A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!

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It’s become a tradition here to post a playlist for Halloween so here’s the one for this year, a collection of favourite “voodoo” music. Most are these pieces have as much to do with real voodoo as Bewitched does with real witchcraft but I like the atmospheres of Voodoo Exotica they evoke.

Voodoo Drums in Hi-Fi (1958).
Beginning with some ethnographic authenticity, this is one of many recordings of genuine (so they claim) voodoo drummers from Haiti, and was probably released to cash-in on the Exotica boom of the late Fifties. For the genuine article, the drums here sound less dramatic than the pounding rhythms familiar from Hollywood rituals, but that’s still a great cover. Voodoo Drums in Hi-Fi has been deleted for years but a worn copy of the vinyl release can be found on various mp3 blogs. For a more recent recording of voodoo rhythms, there’s Spirits Of Life: Haitian Vodou on the Soul Jazz label.

Voodoo Dreams (1959) by Martin Denny.
This, meanwhile, is the genuine kitsch from Denny’s Hypnotique album, a slow arrangement of a syrupy Les Baxter tune. More drums and bongos than usual for a Denny piece, and a suitably spectral chorus.

Voodoo (1959) by Robert Drasnin.
When composer Drasnin was asked by the Tops company to get hip to the Exotica craze the result was an album entitled Voodoo (with unconvincingly exotic white people on the cover), from which they released a single, Chant of the Moon, and this track as the B-side, one of the best pieces on the album.

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I Walk on Gilded Splinters (1968) by Dr John.
Mac Rebennack was working as a session musician in Los Angeles when he recorded his debut album in an atmosphere far removed from the swampy New Orleans miasma which the music conjures. Gris-Gris owes a great deal to Robert Tallant’s book, Voodoo in New Orleans (1946), a popular recounting of the city’s occult legends from which Rebennack borrowed not only his new persona (chapter 5 concerns the history of the real Dr John, a 19th century voodoo practitioner) but also many of the transcribed chants which he set to music. In chapter 3 we read this:

A song given to a reporter of the New Orleans Times-Picayune was printed in that newspaper on March 16, 1924. Probably a very old one, it reflects the dominance of the queens in New Orleans Voodoo and boasts of their tremendous power. Originally sung in the patois known as Creole, it is given here in English:

They think they frighten me,
Those people must be crazy.
They don’t see their misfortune
Or else they must be drunk.

I—the Voodoo Queen,
With my lovely headkerchief
Am not afraid of tomcat shrieks,
I drink serpent venom!

I walk on pins
I walk on needles,
I walk on gilded splinters,
I want to see what they can do!

They think they have pride
With their big malice,
But when they see a coffin
They’re as frightened as prairie birds.

I’m going to put gris-gris
All over their front steps
And make them shake
Until they stutter!

Anyone familiar with Gris-Gris will recognise the lyrics of I Walk on Gilded Splinters (misspelled “Guilded” on the sleeve) which Dr John did a great job of fashioning into a classic voodoo song. The entire album might be ersatz, then, but it remains one of my favourites by anyone, and for me it’s still the best Dr John album.

Mama Loi, Papa Loi (1970) by Exuma.
Gris-Gris was too weird to be a success when it first appeared but Dr John’s music and extravagant stage presence were very distinctive and helped Blues Magoos manager Bob Wyld recast singer Tony McKay as “Obeah man” Exuma for Mercury Records. Exuma’s self-titled debut album is ersatz stuff again but manages to sound even more deliriously swampy and sorcerous than Gris-Gris, with jungle sounds, zombie gurgles and a clutch of enthusiastic voodoo-inflected songs. “Mama Loi, Papa Loi / I see fire in the dead man’s eye” he sings here, and for the duration of the album Tony McKay is Exuma.

Zu Zu Mamou (1971) by Dr. John.
After Gris-Gris Dr John gradually pared away the voodoo songs but saved one of the best until his final occult outing, The Sun, Moon & Herbs, which includes contributions from Eric Clapton and, somewhere in the bayou distance, Mick Jagger and PP Arnold on backing vocals. Zu Zu Mamou is the spooky highlight which made a fleeting appearance in Alan Parker’s 1987 Satanic noir, Angel Heart.

Voo Doo (1989) by the Neville Brothers.
Of all the songs I’ve heard which equate falling in love with a voodoo spell, this one from New Orleans’ Neville Brothers is the most evocative, a track from their marvellous Yellow Moon album.

Invocation To Papa Legba (1989) by Deborah Harry.
Yes, it’s Blondie’s Debbie Harry singing a very authentic-sounding voodoo chant, arranged by Chris Stein. This was a one-off which appeared on a Giorno Poetry Systems collection, Like A Girl, I Want You To Keep Coming, along with a William Burroughs reading (a staple of GPS albums), New Order playing Sister Ray live, and other pieces.

