Conceptual Artist, Aboutface on his time with the Wampís in the rainforests of Peru. Blog post, music and photography.

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Ben Kelly came to us through our friends at Freerotation who have been supporting Size of Wales for years. He wanted to create a specially made piece for 2018’s festival that was in direct response to the work of Size of Wales.

Many thanks to Ben for this blog post. It’s a beautifully written piece giving great insight into Ben’s experience and the Wampís as a people, and what it is that makes them so connected to their forests. Ben created a piece of music using sounds recorded during the trip and we thoroughly recommend listening to it whilst you read on: Aboutface – Los Bosquesinos


About Ben Kelly

Ben Kelly, or artistically known as Aboutface, is a conceptual artist and musician that undertakes immersive creative projects that visually realise environmental themes, raising conservational awareness and articulating ecological narratives though live music performance and visual art.

Ben’s dreams often act as a starting point for his projects which then follows an investigative journey that includes a field trip to gather creative materials such as field recordings, analogue photography, sketches and found objects. These materials then form the foundations for a live and immersive mixed-media performance and exhibition.

Ben had not anticipated that a dream of a talking forest, may lead to him traveling deep into the Amazonas region of Peru to spend time with the indigenous Wampís community on a project called Los Bosquesinos, in collaboration with Size of Wales.


The project

Los Bosquesinos (people of the forests) is an inter-cultural collaboration with the Wampís people of Guyabal, Peru, to raise money for the community to aid them in their plight to secure the legal land rights of their ancient territory, allowing them to continue their natural role as guardians of the forest.

The Wampís are an ancient community that for millennia have preserved an ancient cultural obligation to maintain the forest in balance with all living things. Through their ancient Nampet songs, the Wampís preserve their cultural ethos of conservation and empathy for all living things, in balance. I was fortunate and honoured to be allowed unprecedented access for a creative project with this amazing community, and to be the first person to record these ancient songs, along with capturing the rich acoustic ecology of their forests and communal habitat.

The experience

Following an arduous journey that included 5 hours in an off-road vehicle and 4 hours by chalupa (boat) though to the Rio Santiago, I arrived in Guyabal, a small Wampís community in a beautiful setting, spanning both sides of the river.

When I first arrived I was terrified. The Wampís people were welcoming but I sensed some apprehension. It had taken many months of discussions and community meetings to grant this unprecedented access to the community and I suspected it wasn’t unanimously accepted. However, following my initial research I was aware of Amazonas indigenous peoples’ affinity with music, so I decided in preparation for the trip, to learn the Quena flute – a traditional musical instrument from Peru that I’d hoped was played in the community. This proved to be a valuable assumption, important members of the community not only played these instruments, but also made their own similar instruments from local wild bamboo.

Along with my fantastic interpreter Carlos (also my Quena flute teacher), we developed a strong rapport through the universal language of sound and music – the family we stayed with were all musicians and performed in a band called Guyabita. We often stayed up late playing together, the rich acoustic ecology of the night-time forest playing along with us. The community couldn’t believe that a ‘gringo’ could play the Quena flute!

Small groups made up of members of the community would take us deep into the forest to record the sights and sounds of nature, communicating to each other through a series of whistles very much like birdcalls, and we were often accompanied by two beautiful birds that looked a little like grouse. These grouse followed us everywhere and even slept near us. Fernando, one of the leaders, later informed us that he requested for them to protect us from snakes or other dangerous animals, to raise an alarm if one approaches. Their worth was demonstrated on hearing their alarm call one night while we slept – the precarious moment when a curious night time creature visited us in search of a meal as we slept. This is a great example of the Wampís perception of, and relationship to, nature: all members of the community, human or animal have a role to play for benefit of the shared habitat. This is a powerful lesson to communities globally who perceive nature as a commodity not an ecology.

We explored many areas of their territory; we swam in pristine rivers where fish gently nibbled on our skin; we walked to sacred sites that have never before been visited by a person outside of their community. One of these was called La Tuna, the sacred waterfall which required a tough 6 hour walk in the rainforest. Before we could enter we had to participate in a ritual to ask permission to enter the sacred pools of water. The moment felt surreal but was a beautiful experience. The trek took every last drop of energy from us, but we were informed that this was a necessary sacrifice to the forest so we may in turn, receive good recordings and safe passage.

