Uirapuru Singing Bird

A Musical Quest in the Brazilian Rain Forest

In 1950 I was studying film-making in the Theater Arts department at UCLA, one of two or three Universities in the world where film-making was taught at the time. While looking for a theme for my MA thesis, I happened to hear a recording, just released, of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Symphonic Tone Poem "Uirapuru." It was an intricate work written in 1917, evocative of a Diaghilev ballet describing an Indian-Brazilian legend of love, transformation and loss.

The powerful, exotic music, as well as the legend itself moved me so deeply that I thought I would like to make a film to go with the music, acted out in pantomime by authentic Indians in the Brazilian jungle.

"Uirapuru" is the name of a small singing bird, perching high in the trees of the rain forest, believed to have magical powers in bringing love to whoever captures or kills it. A beautiful Indian maiden, so the legend goes, manages to pierce an Uirapuru with her bow and arrow and as, the little bird falls to the ground it transforms into a handsome young man. Soon, however, an ugly old Indian, the evil spirit of the forest, boldly confronts the young couple and, with his bow and arrow shoots the young man through the heart. As he dies, the young man turns back into the little bird, which flies away, leaving the maiden grief-stricken.

Luckily, the Theater Arts department which had hitherto admitted only written MA papers accepted my request to submit a film. It was primarily the athletic-looking head of the department's film division, Norman Dyhrenfurth (who later, as head of the famed American Expedition of 1962, conquered Mt. Everest), who supported my plea to allow film students to actually make student films for credit. Luckily also, Villa-Lobos, who lived in Rio de Janeiro, granted me permission to use his composition for the film. The New York Philharmonic, which had recorded the piece with Efrem Kurtz conducting, allowed its use for the sound track. And a young consul at the British Embassy in Los Angeles, Vinicius de Moraes (who later became Brazil's most celebrated poet-composer-lyricist) arranged a flight for me on an empty Brazilian air force plane to Belem do Para, a sleepy little town at that time, on the mouth of the Amazon River.

Before venturing into the jungle, I paid a courtesy visit to an aging, chain-smoking Villa-Lobos in Rio, who received me warmly and suggested that I meet his good friend, the octogenarian General Candido Rondon in Sao Paulo, founder and director of the government's Service for the Protection of Indians. The legendary general, who had earned his fame in the early 1890s for laying the first telegraph lines through Brazilian jungle, provided me with much useful information and a fascinating volume of Indian culture, authored by him. It was he who in 1916 had persuaded Villa-Lobos to join him in one of his expeditions to an Indian tribe, a trip which provided the composer with the inspiration to create the work.

Armed with a 16mm Bolex camera and a limited supply of Kodak color film, I embarked on a somewhat dubious adventure into the rain forest, first to find Indians who were rapidly retreating deeper and deeper into the woods, and them to persuade them to act out the legend for the camera. Joining me in Belem, for the fun of it, was Peter Paul Hilbert, a recently arrived German ex-army officer employed as an anthropologist at the local Goeldi Museum, who took a two-month leave of absence to join my little expedition.

It was recommended that we go up the Gurupi river, south-east of the Amazon, as the Amazon itself would have no Indians left till beyond Manaos, 2,000 kilometers up the river. We thus traveled along the Atlantic coast to Braganca at the mouth of the Gurupi, and up to Viseu, a tiny village populated by one Lebanese family - the last outpost of civilization. From there, we struggled upstream on our own for several weeks, first with the help of an antiquated, malfunctioning outboard motor lent to us by the Lebanese, and later, after the motor caught fire and the boat went up in flames, by paddling in a narrow dugout canoe, aided by a few itinerant porters. Nights we would select a landing, cut the bush and hang our hammocks. But to actually find Indians, we had to abandon the water and trek through the woods on foot.

