Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Luke Bergman - February 7th, 2010


A tribute to vodou music

I was introduced to this music a few years ago by local drummer, Ethan Cudabak, who has proven to be the leading source of mind-bending music I’ve never heard of and end up becoming obsessed with. Upon listening to Voodoo Drums for the first time, having never really checked out anything like it before, I was surprised by and still remember my visceral reaction to it. My body sorted out the strong stimulus i was receiving, and instead of sending the info straight to my brain to be dissected and compartmentalized, it triggered responses in my chest and gut and neck like so many mechanical parts being set into motion by a motor. Kristian Garrard said it best upon his first encounter with the same record, “these beats are making me puke.”

The liturgical music I grew up with, which I still value very much, was mostly a platform for logical consideration and withdrawn reverence. Very rarely, one or two people would clap during more upbeat hymns. Those moments stand out as the highlights for physical participation in my religious experience. I am intrigued by the ceremonial music of Haiti because of its liturgical design to create ecstatic communal experiences and because, in the vodou tradition, sound and motion are often times as indistinguishable as spirits, the objects of worship, and the humans that summon them.

This particular variety of Haitian music, which I think is called Rada, is performed on three types of drums: Maman and Segon are the pitched conga-type sounds that combine to create the driving melodies as well as the more muffled, peripheral rhythms. The Boula is played with sticks and provide the constantly chugging, clickly ostinatos. The drums are made of wood, animal skin and rope. The ceremony is led by a priest or priestess who sings the cantor parts and a congregation which responds. 

Before anything else, listen to some:


Oguo, as I read on wikipedia, is the spirit that presides over fire, hunting, war etc.

Each piece of music in a vodou ceremony is meant to summon a specific spirit. In any given ceremony, around eight spirits are summoned, one at a time, to appear and occupy the body of one of the practitioners. Once a person is possessed, they no longer have consciousness and move around the room as the spirit guides leads them, interacting with the other practitioners.

Check out a couple of different versions of pieces that are meant to summon Erzulie, the spirit of dancing, love, beauty etc.

Erzulie 1

Erzulie 2

Erzulie 3

Note that there are immediate differences in the words and melodies but a vocabulary of rhythmic variations remains common between all. The melody of the maman and segon drums is the most obvious similarity. This leads me to believe that the beats are somewhat improvised based on a common knowledge of all the possible rhythmic and melodic variations that represent the character of each spirit. 

More stuff:

Agoue 1

Agoue 2

Some of the pieces meant to summon the same spirit bare no detectable (to me) resemblance to each other. Listen to another piece for Ogou

Note the parts of the music where the beat spills into sections where contrasting pulses enter, these parts are often signaled by the priest and are called Kase, and are intended to facilitate spiritual possession. They are cued if the coming of such an inception is detected by the priest or maman player. These rhythms were TOO COMPLICATED for my little brain to figure out, but I’d love to hear some insight from any of you drummers who want to dig into it further.

The music we will be playing on Sunday IS NOT meant to be a recreation of this tradition. It would be downright silly to hope, with just a few weeks preparation, to replicate the depth of feeling that goes into performing this music. The purpose is to pay tribute to the music, get people interested in learning more about it, and hopefully use vodou music as a model to improve our own musical sensibilities especially in regards to rhythm, groove, melody etc. 

How can vodou drumming and singing be translated into an approach for improvising? Listen to it a bunch, soak it in, and recognize the elements of the music that make it powerful: 

-Think of what it means to “start a groove.” I can’t help but feel that, often times, “grooves” are disrespected. The rhythms in Haitian music are felt deeply and basically carry all the weight and represent the unrelenting spirit of a nigh-doomed culture. Be aware of the “power of the groove,” specifically the trance possibilities contained within, and the effect they can have on people. Any acoustic musical sound contains infinite complexities, and a super-happening groove is one of the best vehicles to bring out and get lost in these complexities. It takes time to get to this place, so consider grooving as an end in itself. While being open and free about variations and introducing new layers, also be open to playing repetitiously with a relatively small rate of change.

-Be more intentional about stopping or changing grooves as well, and consider what that means. Vodou drumming illustrates motion, specifically motion of a human body. Listen to the music and imagine the components of the sound as components of a dancer: feet, hips, arms, torso. It makes sense. This music is inseparable from the dancing that goes along with it as part of the ceremony. An interesting exercise for playing this Sunday will be to play rhythmically while being aware or imaginative of the physical motion that the sounds imply. Be aware of the part you’re playing as a specific function to the group as a whole, a leg, a hand, a big gut, or whatever. Not everyone can be the head though. 

