Do you remember how I said my wife had been raised in such deep African-American culture that when I’d play some ancient old blues that was supposed to be pre-War etc. she’d go dancing through the room saying, “Oh, yeah, we used to dance off that when Uncle so-and-so would play on the string they’d put up on the porch”. Just amazing. Stuff from long ago, supposedly no longer practiced.
So today I was playing a video from Benin, a religious ceremony in which a woman became possessed. It is different from the way it occurs in church, where the music plays and people break into a shout and holy dance; rather these people first become possessed, then processed, so to speak, and come out and may dance then, in a somewhat formal way. What my wife heard was just the yelps of the possessed woman. I went downstairs to tell her I had found a clear example of possession African-style and she said, “Yeah, I was thinking that sounded familiar”. So she spent many years in churches where such possession was common-place, in almost every service. She recognized from a distance that distinctive sound of possession, passed down through many generations from Africa to Arizona.
We went to a funeral today and as we listened to one song, my wife nudged me as it swung into a call and response mode, starting with the organ, then the song leader. This shift typically signals a more African mode of music, one where not only call and response dominates but where the handclapping shreds into overlapping cross-rhythms, the whole thing takes drum cum handclapping breaks, extraneous bursts of song come from other singers, and this whole shift is often a precursor to possession. Today, no one shouted but it was a near thing. That is one of the fun things about church, predicting if a particular number is going to generate shouting aka spirit possession aka holy dancing aka getting happy aka trance dancing.
Also, 3 types of song were presented besides the usual congragational singing of songs like This Little Light of Mine: traditional holiness gospel, modern “production number” gospel, and almost a ballad or lounge music kind of singing. Despite there being no choir, the family showed themselves to be admirable in their role, giving honor to the deceased with little to no rehearsal. Very impressive.
To me, following on this experience with my wife yesterday of identifying that particular sound made when possession is setting in, her noting the shift in the music is a good observation, a kind of analysis I wonder about in terms of academic musicology: I’ve read an analysis of the worship service but not of the singing itself.
Addendum 6/9/15: I’ve been trolling through YouTube videos of worship services in the African Diaspora, from Benin to Kingston and Oriente to Mobile. My favorite part is the excellent twerking done by the Christian choirs in Africa; it is just a way of dancing. Holding someone close in dancing can be sexual, too (rolling). The praise services, whether to Obatala,or Jesus, have the same root idea: rhythm and song combine with movement to make worship. It will take a long time to turn all the people of the African Diaspora into Norwegians.
I’m reading Sacred Possessions, edited by Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, a collection of scholarly articles on the subject, focusing on the practice in the African diaspora. Though not religious, I attended a Pentecostal church steadily for 3 years back in the 60s and I and my wife (who was raised in the church) go back often. Despite a huge increase in material and educational well-being of the congregation, the shouting is still very prominent. I once felt it start in me and I quelled it (chicken), but the best description I’ve read so far is an old one by Maya Deren in Divine Horsemen, how an outsider found herself possessed. Her description matched what I felt. How I would have behaved, having been raised in a White, non-religious home, I don’t know. Most White people I see shout just twirl around but some really do it all. I’ve read a number of books on possession but none that explained it from a neuropsychological pov. Religious people have their own explanation, of course.