Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Music and Dance > Selk’nam

The music of the Selk’nam people is essential vocal and includes both solo and choral singing, sometimes accompanied by simple instruments such as bird bone whistles and the percussive sounds of wooden staffs, sticks and rolled up hides.

Chants played an important role in Selk’nam society. Shamans used them to enter into a state of trance and perform healings and other rituals. Such chants were repetitive and hypnotic, with strong, continuous inflexions that allowed the shaman to achieve a mental state of complete control over the body and energy. Shamans performed a special chant during the “test of the arrow,” a competition in which they tested their power. Using the song, a shaman was able to create a “channel” in his or her body and insert a wooden arrow through it, from the clavicle through the chest and out the other side.

Listen to Selk’nam chanting

In times of famine, the most powerful shamans chanted a chant to attract a whale and force it to beach itself on the coast. To achieve this, the shaman stood on a cliff facing the sea and began his or her song, which sometimes lasted three or four days. In the trance the chanting provoked, the shaman sunk beneath the weight of the whale while carrying it to the shore.

Listen to the chant

Chanting Played a very important role in the Selk’nam puberty rite, called the Hain. This ritual could last for several months and took the form of an extended theatrical production in which the young people were taught the values and history of their people. During the ritual the men gathered in a large ceremonial hut, dressed as the different spirits of the Selk’nam cosmovision. Each spirit had its own body paint and chant. Both individual and choral chants were performed at different times in the ceremony. Women attended the presentation and chanted together at suitable moments.

Listen to the chant of Matan, sung in chorus by the women when this spirit appeared.

Listen to the chant of the men in the ceremonial hut.

Click for PDF of Selk’nam chants

Click for animated feature: El secreto de los selk’nam (The secret of the Selk’nam)

Click to see photos of the spirits represented at the Hain ceremony