-Be aware of rhythmic effects especially of layering contrasting rhythms. Be open to using contrasting layered rhythms as a way to control dissonance and consonance, especially in a situation where pitch and harmony are de-emphasized. Remember that composing a piece of music is nothing more than using sound to create drama, or a series of tension and release at multiple layers of abstraction, that humans understand. Collective, spontaneous composing is possible! but it requires the attention and full participation of everyone included to these types of things.

-Melody. Most of us, coming from a jazz tradition, come equipped with the idea that fitting lots of notes into a small space is a good approach to optimize the dramatic potential of said space. Often times it is. This week, I propose trying to find as much meaning in concision, and being aware of the verbal impact a wordless melodic motive can have. I wish I spoke kreyol, so i could get deeper inside of the literal meaning of the music. However, taking in the sung melodies purely in terms of the emotions that are transmitted to me without words, is still useful to consider. 

This week I encourage everyone to try and separate melodic statements from the scope of what pitch and harmony logically imply. Just think of these statements as communicative, expressive gestures. For instance, think of the interval we know as a minor third and the way it’s presented in a high register, with a sharp timbre, unaccompanied as in the popular child taunt, “Neener, neener neener.” It musically communicates a certain snide playfulness that all of us would immediately recognize. If the same tune was sung with any other interval, a tri-tone, a major third, a minor ninth, the tune would not communicate the same thing. On one hand, it’s hard to tell what we’ve been socially conditioned to think upon hearing “neener neener,” but check this out:

In a relatively high-pitched voice, sing the words “ha ha” in a descending minor third, and consider the sentiment it would express to someone. Now just hum the pitches in the same way. Doesn’t it pretty much communicate the same thing. Actually, now it isn’t packed with Simpsons implications, but it still communicates laughter. Laughing, or “joyful speech” (if I may) is a highly recognizable vocal pattern. Now listen to the opening melodic statement in Agoure (sung by the cantor and repeated by the choir [the part that sounds like “Gen Jay Oh”]) a minor third, high-pitched. To me it sounds like a joyful melody more so than most of the others.

Now listen to this from min:7:30 to 9:00. The brass entrance at 8:35, same interval but this time terrifying. Of course it’s heavily accompanied but imagine the brass alone without the rest of the orchestra, i think it would mean the same thing to me.

There are universally understood meanings that can be expressed with attention to pitch space, range, rhythm, and timbre. This may be too much of a tangent to continue talking about in this post, but if you’d like to dig deeper into the pan-humanistic understanding of melodic gestures, Leornard Bernstein gave a really fascinating series of talks entitled “The Unanswered Question.” There are several pieces on youtube, you can get started here or rent it from Scarecrow if you feel so inclined.

As you may know, the recent earthquakes were not the beginning of trouble for the people of Haiti. Slavery, economic trouble, violence, extreme poverty, starvation, and political oppression, to name a few, have plagued the country for hundreds of years.  Charcoal production and logging have ruined the topsoil and made agriculture impossible. The island has been effectively cut off from caribbean trade routes because of historical violence and political turmoil. Even after the Revolution in the late 1700’s, which was largely driven by the passion for the Vodou tradition, liberated the Haitian people from French colonial rule in 1804, dictator after dictator has still tried to squelch out the folk traditions of the native people. Vodou ceremonies weren’t even legal to perform until the late 80’s! Before that, they existed in secret places late at night, and were often times infiltrated and broken up by law enforcement.

We (Luke, Chris, Kristian, Neil and Evan) will be performing renditions/arrangements of Ogou, Erzulie, Agoue, and Zepol beats/melodies to pay tribute to the incredible, undying spirit of the Haitian people. This Sunday we’ll be collecting donations to send to a relief organization, so save up your allowance, or sell your  Russ Davis rookie card you’ve been holding onto. I also implore you to consider the things I’ve said, immerse yourself in this incredible music, and let it guide your playing this Sunday.

Records to check out on Soul Jazz Records (affordable vinyl, CD and mp3 releases) are:

Voodoo Drums 

Spirit of Life