Inside the new music video “Babel”: a creative encounter between indigenous youth in the Amazon

By Sophia Pinchetti,

9 minutes read

BABEL English version

Many moons ago, there were no rivers Strong arms, bow and arrow, a melding Created thousands of sizes and shapes And so appeared the river, the great serpent – Chorus of “Babel”

For the first time, Amazonian indigenous youth in Peru’s northern jungle have united to create a unique and exceptional music video in seven native languages. Entitled ‘Babel’ and filmed in the cities of Iquitos and Nauta, the video clip is a production by indigenous media Radio Ucamara in collaboration with Peruvian non-profit The Chaikuni Institute and Iquitos-based indigenous student organization (OEPIAP), with the support of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM).

Singing and rapping in Kukama, Wampis, Kandozi, Awajún, Kichwa, Ticuna and Shawi, the nine indigenous artists featured in this video embody the stories of their people, and share their memories, cosmovisions and relationship with the world through their song. This unique creation captures the extraordinary cultural diversity of first peoples in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, which covers over half of the country’s territory, and most of which is indigenous land, increasingly under threat by the extractive industries.

Photo: Radio Ucamara.

“This is about a creative fight”, says Leonardo Tello Imaina, Director of Radio Ucamara, which has previously produced music videos featuring Kukama youth singing and rapping in their native language. This time, Leonardo imagined something different: a fusion of several native languages in one same video. “It’s about the people uniting and continuing to resist and educate through creative proposals, something different than protests. Babel draws upon the cultural and spiritual richness of our peoples, and uses storytelling as a fundamental element”.

Roots, Cosmovisions, and Myths

The song was developed over several workshops, during which the young indigenous exchanged their people’s cosmovisions and origin stories. ‘Babel’ incarnates a kaleidoscope of magical Amazonian tales including a boa-woman seducing a young man into the river, a frog transforming into a child, a bird-woman enchanting a hunter, as well as the youth’s feelings on the beauty and importance of the river, which represents life for all Amazonian peoples.

“The lyrics are based upon the origin stories of our peoples and the river. Through culture, spirituality, music and dreams, we can create a political conscience, it’s like a magic that enters people’s hearts and creates consciousness. As Radio Ucamara, we search for the ways in which to unite people”, says Leonardo Tello Imaina.

Photo by Radio Ucamara.

Urban and Indigenous, Defying Stereotypes

The young indigenous artists in this video currently live in the city of Iquitos, far away from their remote jungle communities, having moved there in pursuit of their dream for higher education and becoming professionals. Most of them are members of OEPIAP, the indigenous student organization representing over 120 youth from 13 Amazonian peoples, with whom The Chaikuni Institute is partnered.

“I think indigenous people who have somehow gone out to the big cities or have a technical career or a university career do not stop being indigenous because of that. We don’t need to paint our face, put on feathers and we don’t need to always identify ourselves with a typical dress to say that ‘we’re indigenous’. We’re indigenous because it’s in our blood. We carry it in our customs and our way of being. We are still indigenous if we are in the big cities. And I think that this Babel shows precisely that – these young people are already in the city but they still feel the same emotions, the same concern and above all identifying themselves while being where they are”, says Rita Munoz from Radio Ucamara.

Photo by Chaikuni Institute

Indigenous Youth, Music & Storytelling: A Global Movement

n countries as varied as Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Australia and the United States, indigenous youth are using the universal language of music as a powerful tool for the revitalization of their languages, cultures and traditions, and to strengthen their identity and raise awareness on their struggles for survival and recognition as distinct peoples. “Music can take us far because we can reach more people, it’s universal”, says Danna Gaviota, an 18-year old Kukama artist starring in Babel and previous productions by Radio Ucamara.

– RONAL HUAJE WAMPUCH, Awajun Tribe. Photo by Radio Ucamara.
“In order to work between different cultures, it was important for us to work with what we know, and that’s storytelling. Every story of every culture involves a kind of cultural pattern, and the stories bring us closer to the forest, the boas, the animals. Culture and art bring us closer to who we truly are. In my culture, songs bring us closer to nature, they are magical.”

– SIMÓN MASANO IHUAQUI LOMAS, Kandozi Tribe. Photo by Chaikuni Institute.
“We need to strengthen our mother tongue. Our language is on the verge of being forgotten. That’s not right. We have to know how to value our culture, where we come from. Our mestizo brothers often consider us marginalized, there is a lot of racism. This affects us a lot. Sometimes people from our communities aren’t motivated to relate to their culture because they know how indigenous people get treated. I think about that and defending our rights.

