Chile’s rock art llamas divulge secrets of ancient desert culture

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Archaeologist Jose Bereguer, above, curator at Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, describes the site as “the most complex in South America” because of its astronomical importance as well as the significance to local shepherds. (AFP)
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Chilean archaeologist Jose Berenguer shows drawings at the Taira Cave left by shepherds almost three millennia ago on the walls of the rocks that flank the course of the Loa River. (AFP)
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Above, the drawings at the Taira Cave located at a height of 3,150 meters about 75 kilometers north of Calama, Chile. (AFP)
Updated 31 July 2018

Chile’s rock art llamas divulge secrets of ancient desert culture

  • Conservationists working in Chile’s Atacama Desert want UNESCO to recognize the Taira Valley drawings as a heritage site so they can develop sustainable tourism in the region
  • First rediscovered by Swedish archaeologist Stig Ryden in 1944, the Taira rock art is between 2,400 and 2,800 years old

ATACAMA, Chile: Open air rock paintings in the world’s driest desert pay testament to the importance of the llama to millennia-old cultures that traversed the inhospitable terrain.
Conservationists working in Chile’s Atacama Desert want UNESCO to recognize the Taira Valley drawings as a heritage site so they can develop sustainable tourism in the region.
Taira is “a celebration of life,” said archaeologist Jose Bereguer, describing the site as “the most complex in South America” because of its astronomical importance as well as the significance to local shepherds.
The rock art was a “shepherd’s rite” needed to ask the “deities that governed the skies and the earth” to increase their llama flocks.
First rediscovered by Swedish archaeologist Stig Ryden in 1944, the Taira rock art is between 2,400 and 2,800 years old.
It is made up of a gallery of 16 paintings more than 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) above sea level on the banks of the Loa River that traverses the desert.
The jewel in the crown are the Alero Taira drawings some 30 meters from the Loa in a natural shelter, in which the importance of the llama becomes abundantly clear.
Not just the principal source of wealth for desert dwellers over thousands of years, the llama has been used in ritual ceremonies throughout the Andes for just as long, such as in the “Wilancha,” or sacrifice to “Pacha Mama,” or Mother Earth.
“No one can understand the things done 18,000 years ago because the cultures that did them have disappeared,” said Berenguer, curator at Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.
“Here, it’s possible to delve into the meaning because we have ethnography and because there are still people living in practically the same way as in the past.”
According to Rumualda Galleguillos, one of around 15 indigenous people still raising llamas in the Atacama Desert like their ancestors, these pictures are a “testament” to forefathers who could neither read nor write.
Around 90 percent of the engravings, painted mainly in red but also ochre yellow and white, depict llamas of various sizes, some pregnant, others suckling their young.
But the remaining 10 percent depict the desert’s diversity, such as foxes, snakes, ostriches, partridges and dogs.
The few human figures that appear are tiny, as if those painting them “wanted to go unnoticed in front of the greatness of animals that were so important to their economy,” said Berenguer.
What the paintings also demonstrate is that 2,500 years ago, people were already studying the stars in an area that has more recently become the astronomy capital of the world with some of the most powerful telescopes ever built.
A book written in conjunction with the Atacama observatory called “The Universe of our Grandparents,” claims that the ancient inhabitants of this area studied the stars to help learn how to domesticate the inhospitable desert and survive its dangers.
In this vision, the universe is made up of the skies and Earth as one whole, with the skies forming the horizon of life. What is seen in the skies is a reflection of what there is on Earth.
Unlike the Greeks, though, ancient Atacama astrologists didn’t see Orion, Gemini or Cancer.
They saw llamas, their eyes, corrals, a loaded slingshot and a shepherd standing with his legs spread wide and arms in the air, worrying about foxes, said Silvia Lisoni, a professor of history and amateur astronomer.
Taira is located on an axis that aligns the sacred Sirawe “sandy eye” quicksand from where locals would pray for rain, the San Pedro volcano, the Colorado hill, and the Cuestecilla pampas, another sacred spot.
Volcanoes, like springs, were considered deities by the Atacama natives, while llamas were thought to have been born of springs.
The Alero Taira is positioned so that it is completely illuminated by the sun on both the winter and summer solstices.
“There’s evidence that this site was built here for specific reasons,” said Berenguer.
Taira is not the oldest example of rock art in this part of Chile, though. To the north in the copper mining Antofagasta region lies Kalina, around 1,000-1,200 years older than Taira, and Milla.
This style of art has been found also in the Puna de Atacama plateau in neighboring Argentina, but Taira “has few equals in terms of beauty and complexity,” said Berenguer.
One day, he hopes that Taira will be afforded UNESCO World Heritage Site status like the rock art in the Cave of Altamira in Spain or France’s Lascaux caves.


Postcards release sophomore album ‘The Good Soldier’

Postcards is Lebanon’s dream-pop, indie-folk and slowcore pioneers. (Supplied)
Updated 23 January 2020

Postcards release sophomore album ‘The Good Soldier’

  • Frontwoman Julia Sabra discusses the Lebanese indie band’s new record and their growing popularit

BEIRUT: “I feel this album is more angry than sad,” says Julia Sabra, singer and guitarist in Postcards — Lebanon’s dream-pop, indie-folk and slowcore pioneers. She’s nursing a fruit juice on a rainy Beirut morning in December at a local coffeeshop, as she discusses her band’s sophomore studio album, “The Good Solider.” The air is thick with introspection and atmosphere.

Incidentally, atmosphere is exactly what Sabra and her two bandmates — guitarist Marwan Tohme and drummer Pascal Semerdjian — do best. Since their founding in 2013, Postcards have established themselves as one of their country’s most exciting indie exports. Their unique, shoegaze-colored sound, a small army of fervently committed fans, and the fact that they sing in English in a region where the most commercially viable acts are of the Arabic pop variety, all make their ascent to prominence even more intriguing.

