Semaya, the newly released video from the Musichuk Recording Label, artfully weaves startling and extremely rare images of the Kataragama tribe in southern Sri Lanka alongside electronic music that is matched carefully to the ceremonial tenor. What appear to be painful and masochistic rituals are, in fact, part of an ecstatic festival led by yogic high priests transcending the “double-edged sword of pleasure” to delight in the ecstasy of “wisdom and light.”
I came across this evocative gem while working on a research project in Santa Fe, NM and feel it should be shared with consciousness-shift oriented communities in the West. The footage was extracted from a little-known documentary series produced in English, but only released in Yugoslavia in 1988 entitled, Journeys to Other Worlds. In this 13 episode production, writer and producer John P. Allen narrates scenes depicting the daily life and rituals of indigenous cultures encountered during an epic voyage with the RV Heraclitus. According to the VHS copy, “The series was filmed during the three year ‘Around the Tropic World Expedition’ in which the Research Vessel Heraclitus sailed over 30,000 miles and called into 40 ports in 25 countries and survived a shipwreck.“
While highly unique, Journeys is reminiscent of Ira Cohen’s Kings With Straw Mats, which was produced around the same time and reveals the poet/filmmaker’s unplanned participation in the Kumbh Mela festival; an assembly of holy men occurring on the banks of holy rivers, known to the yogis as the “pineal gland of the Earth,” every twelve years. In both films, the extreme techniques of the yogis are astonishing to the western eye, perhaps to any eye. For example, in addition to the more common ability to wrench one’s limbs into seemingly dangerous postures, some yogis hold one arm over their head for periods of twelve years, resulting in a shriveled hand with fingernails curled over and grown back into the skin. Others pierce their skin in an array of places and then hang from a tree, even swinging to and fro while staring deliberately into the camera.
The haunting intensity of these images is only possible because of the efforts of the filmmakers as participant ethnographers. Not only did the camera operators/co-directors of Journeys, Robert “Rio” Hahn and Zeljko Malnar, have to dance around with an extremely heavy camera to get the correct feel, but the the entire crew would have had to be accepted as authentic human beings rather than seen as mere generic westerners seeking fodder for the spectacle of entertainment culture.
Due to the demands of my current project, I am fortunate to have access to the co-writer/producer of this series, John P. Allen, a remarkable and robust fella’ with 86 trips around the sun and 1001 tales to prove it. During our talks I mostly listen while his coyote-like disposition and sage’s gaze vibrate energies into the space between us, then focus those energies into pearl after pearl; too many to take home, I can assure you. From the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to Biosphere 2 and the colonization of space, I listen; from Madison Avenue and Harvard Business School to mescaline ceremonies with the Hopi near four corners, from being a war correspondent with special forces in Vietnam to hash trips in Morroco and Haight Ashbury, from the ideas of Heraclitus and Hegel to Oswald Spengler and V.I. Lenin, I listen. One gets the sense that John Allen, or ‘Johnny’ as his friends call him, authentically embodies the renaissance spirit of a Leonardo Da Vinci. Ralph Metzner even once suggested to me that, for all we know, Johnny is an incarnation of the mythic Johnny Appleseed! Throw in the good humor of Will Rogers and historical fortune of Forrest Gump and you’re getting close. But that is for another article, perhaps a book.
I was fascinated by the images in the Semaya video and managed to steer one of my encounters with John Allen towards the striking intimacy of the Journey’s footage. Allen explained, “We arrived into these villages as initiates, not ordinary westerners. Rio and I (Robert Hahn- co-director, line producer and expedition chief) would sit down with the chief and Zeljko (co-director) would be nearby with the war chief, who watched closely my interaction with his chief in order to determine if we were a threat. Thankfully, I tended to get on with the chiefs quite well.”
Allen is in fact a culturologist by trade (among many other things), both through academic training at Oklahoma University in the late 1940’s, as well as decades of research, exploration and encounter, often from the decks of the RV Heraclitus, a vessel that he and his friends from the Institute of Ecotechnics (I. E.) designed, built and sailed themselves with little to no nautical experience, save for a correspondence course in navigation. Since its construction in 1975 , the ship has sailed over 270,000 nautical miles and docked in 46 countries through 18 expeditions, each directed by I.E. to carry out research that furthers the health of our biosphere and ethnosphere. So it is no surprise that the crew was accepted by the Kataragama, as well as the many other indigenous cultures depicted throughout the thirteen episode series.
Nonetheless, I still wondered about indigenous cultures’ conception of the camera. Hadn’t Native Americans in the 19th century been suspicious that the still camera would steal one’s soul? What obstacles did they run into in Sri Lanka? With the edge of a Bowie knife, Johnny’s energy shifted into a sharp rebuff to my query, ‘“Ahhh! the western intellectual exploitation trip… do you think YOU know what a camera is?” Then he turned ninety degrees to face the high desert sun setting over Cerrillos hills.
