Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 2022


JUAN CASTRILLÓN / University of Pennsylvania

This film was made to be seen in a dark room. 

My research in ethnomusicology contributes to the study of aural modalities of existence in Amazonia, deepening the critical reflection on how recording technologies in contexts of fieldwork are increasingly becoming processes for intermingling ethnographic and Indigenous People’s perspectives (Castrillón 2021; Hill and Castrillón 2017). Technologies are part of the everyday of Indigenous People’s expressivity as they instantiate listening and voicing positions which are inseparable from the dialectics of ritual discourse, notions of iteration, and the ineluctable encounter with new technological devices introduced to the Amazon rain forest during the early twentieth century. 

If one agrees with the definition of the ethnomusicological film proposed by Leonardo D’Amico as the genre that, “shows a deeper ethnomusicological insight and has the ability to communicate ethnomusicological concepts and contents” (D’Amico 2017, 5), to what extent are shifting paradigms in the discipline transforming the way ethnomusicologists see, listen, think, and feel through filmmaking? Visitors was filmed and edited having in mind that both camera and editing process are means for professional expression in ethnomusicology, as they diffract onto-epistemological concerns and open new grounds for critical thinking and argumentation within the academy. My audiovisual scholarship in ethnomusicology suggests that decentering the aprioristic mode of perception of the ethnomusicological gaze requires a filming style in which our understanding of replicability and reality can be interrogated. A filming style in which performance does not represent, replicate, or capture identity as human or cultural behavior, and were filmic documentation presents an ethnographic realism that remains open to singular and discontinuous audiences.

Visitors renders three aspects of my latest fieldwork research with the Cubeo Emi-Hehenewa in Northwestern Amazonia: the (dis)ability of my camera and sound recorder to amplify the ways I encounter nighttime and space; the call for facilitating contact zones for the unheard and the unseen to be attended; and the voices of Yuruparí ancestors coming during the rainy season. Based on a W.E.B Dubois poem recited in a Cubeo Emi-Hehenewa indigenous village, the film explores the generative tension between visual and aural forms of knowledge among Amazonians presented to a non-indigenous audience. It experiments with various modes of noticing Yuruparí ancestors and other non-human entities as they appear through diffuse shapes, dim light, ephemeral duration, and deep resonance across multiple resonators.

As is well known in Amazonian ethnology, yuruparíancestors appear also, but not only, as a set of powerful instruments featured at male initiation rituals in longhouses (Koch-Grünberg 1909; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1996; Goldman 2004; Karadimas 2008; Hugh-Jones 2017; Århem et al. 2004; Hill and Chaumeil 2011; González and Lozada 2012; Cayón 2013; Rodriguez de Mello 2013; Chernela 2015; Matarezio Filho 2015; Aikhenvald 2019). During these rituals, women listen to them from a distance while men are accompanied and guided by initiated shamans in a longhouse where they provide different substances to be ingested and redistributed among the male participants. Tukanoan Indigenous People living across the Vaupés River Basin in Colombia know about ancestors through different qualities and modalities that re-veil, mask, and amplify their existence. These indirect modes of knowing inform about yuruparí ancestors, and also give shape to the sensorial composition of those visited and addressed. Moreover, yuruparí ancestors’ unintelligible and opaque musicalized discourse folds the sensorium in which indigenous communities manage their relations of alterity, and help them establish the onto-epistemological limits of their expressive and communicative praxes (Hill 2015). Through this film, blackness in darkness –as well as noise in sound– reminds viewers of the intoxicant liquidity of ‘becoming’ that surrounds Tukanoan initiation ceremonies and dabukurí drinking feasts, where yuruparí ancestors are the longest waited visitors during the rainy season. These powerful visitors do not remain in Cubeo Emi-Hehenewa communities, but their visit transforms the everyday of their residents; thus, leaving them within unfinished conversations spoken in known and unknown languages. 

The fragment of Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Du Bois 1920) featured in the film works as a translation that informs, differs, and exceeds the associated meanings Cubeo Emi-Hehenewa people have about their ancestors’ voices –yuruparí sounds– and the situations when they hear them, such as, the absence of women and children from long houses where yuruparí ancestors meet adult men and youth during initiation rituals; the radical disclosure of a world brought by the ancestors; the fluid transit between life and afterlife; and the indelible violence in the flesh of a man as trace of an exposed secret. In its po-etic intend, this fragment points at references that might obscure what it tries to communicate. It does so not because the translation of these associated meanings is incorrect. But because the resonance opened by the scene featuring an Afro-American character performing a poem invites a heterogenous network of registers and viewers to participate in this peculiar encounter. In other words, it is a translation that, as Marisol de la Cadena says, mobilizes constitutive divergence, “a practice of life that takes care of interest in common, yet not the same interest” (De La Cadena 2015, 8).

