True Prayer: ‘Santiparo’s Kickstarter’
A report filed by writer Phreddy Wischusen, detailing the heavy, heartening story of a singer, a kicktarter campaign, a spiritual awakening and an album…
-posted here by Jeff Milo
words by Wiscusen
songs by Alan Scheurman
Santiparro’s Kickstarter shows the man in the mirror, under the microscope
By Phreddy Wischusen
“I think really the key living a spiritual life is willingness,” says Santiparro. “What can we will ourselves to do?
No matter what you’ve heard, the story of Alan Scheurman’s Kickstarter campaign (which concludes Tuesday March 4) to raise money to record an album isn’t that simple. Oftentimes suffering makes good artists great, and Scheurman’s catharsis has inspired more than song alone.
“When I was young, my father had a spiritual crisis. He had recalled his Tsalagi (Cherokee) ancestry and took us across the country as he attempted to find himself and the keys to uncovering this part of our ancestry. I watched him continue to have these spiritual awakenings, but with absolutely no framework to understand them. As he sought guidance, he was misdirected by the doctors of western medicine. They prescribed him Prozac to help him to extinguish his experiences, which eventually led him to take his own life.”
Alan Scheurman’s demons aren’t exclusive to his father’s suicide. Although, he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 2010, he remains a controversial figure metro-Detroit’s pop music community. Some regard him a healer, and others a hypocrite, but few, if any, familiar with his work would deny he is musically gifted. His band Rescue, whose alumni play in Jamaican Queens, Child Bite and His Name is Alive, was popular in Detroit and built a following nationally as a result of extensive touring.
Though Rescue had a successful run as a band, their journey together as people was cast in shadow. “Rescue … formed about a year after my father’s suicide,” Scheurman told this reporter. “At that time, my inner situation was incredibly dark. I was suicidal and felt the universe owed me something. My entire family life had fallen apart and all of my lyrics reflected this… Rescue was an outlet for these difficult periods of transition and transformation. It was a lifeboat for me and yet, paradoxically, I felt completely misunderstood by my bandmates and most of my peers because of the severity of the anguish and pain I was experiencing in my inner world.
Ryan Clancy was Rescue’s drummer. He says at one point Scheurman was like a brother to him, but after a devastating car crash on tour — resulting in both bodily harm and extensive litigation — things changed. “Al and I definitely have a sordid past completely predicated upon how badly he has hurt me, my family and people around me as a result of his behavior.” Reflecting on Scheurman as an artist and a person, Clancy says: “He’s not afraid to speak in ways that sound like a poem. I think he writes beautiful songs. (In his personal life) he has an excuse for everything, but that doesn’t make it OK. There are plenty of artists, whose work I like, but with whom I wouldn’t want to hang-out. We’ve been through too much to be friends, but I respect the fact that he exists. If anyone has a problem with Al, that’s their own problem.”
After the breakup of Rescue, Scheurman put out his first solo album, “Old Patterns” (2008), produced and engineered by Warren Defever of His Name is Alive. Scheurman the album was a radical departure from the music he had made previously. “(Warren and I) did the whole (album) in just three sessions with little to no rehearsal. The concept was to capture the free creative energy that comes when musicians play together for the first time.”
During the creation of “Old Patterns,” Scheurman began a personal and musical transition.
While studying in New York, a friend from invited Scheurman to healing ceremony conducted by an elder who was raised in the Dine (Navajo) and Mexica (Aztec) traditions. “I went in (to the ceremony) as an open-minded atheist and I came out having had an experience of the Spirit,” says Scheurman. “What I can say, is that I had a direct experience of meeting the ancestors (in spirit) my father was searching for. I received a vision for the forward movement of my life and I never really looked back.”
It can be hard to change surrounded by people who remember the person you were. In 2009, Scheurman told this reporter he understood why so many people in his community had issues with him. He had projected his inner turmoil onto their relationships. He felt, ironically however, those who had the most reason to hate the person he had been, were the most reluctant to engage with the better person he wanted to become. In 2010, he moved to New York to get a fresh start.
“When I moved to Brooklyn, I made it clear with my personal intention I did not want to find myself in a situation with roommates who might have a conflict with the path I was on,” he said. “The idea was to gather together folks who were studying under the same shaman, with his guidance, and build a community. Within a month, we found the space that would quickly evolve into Golden Drum.[i]
“Living communally is not easy. You’re putting all your inner stuff out in the open and forced to deal with it, because every community member who shares the intention of spiritual growth becomes your mirror. You cannot hide anything. There’s no place to run. So the growth is extremely accelerated and not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows.”
