In the Amazon, January and February are months when the peach palms of Bactris gasipaes are full of fruit. It is also the period when a multitude of fish fills the rivers. It is a season of abundance and a time for celebration. In Colombia, the highly nutritious fruit from this palm tree is commonly known as chontaduro. It can be prepared for consumption in different ways, but during this particular time of the year it is harvested in great quantities to make chicha, a fermented beverage known for hundreds of years by the Natives who also prepare it from maize. This time of abundance of food is eagerly awaited every year because it is a reason to bring together people from different villages.
To celebrate this bonanza, a dance is organized and preparations take several weeks. The fruits must be harvested and processed to make great quantities of chicha. Fish are caught and men hunt animals for meat, especially the Amazonian tapir, known as danta. The meat and the fish is smoked for there will be many guests from neighboring villages for several days. Coca leaves and tobacco are important, as they will be consumed during the feast in the communal house, or maloca. There must be plenty for everyone—this is an occasion for sharing and strengthening social bonds.
The most remarkable aspect of this celebration is the dance itself. Men, women, and children participate. The women have also worked tirelessly for weeks preparing the food and the chicha. But more than a dance, this celebration is a theatrical representation. A number of characters take the stage—in this case the great space inside the maloca—where the men dressed in costumes representing fantastic creatures dance and move rhythmically to the sound of chanting and the beat of ritual thumping sticks. Ethnologist Luis Cayón explains that this is not only a celebration of fertility and plenty, but also a dance to bring happiness and joy to the children. That is why the young also take an active part in the dance.
The costumes used are longs skirts made from tassels and a shirt of pounded tree bark. On their head, the dancers wear a hood made from tree bark over which they have modeled the face of the characters that come to life in this ceremony. The faces are made from a tree resin—identified by Dr. Schultes as pertaining to the genus Monorobia— which is prepared and applied directly over the hood or a base of light balsa wood. The mask is carefully modeled while the resin is still soft, and then decorated in yellow and white colors made from vegetal and earth materials. These faces represent animals such as frogs, hawks, anteaters, fish, bees, snakes, piranhas, and monkeys. But the central character is the Tori, or devil. It is a phallic character that recalls the concept of fertility fundamental to this celebration; but it also represents death and darkness. The Tori enters the dance unexpectedly producing a great commotion. Riding a long stick, the he launches an “attack”, causing great laughter when his symbolic phallus is hit with sticks by the men and women.
Then there is an extraordinary procession of dancing characters, each representing an animal or a spirit. The celebration goes on for three or four days, during which chicha, manioc bread, meat, and coca are consumed.
Other beautiful masks are long and cylindrical, carved from balsa wood, with right-angled or rounded “ears” hanging from the sides and marvelously decorated with paint. These represent birds and the sun. They usually appear in the morning after the first night of celebration.