Interview: THE AUSTRALIAN (1988)

October 01, 1988

The following interview by Brain Jackman appeared in the October 1988 issue of The Australian magazine...

Sting On the Warpath - Singing in the Rainforest. Hemmed in by hostile settlers and logging companies, Brazil's forest Indians stand in the Xingu National Park. But the world took no notice until Sting became involved...

There were huge difficulties in getting permits for the trip. Officials were uneasy about possible adverse publicity.

Sting's concert the night before had been a huge success - 200,000 fans had packed Rio de Janeiro's vast Maracana stadium to hear him and now the rock star was in his hotel, talking to Belgian film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux.

For 15 years, Dutilleux has fought for the rights of the Brazilian Indians whose home, the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, is being overrun by settlers, loggers and mining companies. He knew that Sting was politically concerned - in 1986 he had raised $2 million in the United States for Amnesty International - and Dutilleux hoped to enlist his help to publicise the Indian's plight.

In January 1987, Dutilleux had helped arrange a historic meeting between Red Crow, one of the leaders of the North American Sioux Indians, and the chiefs of the Xingu tribes in the Mato Grosso. It took 10 years before the Brazilian Government agreed to this meeting; but in the end Red Crow arrived, bringing with him the sacred peace pipe of the Sioux, which had never before left the US.

From this meeting an idea was born: the Day of the Fourth World. This would be an international gathering in Rio followed by a concert with major stars. Relayed by satellite around the US and Europe, it would draw attention to the Indians' problems and raise funds to save the forest. Dutilleux was given the formidable task of organising the show.

He won the approval of the Brazilian Government and the country's best musicians had agreed to perform. But there were still no international pop stars.

Then Dutilleux learned that Sting was to perform in Brazil. He would be the ideal person, world famous as a member of the pop group Police and now as a solo artist. But would he be willing to fly to the Mato Grosso jungle to meet the Indians? This was the proposition Dutilleux put to Sting the day after his triumph in Rio.

To his delight both Sting and Trudie Styler, the singer's girlfriend, agreed to go.

The Indians Dutilleux wanted to visit were the Kayapos of the Xingu region - the most hostile tribe in Brazil. Without their approval a trip to Xiungu would have been impossible; but Dutilleux was on good terms with them.

Some years earlier he had made a film about their charismatic warrior chief, Raoni, and the two men had remained good friends. Even so, huge difficulties remained in obtaining permits for the trip. Officials were uneasy about possible adverse publicity.

"We can't go," Dutilleux told Sting and Trudie on the morning they were due to leave.

"Why not?"

"It's the FUNAI - the bureau of Indian affairs. They're afraid you'll shoot your mouth off about what's going on there." Dutilleux rubbed his finger and thumb together. "The white man has been raping the forest for a very long time, "he said.

Earlier that morning, Dutilleux had received a call from FUNAI telling him of a possible Indian plot to take Sting hostage in the jungle; but he dismissed the idea as a ruse to warn him off.

Finally, after frantic negotiations, a deal was struck and permits were granted in return for a lengthy shopping list of supplies for the Indians: fishing lines, fish hooks, aluminium pots, torches, knives, spaghetti and haricot beans.

At the airport the only pilot who would fly them to Xiungu was waiting. "Meet Captain Kelly," said Dutilleux. Sting turned to face a wild apparition, about two metres tall, dressed in sandals, shorts and a sleeveless flak jacket unbuttoned to reveal a torso covered in a willow pattern of tattos. Indian bangles hung from his wrists. There was a jungle knife strapped to a snakeskin belt and a pair of bright red spectacles.

Sting's hand disappeared in a vice-like grip."Nice to meet you,"said the apparition in a broad north of England accent. For the next three hours the small plane flew over a land mutilated by progress. The great forest was being hacked down at the rate of 50 hectares every minute. In its place lay a desolation of dust and ashes, the ghosts of giant forest trees whose green canopies had once concealed a pristine world of jaguars, parrots and exotic butterflies. Now there was only the scorched earth and the raw wounds of mines and landing strips. At this rate, 20 years from now, the Amazon would only be a memory.

