When A Song Is Not A Song

An Interview with Nai Kaya

I come from a place where the world has ended
with singing plants and trees and stars
spirits from near and afar
you receive my icaro
tales and stories to be told
from the plants and the trees
healing spirits for you and me
—from “Paro Koy Bakeash”
(translated from Shipibo)

The power of sound and song have played a significant role in the form and practice of almost all known spiritual modalities through time.

Mantras, chants, incantations, psalms, hymns.

Sometimes these are devotional songs sung as offerings and sometimes singing or hearing them is a precise tool for reaching higher states of consciousness, sometimes both.

A specific example in the latter category is the Icaro, a ceremonial chant sung by South American plant shamans.

In Peru the Shipibo people have, over centuries, tended an intimate relationship with the voracious jungle around them through the spiritual-medical practices of the tribal shaman connected deeply with the spirit world of plants, trees, vines, flowers, and roots.

The Icaros these shamans sing are one of their most formidable, effective, valued, and time-honed tools.

Inherent to the Shipibo way of life is their experience that the spirits of plants can be beneficial, healing, and protective to humans in many ways.

Just as they are the inhale to our exhale, the state of being plants embody is part of the natural web of harmonious, symbiotic interdependence between all things.

Being connected to all things, this acknowledgement and the practice of realizing it, is to gain access to the energy and power from all things.

Not only can plants, stones, fire, water—anything and everything—be used to support and enrich people in their lives, but their inherent “awakeness” calls forth the Awakened One in everybody.

Without any belief system that places mankind at the top of a hierarchy in nature—which the ferocity of the jungle would topple and prove ridiculous—the intimate communion between human and plants spirits as one, each unique aspects of the Whole, the Great Mystery, has been validated over centuries in this tradition.

In Northern California two shamans, medicine women trained in the Shipibo tradition, facilitate plant spirit meditations for people in this lineage.

The Icaros they sing are woven deeply and powerfully into the healing work they administer.

Neither women were born in South America; their state-side practice is one of many in the current movement of indigenous traditions into the First World mainstream across the globe.

Whether this is a product of globalization’s arm reaching into deep, remote pockets of the Amazon or an inherent intelligence in plant medicine compelling it to where it is needed—or both—it likely doesn’t matter.

Ancient traditions steeped in the wisdom and reality of the interconnected wholeness of everything are alive in the modern world.

These two skillful, soulful shamans share here about their practice, its form and function, and the centuries-old traditions behind it; in particular, the songs they chant into the night for participants gathered to partake in ceremonial plant medicines and their own awakening.

These songs, they explain, are essentially specific healing tones and frequencies gifted to humans by plant spirits, channeled from the infinite cosmos.

When chanted together in specific patterns and forms, these tones and frequencies enable different types of healing.

Healing, in this context, is defined as “to make whole”.

The idea of healing within the Shipibo tradition operates from the premise that everyone is already whole, but there are energies within each person that are blocked or that block a free-flow, liberated state.

Songs are used to unblock energies so the body can holistically be itself, accessing its entire field of energy.

People are never considered un-whole, they just need to gain access to passages within themselves that are impeded.

We all accumulate in our lives—due to conditioning, different experiences and traumas— blockages. Icaros unblock.

Vibration, resonance, harmony—we live in a world of visible and invisible sound.

Atoms quiver into matter, stars hum about in buzzing galaxies; the rays of the sun, the moon, and love all have measurable frequencies.

Likewise, the intelligence of the Icaro is in its vibrations.

Specific chants or tones are each in different frequencies and each frequency has a different effect for different parts of the body—the cells, the DNA, the organs, the nervous system, and the energy centers.

When these songs are chanted and received the frequencies collaborate with, clear, strengthen, and move energy.

When something vibrates water it moves; the human body is 70 percent water.

Where some singing traditions are about honoring or supplicating to a divine force; the Shipibo Icaro is better classified as a medical approach.

The Icaro is, in itself, an instrument and implement of healing.

It literally sings someone back into their own inherent wholeness.

Many Shipibo chants have been passed down orally through families over time.

Some sound like they were born somewhere deep in the earth the day it came about.

Ancient Icaros carry their own powerful energetic quality as a result of being chanted for centuries.