Sabra is soft-spoken and eloquent, much like the vocal lines she delivers with vulnerability, discreet composure and tempestuous emotion. 2018’s folksy “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” was recorded when there were still four band members. They amicably parted ways with bassist Rany Bechara shortly after the release of the debut album, which the singer says tightened the dynamic between the three remaining members. “Weirdly, the less people you have, the more powerful the sound is; so, now it’s less about intricacy, and more about the atmosphere you create,” she explains.

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Postcards sound is that you could easily assume they’re from somewhere in the American Midwest. (Supplied)

“The first album was a trial of something new for all of us, and we felt very comfortable with it,” Sabra says of the first LP, on the back of which they scored a record deal and performances at both local and international festivals, as well as tours in Jordan, Dubai, the UK, France, Portugal, Italy and Germany, and opening spots for indie luminaries Beirut, and Angus and Julia Stone.

“The second album took everything a step further and we were able to explore more,” she continues. “We didn’t consciously set out to make it different from the first one... we just follow the music, really. ‘The Good Soldier’ is a natural continuation of our sound.”

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Postcards sound is that you could easily assume they’re from somewhere in the American Midwest. “I feel like we express ourselves in a different language,” Sabra explains. “Our music is not specifically linked to our region. We live here, we speak Arabic to each other and our friends and families; yes, everything we sing about and feel comes from our environment, but it’s pretty complicated... those dynamics when it comes to language. It’s something I think about every day.

Since their founding in 2013, Postcards have established themselves as one of their country’s most exciting indie exports. (Supplied)

“We live in a tiny country, play a niche type of music, sing in English,” Sabra continues. “But it’s not like we’re in denial about where we’re from, or like we look down on Oriental/Arabic music or something silly like that,” she states, with a slight bit of apprehension at the notion. “I feel like the West, with all its multitudes, is allowed to be so many things — why can’t it be the same with us?” In other words, artists from the Middle East are not born of a cultural monolith.

“Abroad, there’s a system: you check out a band, listen to their music and you just go and see them,” she says of her band’s international touring experience. “It’s cool to travel there and see people show up; we ask some of them ‘How did you know about the show?’ ‘Oh, well,’ they say, ‘I’ve just listened to your music!’ It’s real simple.”

Back home, it’s all been a little different. “In Lebanon, it used to be a social thing. You don’t always go to a gig to listen to music, but to hang out... the whole indie bands thing was trendy. However, in the past couple of years, a small but extremely devoted audience has emerged,” she says with bright-eyed reverence for the faithful. “Now there’s a real fanbase of people who listen to the albums and who follow you — even if it’s 200 people at a gig, they really want to be there and hear the music.”

Postcards played a jam-packed release show on January 3 at Beirut’s iconic Metro Al Madina theater. (Supplied)

Like all the other releases in the Postcards catalog, “The Good Solider” was produced by one of Lebanon’s most prolific musical mainstays, Fadi Tabbal, for whom Sabra has a lot of respect. “Fadi is the key,” she says of the Tunefork Studios producer. “He makes people aware of what’s special about their artistic identity, the sonic universes and soundscapes... he’s a perfect mentor, because he pushes you to do your best.”

Tabbal has supported Postcards from the beginning, and now both manages the band and handles their live sound. “It helps that he’s also an artist... an encyclopedia of music, a living version of the Oblique Strategies”, Sabra says, comparing Tabbal to the Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt-created cult card set featuring unconventional, ‘think-outside-the-box’ creative cues.

Sabra does not understate the progression that the band’s second album represents: “It’s a step up for us, working together closely, delving deeper into everything, taking more risks. We’re more aware of what we’re doing. It’s our baby. A very important, emotional statement.” Her compelling vocals navigate the delay-drenched sonic expanses of Tohme’s guitars and bass lines, and the hypnotic whirlwind of Semerdjian’s beats and percussion, all enveloped by entrancing synths and ambient passages.

Like all the other releases in the Postcards catalog, “The Good Solider” was produced by one of Lebanon’s most prolific musical mainstays, Fadi Tabbal, for whom Sabra has a lot of respect. (Supplied)

Both the anger and the melancholy that Sabra used to define “The Good Solider” are on full display on opener “Dead End”, where dramatic, searing guitars emerge intermittently in the chorus out of the aural sea of solitude crafted by the atmospheric instrumentation and Sabra’s lyrics. The title track is the link between the two halves of the album: “That song is sort of the thesis of the album — it’s a synth-y folk song, and the big theme is the realization that things that we believe in and that we were taught to believe are crumbling down.

“The good solider is the person who’s willing to consider letting go of a life where you live according to what’s expected of you — marriage, kids, and all that,” she continues. “Maybe there’s a way to get past this intrinsic patriarchal thing that’s so deeply engrained in us. So, ‘The Good Solider’ is about making your own way, while realizing that it all needs a lot of work and commitment, the kind that not everyone is necessarily cut out for.”

In the context of the turmoil that often seems like a near-permanent fixture of life in Lebanon, Sabra says, “We don’t have any other way to process our lives and what happens to us and how we think and feel. Making music is a bit of a self-involved, but very therapeutic, exercise, and it’s also a representation of who we are at this certain point in time — as both people and artists.”

For now, though, Postcards are just gearing up for what comes next. They played a jam-packed release show on January 3 at Beirut’s iconic Metro Al Madina theater. “We have a bunch of tours coming up; March, June, August and fall... taking over the world, basically,” she smiles, only half-jokingly. “We’re just happy the album’s been set free into the world. From here on, it takes a different meaning – it’s no longer just ours.”