parts of very important cosmic relationships.
Indigenous music is not usually casual entertainment—for that, the groups usually
turn to national popular music forms (although sometimes those popular genres are
repurposed into evangelical Protestant church music in Christian Indigenous
communities today). While other authors have discussed how meaning is created
through song in South America (see Taussig 1993), new and careful ethnographic
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investigation of music across the region appears to be revealing a general pattern of

musical creation and use for a large, historically interconnected, geographic area.
Why the Kïsêdjê sing and how they focus the gaze of the ‘others’ is deeply embedded
in cosmological ideas, and loudly proclaimed in their villages, in their encounters
with others in conflicted situations, and today in their YouTube postings. The
location changes and the strategies are carefully thought out and applied, but the
music continues to move, to organise and to have impacts that are simultaneously
carefully directed and also unseen, but felt.

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