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Stephen Grasso

Stephen Grasso: Haunted Soundsystem

August 2011

Read an extract from Stephen Grasso's essay on Voodoo, Mardi Gras and funk from Strange Attractor Journal Four, reviewed by Edwin Pouncey in The Wire 330.

The influence of African diaspora magico-religious traditions can be heard in music from the Caribbean, Latin America and the Southern States of the US – everywhere that the horrific transatlantic slave trade deposited its human cargo.

Jocomo Fino Ah Nah Nay
If jazz and its emergent culture provided one home for the disenfranchised spirit of New Orleans Voodoo, a Wisconsin-born spiritualist called Mother Leafy Anderson was instrumental in providing another. Anderson was the founder of the African American Spiritual Church movement in New Orleans during the 1920s, an outwardly Christian church that included the veneration of spirit guides such as Black Hawk, Queen Esther and Father John. Black Hawk was a historic Sauk American Indian chief who lived between 1767 and 1838 in Anderson’s native Illinois. He was vehemently opposed to ceding Native American land to white settlers and their governments, and fought in several wars against the US colonial powers.

In Anderson’s Spiritual Church, Black Hawk was called upon as a spirit of resistance to authority and protection against persecution by authority. He is known as a ‘watcher on the wall’ who notifies of breaches in one’s spiritual defences; and in New Orleans Voodoo a plaster effigy of an Indian chief is often placed in a bucket of earth or sand and positioned near the perimeter of a property for protection and fed with offerings of fruit and cigars.

Anderson’s original church movement was vocal in distancing itself from Voodoo, and was careful to position itself as a respectable Christian organisation taking its lead from the Bible; nonetheless its services still involved spirit possession and were inspired by distinctly African religious worship. After Anderson’s death in 1927, the movement fractured into many denominations who were not all so squeamish about the V-word, and went further in blurring the lines between the Spiritual Church movement and the hidden currents of New Orleans Voodoo. Anderson’s successor, Mother Catherine Seals, was much less conservative than her predecessor and freely incorporated elements of rootwork and Southern hoodoo conjure into her church services.

The presence of a Native American spirit in an African diaspora religious context is not without precedent. The disenfranchised original occupants of the Americas and Caribbean were often great allies to the transported Africans, offering shelter to escaped slaves and teaching African healers and sorcerers about the magical and medicinal properties of the alien landscape to which they had been relocated. Haitian Vodou contains many non-African elements that are thought to be surviving remnants of Taino and Arawak belief. In Cuban Santeria, the Orisha Ochosi, deity of hunting and master of the forest and its medicine, is frequently depicted with a plaster image of a Native American Indian, not unlike the plaster images of Black Hawk. Similarly, in the Brazilian African diaspora traditions, such as Candomble and Umbanda, the spirits of dead Native Americans are known as the Caboclo and considered powerful ancestral spirits of the land that will frequently possess celebrants to perform cleansings and give advice.

In New Orleans, this spiritual reverence for Native American tribespeople is also reflected in the city’s Mardi Gras Indian masking traditions. More than a century old (around 200 years old according to some sources), and arising out of the same communities as the African Spiritual Churches, masking Indian for Mardi Gras is another instance of African Americans paying symbolic tribute to their indigenous benefactors. The Indian is a potent symbol of freedom, and masking Indian is a celebration of that freedom.

Few in the black neighbourhoods could participate in the exclusive Mardi Gras parades and masked balls held in the city, so masking Indian became a homegrown way of celebrating the season. Numerous Indian tribes came into being throughout the city during Mardi Gras, each led by a Big Chief and accompanied by participants taking on the roles of Queen, Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Medicine Man, Wild Man and so on. In the early days of masking, confrontations between tribes would frequently be violent and often fatal. It was seen as a time to settle scores between rival gangs, taking advantage of the chaos and anonymity of Mardi Gras – where everyone in the city is masked and the police already have their hands full controlling the crowds near the main parades.

Since the 1940s, the Indian tribes have stopped killing one another when they meet in the street, and their confrontation is now played out through the medium of elaborate costume, song and dance. When two Big Chiefs come face-to-face, each will perform a theatrical display of chants and dances until one party concedes defeat to the other. It’s a display of showmanship and machismo that recalls the mysteries of Shango, who rules over drums, dance and masculinity. Indian costumes can cost thousands of dollars to construct, and require months of planning and preparation to make happen. A new costume is required each year, but often beaded patches – much resembling the sequined flags of Haitian Vodou, believed to contain spirits, and often passed down from older retired Indians – are incorporated into the new year’s costume.

Mardi Gras Indian music is a rich tradition, with the first known musical reference being Louis Dumaine’s 1927 instrumental "To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa", named for the Indian Creole chant "Two-Way-Pocky-Way". However the first recording to popularise Mardi Gras Indian chants was Sugar Boy Crawford’s 1953 recording "Jockomo", which tells of a Spy Boy’s encounter with a Flag Boy of another tribe, and the ensuing threats of violence. The song later resurfaced, to much bigger acclaim, as The Dixie Cups’ 1965 hit "Iko Iko" which incorporated many of the same elements as Crawford’s original but in a style more reminiscent of the Mardi Gras Indian sound.

Both versions revolve around the chorus: "Iko Iko, Iko Iko An Day, Jockomo Fino Ah Nah Nay, Jockomo Fi Na Nay". Crawford claimed to have written down individual Indian chants and put them together to make the chorus. He claimed that "Iko" was used as a victory chant, and "Jockomo" was a battle cry, but had no idea what the words actually meant. The Dixie Cups claimed to have heard their grandmother sing the chants, but similarly had no idea of the meaning of the Creole patois. Theories abound, but there is no clear consensus, and "Jockomo Fino Ah Nah Nay" remains a New Orleans Voodoo mystery that has passed into the litany of funk. It appears on a 12” version of Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force’s 1983 Afrofuturist track "Renegades of Funk", alongside the recognisable Cuban Santeria chant "Alafia Ache Ache". Somewhat less credibly, "Iko Iko" has even been covered by Rolf Harris.

"Handa Wanda", a heavy funk 7" released in 1970 by Big Chief Bo Dollis And The Wild Magnolias, was the first recording by an actual Mardi Gras Indian tribe to draw wider attention to the sound. It features the familiar Creole patois Indian chants and references to Spy Boys (et al), and was shortly followed by a full-length album The Wild Magnolias in 1973. The tribe played support slots in full Indian costume with Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight & The Pips, carrying the Indian sound beyond the confines of the city.

Another Indian tribe, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, also released an eponymous record in 1975, backed by The Meters and produced by Allen Toussaint. The Meters are widely considered one of the progenitors of the New Orleans funk sound, and their frontman Art Neville happened to be the nephew of George Landry, AKA Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe. Masking Indian is a family business, and in addition to bringing his own band in on the session, the recording also featured his brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril Neville – playing together for the first time before they ever found independent success as the Neville Brothers. There's perhaps no clearer example of the intimate relationship between the origins of funk and the Mardi Gras Indian traditions, themselves steeped in New Orleans Voodoo, than the Wild Tchoupitoulas record.

Stephen Grasso's full essay appears in Strange Attractor Journal Four, reviewed by Edwin Pouncey in The Wire 330.