Over the next 7 days, I captured the most amazing recordings of wildlife, rainforest and their community; the Wampís live with an ideology of balance similar to ‘Karma’, but specifically relating to sustainability and the conservation of the forest. Not to scare my loved ones with detail, but there were a few close calls with a poisonous snake, a highly venomous spider and a few precarious walks along mountain ravines, but all in all I was looked after with the upmost care; the Wampís told us that the forest gave blessings to the project.

The most privileged of recordings I captured was the Wampís Nampet – ancient songs sang from the perspective of an animal in the forest such as Wancha (Fish) Kutuir (Bird), Pinchichi (Monkey). No one outside of their community has heard these songs so it was a great honour. Upon reflection, it makes me quite emotional that they trusted me enough to not only capture these songs but to portray them in the right way, a big honour and responsibility.

On our final day with the community, a big party was arranged where all different families cooked, we shared Masato – a fermented wine made from yucca, and sugar cane rum called Junki. We played music together till the stars long illuminated the night sky and many tears were shed. The Wampís are so very kind but so very poor. I could see on occasion they would not eat so we could, this was a powerful thing for me to experience, and as a western white male of relative privilege it humbled me greatly. The Wampís are enduring a lot of hardship but in spite of this, they are warm, generous and remain incredibly connected to the natural environment, probably more than we could ever imagine.

The performance

On the 7th July at Freerotation Festival in Wales, I performed music incorporating the sounds of the rainforest and the Nampet songs, I also played the Quena flute. It evoked feelings of returning to the community and playing alongside them once more. The performance was quite emotional for me which made it very challenging, but upon reflection I feel this melancholy was required in order to reflect all parts of the narrative I was trying to articulate.

Following Freerotation’s performance, it aired on NTS radio. I collected almost £900 of donations; a relatively substantial amount for the community.

The future

Moving forward, I shall be exhibiting a multi-sensory exhibition at LCC University of the Arts London next year. I am in talks to potentially collaborate on a charity Rainforest immersive dance/theatre project, and finally will be releasing music using the sounds of the community on my record label, Coordinates. All of which I hope will raise additional funds and awareness, with support and guidance from both Size of Wales and Forest Peoples Programme, to gain the best exposure and invest the donations to facilitate the strongest legacy.

The utilisation of raised money will be discussed and scrutinised with both charities (Size of Wales and Forest Peoples Programme) to contribute to a legacy of change and empowerment in the community, towards a self-sustaining future.

The community asserted that beyond external threats such as illegal mining and logging, the primary threats within their community are access to clean water, and the conservation of Wampís culture though education. Currently the community is only funded for 1 teacher per school, but require 5. Funding is so low that one teacher has not been paid in over 5 months. So the money raised will be used to assist the Wampís to develop fresh water infrastructure, and to help fund a technical school to teach traditional Wampís techniques of weaving, instrument making and crafts; the retention of Wampís cultural identity and ancestral knowledge is vital to the preservation of a depleting rainforest.

Aside from raising funds for the community, the on-going aim of the project is to pose a question about our role in the global ecology as consumers: how do our daily choices and attitudes affect the delicate ecology of global forests? If my work can, in any way, stimulate conversation in audiences or recipients, I would consider the project a success.

The Wampís’ unique conservational culture is under threat from a polarising ideology – the short-term urge for commercial profits and consumerism, which has now, lead to devastating rates of deforestation and I suspect contributing to the reduction of governmental support for the communities living in the Rainforest, facilitating poverty and consequently an urge for forest peoples to monetise the natural resources available to them, thus contradicting their ancient culture of sustainability that must be heart breaking for them. In bringing to life my experience immersed in their beautiful culture and habitat, it is my aim to try to stimulate a feeling of global inter-connectivity, along with presenting their fundamental ideology of nature – that it is not for us, but we are a part of it.

Yuminsuajme (thanks in Wampís) to the amazing Wampís community. Your kindness and humility will always be in my heart; this is not the end but only the beginning.

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