Suddenly the wasteland ended in a giant wall of trees. This was Brazil's last frontier, the meeting-place of two worlds, where 20th-century devastation has been stopped in its tracks by the presence of hostile Indians.

Sting and Trudie stared in amazement at the stark contrast between the dead planet they had just flown over and the virgin beauty of the rainforest. "Where the Indians are, the forest is protected," said Dutilleux. "When they go, the forest goes. That's why they are systematically being wiped out."

In 1500, there were perhaps 10 million Indians in the Amazon Basin. Now there are fewer than 200,000. The rest have been massacred, sometimes by the bullet, sometimes by the gift of blankets impregnated with smallpox virus. Others died of alcohol, or had their minds rotted by the white man's religion, or were so demoralised at the assault on their culture that they simply gave up.

Only in the Xingu National Park have the Indians managed to keep the world at bay. It has been a national park since 1960, when the redoubtable Villas-Boas brothers persuadeed the Brazilian Government to protect the tribes living there.

The brothers were the first people from the outside world to make contact with the Xingu tribes, and were so impressed with the values of their culture that they decided to devote the rest of their lives to protecting them.

Although the tribes of the high Xingu are pacifist - they believe that aggressive behaviour is not dignified - they are fortunate in being surrounded by other tribes which are hostile; and it is these warrior tribes - among them the Kayapos - who have kept the rubber-tappers, loggers, miners and other predators at bay, just as the North American Sioux, under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, had fought for their lands a century earlier.

Today Xingu is the last bastion of the old Amazonian civilisation. Yet even this remote stronghold is threatened. Through the dense forest a red road, an offshoot of the Trans-Amazonica Highway, has been carved, straight as an arrow. "Traffic is not allowed to stop," said Dutilleux, as the plane headed for a nearby airstrip. "Anyone who entered the forest would be killed by the Indians."

Nothing can prepare you for the first glimpse of an Indian village, the symmetry of the enormous thatched log houses arranged in a circle, the absence of squalor, and the jungle wall beyond, silent as a tomb in the oppressive heat of late afternoon.

The children were the first to make friends, touching Trudie and looking up with beautiful, smiling faces. The men were more reserved. Some were incongrously dressed in football stripes; others were naked except for a piece of cloth around the waist. All had flat, Tibetan faces and Henry V haircuts matted with red dye.

Eventually, Chief Raoni arrived, a tall man with shoulder-length hair, ceremonial beads and Levis. He greeted Dutilleux with great ceremony and genuine affection, speeking in basic Portuguese, while Sting and Trudie tried not to stare at the large wooden disc around which his lower lip was stretched.

Raoni wanted them to visit the neighbouring village of Aritana, chief of the Iaualaptis, and they set off through the warriors who kept turning round to stare at them. "Why are they looking at us like that?" asked Sting. "Probably because the last time they saw a white person, they killed him," said Dutilleux.

That night, in Chief Aritana's village, Dutilleux introduced Sting to Sapaim, the master musician of the sacred flutes. The flutes are kept in the House of Men, the central hut which is a kind of village parliament to which no women are admitted. Some of the women spirited Trudie away.

Early next morning Dutilleux borrowed some bicycles for the journey to the village of Makaiuras, 15km away. Dutilleux took Sting to see the village chief, Tacuma, the most powerful shaman in the region. Inside his house, rafters reached up into a cathedral-like darkness. A fire burned on the floor, its flickering light flowing over the naked bodies of women and children and pet parrots. A warrior threw a fresh branch on the fire, and as the flames rose higher, they revealed Tacuma in his hammock.

The old chief is frail now. He said to be in his seventies and his two warrior sons stay close to him.

Dutilleux took his hand and kissed it like a supplicant greeting the Pope; and Sting, compulsively, did likewise. Food was served: fish wrapped in manioc covered in honey, accompanied by a bowl of mingao - a sort of insipid porridge, but welcome when you are hungry.