“Babel is a song with so much strength. It’s about our cultural identity, our Amazonian identity, our own language. It’s a song where different Amazonian peoples come together and explain their origin and exchange cultures, knowledge and other things – stories, cosmovisions and various perspectives of the way of life of each Amazonian people. This is what I love!
– DANNA DANNA GAVIOTA, Kukama Tribe. Photo by Radio Ucamara.
“This is about showing how valuable and important our people, culture, and the Amazon are. In the song lyrics, we talk about myths and the important things in each of our peoples, which we don’t want to lose and want to pass on from generation to generation. There are many obstacles that have arisen over the years, issues like contamination, discrimination… Babel is a small demonstration of what we can do if we unite and we intend to achieve this.”

“Sometimes some people feel bad about talking in their own language. It’s important to recognize where we come from, who we are. I remember my mom singing my part of the song when she would take me to her chacra [garden]. She was always singing that.”

“Babel was a beautiful experience. It’s about identifying myself, who I really am, showing the world where I come from. To indigenous people who come to the city, I want to say: don’t lose your identity, always stay true to who you are. It’s important to not be ashamed. Don’t forget where you came from, your real roots.

Lyrics of ‘Babel’

(Danna Gaviota – Kukama)
[Chorus] Many moons ago, there were no rivers
Strong arms, bow and arrow, a melding
Created thousands of sizes and shapes
And so appeared the river, the great serpent

(Alex Wampankit Kukush – Wampis)
And Sun gathered the feathers
And put them in his blowgun,
Which he had used since he was born
And with one breath, birds flew from his blowgun
Boa always comes out, comes out
They cut out Boa’s heart
But Boa’s heart moves
As long as Boa lives in the river
You live, I live

(Alexander Pizango Lancha – Shawi)
The giant boa lay down
The great waterfall was born
Upon seeing you, I love
Your unique beauty, it enchants us
We must care for the rivers and the fish
If we do not care for them, the fish will die

(Cleny Shunta Santiak – Awajun)
In his tree branch, the frog boy jumps strong singing
Thinking of this I cannot live
I feel I’m dying because the child became a frog
Play in the rain among the trees
On the branch of a tree, the frog jumps
Thinking of this I cannot live
I feel I’m dying because the child became a frog
He plays in the rain

(Danna Gaviota – Kukama)
[Chorus x 2]
Your life and mine were born
With each arrow he released
Everything you have created is so beautiful
The Kukama god smiled
Your life and mine were born
With each arrow he released
Everything you have created is so beautiful
The Kukama god smiled
Mother river
Mother river

(Hitler Chávez Chino – Kichwa)
In the mountains and on the heights, I sing
To that forest woman, because I love her dearly
She loves me, she makes me happy with all her heart
The man loved the forest dearly
Until he met the Boa woman
After that, he wanted to live only in the river
Because he no longer felt cold

(Leonarda Suarez Guerrero – Ticuna)
The serpent has no feet
She climbs the papaya tree
From Nguxtapa’s hands, the Ticuna appeared
We are siblings of Ipi and Joi, who gave us names
I am from the rattlesnake clan, can you see me?
Beautiful Ticuna woman
Beautiful Ticuna woman

(Danna Gaviota – Kukama)

(Pedro Grandes Garcés – Kukama)
The ceiba tree falls and life springs forth
Its branches stretch out, forming the rivers
Essence of the grandfather, magical drops, river
Life that gives life for other lives, your life, my life

(Simón Masano Ihuaqui Lomas – Kandozi)
I have given you all my love
You left me alone with nothing
I have given you all my love
You left me alone with nothing
It arrived flying from the sky, my sky
Wings outstretched like arms, it embraces me
The bird becomes a beautiful girl
I am a hunter and I kneel before her, she is beautiful
That is why I loved her, that is why I loved her
That is why she sought me
She arrived

(Ronal Huaje Wampuch – Awajun)
Bamboo, bamboo, take me
Bamboo, bamboo, take me
I offer you Mother’s fruits
The stars shine
More and more
The stars in the sky
Fallo on my chest
Giving me eternal life
Vision and strength
Beautiful star
Eternal star
Night to night I watch you
Night to night I watch you

(Danna Gaviota – Kukama)
[Chorus x 3]