The Miraculous Journey of Marcos Krieger
By Larry Gaffney
To survive in the rain forest, you must listen. The jungle is dense and dark, and vision can be misleading. Members of the Xerente tribe of central Brazil are attuned to the tiniest nuances of sound, as they must be when sharing the forest with poisonous snakes that mimic birdsongs. They have learned to walk in silence, so they can hear the jaguar before the jaguar hears them.
Marcos Krieger, the son of missionaries, was raised in the jungle and played with Xerente children. He felt at home in a culture more aural than visual, for he, too, was gifted with a sensitive ear. At age 12, he and his family stopped for the night in São Paulo during a long trip. While watching TV in their hotel room, they learned about a call-in contest: A classical piece would be played, and the first caller to identify the composer would win a prize. Krieger, who had been immersed in music ever since he could remember, immediately recognized the composer as Bach. The call was made, and the itinerary was briefly diverted to the station so young Krieger could pick up his prize, a double-LP of Bach cantatas, brand new on vinyl. It was a prize he would never forget. Most of the LPs his family had owned were the heavy, shellac-based 78 rpms, which, he recalls, “might break your toe if they fell from the sleeves.”
Krieger’s parents are Christian missionaries and linguistic scholars who studied the Xerente language for 12 years, creating a descriptive grammar that enabled the tribe to read the Bible within the context of their own culture. The Xerente practice animism, the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena and the universe itself possess souls. They live in simple houses with pounded-dirt floors, which are always swept clean because, otherwise, they believe, malevolent spirits could hide under the dust. The tribe believes that many of the spirits are lost souls who have not found their way to the Great Father in heaven and seek to catch living tribesmen to join them in their misery. To this culture the Kriegers added the concept of a loving God, as well as Christian hymns, far different from the music of the tribe, which was primarily percussion. In fact, their only non-percussion instrument was a whistle-flute that created two pitches and was used more for communication than music, “rather like Morse code,” Krieger explains.
He says his parents evolved from traditional Lutheranism to become “super-denominational,” interested more in the basic message of the Bible than the dogma of specific creeds. Their love of scholarship and learning created a fertile environment for young Krieger’s mind. Everything was observed and noted—the influence of Baptist missionaries, evident in the way the Xerente organized some of their rituals; flagellation ceremonies, suggesting they had come in contact with proselytizers of Roman Catholicism; and particularities of the Xerente language, in which there are no abstract nouns. “Everything is either a concrete noun or a verb,” Krieger explains. “They will not say ‘God is love,’ but ‘God is the one who loves most.’ This implies action and change in behavior.”