Singer and multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Harris has been immersed in world music since his early teens. Now formally entering the realm of sound healing, Harris performs at festivals, events, and yoga studios—all under the name IEMANJO, a masculine version
of Iemanjá, a Brazilian orisha (or goddess, in lieu of a more fitting translation). This alias nods at the personification of water energy in Nigerian and Latin American cultures.
Seeds for Harris's new LP, Medecina, were originally planted during a trip he took to Colombia two years ago. After introducing himself to a guitar-wielding couple who’d just come from performing at a private spiritual ceremony in Medellín, he was invited to spend time in their Shaman-led community.
“There’s something different about the energy of a live musician as opposed to recorded music,” explains Harris, who was struck by the role of music in the group’s ceremonies. The now 29-year-old remembers feeling his perspective shift during the trip. What he could be capable of as a member of the “medicine music” world suddenly seemed much more impactful than playing ordinary gigs.
Insisting that his South American travels were inspired by a desire to discover even more sonic offerings, Harris never expected to become part of the healing-focused culture that took him in, taught him their rituals, and provided a safe environment for his eventual ayahuasca experimentation.
“I’m not in the habit of telling my mom about psychedelic experiences,” asserts Harris, recalling the phone call he made to his mother shortly after participating in his first two-day ayahuasca ceremony, in 2013.
“But this, I felt, was significant enough that she should know about it.”
Healing music doesn't always have to involve stimulants, like ayahuasca, to be effective. According to Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, Director of Medical Oncology and Integrative Medicine at the Weill Cornell Comprehensive Cancer Care center, sound “can play a positive role in the treatment of virtually any medical disorder.” In more concrete terms, practitioners trained in what various cultures have viewed as a healing tool for thousands of years often advertise their clients finding relief from PTSD symptoms, chronic pain, and sleeping disorders.
“If we accept that sound is vibration and we know that vibration touches every part of our physical being, then we understand that sound is heard not only through our ears, but through every cell in our bodies,” Gaynor explains, on his website.
Harris has no formal training as an integrative sound and music practitioner, but his travels ignited a desire to explore sound therapeutics with the sincerest of intentions. While his education is just beginning, he participates in weekly kirtan circles, performs his music as a calming “service” wherever he, as IEMANJO, is invited, and seeks to learn as much as he can about vibration-balancing and the science behind it.
Promotional images present the singer in a mix of tribal garb, and, with much of his album sung in Spanish and Portuguese, questions surrounding legitimacy and appropriation admittedly arose even before we even spoke.
“I don't see myself as a healer or a shaman or anything,” insisted the self-proclaimed medicine music “novice” from his Bed Stuy bedroom during our conversation. “I take great pride and satisfaction in being alongside this guy who I think is a really sincere, really gifted healer.”
In addition to learning a bit about shamanic music’s relationship with ayahuasca during his visits to Medellín, Harris continues to study as a shaman’s apprentice in The Big Apple. He has also been singing mantras and medicine songs with varying instrumentation at studios like Jivamukti, Greenhouse Holistic and Abhaya Yoga since the top of the year.
“Every time I attempt to use sound to create healing, it’s an investigation.”
It’s in this role, Harris says, that he acts solely as a facilitator in bringing this genre of music out of the jungle.
He is also aware that Medecina—an album of Afro-Latin rhythms paired with his version of South American medicine music and a splash of electro-pop—might be vulnerable to presumptuous jeers.
Prior to moving to New York about a year and a half ago, the musician was a member of soul singer Allen Stone’s band, Seattle Rock Orchestra.
“He comes under a lot of fire for being a white soul singer,” Harris conceded of Stone, a former comrade who he’d seen just a week earlier, when the artist was in town. “I identify with him.”
Since very little traditional medicine music is recorded, Harris has advice for folks who’d like to become more educated on what it is and how it works. (Unlike the soul and blues legends displayed on his bedroom wall, you can’t pull many tracks up on Spotify.)
“The only way to get the real authentic experience is to go down there and do it.”
For those who are interested in sound healing, but can’t make it to Central or South America—or Tibet—any time soon, New York City and environs are, luckily, an ideal location for you to explore the experience for yourself. The Brooklyn cultural center Golden Drum has featured Harris several times in their series of "dream seed" sonic baths that showcase everything from crystal singing bowls to didgeridoos. And Unifier, a “transformative healing and expressive arts festival,” recently invited him back for a second year in a row.
“I'm not really claiming any authenticity,” replied Harris, when asked about potential naysayers calling him out for cultural, and sonic, appropriation. “This is just an offering from my particular soul…from what I've had the privilege to be exposed to over the past few years.”