I could see this thread was coming to a close so pushed only one more point. “In the west,” I explained, “self-inflicted wounds are likely to call to mind heavily pierced and tattooed ‘freaks’ and exhibitionists of the fetish subcultures that we…”
Johnny interrupted, “That’s what Capitalism calls them.”
“Well,” I replied, “what do you call them?”
Johnny: “Hatha Yogis.”
Fair enough. The anthropological sense of ritual has been co-opted, and from the perspective of the World Market, it is diminished and ridiculed like a carnival sideshow. Nineteenth century prophets of the entertainment religion P. T. Barnum & J. A. Bailey created a enigmatic formula of exploitation and expression that grew to be so pervasive and systematic that we hardly bother to ask the right questions in our own time.
So what about the label that licensed this striking footage and made the the music to go along with it in the Semaya video?
A short walk from Allen’s house brings one to a small south-facing bungalow, one of many rooms available to guests of the Synergia Ranch Conference Center or volunteers on the organic farm and orchard near where Allen’s home is situated. It was there that I found the two creators of the Musichuk label working on demos for an upcoming album. The music I heard that day was very different from the soundtrack to the video linked above. It was acoustic, not electronic, and resounded a deep, earthy groove with flares of gypsy guitar and sophisticated arrangements/harmonies that made me think of a Radiohead that had been healed.
To my surprise and disappointment the two collaborators had no interest in being interviewed. According to them, an artifact should speak for itself and would likely only suffer for being reduced to words. A musician myself, I was sympathetic. Hadn’t McLuhan repeatedly invoked the French poet Mallarmé in saying, “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”?
And yet, the nature of the images in Semaya and the fact that they had been re-contextualized into a short music video seemed to warrant some explanation from the creators. Or perhaps I was on my own trip and merely too curious to give in. I insisted that, “the readers of the site where I’m publishing your video are accustomed to a long-standing debate about cultural appropriation in the New Age. To give you some idea, there was an article years ago (actually there’ve been a few) about non-natives wearing Native American-style feather headdresses as accessories at festivals like Burning Man that generated a great deal of discussion and controversy. Many people take a hard line and several festivals have actually banned this type of costuming to be more sensitive to indigenous cultures. Of course, I’m reducing the issue a bit to convey a point, but the truth is that not all these people are so simple and insensitive! I personally know a few that are genuinely interested in developing the sacred traditions of the original cultures and only work with published material or with mentors to creatively embody and transmit the most sacred elements, or in some cases they make their own symbols and garments entirely, which can trigger sensitivities nonetheless. The problem is that, from the outside, you can’t always easily tell the difference between the ‘accessorizers’ and those authentically concerned with the sacred!”
The composer/editor of Semaya quickly jumped in with a slight Russian accent to say, “Yea, well, show them my video and you can tell which ones are real in less than one minute, ha!”
(In retrospect, looking back as my own editor, we could simply have stopped there, for in some sense none of what followed says much more than that. And as a writer, it should be better to follow Mallarmé’s formula myself, allowing pregnant statements to resound as such. But I also know what kind of e-mails I will get and that there are no DVD extras for blogs, only annoying arguments in the comments section. Therefore, in the interest of exhaustive documentation, I will include the remainder.)
I suggested a compromise in response to Musichuk’s concern: the subjects would remain nameless and the topic would be limited to an anthropological one, remaining clear of aesthetics or music. The collaborators agreed, and over a cup of Turkish coffee, we proceeded to discuss the potential reactions to Semaya, and the artists’ real intentions behind working with footage from sacred festivals of distant cultures. Since I am not referring to them by name, we will have to differentiate the voices by culture. The composer/editor of the video was born in Ukraine and spent formative years in the Middle East. His heritage is essentially Russian so we will call him “Russian.” His collaborator on the label is a New Yorker and being a mix of Italian and Puerto Rican, we can think of him as essentially American and refer to him as such.
Me: “What would you say to people that have a negative reaction to the video?”
Russian: “Maybe some people will be disturbed by the video. But I think the west is a bit stuck in the head… too intellectual, you know? It doesn’t understand the body. For me, what you call the ‘New Age’ is sometimes kind of bullshit, really. I am sorry to say this (laughs). But really, it is true. The ‘Old Age’ is where most of the knowledge is. And now, through things like Burning Man, which you mentioned, the west seems to be just learning what the older cultures know for thousands of years.”
American: “Yea, but do you really want to say that? It sounds like you’re attacking the New Age, and who knows what the New Age even is really. I think people that don’t know you will take that the wrong way.”
Russian: “I’m not attacking nobody! Maybe I don’t have the words in English, but the West is chasing spirituality with the Mind. They’re afraid of the body. We just want to show something real. Anyone who sees the video and finds it offensive is probably not being sensitive to the tribe, they’re just not comfortable with their body, and that means they’re not fully human.”
American (looking towards me): “To be honest, I kind of agree. Why would anybody be offended by this? Until you said something, it never occurred to me that this might bother anyone. That’s why I like the shot of the moon. It reminds us that we’re all human and that you’re looking at yourself in the video too. Why would anybody want to push that away? That seems weird to me.”
