That Voodoo That You Do: Music, Trance and Slavery
Blissed-out, ecstatic union with our divine selves — we seek it at raves and rock concerts, and in the desert with the Burning Man. I try to get there when I’m jamming with my band — but I didn’t realize until I wrote The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu how much this longing relates to Voodoo, and the concept of possession.
Vodou (the proper Kreyol/Creole spelling of Voodoo) is a neo-African religion that evolved in the New World from the 6.000-year-old West African religion Vodun. This was the religion of many slaves brought from West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. Vodun was brutally repressed by slave-owners, yet its powerful ethics and aesthetics endured. We owe our concepts of cool, soul and even rock and roll to it.
The roots of rock are in a West African word for dance — rak. And as Michael Ventura wrote in his important essay on rock music, “Hear that Long Snake Moan“: “The Voodoo rite of possession by the god became the standard of American performance in rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Jim Morrison, Johnny Rotten, Prince — they let themselves be possessed not by any god they could name but by the spirit they felt in the music. Their behavior in this possession was something Western society had never before tolerated.”
Vodou possession is not the hokey demon-possession of zombie movies; it’s a state of union with the divine achieved through drumming, dancing and singing. It’s becoming “filled with the Holy Ghost” in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, reaching Buddhist nirvana, or attaining the yogi’s Samadhi.
In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, this ability to connect with one’s inner divinity is called coolness (itutu). In traditional Yoruba morality, generosity indicates coolness and is the highest quality a person can exhibit. In American culture, we say someone is cool, or that a musician “has got soul.” We notice “Southern hospitality.”
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade carried these ideas to the New World, particularly as slavers burrowed inward from Senegambia on the West African coast to the Kingdom of Dahomey, a Vodun stronghold.
Dahomey spread across much of today’s Togo, Benin and Nigeria and became heavily involved in the slave trade. Vodun practitioners were sent overseas by the thousands, for example, when the Fon people of what is now Benin conquered their neighbors, the Ewe, in 1729 and traded prisoners to European slave ships. Many Fon were also kidnapped and traded into slavery.
Vodu is a Fon-Ewe word meaning spirit, or deity. Vodun is God or Great Spirit. This supreme creator was an all-powerful, unknowable, creative force represented as the giant snake Dan carrying the universe in its coils. Today, in Haiti and in American Vodou strongholds like New Orleans, Dan is worshipped as Damballah, the Grand Zombie (the Bantu word nzambi means God). He’s John Lee Hooker’s Crawling Kingsnake.
Branching off from this almighty God-force are spirit-gods called loa. During Vodou ceremonies, a loa may descend the center post of the temple to possess or “ride” a worshipper who has reached a sufficiently high state of consciousness. The morality implicit in this is stated in the Haitian proverb, “Great gods cannot ride little horses.”
Vodun practices like drumming were definitely noticed by nervous colonists who had imported fierce warriors and tribal priests to work their farms. After a deadly rebellion in the South Carolina colony in 1739, the colonists realized slaves were using talking drums to organize resistance. The Slave Act of 1740 in South Carolina barred slaves from owning or using “drums, horns, or other loud instruments.” Other colonies followed suit with legislation against the use of drums by slaves, such the Black Codes of Georgia.
Soon, religious repression was in full swing. Slaves caught praying were brutally penalized, as this excerpt from Peter Randolph’s narrative “Slave Cabin to the Pulpit” recounts:
“In some places, if the slaves are caught praying to God, they are whipped more than if they had committed a great crime. The slaveholders will allow the slaves to dance, but do not want them to pray to God. Sometimes, when a slave, on being whipped, calls upon God, he is forbidden to do so, under threat of having his throat cut, or brains blown out.”
Vodun practitioners taken as slaves to plantations in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and Jamaica were also harshly prohibited from practicing their religion. But enslaved Vodun priests arriving in the largely Catholic West Indies quickly grasped the similarity between their tradition of appealing to loa to intercede in their favor with the Almighty, and Catholics praying to their saints for intercession with God. By superimposing Catholic saints over the loa, slaves created a hybrid religion called Santeria (saint worship) in the Spanish Islands and Vodou in Haiti.
On August 22, 1791, Haitian slaves revolted, guided by Vodou priests who gave the signal to begin the rebellion and consulted their oracle to determine which military strategies would succeed. The revolutionaries defeated an army sent by Napoléon Bonaparte. They declared independence on January 1, 1804, and established Haiti as the world’s first black republic.