Maestro Manuel Rufino from the Taino tradition is Scheurman and the other inhabitants of the Golden Drum’s spiritual leader. Western historians considered the Taino — a people inhabiting the Caribbean islands when Columbus arrived — “extinct” for centuries now. However, recent studies, including a 2011 article[ii] in Smithsonian magazine, show that not only do many inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic still maintain indigenous Taino cultural traditions, but 61 percent show indigenous markers in their mitochondrial DNA.
Under Maestro Rufino’s guidance, Scheurman says, “I have had the blessing to travel to numerous sacred sites, performing specific rites and ceremonies according to the instructions that are given either from the elders of a particular tradition where we happen to be guests or directly from what you could call the Spirit of the place… I am only just beginning to learn after seven years of deep work.”
Some of that work includes medicine and lessons from what Scheurman and others refer to as “plant teachers,” including ayahuasca and peyote. “The Earth is made of medicine and the peoples whose cultures are still (at least somewhat) intact with their landscapes, in general, are medicine people. This is not exclusive to the Americas, but it’s still really prevalent here,” Scheurman said.
Ayahuasca is vine native to the Amazon basin. Although less well known in popular culture than peyote, Beat generation novelist William Burroughs refers to ayahuasca extensively in his work, under its other name, yage. A popular 2010 documentary, “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” also discusses the plant.
In addition to their use in religious ceremonies, peyote and ayahuasca have medicinal functions as well. According to biologists with the University of Wisconsin[iii], peyote has been used as analgesic, treating various ailments including toothaches, rheumatism, asthma, and even cold symptoms. “Some tribes, such as the Tarahumara, commonly used masticated peyote as a topical treatment to bites, burns, wounds and aching muscles,” their report states. “Even today, it has been used to treat a wide range of medical problems. In some cases, Lophophora willamsii (peyote) has been prescribed by mental health professionals as a treatment of neurasthenia. It works well to improve the symptoms of anxiety, headache, fatigue, and depressed mood associated with this condition.”
As Scheurman points out, psychoactive plant medicines have a rich global history. In West-Central Africa, for example, the Bwiti religion[iv] uses the roots of the iboga tree, known to have psychoactive elements, in their religious ceremonies. Cannabis is used medicinally today in the U.S. — legal now in 20 states — and has rich history of use in religious practice in India and in Jamaica. A December 2013 article[v] by Susie Davidson at haaretz.com, chronicles the use of cannabis for many purposes by the ancient Hebrews.
In 2010, Scheurman was given the name Santiparro by “elders of the Wixáritari[vi] peoples,” indigenous to central western Mexico (also known as Huichol people[vii]). Santiparro, Scheurman says, means “the lens that sees many things not usually seen,” like a magnifying glass.
As Scheurman began to feel personally and emotionally healed from his childhood and adolescent traumas, he began to be interested in learning to heal others. “As a musician I naturally gravitated toward the traditions that have a tendency to use sound to heal, which, in fact, is pretty universal when it comes to the so-called spiritual path.
“Medicine music is really just any music that comes from a higher vibration than what we normally operate in, and with the purpose of correcting and balancing the energy fields of individuals and groups through the law of resonance. Because it is dependent on the factors within a particular environment, medicine music is fluid. It adapts to the particular situation based on the needs of those who are present.
After six years of initiation in “shamanic” tradition, Santiparro says he’s been receiving or “catching” a lot of songs from the spirit.
“In the traditions that work with plant teachers like ayahuasca, peyote and sacred mushrooms, the song is integral to the ceremony. This is also true with the newer spiritual traditions that have recently evolved in the past century from working with such plant teachers (such as the Native American Church, the Santo Daime, as well as even newer groups that have adapted from these).”
Santo Daime is a Brazilian syncretic religion fusing elements of Catholicism with traditional West African beliefs and South American shamanism. The Native American Church movement — the most widespread indigenous religion practiced by Native Americans — began in the 1880s and utilized Christian elements to allow Native spiritual practice to flourish without persecution[viii].
Scheurman continues: “So the function of the song in ceremony and in life is to act as a guide, an anchor, and focal point for the journey. A medicine song is a series of codes to unlock and realign parts of a person’s consciousness (i.e. to open the heart, to open the vision, to create a feeling of love, to bring someone into a deep part of the psyche, etc.) They’re not songs really. To me, they’re Spirits that we call upon. When we get out of the way of the Spirit song then, we can offer ourselves over to be vessels for their perfect patterns and incantations.”