Through fasting or abstaining from certain foods, isolation, and silence—to heighten sensitivity and openness—a person with a relationship with a specific plant can often actually hear the plant’s song singing to them, a direct transmission of their Icaro.

The traditional understanding and experience of practitioners who have had plants reveal their songs to them is that Icaros are the spirit of the plant, channeled and realized through the frequencies of the human voice.

For a practitioner or shaman, the authentic, most effective way to deliver an Icaro— whether its one that’s come up through their own relationship with a plant or one that has been passed down to them—is something that is developed over time, with intention, clarity, and openness.

The most vital piece is the art of getting out of the way.

It’s really not a mind exercise—it’s not ‘oh, what are the words and what’s the melody?’—it’s almost the total opposite.

It’s an exercise in being present, not trying to do anything, just letting the chant move through.

Becoming the chant.

The shaman, in this place, can find themselves being played like an instrument of the plant energies, their spirits.

An instrument they’ve developed with practices to support impeccable openness, strength, clarity, and sensitivity.

And through this, the song almost always surprises; it takes on its own form and life in the moment.

It finds the places it needs to go, finds the tones it needs to hit and the frequencies it needs to sound.

This is how an Icaro gathers and administers its healing strength.

The receiver of the Icaro, sitting in the dark through the night, has an elevated awareness as their default way of seeing has been eliminated.

So, information gathering is through feel: feeling the vibration, feeling the melody, feeling the tones.

This is the difference between receiving and simply hearing.

Receiving in this way allows intense response to the sound as all sensory data has been focused into one input.

Opening the body-spirit and becoming a state of flow and letting go—it doesn’t matter where someone started and it doesn’t matter where they’re going—they are in it, they are it.

Through this freedom from temporal boundaries, the Icaro can dissolve the sense of self.

To receive an Icaro is to be part of something—it’s not “you”, defined and enclosed, and then the world of other external things. It’s oneness.

You Are. And you don’t need to define what that is, the invitation is to just feel it, be it.

There is no edge to the Icaro in the moment of the Icaro, it is you and it is all.

Dropping intellections of “song” and “hearing” to become the Icaro—this is a practice of letting your entire existence receive tones and frequencies.

There are different types of Icaros, some call in “plant doctors” to help the shaman know what’s going on with people in the ceremony.

The song can indicate where someone is blocked, like a diagnostic tool.

Other Icaros, some with very repetitive patterns, can be used to illuminate more specific things about participants in a meditation.

While chanting, one layer or dimension of what a Shipibo shaman can see is called a “Kene”.

A Kene appears like a stitched fabric laid over individuals in the ceremony circle; anywhere there are holes is where the Icaro should be directed so its medicinal tones can stitch them up.

And here, then, the shaman can see if the Icaro’s stitches are penetrating or being “rejected”.

In these and many other ways as unique and varied as the individuals who sing and receive them, an Icaro is a tool that enables the shaman to see and receive transmissions from the non-ordinary world, from the spirits.

The practice of a Shipibo shaman is learning to trust deeply their intuition; their visions; and what they’re hearing, feeling, and seeing.

This trust in inner vision is essential not only for the shaman.

They may sing a diagnostic Icaro and not get any read or information on the person they are singing to.

But, suddenly, the person receiving that Icaro might realize something about themselves; they see themselves clearly, they understand something about why they do what they do, patterns they repeat, or why they have an illness they have.

The shamans may be the ones creating and holding the container and singing the songs, but it is not a hierarchy of input.

The medicine and intelligence of the plants are working with everyone directly and ultimately every participant is gathering experience through the songs and plants in different ways.

Even outside the jungle huts of the Peruvian amazon, these traditional chants are still sung in the Shipibo language.

This is the tongue in which the plant spirit embodied itself as a song and it has the same effect regardless of the receiver knowing the language the words are sung in or not.

The human body, soul, and spirit understands the directives of the words and feels the resonance of them, even if the mind doesn’t.

Occasionally, the shamans will translate a line or two to activate the receiver’s mind as well, but the whole principal of the Icaro is that it is potent irrespective of intellectual understanding.

The frequency is what activates cells and activates the healing in the body, but the mechanism of chanting Shipibo words is for the intention those words carry to act in accordance to the specific use of the particular song.

There are words for connecting, opening, clearing, aligning, liberating.

