Archive for religion

Obeah Woman

Posted in Possession with tags , , , on May 14, 2013 by Richard

‘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.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Posted in Possession with tags , , , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by Richard

In interviews, and in her autobiography, Nina Simone liked to describe the sense of power she felt when, as a child, she would play music in the church. She also frequently alluded to a sense of oneness she would experience on stage when, treating her audience much as she would a church congregation, she engaged in a process of musical transportation. Examples of this process can be found in various performances of a song she first recorded on her 1967 album Silk & Soul. ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, written by Simone’s fellow North Carolinian Billy Taylor, works, in its basic form, as one of many “freedom songs” written during the civil rights era that brought together aspects of folk, soul and gospel. Simone’s studio version provides instant swing with its rolling piano chords and finger-clicking intro.  Like the soul- and gospel-inspired compositions of Charles Mingus and Horace Silver, the instruments (here, Simone’s piano and the simple click rhythm) seem to already be singing before any words are uttered, a feeling also present in Taylor’s instrumental jazz trio recording (and in this later performance by Taylor).  However, it is the famously yearning words that connect Simone’s version to the spirit of the times, becoming a collective anthem alongside Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and the ubiquitous ‘We Shall Overcome’. The key words and phrases in Dick Dallas’s lyric – “break the chains”, “remove all the bars that keep us apart”, “every man should be free”, “longing to live”, “I’d soar to the sun”, “I’d sing ‘cos I’d know” – resonate with the classic freedom songs of the era. If the ever-present wish, with its seeming lack of fulfilment, sounds a melancholy note, the actual music sends a more affirmative message. Stabs of brass provide soul power and gospel clarification, suggesting that all the ambitions voiced in the song, the “longing to live” might just be within reach. It is even possible, due to the shift of the modal verb and Simone’s articulation, to hear the repeated “I’d know how it feels” at the end of the song as “I know how it feels”. Like many of the finest freedom songs, a certain amount of ambiguity refuses a “closed” meaning and allows for the imagination of utopian space.

At the same time, for all the song’s collective message, it is always possible to read other messages into Simone’s performances and to see certain songs as vehicles for connecting different aspects of the artist’s life. In a filmed performance of the song used in Joel Gold’s film Nina, Simone slows the tempo and opens the song space by adding improvised elements.  As the crowd clap and shout affirmative messages in response to Simone’s clearly articulated vocals, the concert takes on the atmosphere of a religious revival meeting. At the point where the artist embarks on a jazz-influenced piano solo, Gold’s editor Frederick Charney intercuts material from a filmed interview in which Simone describes such meetings: “Nothing stops happening until everyone in the room is satisfied … there’s no such things as the end [of a song]”. Simone describes the interactive nature of song performance in revivals as “like being in touch with a hundred or 200 human beings at one time … that’s a fantastic thing”. Cutting back to the concert performance, we witness Simone improvising additional wishes to Dallas’s lyric (“I’d sing so much better … I’d dance so much better … I’d be a little less mean”) as a “call” to the band’s response. To enthusiastic audience feedback, she testifies to a dream of flying and speaks of having her eyes opened to a “new vision”. Having now assumed the role of gospel preacher, Simone continues: “The Bible says ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind'”, then jumps up from her piano stool to take a position at the front of the stage, swaying with the music, screaming, clapping and leading her congregation. Returning to the piano, she sings about a moment in her life when she would know the feeling of freedom, stretching the final “free!” over several seconds. The phrase “for one moment in my life” resonates with her use of almost identical words during the contemporaneous “Martin Luther King Suite” (“for one moment of your life”), connecting to that testimony and showing how Simone, like King, used particular “formulas” and “key-signature phrases” as part of her affective work (see Richard Lischer’s book The Preacher King).

