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What Is Ayahuasca and Why Is Everyone Singing About It?

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Thu, May 30, 2013 at 4:30 AM

click to enlarge Father John Misty - CREDIT: EMMA GARR
  • Credit: Emma Garr
  • Father John Misty
Ever heard of ayahuasca? It's an ancient medicinal plant that has become trendy of late, particularly in Los Angeles.

It's not uncommon to overhear ladies at Soho House discussing their transcendental experience with the substance, which is consumed as a thick, almost chocolatey tea and comes from the Amazon, where it has been practiced as a spiritual ceremony for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is increasingly popping up in music, having been name-checked by everyone from Father John Misty to Alchemist to Ben Lee. What's the big deal?

See also: Father John Misty Just Quit Fleet Foxes: We Get High in His Van

Understand: This isn't half-baked stoner rock or heady LSD-inspired psychedelia. In fact, many ayahuasca users don't equate taking it to a drug experience at all. (It's made from the rainforest grown Caapi vine and the leaf Psychotria viridis -- the active element is the naturally occurring psychedelic compound DMT.) For most users, it's actually a psycho/spiritual practice intended to increase one's understanding of self and connection to a higher intelligence -- God, if you will.

The drug's not new to musicians. Paul Simon recounts an Ayahuasca experience in the 1990 song "Spirit Voices" which describes his journey into the Amazon. "I drank a cup of herbal brew," he sings. "Then the sweetness in the air/combined with the lightness in my head/and I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo."

"I am wired to the cosmos," Sting said of an ayahuasca experience in the 2010 documentary 2012: Time for Change, adding that there is "definitely an intelligence, a higher intelligence, at work in you during this experience." While his music hasn't explicitly dealt with the topic, Sting wrote extensively of his experience with the drug in his 2005 memoir Broken Music.

Tori Amos has spoken about how she envisioned having a love affair with the devil during one ayahuasca ceremony. Even local hip hop duo Gangrene -- producers Alchemist and Oh No -- named their 2012 LP Vodka & Ayahuasca, although neither members have tried the stuff. Folk pop troubadour Father John Misty references ayahuasca in his SoCal canyon hipster anthem "I'm Writing a Novel."

Ayahuasca causes users to experience a sort of highly personal meditative state in which deeply rooted issues are brought to the surface. The high can be visual (check the aya-inspired work of artist Alex Grey), and has also been equated to doing ten years of therapy in ten hours. It can be intense, emotional, scary, ecstatic and revelatory. And while the specifics of an Ayahuasca ritual differ between the various practicing "communities," ceremonies are led by a shaman or another experienced person and almost always end with the user purging in some way, whether it be through vomiting, heavy crying or a trip to the bathroom.

"What people are experiencing through the ayahuasca is really what is changing people. It's not the aya itself," says Australian-born, L.A.-based musician Ben Lee, who has made indie pop music since the '90s and released his Ayahuasca-inspired tenth album Welcome to the Work, earlier this month. "If used properly, it can help people access reality, and it's really reality that's inspiring people."

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