When the Pupunha Palm Bears Fruit – An Interview with Joachim Bernauer

Images of the Amazon region around Watoriki, Roraíma/Brazil | © ZKM, photo: Moritz Büchner

A lavish celebration. Generosity used as a weapon. An endless flow of bright orange pupunha palm fruit juice, and Amazonian shamanism performed at the Gasteig cultural centre in Munich – in our interview, Joachim Bernauer, the initiator of the Amazon Music Theatre, talks about his co-producers whose home is the Brazilian jungle, the Yanomamö.

Mr Bernauer, you have already made several journeys to the Amazon region and, in March 2008, were invited by the Yanomamö people to visit their village of Demini in the jungle. What has particularly stuck in your mind from these travels?

Joachim Bernauer | © ZKM As the Yanomamö’s partner on the Amazon Music Theatre project, we were invited to attend one of their most important celebrations, the Pupunha Festival. This is something I remember particularly vividly. All the villages in the surrounding area are invited to the festival, which is accompanied by a complex ritual. It takes place when the pupunha palm, also known as the peach palm, bears its fruit, which can be used to make a bright orange drink. A lot of hunting is done at this time of the year. Great mountains of meat are hung up in a hut above the fires to be smoked – the meat of wild boar and monkeys, for example. The trick of the Pupunha Festival is to overwhelm the guests with generosity. It is a sort of war game, in which generosity is used as a weapon.

When we were there, unfortunately, the festival couldn’t get underway because the visitors from the nearby villages were late. They had been delayed by other celebrations elsewhere. Our hosts were upset about this, but then, with admirable trust in us and great enthusiasm, decided to simulate the festival for us. The village simply split into two groups – one half pretended to be the visitors while the other half were the hosts.

So you were warmly welcomed by your hosts despite the fact that they have had so many bad experiences at the hands of the whites?

They showed extraordinary trust in us, which I found fascinating. In our group there were three people who have been working together with the Yanomamö for over 30 years. We were warmly welcomed because we came to them as friends of friends. As project partners of the Yanomamö, we were allowed to film and photograph everything. A bit of Internet research quickly reveals some awful stories about what Yanomamö do to white men who steal pictures from them with their cameras. After all, for the Yanomamö pictures are spirits, and their approach to dealing with spirits differs completely from our views. For example, the Yanomamö believe that it is very important to make sure that all pictures of a person who has died disappear with him.

Images of the Amazon region around Watoriki, Roraíma/Brazil | © ZKM, photo: Moritz Büchner

What happens during the ritual for the Pupunha Festival?

The ritual begins when one person from the group – at this point it is not clear whether he is a guest or an enemy – enters the village. A ritualized welcoming ceremony takes place. One person from the village and the newcomer squat opposite one another and slowly establish contact with each other. They touch cautiously to establish whether their attitude to each another is friendly or hostile. They repeatedly chant a sort of singsong which goes: “Who are you, are you my friend? Who are you, are you my friend? Who are you …”.

Once this initial ritual comes to an end, the other guests enter the village, singing and dancing. They have all painted their skin in celebration of this special day, their ears and arms are decorated with parrot feathers, and many have adorned their heads with the white down feathers of other birds.

The ritualized fight and dance sequences which follow the procession into the village culminate finally in songs and chanting in the middle of the main village square. Now it is time to drink the pulpy juice of the Pupunha palm – whether you like it or not. You mustn’t refuse it. The drink is offered in large bowls. You drink litres of the stuff, but immediately spew it out again. The liquid doesn’t get digested at all but retains its original, wonderfully bright orange hue. Afterwards, everyone is completely exhausted. This is the performance part of the festival.

Images of the Amazon region around Watoriki, Roraíma/Brazil | © ZKM, photo: Moritz Büchner

A theatrical production like in a music theatre performance.

Yes, especially since the village of the Yanomamö, Demini, which means Watoriki in the Yanomamö language, offers the perfect setting for a theatre production: it comprises one huge circular hut in which approximately 150 people live. The hut is open towards the inside and thus forms a large arena, just like a theatre. The acoustics are fantastic – what is more, the village enjoys an extremely picturesque location directly next to a huge rock right in the heart of the forest.

After visiting the Yanomamö in their village, you invited them to visit you in Munich in May 2008.

We invited them to the Munich Biennale to give them the chance to get to know our “village” of Munich. When the Amazon project was presented towards the end of the Biennale, our Indian partners insisted on performing shamanism right there at the Gasteig cultural centre. It was an impressive session, though at the same time it showed us just how dangerous something like that is in a western context. Dancing Indians can very easily be misinterpreted as folklore because of the fact that they are very often invited to perform as a group of folk dancers.

We would in theory very much like to invite the Yanomamö to perform shamanism on stage during the Amazon Music Theatre, but this is not something which could be reliably communicated to the audience. What is more, a situation in which shamanism is possible cannot be created at the push of a button or planned so that it can take place at a specific time. All kinds of things might happen – for example, it might turn out that the spirits were not entirely happy with the idea …

… which would mean that the premiere would have to be postponed.

Some of the project participants travelling through Brazil in September 2002 | © Amazon Music Theatre, photo: CR Right. This is why we decided to involve the Yanomamö as co-producers of the opera rather than as performers. In August 2009, a number of people involved in the project spent another few days in Demini. During a shamanist workshop, they worked together with the Yanomamö to design the second act of the opera which is all about the indigenous culture.

Do you hope that the project will encourage western society to treat the inhabitants of the Amazon region with greater consideration?

The aim of the project is to generate an interest in the diversity of the Amazon and in the problems of climate change, which may have very dramatic effects on the region. Furthermore, it is indeed very important for us to sensitize society to the indigenous culture. I hope that this project will provoke a deeper dialogue – between Germany and Brazil on the one hand, and between Brazil and Brazil on the other, that is to say between our western culture and the culture of the indigenous populations which we should view only as our contemporaries, no more and no less.

Joachim Bernauer is the director of the Goethe-Institut in Portugal. He studied singing and literature in Berlin. From 1999 to 2002 he ran the artists’ residence Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, and was responsible for programme work at the Goethe-Institut in São Paulo from 2002 to 2008.
The interview was conducted by Verena Hütter.

November 2009


    “The trick of the Pupunha Festival is to overwhelm the guests with generosity.”