The small band of stone-age Urubu Indians we finally encountered seemed as astonished to see us as we were to discover them. The men wore nothing but a few feathers of radiant colors around their forearms and ankles, a large feather hanging out of their pierced lower lip. Some, their bodies painted with stripes of black and red, wore necklaces of animal-teeth, and most were armed with bow and arrow. This was a hunting party, one of our porters conversant in Tupi-Guarani, enlightened us. The group belonged to the jungle clearing of Chieftain Piahu, whence, it was soon agreed, we would be guided, and where eventually, upon presenting the chief with some gifts, we were accepted peacefully and offered shelter in a small vacant grass hut.

Luck was on our side. Quickly we were able to successfully cast our Maiden and her Man, as well as the evil old Indian. To be on the safe side I had brought a stuffed Uirapuru and a smoke canister with me to effect the transformation. There were too few Indians to provide the proper scope for the film, particularly for staging the score's wild, primeval dance section celebrating the young man's formation. Word of our arrival must have spread far and wide through the jungle, for in a day or two masses of Indians materialized in our clearing. They won't stay long, Peter warned me, and we hastily shot the big dance scene right away, after which the many visitors disappeared into the jungle as quickly as they had come.

The Indians were of course innocent of our purpose and our doings. Nevertheless, in exchange for a bit of salt and some cloth we had brought along, and in particular prizing our discarded food cans which could be used for making metal heads for their long arrows, the tribe members obligingly followed my directorial instructions. Before each shot I would perform the desired action, then run behind the camera while the actors imitated me in good humor and without inhibition. In the absence of dialogue in the film, there was no need for a screenplay: the orchestral score was the basis, and a carefully planned story board saw to it that all of the music would be covered. Our own food supply, however, did not last long, and we soon had to switch to our hosts' hunter-gatherer fare, nibbling at unfamiliar and tasteless plants and occasionally ingesting a roasted tortoise placed live upside down into a fire.

Making a fire was by no means a simple feat for the tribesmen. It was achieved by patiently and laboriously rotating a thin stick of wood back and forth in the palms of one's hands, the stick being nestled in a bundle of dried moss which, when sufficiently heated, would begin to ignite. Most impressive were the tribe's artful feather combinations, their finely crafted combs, and their majestic headgear ornaments. Remarkable also were the rhythmic and melodic songs which, although sung only unison, were to my total amazement all in perfect pentatonic scale. Could it have been induced by the overtones left ringing faintly in the bow after an arrow had been released?

What the Indians did not have was a count of time or a sense of seasons, there being none in that latitude and climate. For me it was this lack of hours and years, more than anything else, which defined the ten thousand year gulf between us. My famous finger trick, by which I feigned to tear off part of my thumb, came in handy, and was a constant source of wonderment, especially among the very young; one of whom, sneaking behind my back, eventually uncovered my ruse. When the time came for us to leave, many of the tribesmen accompanied us for days till we reached the river, to say goodbye. Rarely have I felt so honored.

Cut off from civilization for two and a half months and having had our share of encounters with fire ants, crocodiles and piranhas, we finally resurfaced in Viseu, thin and bearded and unsure of the day's date, but jubilant, with a pack of exposed though yet undeveloped film. Back in LA, I finished the film which I titled Uirapuru, and got my MA with distinctions. The film ran at the British Film Institute in London, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Venice Biennale, New York's Cinema 16, and at a composers' conference in Paris where Villa-Lobos himself presented it. Thirty years later, at the First International Student Film Festival held at Tel Aviv University, Uirapuru was shown as the first ever student film. And fifty years later, in 2000, I conducted Villa-Lobos' work, performing it with the Tel Aviv based Campus Orchestra. It was "Uirapuru"'s first performance in Israel, and to my knowledge the only one to date.

(Dr. Sam Zebba immigrated to Palestine with his parents from Latvia in 1933 at the age of 9. He served in the Haganah and in the British Army during WW2. A literary scholar and an occasional writer, he is known primarily as a symphony conductor both in Israel and abroad.)





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Sam Zebba

Born in 1924, Dr. Sam Zebba immigrated to Palestine from Latvia with his parents when he was 9. He served in the Haganah and in the British Army during WW2. A literary scholar and occasional writ...

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