The Rhythm of Spirit Possession: An Entrancing Legacy

The popular music of the twentieth century, from blues and jazz to rock and hip hop, has roots in the music expressed in traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora. While that is relatively common knowledge, what is less commonly known is the uniquely complex kind of rhythm that predominates in the music of those traditions, and even less commonly known is the intimate association between those rhythms and spirit possession rituals. Pop music brings traditions of ritual trance into global culture.

Sometimes you get rhythm, and sometimes rhythm gets you. George and Ira Gershwin declare the former in the jazz standard “I got rhythm,” and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine promise (or perhaps warn) of the latter in the 1987 hit “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”

In many genres of popular music (e.g., dance pop, dubstep, hip hop, rock), rhythm is not an accompanying background or an abstract measuring system. It is a generative force of the music, an entrancing lure that allows not only for dance but also for a profound sense of participation. You want to get it, and it wants to get you. It often becomes a theme explicitly addressed in the music, which is evident from a cursory consideration of some of the numerous songs about rhythm in recent decades: rhythm of love (Plain White Ts; Scorpions; Yes), of the heart (Rod Stewart), of the night (Debarge; Corona), of the suburbs (Reel Big Fish), of the war drum (A Perfect Circle).

From the perspective of Western traditions of art music (i.e., “classical” music), the preoccupation with rhythm might make popular music seem uncreatively repetitive — a simplistic and vulgar mode of expression perhaps suitable to base sexual urges but not to the aesthetic and spiritual heights of human existence. I am ready to concede the point that popular music is well-suited to sexual desire, but I would disagree with any denigration of the religious significance of its rhythmic orientation. The problem is not simply the failure to recognize that popular music has sacred dimensions and is not just secular or non-religious. An even more oppressive denigration occurs when popular music is misinterpreted as evil, diabolical, and anti-religious, as if it is a morally corrupting influence that is at least partly responsible for any violent actions undertaken by disaffected youth. Why would popular music be considered “satanic” or evil? Why would pop music be held morally responsible for suicides or school shootings, such as Columbine? How does rhythm have anything to do with it?

As anyone who has inquired into the origins or blues, jazz, rock, and hip hop is well aware, the rhythms of popular music express the enduring legacy of Afro-Atlantic traditions. The rhythmic sensibilities of African and African Diaspora traditions can be heard throughout multiple genres of popular music. Sometimes it is rather explicit, as in Justin Timberlake’s “Let the Groove Get in,” which uses a sample from a field recording of a musical performance in a traditional community in Burkina Faso. Even when it is not explicit, the influence is readily apparent, especially in the pervasive use of polyrhythm: any rhythm that mixes multiple meters, creating complex grooves instead of even pulses. Such rhythm is involved in spirit possession rituals practiced in the Vodun traditions of West Africa and their diasporic hybrids, such as Vodou in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil. Even in cases of explicit disavowal (“I don’t practice Santería,” Sublime), the legacy of these traditions is at play in popular music.

To get a sense of the religious importance of polyrhythms in popular music, consider their religious significance in Afro-Atlantic spirit possession rituals, where polyrhythmic music accompanies community celebration, healing, and altered states of consciousness generally categorized as trance. Along those lines, it is helpful first to distinguish spirit possession trance from shamanic trance.

As Gilbert Rouget points out in Music and Trance, shamanic trance is characterized by the experience of visiting other worlds and bringing back information to perform healing, divination, and other rituals, and spirit possession is the opposite: instead of the practitioner visiting the inhabitants of invisible worlds, they visit the practitioner, coming down into some body within the world, transmitting their information in person, rather than through a shaman or other mediator. There are different (but not mutually exclusive) types of spirit possession varying according to the degree to which one becomes identified with one’s possessor. Afro-Atlantic traditions involve complete identification (usually involving the amnesia of the possessed), in contrast to more meditated experiences of communion with spirits (e.g., mystics and mediums) or inspiration from spirits (e.g., saints and poets).

A spirit possession trance is occasioned by music that others are playing, since it is difficult to play music for oneself when one’s “self” is possessed. Shamans do not lose consciousness and are thus capable of playing the music that occasions their trances. It is generally the case that the shaman’s voice is the central part of the music, often accompanied by some sort of percussion instrument, which provides the basic rhythm that supports the shaman’s singing, dancing, and any other important actions taking place during the ritual.