In 2010 and 2011 respectively, Scheurman released two albums, “Get Well Soon” and “Past Lives,” he made in his bedroom. Consistent with the challenges of re-identifying himself, he struggled to incorporate his new paradigm into his craft. “I could no longer call myself a song-writer because I had to acknowledge that I was only a receiver for ideas and melodies to pass through. So most of the music that I put out on (those two records) was a bit scary for me, having come from putting out music within such a dark context and all of a sudden singing songs from a completely new perspective – peace, harmony, consciousness, love. Was I becoming a hippie? I wasn’t really fully ready to embrace who I was becoming. The real being behind the mask of personality that we all wear to reinforce what makes us feel safe in this very strange existence.”
Around this time, Scheurman met Brooke Hamre Gillespie. “I wanted to find someone who played harmonium for my songs, but she wasn’t having it,” said Scheurman. “She would only work with me if I agreed to create a new endeavor that would be a reflection of a balanced masculine/feminine polarity.” Scheurman acquiesced and together they formed the band Ka[ix]. In addition to creating songs together, Gillespie and Scheurman began hosting bi-weekly “sound baths” at Golden Drum. These sound baths, different from song-based concerts, were ceremonial and influenced by Maestro Rufino and other “Native elders from various traditions.”
After six years of initiation in “shamanic” tradition, Santiparro says he’s been receiving or “catching” a lot of songs from the spirit. He has now written an album’s worth of songs, he has titled “True Prayer,” that he is ready to record under his new name.
“Part of this process of initiation involves specific rituals of fasting and praying in nature or making pilgrimages to places of power on the Earth and performing specific rites there. These are the instances in which the songs for “True Prayer” have come through. These are songs that often come with a message that I’m not really ready to sing in the moment it arrives. It’s like a medicine for me to take and heal myself with so that I can hold the vibration of the song — the spirit of the song can then use my body as an instrument to emit it’s encoded frequency. So, this is a major departure from what I’ve done before. Also, in that, I don’t try to fight the writing process by making songs more complicated than they need to be. These songs are really simple in their structures so that the voice can really surf on the music and do most of the work.”
“True Prayer,” Santiparro says will be mostly original songs, and not an ayahuasca album. “I’m not jumping right into the mystery of ikaros with this album although there may be two or three songs that incorporate traditional healing songs or ones that I have received directly.”
A Wikipedia article[x] defines ikaros (or icaros) as songs “sung in Shipibo healing ceremonies… Shipibo shamans say spirits, particularly plant spirits, teach them the icaros. They are used to bring on mareación (the visionary effects of the ayahuasca), take mareación away, call in different plant spirits, call in the spirits of others or the deceased, take away dark spirits and dark energies, for protection and to manage the ceremony. Experienced shamans can recite hundreds of ikaros.” The Shipibo are an indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest. To this day, ayahuasca is a part of their spiritual practice.
Another Brooklyn resident, Spike Lee, recently funded the production of his latest movie, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” entirely through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Santiparro is aiming to do the same thing. The fundraising period for “True Prayer” began in February with a goal of raising $11,000 by March 4. On Feb. 23, over 200 “backers” had contributed enough money to reach the goal. Now in the campaign’s final days, Santiparro is attempting to reach what he calls a “stretch goal” — $20,000 in order to fund the creation of a record label “to release ‘medicine music’ from traditional ayahuasqueros, peyoteros, and new artists inspired by ceremonial culture.”
One such artist is Don Emilio, who lives in Pucullpa, Peru in the Amazon rainforest. Santiparro describes as him as “an onaya (shaman) from a long line of powerful healers in the Shipibo tradition.”
During Santiparro’s last trip to Peru, Don Emilio led some of the ceremonies. Don Emilio impressed Santiparro with his voice and his guitar playing. The two have remained in close contact since. “We’ve … discussed creating an album of his traditional ikaros with guitar and light percussion, possibly with other elements as well.”
Santiparro says he wants his label to “have a self-determined social impact for the benefit of the communities involved in the recording.”
“(White) Americans need to really open their eyes to the true history of this land and the genocide of its original peoples. They need to wake up and humble themselves before this reality, not to pity themselves, but to engage in a real effort to heal these relationships and the way we treat our native peoples. They need to look deeper into their own ancestry. Like, way deeper. There are people all over this continent who hold the keys to living in harmony and to healing the earth and they’re ready and willing to share. But arrogance doesn’t let us see it. We are too proud. That is all changing little by little though.”
Indigenous self-determination, especially as it relates to cultures using ayahuasca in religious practice, is a controversial issue these days.
In an abstract[xi] published in the Boston College Third World Law Journal, Leanne M. Fecteau writes about an American scientist and entrepreneur obtained a patent for an ayahuasca strain in 1986. “The ayahuasca patent and the controversy it evoked is quite typical of the issues facing the biotechnology industry,” she writes. “Today, researchers from the United States travel to distant, resource-rich regions of the world, such as the Amazon, for the express purpose of gleaning scientific knowledge from indigenous populations regarding the varied uses of local plants and animals. These researchers are free to return to their countries with their plant or animal samples, isolate a chemical compound, and subsequently obtain a patent. Protected by their patents, the researchers are not bound to share in the profits from their patented items with the indigenous tribes from whom they gained the critical knowledge. This activity has come to be known as ‘biopiracy.’”