Litanie Des Saints (1992) by Dr. John.
Goin’ Back to New Orleans, like Gumbo before it, saw Dr John revisiting the musical history of his native city. Most of the songs are old jazz and blues covers with the notable exception of this opening number, another voodoo invocation. A great string arrangement and vocals from the Neville Brothers; I’d love to hear a whole album like this.

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Zombie’ites (1993) by Transglobal Underground.
Zombies are a voodoo staple despite their current degraded status as the cuddly monster du jour, a development which has made me tire of seeing the word “zombie” in almost any context. A shame because I used to have a lot of time for films such as White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and the later George Romero movies. White Zombie was the first zombie film and stars Bela Lugosi in a weirder and more effective piece of horror cinema than the stagey Dracula which made his name; I Walked With a Zombie was one of Val Lewton’s superb noirish collaborations with Jacques Tourneur; both films have their voodoo chants sampled on this track by Transglobal Underground from Dream of 100 Nations, with the opening chant from White Zombie forming the pulse that drives the piece. Along the way there’s another invocation from Voodoo in New Orleans—”L’Appé vini, le Grand Zombi / L’Appé vini, pou fe gris-gris!”—samples of Criswell from Plan 9 from Outer Space, and a moment of pure bliss at the midpoint when singer Natacha Atlas rides in on a magic carpet made of Bollywood strings.

Happy Halloween! And don’t forget to feed the loas…

Vampire-hunting in New Orleans

Previously on { feuilleton }
Voo-doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
Exotica!
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
A playlist for Halloween
Ghost Box
Voodoo Macbeth

Voo-doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit

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Better late than never mentioning this exhibition which has been running at Riflemaker, 79 Beak Street, London, since mid-January.

The exhibition features those artists, writers and musicians who acknowledge the need to reach a heightened or ‘altered state’ in order to create their work. We look at the mystery of the creative act; not the inexplicable ‘spark’, aka inspiration, but the fire; the non-doing before the doing, the summoning up of elemental spirits from within, or without, during the preparation of some visual or musical work, some theory or idea. This welling-up or ‘possession’, this ‘fever in the heart of man’, this spirit, this spell, might sometimes be referred to as Voodoo.

Among the very varied selection of work the chief attraction for me would be the rare opportunity to see one of Mati Klarwein‘s major paintings, Crucifixion. I referred to this large and detailed picture last year as I was fortunate to be able to use it for the packaging of Jon Hassell’s Maarifa Street CD. And while we’re on the subject of Mr Hassell (who had a track entitled Voodoo Wind on his second album) he has a new CD out on ECM, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street.

Voo-doo runs until April 4, 2009.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Mati Klarwein, 1932–2002
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
Voodoo Macbeth

Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound

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The enigmatic hibiscus: Le Testament d’Orphée (1960).

Here’s a conundrum for you: what connects Jean Cocteau, Ravi Shankar, Doctor Who and March of the Penguins? Read on and all will become crystal clear….

This latest { feuilleton } examination of the byways of musical culture isn’t concerned so much with an individual artist, more with a particular sound. Timbre is the keyword here, usually defined as “the distinctive property of a complex sound”, and my own interest in unusual timbres goes back to a childhood fascination with those corrugated plastic tubes which produce a variable, high-pitched drone when whirled over the head. The principal characteristic of that sound is the purity of its tone, a quality also found in electronic music, of course, but that purity was known hundreds of years before synthesizers in the music produced by glass instruments. This post isn’t intended as a detailed history of the world of glass instruments and glass music, the subject is bigger than you might imagine. Consider this an aperitif, and an account of the solving of a nagging musical mystery.

The conundrum begins when I returned from Paris two years ago with a DVD of Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée, a film unavailable on disc at that time in the UK. The French connection here is an appropriate one, as will become evident. One of the many motifs in the film is the recurrent image of a hibiscus flower given to Cocteau by actor Edouard Dermithe. Cocteau carries the flower with him in subsequent scenes and whenever it’s shown in close-up a peculiar musical signature of three short notes is played. I thought at first this might be an electronic sound but there seemed to be no way to find out for sure. It transpires that the answer was hiding in plain sight all the time but the roundabout discovery has taken me into areas I might otherwise have missed. Whatever the solution, I was sufficiently intrigued to sample it and make it the text (SMS) ringtone for my phone.