In an earlier section of Gold’s film, Simone attempts to answer a question posed by an interviewer: ”What is ‘free’ to you?” In response, she describes a feeling she occasionally gets onstage, then clarifies freedom as “no fear” and “something to really really feel … like a new way of seeing”. With the help of Gold and Charney, Simone is able to take possession of Taylor and Dallas’s song, connecting it to her religious background and to the freedom she sought in performing music. At the same time, the freedom she describes involves giving herself over to a situation that is larger than she or any one individual, one that is created through religious possession and group psychology. The “new way of seeing” echoes other statements Simone made about Saint Paul-like moments of “coming through” or “turning on”, suggesting she attained (and was taken over by) a new subjectivity in response to such epiphanies. For the philosopher Alain Badiou, who sees in Saint Paul an example of a subjectivity based upon recognition of universal truth, the realization engendered by epiphany is one which, through the processes of fidelity, searching and constant renewal, allows the subject to reject conformity. Badiou uses the same words of Paul quoted by Simone – “Do not be conformed to the present century, but be transformed by the renewal of your thought [mind]” (Romans 12.2) – to highlight the universalism that, for Badiou, is Paul’s greatest legacy:

Far from fleeing from the century, one must live with it, but without letting oneself be shaped, conformed. It is the subject, rather than the century, who, under the injunction of his faith, must be transformed. And the key to this transformation, this “renewal”, lies in thought.

Freedom, then, can be gained through nonconformity, and thought – the quest for the knowledge of how it would feel – is the first step towards freedom.

Another filmed performance of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ combines the religious aspects mentioned above with a kind of “embodying” of the song that, paradoxically, allows the singer to break free of her own body for a fleeting moment and to suggest that one of the freedoms promised is, in fact, freedom from bodily determinism. The performance comes from Simone’s astonishing set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Simone begins the song with the familiar piano motif, not deviating far from the recorded version, although she extends the pre-vocal section as if to get into the groove.  The subsequent rendition also follows the recorded version, save for a few interjections, a greater amount of jazz phrasing on the vocals and some harsh piano stabs (something of a Simone trademark, deployed at strategic “punctuating” moments and very frequently at the close of songs). The changes come towards the end of the song, the first being when Simone shifts into falsetto as she imagines being a bird, her voice soaring with the lyric to a height all the more notable for her infrequent use of such high pitch. For a few moments it is as if she really is breaking free of anything in the song that might be binding her, even the very thing that makes singing and playing possible, the music itself.

“Spirit’s movin’ now”, Simone observes, realising the new freedom she has found and connecting it to a religious notion of transcendence. As if confirming the confusion over whether she originally sang “I’d know how it feels” or “I know how it feels”, she testifies to the latter as she improvises new lyrics and interjections: “Got news for you. I already know … Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothing on me”. She shouts the word “free!” four times in succession, then develops it into “I’m free and I know it”. Changing to a new, seemingly improvised tune, Simone sing-speaks the truth she’s discovered: “I found out how it feels not to be chained to any thing, to any race to any faith to anybody, to any creed to any hopes to any anything”. Again, we could read this “religiously”, seeing this freedom as an escape from earthly concerns, even from the body itself. However, given the denial of faith and creed here, it is equally tempting to connect the performance to the kind of identity politics later theorised by writers such as Judith Butler. This was the other side to Simone’s assertive anthems (notably ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’), this loss of bodily identification that imagined freedom from biology and culture, a freedom that would find its ultimate expression in her extraoridnary, but little known, reading of Exuma’s ’22nd Century’. The Montreux performance of ‘I Wish I knew’ presents yet another aspect of Simone’s enigma: how she could turn what seems to be the very epitome of humanistic communication, this ‘civil rights anthem’, into a vision of posthumanism. Transformation indeed.