Outside, a storm raged; rain beat on the roof and flames hissed in the hearth. Tacuma began to speak with a quiet intensity. Dutilleux translated for Sting and Trudie. "The world is in great danger," said the old man. "When the trees die, the earth dies. Then we will be orphans without a home. I want you to find your old films and show them to the young people so that they will forget. I can do no more. I am already old and will leave soon for the other village."

The next day they returned to Aratana's village for the Moitara. The traditional exchange of gifts practised in the Xingu. All the fishing lines, hooks, knives, beans and other presents had been laid out on the ground in front of the House of Men. The men of the village inspected them like buyers at a garage sale then hurried back to their houses for something to trade.

By now all the chiefs of the surviving tribes had gathered for the meeting which was to follow: the Kuikurus, the Kalapalos. Meinacos, Matipu, Suyas, Jurunas, Kajabis, Wauras. With their weapons and tribal paint they made an intimidating spectacle. Sting and Trudie sat among them, feeling nervous, but Raoni calmed them with a touch of his hand. A dance began. Four feathered warriors stamped and shuffled back and forth, accompanied by a drummer beating a log.

When it was over, Aratana turned and muttered something to Dutilleux, who turned and spoke to Sting. "They want you to sing," he said, "They performed for you; now it's your turn."

Sting stood up and began to sing in Portuguese. The song he chose was Fragilidade, a lament for the fragility of man against bullets. Much later he told Trudie that he was far more nervous singing in front of 50 Indians than he had been in the Maracana stadium. He needn't have worried. The Indians applauded. Then Dutilleux said, "They like you. They want to paint you." Aratana approached Sting, and with red dye and charcoal he daubed the singer's chest and back with the zig-zag likeness of the surucucu,the deadly pit viper, the most poisonous snake in South America.

"What do you think Trudie?" asked Sting when it was done. "I've only been here 24 hours and I feel like the Lord of the Flies." "Lord of the Flies?"said Trudie. "You look like a bloody firework." When the laughter subsided, Dutilleux broke in. "Raoni wants to talk to you seriously," he said.

They sat in a circle: Sting, Trudie, Dutilleux, Raoni and all the chiefs of the Xingu. Raoni began to speak slowly and clearly despite the plate in his lip. "We want nothing from the white men," he said. "He has brought us only death, illness and murder. He has stolen our forest. He wants to destroy it all. We want to stay here. We want to be left alone to live as our ancestors. We want our children to inherit the forest. Now you must tell us what you think."

Sting responded: "I am honoured to be your guest here and you have treated me kindly. I believe that the forest is yours. The white man has no real home. He is lost in a world that he doesn't understand. I am not a polician; I am only a singer, but many people listen to me. I promise you that whenever I speak on your behalf I shall tell your story because you are the only protectors of the forest, and if the forest dies then so does the earth. Even a white man can understand this."

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, the strangest thing happened. Trudie left her hammock to get some water and found a large snake in the house. She woke Sting who grabbed a torch. The snake was caught in the beam. Head raised and poised to strike. It was a surucucu - identical to the one painted on his body.

They stood as if in a dream, unable to move. "Move back slowly," whispered Trudie. "These pit vipers can jump." Suddenly there was a thwack in the darkness - one of the warriors had grabbed a stick and clubbed the snake over the head.

Next morning there was a much talk in the village about the encounter. The shaman decided that the surucucu visited them because it was attracted to the design on Sting's body. They took it as an important omen which conferred great respect upon Sting, and marked themselves with the blood of the dead viper.

It was time to leave and soon they were airborne again, heading for Bangy Bangy - an emerald-haunters township so-called because of the number of gunfights. From Bangy Bangy another flight would take them to Vraxilia, but first there was time for steak and eggs and cold beer in a seedy hotel-cum-brothel.

The contrast between the town and the Indian villages was striking. Here, instead of the cleanliness, the peace and gentleness of the smiling Indian faces, they saw only poverty, filth and suspicious.

By now a crowd had gathered. Among them was a young man clutching a dogeared copy of Sting's album 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles'. He pointed to Sting's face. "Eshtingue, Eshtingue," he cried - the Brazilian pronunciation of Sting. Civilisation had reclaimed them.

© The Australian magazine


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