An analysis by the World Bank, titled “Indigenous people and poverty in Latin America,” reports, “While the incidence of poverty is high in Latin America, it is particularly severe and deep among the indigenous population.” Additionally, in Guatemala and Mexico, for example, over 80 percent of the indigenous population lives in poverty[xii].
A post[xiii] on the blog, dawnontheamazon.com, also suggests non-indigenously-owned ayahuasca tourist lodges across Peru violate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[xiv]. “Not only are they unethical as an affront to tribal dignity by commercializing for private gain tribal traditions, ceremonies, icaros, prayers, and other sacred rites; but they are against international law, by abusing indigenous intellectual property rights,” writes the anonymous author, identifying themselves only as a worker for Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, an indigenous rights advocacy group. Referencing language in Article 31-1 of the UNDRIP, he writes, “They have the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.”
While indigenous rights are debated internationally, Santiparro’s Kickstarter campaign stirred up controversy in his hometown. Detroit musicians’ social media feeds have been abuzz about the project.
Detroit duo Marx Marston was so inspired by the campaign they recorded their own version of one of Santiparro’s new songs, “Rainbow in the Night.” Dan Clark told this reporter Scheurman’s songs are “prayers to the universe.” Still others have called the crowdfunding, “begging.” A post on one local musician’s Facebook page about the project got 78 comments, many of them suggesting the $11,000 cost was extreme and unreasonable, and mocking Santiparro’s religious identification.
According to recordingconection.com, a “decent’ studio costs about $100 an hour. Rose recording studio’s website states, generally speaking, an hour and a half studio times renders one minute of finished music. Thus a 45-minute album would require 67.5 hours of studio time- $6,750. This cost does not include, the price of a sound engineer (approximately $2,000) or the cost of mastering, (approximately $500). Of course, many musicians, probably the majority of them in Motown, have recorded albums (some of them masterpieces, for thousands less.
In addition to his work on “Old Patterns,” Warren Defever has produced, written and performing on dozens of albums, working with Yoko Ono, Lisa Loeb and Thurston Moore among others. He shared his perspective on the “value” of recording.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass how much somebody spends making a record,” Defever told this reporter. “Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ famously cost $600 dollars and a year later they spent 120,000 dollars on ‘Nevermind,’ neither one totally sucks. Twenty-five years ago I assisted The Gories in recording their first album in a ‘studio,’ which was really just a corrugated steel garage with a dirt floor and at the time I believed they were wasting their money spending three nights mixing when it had only taken about an hour to record. Motown and United Sound were just houses that got repurposed into recording studios without the aid of a consultation with a professional engineer about the physics of sound.
“I believe there is no one standard that applies unilaterally and anyone who tells you differently is totally out to lunch. Music is the healing force of the universe and its perfect and beautiful vibrations have flourished for millions of years before anyone considered capturing it and reselling it for a profit. With or without the aid of the failing record industry, embarrassing crowd source funding, internet-streaming’s low royalty rates, wealthy European patrons, licensing songs to car commercials (previously known as selling out), grants from non-profit arts organizations, drunk teenagers buying merch, crappy day-jobs, or trust funds, I believe the heart will carry on.”
Like all humans, Santiparro has affected people — negatively and positively. He has had artistic triumphs and personal failures, but he is committed to growth. For Santiparro, spiritual practice doesn’t end with a single awakening, nor does being a musician end when an album is recorded.
“I think really the key living a spiritual life is willingness,” says Santiparro. “What can we will ourselves to do? What can we will ourselves to let go of? Can we will ourselves to be humble in the presence of wisdom? Can we will ourselves to face our shadows and look at the negativity that we create for ourselves and others so that we can acknowledge that we still need to learn? Living a spiritual life means that you must recognize that you are always a student, even when you’re the teacher. Even more important than learning however, is the process of unlearning every ounce of cultural imprint we receive from birth that defines for us our so-called reality. Once we are willing to truthfully do that, then we can begin to live a spiritual life.”
Full disclosure: the author has pledged $55 to Santiparro’s Kickstarter campaign and has attended ceremony with him as well. In addition, he considers himself to be friends with all of the individuals quoted in the article, and with others who had positive and negative things to say about Santiparro and his life and work, both on and off the record.
To learn more about the project, visit: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1570085750/santiparro-true-prayer-debut-full-length-album