Posted in Categories with tags , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Richard

While it could be argued that Simone presented her “folk” material in a fairly restrained manner, keeping something of the textual reverence displayed by her contemporary Odetta, her gospel numbers tended to be wilder affairs, possessed of a different kind of power to that found in Odetta’s voice. Power, pleading and confusion are the key markers in Simone’s reading of ‘Sinnerman’, a track described by Richard Middleton as a “last-day drama”. Certainly, there is an apocalyptic feel to the song, aided by its epic running time (notable in at least three recorded versions by Simone ), its “implacable” piano vamp (Middleton) and its depiction of an unredeemable sinner caught between God and the Devil. Over the endless, infectious piano, the song is played out in what initially seems like a duologue in which the speaking roles are limited to two voices, not necessarily in conversation. The Sinnerman is addressed as “you” at various points but speaks as “I” for most of the song, although it is not difficult to imagine, given the terror and confusion that reign over this transgressing subject, that everything we hear represents the Sinnerman’s own bewildered thought and speech. As in ‘The City of Refuge’, a song recorded by the gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson, the protagonist is constantly running. The relentless verses chase the sinner as “he” runs to the rock, to the sea and to the river (both of which are “bleeding” and “boiling”), each time finding neither refuge nor respite from his all-seeing, vengeful God. Even when he runs “to the Lord” he is told to “run to the Devil” and is left with little option but to plead with the Lord to “bring down power”.

The power play of the text is matched by the shifting dynamics of the song. Eventually the implacable piano crashes to a halt (3:35) and drums, bass and guitar carry the groove. There is a clapping interlude with no instrumental accompaniment, during which the piano starts up again, slowly at first and then gradually building back into the vamp and a repeat of some of the verse elements – the boiling river and sea. Simone’s voice rises to a shout (“where were you when you ought to be praying?”) and, as the band move into a repeat of the “bring power” section, the pleading becomes desperate, eventually moving into a wordless kind of scat that Middleton describes as “glossolalic” (a reference to the religious practice of speaking in tongues), succeeded by “a drum-kit conclusion of Old Testament severity”. Like the sinner, we are caught between a rock and a hard place, not knowing where to go or what to expect. It is tempting to read the song as one of paranoia, or, at least, of the kind of double consciousness with which Simone so often identified, a consciousness that offers the subject an always already confused sense of belonging. In a lesser known version of ‘Sinnerman’ included on the album Gospel According to Nina Simone, the artist inserts a line from her signature song “Mississippi Goddam” – “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there” – which serves as both an intertextual reference for performer and audience and as a way of cementing the Sinnerman’s predicament.

Children Go Where I Send You

Posted in Categories with tags , , on May 7, 2013 by Richard

Coming from a strict religious background, Nina Simone had had experience of “church language” from an early age. In her memoir, she recounts how, as a young girl, she would play piano in church to accompany the gospel singing of the congregation. This gave her a sense of the power of performance: “When I played I could take a congregation where I wanted – calm them down or lift them up until they became completely lost in the music and atmosphere”. She describes how people in church were seized by the music, finding themselves “transported” to another place. Meanwhile her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, referred to non-church music as “real” music, ordering her daughter: “Don’t play any of those real songs”. While the former Eunice Waymon’s decision to do just this would lead to the adoption of a new name and subsequent fame, the music of the church remained a strong feature in Nina Simone’s repertoire.

Simone_AmazingThe sacred and the secular have frequently been presented as twin strands in African American music over the past two centuries. As many scholars have noted, the boundaries between these supposed styles of music are always shifting and there are numerous examples of musicians who moved between the two worlds, from Thomas A. Dorsey to Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. However, that does not mean that the perception of the split was unimportant. For Nina Simone, the sacred/secular split, if it did figure, may have been just one more case of double consciousness, of being between two worlds, but it would appear from her memoir that there was some initial discomfort in negotiating her path between them, just as there was in her weaving between classical and popular styles. As for many performers before her, leaving the musical milieu of the church for the world of “real songs” was also a leave-taking from home and her past. In the 1992 film La Légende, we witness Simone making a trip home to reunite with her mother and her daughter, during which she is filmed playing for the local church congregation as a kind of homecoming. On Fodder on My Wings (1982) – an album imbued with a sense of “lateness” and retrospection through its experiential perspective on Simone’s life and career, her deceased father and a religious reconciliation of sorts – Simone introduced a version of the gospel song ‘Heaven Belongs to You’ (also known as ‘If You Pray Right’) by speaking about her father singing it when she was three and also calling it an “African song”.  The references to ancestral and cultural roots bear witness to some of the ways in which Simone returned to gospel throughout her career as a way of reconnecting with where she was from.

