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?
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.”
Ayahuasca is often referred to as “the work,” as the ceremonial experience often includes a good deal of emotional heavy lifting. On Welcome to the Work, Lee sings of self-discovery, compassion and the transformation of flaws, though he admits that the music only captures a glimpse into the experience. “[I made this album] with the knowledge that I will ultimately fail in that expression, because we're talking about something so deep that as soon as I try to make it physical or literal, you're basically selling it short.”
Other acts that have shouted out the drug include SoCal freak folk singer/songwriter turned toned down artiste Devendra Banhart, British indie groups The Klaxons and The Bees, and Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, who told L.A. Weekly: “I was very lucky getting near eight or nine years ago to have an ayahuasca experience. Even though a lot of my belief systems had let me up to that day…that was the literal opening up of all my minds and hearts.”
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Such earnestness is a defining characteristic of folks' stories of their ayahuasca experiences. “It's definitely challenging the assumptions that a lot of people carry,” Lee says. “Especially coming out of the more sarcastic and ironic '90s and into the beginning of the millennium where there was a feeling of things being sort of emotionally shut down in terms of culture.”
Still, many folks dismiss ayahuasca as new age hooey and others considering it a drug as nefarious as any other.
“There have been people who have been resistant and even angry,” Lee says of his album, “because they perceive it as something which it isn't, which is me saying, 'Hey everybody, take drugs.' Part of the reason I named the album Welcome to the Work was that I wanted to separate the album from any sense of recreational exploration.”
While most anyone who has experienced Ayahuasca will say that the practice is more about psychological confrontation than simply getting high, it is still an often misunderstood practice that exists largely underground. And whether or not an artist speaks publicly about their experience, one might argue that the music inspired by the practice can itself evolve consciousness.
“One of the reactions at the shows has been people crying,” Lee says, “which is something I didn't expect at all, like, people's parents. These aren't people who are ever going to take ayahuasca.”