Finally, in Visitors, blackness enfolds transformation, augmentation and mediation between languages, media and forms of existence, even if it may become occlusive, a flicker noisy image fluttering as fireflies, a labyrinthine trap to mislead the observational style sedimented in the ethnomusicological film history, or the spectral manifestation of an ancestor speaking powerfully through a foreign language. In sum, the film renders the impermanence of liminality, in which my Cubeo Emi-Hehenewa interlocutors and I attempt to listen to Yuruparí ancestors while facing the potentialities and constraints of our mediated and sensorial presence.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2019. “Hidden from Women’s Ears: Gender-based Taboos in the Vaupés Area.” International Journal of Language and Culture 6: 96-119.

Århem, Kaj, Luis Cayón, Gladys Angulo, and Maximiliano García. 2004. Etnografía Makuna: Tradiciones, Relatos y Saberes de la Gente de Agua. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1999 [1920]. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. Mineloa, NY: Dover.

Castrillón Vallejo, Juan Carlos. 2021. “Grabadores de Sonidos en la Cuenca del Río Vaupés: Sinergias Epistemológicas para el Estudio de los Puntos de Escucha Tecnológicos y Etnográficos en el Noreste Amazónico de Colombia.” Boletín de Antropología 36 (62):12-37. 

Cayón, Luis. 2013. Pienso, Luego Creo: La Teoría Makuna del Mundo. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia.

D’Amico, Leonardo. 2017. “Reality and Fiction: Audiovisual Representations of Traditional Musical Cultures in China.” Asian Musicology (27): 1-31.

De la Cadena, Marisol. “Uncommoning Nature.” E-flux 65. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/65/336365/uncommoning-nature/ [accessed: Dec 16, 2020].

Goldman, Irving. 2004. Cubeo Hehenewa Religious Thought: Metaphysics of a Northwestern Amazonian People. New York: Columbia University Press.

González Galvis, Juan Camilo, and Natalia Lozada Mendieta. 2012. “La Ilusión del Hermano: Expedición a las Mitografías Antropológica y Literaria del Yuruparí.” Antípoda 15: 245-268.

Hill, Jonathan D. 2015. “Discurso Ritual, Musicalidad e Ideologías Comunicativas en la Amazonía.” In Sudamérica y sus Mundos Audibles Cosmologías y Prácticas Sonoras de los Pueblos Indígenas, edited by Bernd Brabec de Mori, Matthias Lewy and Miguel A. García. 181-193. Berlin: Verlag.

Hill, Jonathan D., and Jean-Pierre Chaumeil. 2011. Burst of Breath: Indigenous Ritual Wind Instruments in Lowland South America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hill, Jonathan D., and Juan C. Castrillón. 2017. “Narrativity in Sound: A Sound-Centered Approach to Indigenous Amazonian Ways of Managing Relations of Alterity.” El Oído Pensante 5 (2). http://ppct.caicyt.gov.ar/index.php/oidopensante [accessed: Oct 20, 2017].

Hugh-Jones, Stephen. 2017. “Body Tubes and Synesthesia.” Mundo Amazónico 8: 27–78.

Chernela, Janet. 2015. Numia Parena Numia: Women of the Beginning. Manaus: Reggo.

Karadimas, Dimitri. 2008. “Le Métamorphose de Yuruparí: Flûtes, Trompes, et Reproduction Rituelle dans le Nord-Ouest Amazonien.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 94 (1): 127-169.

Koch-Grünberg, Theodor. 1995 [1909]. Dos Años entre los Indios: Viajes por el Noreste Brasileño, 1903-1905. Bogotá: Editorial Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Matarezio Filho, Edson Tosta. “Trompetas Ticuna de la Fiesta de la Moça Nova.” In Sudamérica y sus Mundos Audibles Cosmologías y Prácticas Sonoras de los Pueblos Indígenas, ed. Bernd Brabec de Mori, Matthias Lewy and Miguel A. García (Verlag: Berlin, 2015), 121-136.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1996. Yuruparí. Studies of an Amazonian Foundation Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rodriguez de Mello, Gláucia Burrato. 2013. Yurupari: O Dono das Flautas Sagradas do Rio Negro. Mitologias e Simbolismo. Belém: Paka-Tatu Editora.

Juan Castrillón

Scholar, media maker, performer, mentor and conceptualist. Inaugural Gilbert Seldes Multimodal Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Multimodal cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist with regional expertise in Turkey and the Northwest Amazon in Colombia. His research interests include theories of listening, media archives, contemporary healing arts, mimesis, and modalities of inscription. His work dialogues with contemporary debates about decoloniality, visual and sound/music cultures, and indigenous analytics of the person, space, magic, and technology. His multimodal work has been published in academic journals; exhibited at film festivals, art galleries, and academic conferences internationally; and distributed among local communities in indigenous languages.

He served as board member of the Society for Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), and he is an active member of the Center for Research and Collaboration in the Indigenous Americas (CRACIA), the Substantial Motion Research Network (SMRN), and an alumnus of the Collective for Advancing Multimodal Research Arts (CAMRA at Penn). Apart from his academic career, he is a performer of Turkish Sufi Music, facilitator of a music therapy protocol, and pursues Arabic calligraphy and Ney reed-flute training under Turkish instructors.