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Off the Beaten Track: How West African Voodoo became the lifeblood of the blues

The fact that Voodoo is a misnomer for Vodou is a clear signifier of the butchering misconceptions that have befallen the religion either through colonialism, Hollywood or otherwise. Far from a quirky quack-riddled realm of curses and zombification sequestered from real society, it has actually permeated our lives through its influence on music as much as any other external stimulus. Vodou is the lifeblood of the blues, which in turn is the backbone of modern music. 

The story of the blues itself has perhaps never been more aptly expressed than through the wit of one of its favourite sons, Lightnin’ Hopkins. In the life-affirming Les Blank movie, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, he tells the tale of Mr Charlie’s Rolling Mill…

… “Once in the country, there was this little boy, and he stuttered,” Hopkins casually begins. It is a story of a pariah who left home after it became clear his mother couldn’t understand his stammering ways. Out on the road with a meagre flower-pack full of possessions and a spiritual sack-full of woes, he wandered his tired legs up to a dingy outbuilding called The Rolling Mill that belonged to Mr Charlie. The boy stammered his way towards asking Mr Charlie if he had a place for him to stay. Mr Charlie told him he could stay in his Rolling Mill shack down the road so long as he sees to it that his stove never catches fire. The boy agrees, and Mr Charlie tells him he never wants to hear from him again unless there is ever a fire. One day the boy is in the Rolling Mill, and the place catches aflame. He races his way up to Mr Charlie’s house to tell him about the blaze. As the boy struggles to spell out the problem in his failing words, when Mr Charlie stops him and says, “Look here boy, if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song…

The story is one that forms an allegorical mirror to the tale of the blues. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. This encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation. Buried within that subversive undercurrent was the monolithic force of Vodou. All the blues notions of devil’s at the crossroads, hoodoo’s and hexes are deeply linked to the ways of the old world and the Caribbean.

It is a religion as old as time that mythically wove into existence in West Africa. Sadly, this region was besieged by the atrocity of slavery in the colonial era. This meant that many of the slaves headed towards America were followers of Vodou. However, it was repressed by slave-owners, thus, the slaves were forced into being subtle and subversive with the way in which they practised the ancient ways. 

Catholicism was forced upon them, but rather than drown out the Vodou tunes; it merely formed a fusion. The drums and rhythms may well have been abandoned out of necessity, but Gospel songs became a fusion where Vodou and hymns met. The same sense of profound exultation was present, and the drums were vocalise in the chants and incantations of singalong songs of soul salvation.

Alas, outside of the churches, the beats, rhythms, ethics and everything else contained within Vodou ceremonies were tuned into the plantation songs that owners found acceptable. But perhaps more so than this mutation of old ways in terms of the sonic influences on the music that followed, the very notion of rock ‘n’ roll is at the core of Vodou. 

As it is stated in Michael Ventura’s rock history, 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 behaviour in this possession was something Western society had never before tolerated.”

The sense of frenzied exultation that draws us to concerts and performances where the banal norms of society are temporarily eviscerated is a practice brought about from West African traditions. Six thousand years ago, fuzz pedals might have been absent, but the pounding rhythms of drums and a distorted wave of sound was very much present. These age-old ceremonies were imported along with the abhorrent upheaval of slavery and, although they were forced to change out of necessity, they remained there in the undercurrent as an ever-present boon to existence and a way to reach divine unity despite the hands of oppression. 

When rock ‘n’ roll blossomed from the long-seeded pastures of the blues, the full notion of revolt it brought with it also owes much to Vodou music. In fact, on August 22 in 1791, Haitian slaves revolted on mass in response to a signal from Vodou priests and overthrew Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, becoming the first black republic thereafter. Descriptions of the ensuing celebrations sound not unlike some primitive Woodstock.

As Debra Devi, states in the novel The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, “Africans brought here as slaves carried with them incredibly strong aesthetic, ethical and cultural values that not only withstood the shock of their forced transplantation to the New World but transformed and invigorated it. Their influence made us uniquely American. It’s why we respond to that Voodoo beat.” 

Though the rhythmic drumming and the possession-like trance of rock and blues music’s embalming ways may have been bleached out in the kaleidoscopic wash of cosmopolitan influences over the years, the transcendent vibes of Vodou are still strongly in the melee of modern music to this day. While the likes of the New Orleans cult legend Dr John and the Vodou-Blues epitome of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have propagated the old ways profoundly, even the jangly flamboyant aesthetic of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the likes, the old ways live on.

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