There are words for ancient wisdom, unknown universes, the great nothing, demons, and plant doctors.

The layer underneath the words—the vibration—supports them while working independently.

They are two things working at the same time.

Sometimes the chants aren’t even words, it’s just sound passing through, with a very potent effect even though there are no words to it.

The Shipibo people do not have a collective experience of time as linear; if you ask a Shipibo how old they are, most have no idea.

They do not count time in that way.

(Or haven’t historically; things are changing now with the mass influx of spiritual tourism.)

So, in their view, all versions of a person exist at once; their past, present, and future are all now.

A person can heal their past and draw wisdom from their future, right now.

So, not only do many Icaros carry the gravitas of being chanted through huge spans of time through a tradition that has evolved over centuries and while the individual songs themselves unfurl in time; to behold one wholly is to slip through the cracks of conceptual, linear time; the song as a bridge between time and the time outside of time.

A bridge between worlds where all worlds are right here.

A bridge connecting someone to exactly who they are.

One of the shamans tells a story that happened to her during her first month in the jungle while she was training with her teacher.

She was “dieting”, a Shipibo tradition of eliminating nearly everything from one’s physical, emotional, and energetic field except a specific plant over a period of time.

Some people diet a plant for weeks, months, years.

The purpose of the diet is to learn and, eventually, completely embody the medicine of the plant; to make it your ally and manifest its wisdom through/as yourself.

So, in her diet, the shaman was in isolation, silence, and deep focus while developing and nurturing her relationship with one of the ultimate Shipibo celebrities: a rare bioluminescent tree with leaves that glow at night.

“I was eating specific kinds of foods to stay sensitive, sometimes fasting to stay open.

And for a couple nights in a row I kept waking up in the middle of the night hearing this woman singing.

I would wake up and hear the owls hoot and then I would hear this woman chant.

I thought ‘Oh, there’s a Shipibo woman dieting deeper in the jungle in some place I don’t know.

All the gringos must be in this one place but maybe there’s Shipibos dieting deeper in the jungle.’

I kept hearing this woman chanting and one night I woke up and thought ‘I’m going to go find her’.

So, I got dressed and I started walking, and listening, and walking.

‘Oh, it’s in the other direction’, and then I’d be walking that way; ‘No, it’s in another direction’ and then I’d keep walking the other way.

Finally, I gave up ‘Ah, I’m not going to find this woman in the dark’.

There are Shushupes out there—big snakes, a kind of viper—and if they bite you you die like ten minutes later.

So I said, ‘This is stupid, I’m not gonna find a Shushupe and get eaten by a jaguar, I’m going back to my hut.’

I remember being really confused.

Later, I asked Enrique my teacher, “Who is that woman singing in the jungle?” and he started laughing.

‘That’s not a person, that’s your tree, that’s the spirit of the plant singing to you, teaching you your songs.”

Looking at it from quantum time: past/present/future all at once, in a way it was also my future self singing to me, teaching me my songs.

I believe in plant spirits and quantum time and being able to go back in time to help your future present self.

So it was great, and it really made me a believer in the process,  how dieting works and how listening to the plants really works. It was clear as day.

And now when I receive messages from the plants it literally sounds like someone speaking into my ear, like having a conversation with someone, being tapped into that energy.

But for a good week or so I really believed there was a woman in the jungle singing songs.

Similarly, later I was doing a ceremony with my mom when I first started leading ceremonies and she said she saw an old woman come and lay over me while I was chanting.

She said it was me when I was 80 years old.

My future self was coming to help me to sing.

Once I got the Icaro down she got up: ‘I think she’s got it now’ and left.

*The opening image depicts the visual music of a traditional Shipibo Tela. The vibrating light, color, movement, and power of a plant song, embroidered into tapestry. More than a simple visualization of a song, the Tela is understood to sing-weave its medicine beyond the cloth into the great design of all things: past, present, and future.


Nai Kaya is a certified sound healing and core synchronism practicioner, plant intuitive, vegetalista, cosmonaut, and occasional trickster who has been cosmotroping the sonic realms for 20 years. Her primary focus is on bringing self-healing and integrative modalities of different indigenous healing to her clients. Her deep passion is blending various forms of sound healing and theta therapies to create health through the release of blocked emotions, helping the body restore itself to harmony.