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Songs That Heal: Preserving A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

Sergio Pacheco learned the healing songs from his father at age 6 and went on to conduct his first healing ceremony at age 8. Ben de la Cruz/NPR hide caption

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Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Sergio Pacheco learned the healing songs from his father at age 6 and went on to conduct his first healing ceremony at age 8.

Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Only six people in the world know how to do what Sergio Pacheco is about to do.

A middle-aged man who rarely smiles, Pacheco stands in the middle of a crowd on the National Mall, wearing a feathered headdress, beaded necklace and wrinkled dress that's been hand painted with a large, maroon bird on the front.

"What I'm about to show you is the way we heal in my community," Pacheco says in his native language, Harakmbut, while a translator quickly interprets. "If someone has faith, they will be cured."

Pacheco is a traditional doctor among the Wachiperi, a thousand-year-old ethnic group living in the foothills of the Andes. Once isolated from the rest of the world in southeast Peru, the indigenous group's population declined rapidly when they came in contact with Westerners in the middle of the 20th century and contracted diseases. An estimated 90 to 140 Wachiperi are left today.

Pacheco, who still sticks to the old ways, flew more than 3,000 miles from Peru's Amazon rain forest to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. in June, to share his skills, knowledge and cultural heritage with the rest of the world.

He starts by healing a woman's headaches and sore ankle. He places a dried green plant, named Santa Maria, on the woman's head and ankle. He then sits and quietly begins chanting an esuwa — a traditional healing song of the Wachiperi.

He sings and waves dried tobacco leaves back and forth in the air. Though the song's words are never translated into English, the crowd watches with awe and respect. There's a sense we're watching an endangered practice.

Back in 2011, UNESCO placed the healing songs of the Wachiperi on its "List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding." Back then, there were only 12 known esuwa singers left. Now, Pacheco says, there are only six people who know the healing songs.

The UNESCO list contains cultural practices from around the world, such as oral traditions, festivals and craft skills, which are in danger of being forgotten. Once a practice is placed on the list, UNESCO works with the community to safeguard the tradition and ensure it's passed down from one generation to the next.

The Wachiperi have specific songs for different ailments. Ekuchirite esuwa is for curing headaches and migraines. Bihichindign is for snakebites, and Wewechindign is for fevers. To call back a person's spirit when death is near, they sing Mbpehekaieesuwa.

According to legend, the Wachiperi learned these different esuwa from the forest animals. And each song is a plea to the forest spirits for help in healing someone.

Pacheco insists that if someone believes in the plants and the healing process, they will be cured. He once knew a man whose leg had been crushed by tree and could not walk. Yet, after esuwa, he stood and walked.

After Pacheco stops singing, he spits into the dried tobacco leaves he has been holding and takes a bite of them. He chews for a second then spits the tobacco onto the woman's ankle. He then starts to rub, mixing the moistened tobacco and Santa Maria together, as he massages the ankle and spits a little bit more. He finishes the ankle treatment by tapping dry tobacco leaves over her injured leg.

For the woman's headache, Pacheco pulls out a large snail shell that holds pulverized tobacco. He gathers some up in a hollow, V-shaped bird bone and places one end up the woman's nostril. He blows hard on the other side, causing the woman to jump as the tobacco shoots up into her nose.

"I have cured my sister," he tells the audience.

After the ceremony, individuals flock to Pacheco, seeking his help. He is sad that he has no time to heal them, but promises that if they journey to his Peruvian community, he can take care of them there.

Pacheco learned the healing songs from his father at age 6 and went on to conduct his first healing ceremony at age 8. But these days, the younger generation within the community is less trusting of traditional healers, he tells Goats and Soda. They're skeptical the practice works. Many no longer come to Pacheco for help and go directly to pharmacies and Western doctors.

Pacheco visits schools and tries to share his knowledge of plants, esuwa and the traditional Wachiperi way of healing, but the interest to learn is just not there anymore.

"I say it's for their own wellbeing," says Pacheco, who hasn't taken Western medicines for the past 12 years. "Pills hurt your body because they are chemicals. When I'm sick, I cure myself with only plants. My plants are my pharmacy, but the younger generation is going to forget about our natural healing."

Does that worry him?

"Not at all," he says, with a smile. "If they want to, they will learn. But I'm satisfied with the wisdom I have gained from my father, and I will keep doing it until God takes me."