Exploring Colombian artist Savan’s music inspired by Yagé medicine ceremonies

Antes del Amanecer, meaning ‘before sunrise’, is the creation of Colombian electronic artist Savan. It’s an eight-track aural journey to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta — an invitation to a musical ritual inspired by the sounds of the birds who roam these mountains, and their role in the local mythology told by the indigenous groups who live there. The music is also interconnected with the practice of rainforest medicine ceremonies which formed part of the creation process of this remarkable recording.

Musical composer, sound artist and environmentalist Jose Miguel Navas, a.k.a. Savan, has immersed himself in the ancestral music of the Amazon and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta by making recording sessions with indigenous singers and ancestral grandparents from these regions. On this EP he collaborates with Epiara Murillo (a.k.a. Maitara) on vocals, who from childhood has been linked to ancestral knowledge with various communities living in the mountains, and David Felipe on harmonica, who performs every weekend at yagé medicine ceremonies.

‘Yagé’ — similar to ayahuasca — is a purgative preparation from the traditional indigenous medicine of the Colombian Putumayo. It is said that purging with yagé is a cathartic and liberating experience that can open the possibility for a fuller and more satisfying life which allows space for the exploration of one’s own consciousness. Those who partake can immerse themselves in the depth of their unconscious to reveal the origin of their emotional blockages and take on the task of eliminating them. Antes del Amanecer is meant as an aural companion to this psychedelic experience.

The central characters in these eight sonic folktales are the birds of the mountains, who have special significance for indigenous groups in Colombia, offering ecological and social information which can be understood through the traditional medicine rituals.

Jose Miguel Navas, a.k.a. Savan. Photo credit: VIsualbit.

My idea was to generate sound sculptures of bird chants,” explains Savan. “For this, I analysed the frequency spectrum of nighthawks, owls, condors, hummingbirds and mountain eagles — birds that are strongly related to the indigenous mythology. You can hear how bird chants inspired the melodies played on the Colombian gaitas flutes.”

Birds are primary symbols of the shaman. With them he shares the ability to fly, to see great distances, and to participate in the reproduction of nature. By taking yagé, the shaman reaches a hallucinatory state in which he feels that he is transformed into a bird and takes long flights. Some shamans believe they are transfigured into a condor, others into a hummingbird or heron. They fly to other dimensions of the cosmos to communicate with the spirits, consulting with them and gaining wisdom and knowledge to help guide their communities.

In parallel to the creation of his sonic bird tales, Savan did a yagé ceremony in a town called San Francisco, part of a region known as Cundinamarca: the land of the condor.

“I was guided by a taita (or shaman) from the Cofán tribe, known for making one of the most potent yagé,” explains Savan. “The ceremony helped me with my musical journey. It gave direction to what I was working on. The experience was incredibly hard but beautiful at the same time. Taita Sebastian’s music is probably one of the most beautiful chants I have ever heard.”

"At the end of the ceremony I had undertaken, the shaman talked to me and explained the importance of pensar bonito: regardless of any situation we may find ourselves in, we must always tap into positive thoughts." Savan
The cover art for Antes del Amanecer, created by Laura Pérez.

Antes del Amanecer opens with ‘Guacamaya’, an interpretation of the macaw chant which announces the rainstorm — a parallel with a pivotal moment in the yagé ceremony wherein an uncontrollable force comes over the body to cleanse and prepare the mind for healing and purification. ‘Halcón’, featuring the vocals of Maitara, is a tribute to the nighthawk, a bird which appears in the twilight hours and is considered sacred and is said to announce death and illness, signaling to the shamans to begin their healing work. ‘Pagamento’ — a synthetic chant over a soundbed of frogs and birds — is offered as a gift to nature in order to begin the healing of the mind. On ‘Búho’, the owl is the protagonist in a haunting conversation between singer Maitara and the traditional kuisi flute.

Savan - Búho (Official Video)

“The title ‘Pensar Bonito’ means ‘think pretty’,” says Savan. “In this track a sound hallucination — the taita — enters the space, and starts changing the order of objects such as furniture and small items, moving them around as though rearranging a house. This process of organising is thought to be beautiful. At the end of the ceremony I had undertaken, the shaman talked to me and explained the importance of pensar bonito: regardless of any situation we may find ourselves in, we must always tap into positive thoughts.”

‘Condor Madre’ explores the role of the bird known as the king of vultures — a species associated with hard work and bringing order to the community. ‘Colibrí’, the hummingbird, symbolises the sunrise — the light, life, and re-birth at dawn. The journey concludes with ‘Aguila de Paramo’, honouring the highest authority amongst the bird community: the black-chested buzzard-eagle.

Antes del Amanecer by Savan is out now on Real World X, an imprint of Real World Records. 

Listen/download

By Oran Mullan

Main image: Jose Miguel Navas, a.k.a. Savan. Photo credit: VIsualbit.

Published on Fri, 29 March 24

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