Part III and final
The story behind the release San Miguel de Bala
chronicle by Antony Milton

The annual San Miguel fiesta was coming up in a couple of days so we decided to stay for that before leaving, thinking that it would be nice to finish with a party and also good to get some more recordings of local musicians. The days leading up to this were very intense as a large group of biologists, 15 in total, were visiting the lodge to hold a convention. In fact they were affiliated with Conservation International, one of the funders of the lodge. It was a very big deal for the San Miguel project and as a result all hands were required on deck and we were asked to work extra hours. Sara cooking in the kitchen and me and the other volunteers doing extra cleaning, wall painting etc. Kind of a pain in the arse really- in terms of how my project was proceeding. One day the biologists went upriver a way and the lucky buggers saw a Jaguar on the river bank. They were a funny bunch, aid funders on a junket most of them. Amongst the equipment we had hauled up to the lodge for them were several dozen cases of very expensive wine. I got along best with the 3 or 4 Bolivian biologists who were part of the group, they were as interested in my project as I was in their work. The Europeans and Americans seemed more than happy to treat us as servants.

The night of the fiesta arrived and what a party! We arrived way too early at 9pm. Luckily for me some of the local musos saw us there and brought down their instruments especially for me to record (I had met and recorded one of them a few days previous at the lodge). The local music is a chaotic joyous racket made with drums and bamboo flutes. Dominant instrument is ultra fast semi martial snare drumming. Fucking energetic music accompanied by ecstatic whops and yells. Anyway the sound of this started bringing some of the locals down, and unfortunately this lead to calls that the generator be started and modern music be played on the PA. Luckily for me the generator broke down or ran out of fuel every so often and the old timers music would start up again. Boom boom boom of the bass drum with calls and shouts, the machinegun snare, the barely audible flute playing old old jungle melodies.

Everyone was dancing, grandparents through to toddlers, and the booze was free. Folks took turns walking around the crowd carrying jugs of chicha (masticated then fermented corn and sugar alcohol), or the much more potent 96percent ¨potable¨ industrial alcohol cheap mixed with orange fizz – the favourite tipple in Bolivia- and pouring it into little cups that were shared amongst everyone. Everyone pissed and dancing in this big old wall-less hall with a thatched roof, the recorded music on the PA distorted like crazy from sheer volume and torn speakers. I think it was 3 am before we finally snuck away to negotiate the snake infested river track back to the lodge.

Then bang! 7am and we have to get up because we’d to catch the boat back down to Rurrenabaque with the Conservation International folk. I was amazed to be actually feeling not so bad… Maybe that industrial alcohols not as toxic as I’d thought it might be?

So back to Rurre… And it seemed like a city after the quiet of the jungle. We’d gotten pretty used to the lifestyle out there. I had really enjoyed falling asleep exhausted every night under a mosquito net to the sound of insects. Waking with the sun. Rurrenabaque was a chaos of careening motorbikes and dust and noise- noise of shop radios, noise of drunken bars and truck horns.
We found a cheap hotel, only $4 each a night and I settled straight in with the laptop. In terms of crafting the final record I had so far been cleaning up and editing the recordings. One skill that I gained from this experience was learning how to use noise reduction filters etc. Quite a good skill to have I reckon- got to the stage where I can now isolate a single insect or bird out of a soundfield full of river noise and wind and lots of other insects etc. I was pleased with that. Obviously this wouldn’t normally be my style- I’m a big fan of extraneous noise- but I thought for this project I should try and be as hi-fi and clear as possible.

So now I set about trying to work the recordings I’d selected into some sort of cohesive and interesting flow. I wanted it to have a sense of narrative, to capture over 35 mins what its like to visit the San Miguel del Bala world. I also wanted it to work as an interesting and engaging composition. There was one track in particular that I made especially for myself however- myself and other noise/drone fans.
At dusk the place would come alive with cicada and cricket sounds. These resonated at such a frequency that they produced virtual sine waves that sounded as much like microphonic feedback as anything. So I made one piece using all my isolated insects and various effects to create the dusk from hell. A huge immersive wall of menacing noise that x-fades into the real thing- a straight field recording of dusk insects. This is the piece that took the longest, days of work, and also the one that I suspect that the actual local folk like the least, but for me it represents the sheer spine tingling bliss that these dusk sounds induced in me.
The other tracks are filmic. A journey up the river, a trip to the village, a day and night in the jungle. These are interspersed with flute and drum pieces played by the locals, and one played by me.

I had been working 9-10 hour days in our hotel for 5 or 6 days- Sara going slowly mad with boredom, and both us broiling in the muggy tropical heat (and getting virtually no sleep due to a spectacularly noisy nightclub – named ¨Bananas¨(!) – over the road), when I got a visit from the manager of the San Miguel office and project. He wanted the laptop back. Yikes! I hadn’t been told it was his personal laptop. I knew I still had at least a few days work left and so we eventually negotiated a situation whereby I would work in the office from then on. To be honest this probably meant I got less done each day (what with the various distractions there (answering phone calls and emails when English was needed etc) but at least they got some idea of the amount of work I was actually putting in, the amount of time something like this takes.
Sara came down each day and did some English tutoring for one of the guides. She was pleased to have something to do. Rurre’ isn’t a big town and there’s not a hell of a lot to do there.

Eric had suggested another project to follow on from this one, a project that I was even more excited about but I think it was just as well for Sara that it fell through. Erics grandfather is an 80 year old shaman who lives 6 hours from Rurre by motorbike. Eric was keen that we go up to visit him and another shaman to record their traditional music. This music is an integral part of their magical tradition and each shaman specialises in a particular magical instrument. For Erics grandfather this is bone flutes that he has made from various animals. The other shaman utilises ‘violins’ that he makes from sacred animal parts and wood. Eric was keen to do this as he has already written a short book covering the history of these traditions and saw this as an opportunity to get at least some of it published, albeit in the form of liner notes. I was very excited by the idea as well, even by the part of simply riding a motorbike 6 hours into the jungle, but the project fell through when his grandfather decided that it would be inappropriate for their traditions to be recorded, let alone inscribed onto CDs to be distributed around the world. Can’t really complain about his reasoning- for them the magic they work with is entirely of and about the place where it occurs- but it is sad somehow that this music/tradition will disappear from history without leaving a tangible trace, and probably very soon.

And so my project and my time in Rurre’ was finally finished with the completion, the sequencing and laying out of the final album. It was ultimately decided that it would make sense to make it a download with the money going to the community trust rather than my trying to send through a box of CDs (it was suggested there was something like a 10% chance of such a box surviving its transit through the Bolivian postal service). And that’s where the album is now, floating around in the cloud and hopefully providing some small financial support to San Miguel del Bala- the village and its people. We’d been in the area for something like 5 weeks and it was the longest we spent in any one place in South America and the place where we got at least a small insight into what it would be like to live in such a community. It is also the place where I contracted the disease Leishmaniasis from the bite of a sandfly, but that is another story. I think it is the memories of this time that will last the longest from our year in South America

-Antony Milton

*Photo by drinkgoodwine77 @ Flickr

San Miguel del Bala release page
Antony Milton discography
Pseudoarcana website