Gospel featured on the very earliest recordings Simone made for Colpix, with The Amazing Nina Simone containing ‘Children Go Where I Send You’ and ‘Chilly Winds Don’t Blow’, the first fairly conventional, the second much less so. ‘Children’ utilizes a classic barrelhouse piano style that became associated with gospel following the pioneering work of Arizona Dranes, asserting a sense of joy in playing and, as Simone’s commanding vocal enters, in singing too.  Backed by drums which match the piano riffs, Simone drives the vocal home, speeding up her delivery as the song progresses to impart a sense of drive and momentum, of being taken over by the spirit of the music and by the incantatory magic of the song lyric: “eight for the eight that stood at the gate / seven for the seven came down from Heaven / six for the six that couldn’t get fixed”, and so on to the inevitable climax of “one for the little bitty baby / who was born born born in Bethlehem”. In fact, the final line is also one of the first because this song, like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, starts with the one, then accumulates one number on each verse, providing a forward-reverse development and, ultimately a cyclical structure as the song closes once again on “born in Bethlehem”. Simone displays further mastery over her material by suddenly cutting the hectically paced, syllable-based delivery of the lyrics at the song’s conclusion (2:17) to use melisma to double the syllable of “was” and extend the word “born” before the climactic “in Beth-le-he-em”. Throughout this version, the vocal harmonies or responses we might expect from a gospel song are absent, with Simone’s the only voice present. Other versions of the songs have included such harmonies. The Golden Gate Quartet, exponents of the “jubilee style” of gospel singing used only vocal harmonies in their version of ‘Go Where I Send Thee’, which dates from the 1930s. The song was also incorporated into Black Nativity, a Broadway show written by Langston Hughes which used gospel numbers sung by Marion Williams and Alex Bradford and their respective groups. The Black Nativity version includes both the Dranes-style barrelhouse piano and the vocal harmonies of the gospel choir.

If participation was only hinted at in the studio recording, Simone took the opportunity to work the song for all its improvisatory, participatory properties in live performance. At the 1961 Village Gate concert recorded by Colpix, she provided an extended rendition of the song.  Opening more or less as normal she then drawls an instruction to her band (Al Shackman on guitar, Chris White on bass and Bobby Hamilton on drums) in a deliberately “Southern” accent: “Take your time, boys, we’ve got a while to go now”. Although Simone was born and grew up in the South, she had, by the time she began performing publically, removed many traces of a Southern accent from her speaking and singing. This was no doubt due to the training she received as she prepared to be a concert pianist. She would later mock such preparation in her protest song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ as being made “to talk real fine just like a lady” as a way of escaping stereotypes attached to southern, working-class black women. Whatever her reasons for adopting the commanding and relatively accent-free “queenly” voice she would be known for, Simone would frequently move into other voices as part of her performance style (particularly notable on her composition ‘Four Women’). Her “gospel voice” should therefore be understood as one of a variety of “vocal masks” adopted by Simone; on the Village Gate version of ‘Children’, that voice is also regionalized, both via her instruction to her band members and by the way she asks the audience if they’ve ever been to a revival meeting, following up with “you’re in one now!” The act is clearly an effective one because, following various extemporizations on the main “Children go where I send you” theme, an audience participation occurs in which the crowd clap along as though possessed. Listening in, we witness Simone’s enjoyment in the power she has to transport her congregation, to “send” her children where she wishes.