Travelling over water is the only way to reach San Miguel del Bala, so fittingly a boat’s engine is the first sound to convey us deep into the green rainforest of Bolivia. An area of great natural biodiversity and home to the indigenous Tacana people.
Formally this work is organised into discreet tracks, each one portraying a different aspect of the rain forest expedition. One for example describes village life on the banks of the Beni River. Human activity, movement and work, chatter and music. All taking place, one imagines, in a small clearing deep within mile after square mile of unceasing foliage. Man and nature put in perspective.
Milton wrote a blog during his South American travels which he has condensed into an essay. When read alongside these recordings it adds a sense of physicality to the work. The insect bites, the lack of AA batteries for the Zoom H4 and the difficulty in obtaining a laptop, and those are just some of the non-life threatening episodes.
The music of the Tacana people is a frantic snare drum beat overlayed by wooden flute playing. The snare, or caja as it is known, creates a rhythm only one step away from a shamanistic ritual. The dances and the music are clearly a connection to the past for a culture in danger of being obliterated by the encroaching modern world.
Insects produce the most disconcertingly alien sounds here. Regularly pulsing sine waves and chirrups that come from unseen sources. As Milton points out, their output often seem to be akin to electronic music. At dusk they weave a curtain of sound to usher in the darkness, dense and complex, made by an orchestra of unseen participants. It is as if the air becomes thick with vibration.
One startling piece of recording reveals the chilling, guttural voices of Howler Monkeys in full song. They sound for all the world like death metal vocalists. Malevolent demons living in the trees with cries dredged up from the depths of hell.
The recording ends as it began, a boat engine signalling a journey back to civilisation. The volume fades and once again a sound window into another world closes. We’ve just spent a cinematic 35 minutes in the Madidi National Park, Bolivia. Hardly any time at all, and yet I’m checking the house for tarantulas.
Milton’s San Miguel del Bala portrays the rain forest in a way that thankfully transcends documentary. It is a far more layered and personal piece. Often utilising music but never overpoweringly, the human element is not erased. The Tacana people live here permanently, and their existence is as much a part of this biosphere as the river or the trees.
After returning to New Zealand, Milton found that he had contracted Leishmaniasis, an infection resulting in skin sores passed on by the bite of a female sand fly. I hope he considers it was worth it, because San Miguel del Bala is a beautifully formed testament to sound exploration and composition.