Clearly, the American musician was of the pure-hearted variety, naive and childlike in outlook the way any artist probably should be. But although this dialogue revealed a great deal about their views on the footage itself, I was more interested in the decision to edit these images into a music video. “How did it come about,” I asked, “that you discovered ‘Journeys’ and decided to edit this video to your own music?”
Russian: “I was visiting a friend here at Synergia Ranch, when Kathelin Hoffman approached me about putting together some video clips for the Heraclitus, which I did. When I looked through Journeys series I thought, ‘This is AMAZING!’ It was definitely the best videos like that I ever seen because it doesn’t have so many words and let’s you see what is really going on in this world that you never get to see. I have been a professional music producer for over ten years and I immediately thought to license it and put it to my music because people need to see these things and they’re probably not going to release new DVD’s of the series for a long time. What better way than to see it than with the right music, no?”
Kathelin Hoffman was the artistic director of the Caravan of Dreams night club theater and, throughout the 1980’s, worked alongside other Synergists to turn a formerly neglected city block in Ft. Worth, TX into a simulacrum of Greenwich Village (if you can believe that). She holds the space of the avante-garde at Synergia Ranch and has drawn from her personal and often collaborative relationships with the likes of William Burroughs, Ornette Coleman, Brion Gysin, Genesis P. Orridge, Bill Laswell and others to help fertilize the culture of Synergetic Civilization, which was inspired and developed John Allen and his friends.
Synergia Ranch itself is an obscure counter-cultural stronghold from the late 1960’s, and truly one of America’s best-kept secrets. It’s nestled in the Cerrillos hills just south of Santa Fe proper and boasts an organic farm with a volunteer WWOOFer program, a conference center for esoteric and new age workshops, and a rich store of knowledge piled high within the archive room for the Global Ecotechnics Corporation (such as the Journeys series), as well as in the minds of the Synergists that still live on site. Unlike other, more famous intentional communities near Santa Fe, such as the Hogfarm (think Wavy Gravy and those who ran security at Woodstock) or New Buffalo, which was represented in the film Easy Rider, Synergia Ranch survives the terminal affront of financial capitalism as an experiment in human communal living that continues to this day.
This success is due in part to the the clever mind of its visionary founder John Allen (interviewed above) as well as the diligence of his friends that have developed and sustained synergetic task projects, or Synergias, around the planet. The Vajra Hotel (a center for Tibetan refugees built by the Synergists in Kathmandu in the late 70’s), the October Gallery (an ongoing center for transvangarde art in London), RV Heraclitus (currently being renovated in Spain), the Theater of All Possibilities (a group that began in the Haight in 67’ and toured all over the world), Las Casas de la Selva (ongoing forestry restoration project in Puerto Rico), the Institute of Ecotechnics (holds ongoing interdisciplinary conferences), the Caravan of Dreams theater (mentioned above), and even the grandiose and world-renowned Biosphere II closed systems experiment, were all fruits of synergetic task projects, having their origin right here at the ranch in Santa Fe where we drank Turkish coffee and talked about the Semaya video. In fact, the vibe in this remote desert outpost is so cosmopolitan that it doesn’t even feel like you’re in the States. You could say that the vibe it’s European, but ‘Planetary’ is probably more accurate.
Returning to my discussion with the Musichuk founders, I directed a follow up to the Russian, “So you think that a three minute clip to music is effective at conveying the essence of these videos?”
Russian: “Yea, I mean, maybe that’s not everything, but if you want to get through to people, sometimes you have to meet them at the edge of their attention and then, maybe, you make them think… and even better maybe they do something!”
True. When MTV took off the early 1980’s, the attention span of the west (and much of the rest of the world) was reduced to about 3 minutes, then twittered down to about 3 seconds with the rise of the internet and smart phone technology since the turn of the millennium. Important to note here is that regardless of the medium, it’s the issue of commerce that goes back at least to Barnum’s Circus (of selling out the anthropological function for entertainment spectacle), that is at heart.
Russian: “Besides, if they don’t like it then that’s OK, we can all keep doing what it is we do and they do what they’re doing. Exploiting someone is using innocence or ignorance to sell a product, but we’re not selling anything. Whatever we create for Musichuk is free and will continue to be free. Who cares if someone doesn’t like it. I am trying to work in this world, where those people don’t exist.”
American: “Being nice is kind of a cool thing though.”
Russian: “Yea, but they don’t understand some things and that’s annoying when you have to deal with what people say about what they don’t know.”
American: “So, you have to teach them.”
Russian: “But I’m not a teacher.”
American (after a brief pause): “I totally agree with you.”
I realized then that if these two play together anything like the Laurel and Hardy routine that is their apparent everyday dynamic (point, chaos, counterpoint, even more chaos, agreement) then they must be pretty good. Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing more from the Musichuk Label, but as for Semaya,… what do you think?
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