Obeah Woman

‘Obeah Woman’, a song recorded in concert in 1973 and released the following year on the live album It Is Finished, was one of three tracks recorded by Nina Simone based on originals by Exuma (the other two being ‘Dambala’ and ’22nd Century’). Born Tony McKay, Exuma was a Bahamian artist active in the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s and who later released a series of albums in which he presented himself as a singer-priest known as “the Obeah man”, referring to the Caribbean magical practices of the same name.

The best of Exuma’s work can be found on the albums he released at the start of the 1970s. The first three albums (Exuma and Exuma II, both from 1970, and Do Wah Nanny, from 1971) contain songs that combine social commentary on contemporary urban conditions with invocations of characters and practices associated with Obeah They feature Exuma’s husky vocals and hyper-driven acoustic guitar accompanied by ankle bells, cowbells, sacred foot drums, cabasa, congas, background vocals, shouts and whistles. An obvious point of reference is the contemporaneous work of Dr. John, though Exuma’s particular brand of conjure was less well-known than the Night Tripper’s and its creator was also destined for a more obscure fate. There was also something more cosmic about Exuma’s work, the landscapes of which are as frequently posthuman as they are primordial. The first album’s cover bore a poem by the artist that described Exuma as a character “beyond the universe / a star that once lit Mars” and bore the message “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present anybody’s game”.

It is not clear where Nina Simone encountered Exuma’s work (they would have been Greenwich Village contemporaries in the 60s) but she clearly found something in it that would allow her to play with notions of possession, ritual and altered states of consciousness. Converting Exuma’s ‘Obeah Man’ into ‘Obeah Woman’ allowed Simone to take on the role of priestess, a role she for which she was eminently suited. The performance that appears on It Is Finished opens with polyrhythmic percussion from the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and Simone asserting that she wishes to take her time “gettin’ this one together”.  As the groove establishes itself, Simone tells her audience that she has “gotta go home”, asking them, “Do you know ’bout the Holy Roller Church? Ain’t that where I started?” To enthusiastic audience response, she claims “I’ve outgrown it now … I’m so proud that I did it … that I came through.” The references are ones she would later elaborate on in her autobiography. Although her mother had been a Methodist minister, Simone had favoured the music of the Holiness church (the “Holy-Rollers”) because “their prayer meetings were one great commotion, with people testifying and shouting all night. The music that went along with it had incredible rhythm, it sounded like it came straight out of Africa”. “Home”, then, would seem to possess at least a double meaning for Simone when she came to perform ‘Obeah Woman’, referring to both her childhood home of Tryon and the imagined and longed-for home of Africa (not long after this performance was recorded, Simone would move to Liberia).

As she eases into the song, she seems keen to educate her audience: “do you know what an Obeah woman is?” To affirmative response she launches her version of Exuma’s lines: “I’m the Obeah woman, from beneath the sea / To get to Satan, you gotta pass through me”. The crowd roar their approval and clap along to the hypnotic beat. Simone continues, interweaving Exuma’s mythic lines with asides that clearly refer to her own life experience: “they call me Nina, and Pisces too / There ain’t nothin’ that I can’t do”, the latter appended with the ambiguous agency of “If I choose to … If you let me”. Indeed, ‘Obeah Woman’ plays out as a classic example of the double nature of possession; to possess something (forexample, to take ownership of a song through performance) and to be possessed by something (music, the act of musicking). In order to offer the illusion of power, control and affective dominance, Simone needs to give herself over to the driving, possessive force of what John Mowitt calls the “percussive field” and, even more, to the audience’s approval (signalled by shouted responses, handclaps and, presumably, body language), effectively making herself a vehicle through which the spirit of the performance, its Obeah, can be channelled. “I didn’t put that name on myself”, Simone confides after six minutes of possessed performance, “and I don’t like it sometimes”. As if realizing the façade could easily crumble, she suddenly commands her musicians to finish. The abruptness of the ending serves as indication of the fragility and liminality of the songspace. Just as the Obeah woman is a gatekeeper between the world above and that below, so she guards the sacred space opened up by the groove of ‘Obeah Woman’. When the song is “open” it can act as conduit for a crossing over, coming through or loss of self; when closed it remains only as memory of an epiphany.

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