Music for spirit possession can be entirely instrumental, although it can include singing, chanting, or other vocalizations. Because the spirits become embodied for the audience to see, vocals are not necessary for communicating otherworldly messages. Free of any need to function as a steady metronome supporting the vocals, the music can involve complex rhythms, specifically polymetrical cross-rhythms, which cross two different metrical patterns, two-pulse (12/34/56) and three-pulse (123/456) beats.

In Western music theory, listeners are trained to hear the co-occurrence of meters in a way that treats one meter as the normal or regular background against which the other meter strikes (syncopation: syn, “together” and koptein, “striking”), playing out some abnormal or irregular beat, that is, the “off-beat.” Such a co-occurrence of even and odd meters is called hemiola, wherein the odd/even ratio is typically expressed as “two against three” or “three against two.” The juxtaposition of meters is thus reduced to a hierarchy of normal/abnormal, similar to how trances, such as mystical union and glossolalia (speaking in tongues), are not considered “normal” by the majority of practitioners of Western (i.e., biblical) religions. An analogous subordination of trance to normal consciousness occurs in the dominant paradigm of modern psychology, where waking, rational consciousness is normalized, relegating altered states of consciousness to an abnormal status. Indeed, the very term “altered states” presupposes some normal, unaltered state against which altered states strike.

Afro-Atlantic traditions do not neatly separate a normal from an altered consciousness, nor do they reduce polyrhythms to the striking together of a normal and abnormal meter. They affirm the ongoing alternation or liminal interplay of what are hastily called opposites. The interplay between different meters reflects other zones of interplay: between humans and spirits, between amnesiac and waking consciousness, between partying and healing, and more. Polyrhythmic complexity deconstructs the musical hierarchy of syncopation, and the accompanying trances deconstruct religious and psychological hierarchies for which trance is an abnormal or pathological state that should be separated from normal social functions, such as healing and community-building. The multistable ambiguity of the cross-rhythms implies the constant possibility of crossing between two-pulse or three-pulse meters.

Whereas Western musicians count the passing of beats in an abstract order (e.g., 1-2-3-4), African cultures do not understand time in terms of an abstract succession of mutually exclusive points in time. If you ask a drummer in a Santería ceremony to tell you when the first beat of the repeating sequence occurs (“Where’s the one?”), the drummer will tell you to listen to the clave, which refers to a rhythmic pattern and a percussion instrument resembling a pair of sticks. The clave is a repeating pattern with no determinate beginning or end, just a multistable ambiguity, in short, a groove. There is no “one,” no first beat in the sequence, indeed no abstract sequence at all, just a groove. Similarly, if you ask a Candomblé practitioner where the sacred begins and the profane ends, the practitioner would have to figure out a way to tell you that the spirits (orixás) are everywhere, such that religion does not operate under sacred/profane hierarchies.

The legacy of Afro-Atlantic rhythms in popular music is not just an acoustic or aesthetic legacy. It is an entrancing legacy — the inheritance of a cross-rhythmic complexity that is indicative of a religious participation in the world, a dynamic and open-ended participation in the intersection and interpenetration of opposites like sacred/profane, awake/entranced, dancing/healing, possessor/possessed, self/other, and more. Furthermore, that legacy is a legacy of religious oppression. Throughout the slave trade and the colonial period, Afro-Atlantic traditions were not considered secular or non-religious. Their rhythms and trances were more often considered evil and diabolical, as Birgit Meyer indicates in Translating the Devil. Popular music shares this legacy, however implicitly. Of course, there are differences; I would not want to classify rock or hip hop as Diaspora traditions alongside Candomblé and Santería, and I would not simply equate their struggles. Popular music often involves secular language and utilizes different technologies across different media; pop listeners do not generally experience spirit possession; and the censorship of pop music is nowhere near as severe as the colonial suppression of Afro-Atlantic traditions. Nonetheless, many expressions of popular music enact the same entrancing legacy, blending multiple meters in complex grooves and blending multiple states of consciousness in any listener who is willing to participate. If that seems like an overstatement, then experiment: go to a concert, and find out for yourself. Go, and let go. Even if you’ve got it already, rhythm — not “the devil” — will get you.

Discussion and Comments

  1. I’m interested in connections between hip hop music and dance and diasporic spiritual practices. I’d be glad if any article covers such topics.

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