The music of trance and possession

Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of the South Sudan
Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of the South Sudan
Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of the South Sudan (Riverboat, 2013)

The Rough Guide to Voodoo + Erol Josue: Hountu Legba (World Music Network, 2013)

Trance; altered states; expanded consciousness; possession; gods, spirits, and ancestors walking the earth and inhabiting the bodies of the living. The phenomena of spirit possession ritual are fascinating and fetishized by many outside of these traditions, necessary and fulfilling for practitioners. Most, if not all, of these religious and spiritual practices concern music – everything from intense, a cappella vocals to intense, layered instrumental textures accompanied by dance and movement. So what can be made of music extracted from these rituals? What do we hear when we listen to the music of ritual – spiritually powerful sound – recorded and brought to listeners worlds away from their source, community and extra-musical practices? These recent releases do just that: they ask listeners to learn hear the sounds of trance and possession from the Caribbean to central Africa.

Wayo, music that accompanies spirit possession ritual in the newly partitioned nation of South Sudan is an introduction to a communal form of religious practice. A tight mesh of drums, xylophone, bell, and voice, Wayo’s intensity is built off of participation by a village. Participants gather around the xylophone and play collectively while bells and drums are passed around with each taking their turn. Perhaps the most compelling element of Wayo is that it remains contemporary – while some of the songs on the recording might be decades old, there are also contemporary numbers – like Wa Ma Bire Re Kuragi Amsmar Ni Wiri Parange Re (When You See Me Next, I Will Have Graduated) and Koya Mo Were We Baramu (Now You Are Like A European) – that demonstrate the modern nature of any religious practice. The music is, for lack of a less cliché term, hypnotic. The three person xylophone plays fast, interlocking rhythms over which the drums and bells perform polyrhythms, and the voices dance between declamatory and descending vocal lines.

Little is known of South Sudanese culture apart from the endemic violence and warfare that have torn apart the region for decades. In light of this, Wayo offers a portrait of communal strength, hope, play, joy, and criticism, reminding us in the most beautiful way of the necessity of music in social life. Wayo introduces our ears to sounds that change our perception of the South Sudan from war-torn and poverty stricken to human, vibrant, and looking forward to a new future.

The Rough Guide to Voodoo
The Rough Guide to Voodoo
In a contrast, The Rough Guide to Voodoo takes on the negative stereotypes of this popularly misunderstood religion. Vodou, as it is properly known, has been represented in American film and TV as sinister, dark, and dangerous, a backwards practice of witchdoctors, dolls, and animal sacrifices. Sadly, it is rarely portrayed as a vibrant, unique cultural expression and a reminder of the history of Africans forcibly brought to the Caribbean and inducted into Catholicism. The result of slavery and religious encounter was a syncretic religion in Haiti and New Orleans (as well as Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil) that brought together aspects of West African polytheism and Catholicism. The music that accompanies often all-night ritual is as varied as the two regions – Europe and West Africa – that it derives from. Ranging from four-part gospel to high-paced drumming, rapping, brass-band and atmospheric, The Rough Guide to Voodoo demonstrates the incredible New World range of this musical and religious practice.

The accompanying CD, by Haitian ex-patriot Vodou congregational leader Erol Josue, is fascinating. Labeled as ‘Haitian Roots Music’, Josue’s CD Hounto Legba shows how the music of Vodou continues to inspire creativity, rather than act as a static and unchanging tradition. Josue’s smooth tenor soars over textures that fuse jazz, funk, and on Madam Letan, a harpsichord.

Despite all of the stereotypes about what the music of spirit possession and trace is, Wayo and The Rough Guide to Voodoo dispel myths and suppositions about being primitive, backwards, and unchanging. Instead, they paint a picture of the dynamism in these two regions, one the newest country on the map the other the home of the only successful slave revolt in the world. They offer the listener a chance to hear trance and possession as living traditions embodied by individuals with desires for community, love, betterment, and salvation – not unlike us.

Buy Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of the South Sudan and The Rough Guide to Voodoo in North America

Buy Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of the South Sudan and The Rough Guide to Voodoo in Europe

Author: Justin Patch

Justin Patch is an ethnomusicologist currently teaching in upstate New York. He has written about music since 2006 in papers in Texas and New York, and has covered country, Americana, pop, hip-hop, post-rock, classic rock and indie for a variety of publications.


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