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The next piece of the puzzle was also film-related and came with the acquisition of a Ravi Shankar album, Transmigration Macabre. This short work was recorded in 1967 as the score for a British “art film”, Viola, which is sufficiently obscure to be absent from IMDB’s database. The second track on the album, Fantasy, was a revelation; in place of sitar, the whole piece is played on the same instrument which was used to create the Cocteau sound…but what was it? My copy was missing the necessary credits so I was left guessing. Was it some strange Indian keyboard? Something played through a ring modulator? Mentioning this mystery to my good friend Gav—he of the Metabolist vinyl, Igor Wakhévitch albums, vast Jandek obsession, and the only person I know who might care about this kind of pressing issue, never mind be able to solve it—prompted the suggestion that the instrument might be a glass harmonica (below). Well yes and no; the sound of a glass harmonica (or hydrocrystalophone) is close but has a higher register which lacks the depth of the Cocteau/Shankar instrument. Björk used one for a track on Homogenic and as an instrument it’s certainly unusual and fascinating. glassharmonica.jpgContemporary models are based on Benjamin Franklin’s treadle-operated machine which turned the familiar arrangement of tuned wine glasses or “glass harp” (something Björk has also used) into a proper musical instrument. Franklin’s machine uses a foot-powered treadle to turn an iron spindle holding 37 nested bowls; the bowls are soaked with water and wet fingers applied to the bowl edges to create the sounds. The unique timbres produced by the instrument aren’t so surprising to an audience familiar with electronic sounds but were novel enough in the 18th and 19th century to inspire rumours of the instrument causing madness in players and listeners. Wikipedia has a wonderful example of glass harmonica playing which demonstrates its ethereal quality. There’s something very magical about sounds produced by non-electronic means which yet seem so otherworldly; theremins can sound shrill and graceless in comparison. That Wikipedia page also contains the solution to my musical mystery but the answer for me came via a different source.

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left: Structures Sonores No. 4 by Lasry Baschet; right: La Marche de l’Empereur by Emilie Simon.

Discussion of the Cocteau/Shankar question prompted the remembrance of another soundtrack with a similar quality, a theme for a long-running TV programme for British schools called Picture Box. The programme itself was undistinguished (short films from around the world) but Gav and I had always been intrigued by the strange title music which accompanied film of a spinning antique glass case. That title sequence had to be on YouTube, right? Of course it is, together with the reminiscences of people traumatised when they were kids by the “scary” title music. And this was indeed the Cocteau/Shankar instrument! A quick jump to TV Cream supplied the vital details: the theme was Manege from Structures Sonores No. 4 by Lasry Baschet, a 10-inch vinyl release from the 1960s on Disques Bam. So the instrument in question was revealed as—voila!—the Cristal Baschet or Cristal as it’s now known. Sure enough, looking again at the opening credits of the Cocteau film, Lasry Baschet are mentioned for their “Structures Sonores”. Georges Auric is the credited music composer yet having watched the film again recently I noticed brief snatches of Cristal music in two scenes. The Lasry component of Lasry Baschet was Jacques and Yvonne Lasry, two Cristal players and composers, while Baschet was Bernard and François Baschet, a pair of inventors who developed the instrument in 1952. “For 150 years,” François Baschet said in a 1962 TIME interview, “the only instruments that have been invented have been the saxophone, the musical saw and concrete and electronic music. Why?” Why, indeed. The Cristal was one of their answers to that question. Contemporary Cristal player Thomas Bloch describes the instrument:

The Cristal Baschet (sometimes called Crystal Organ and in English, Crystal Baschet) is composed of 54 chromatically tuned glass rods, rubbed with wet fingers. So, it is close to the Glassharmonica. But in the Cristal Baschet, the vibration of the glass is passed on to the heavy block of metal by a metal stem whose variable length determines the frequency (the note). Amplification is obtained by fiberglass cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out metal part, in the shape of a flame. “Whiskers”, placed under the instrument, to the right, increase the sound power of high-pitched sounds.

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A modern Cristal from the player’s side.

The original glass rod “keyboard” was vertical which must have made playing difficult. This was changed to a horizontal arrangement in 1970. It’s the combination of metal and glass that gives the instrument its distinctive timbre, with the large metal amplifying cones adding the tonal richness which the glass harmonica lacks. This page notes its use on the Shankar album and, showing again the attraction for those wanting distinctive soundtracks, it transpires that original Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert had been eager in 1963 to commission Lasry Baschet to create a theme for the BBC’s new science fiction series. The idea was dropped when negotiations proved difficult so Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire (the subject of an earlier post) were called in to create their now famous theme tune.

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Thomas Bloch with one of his Cristals.

The Cristal is still in use today with Thomas Bloch and Michel Deneuve being two of its principal virtuosi. Bloch also plays the glass harmonica and that other fine example of Francophone ethereality, the Ondes Martenot, and has a great set of YouTube performances including this multi-Cristal concert. France is certainly a country which enjoys these kinds of sound and all the main players of the Cristal seem to be French. It’s significant that the sole example of glass instrumentation on Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, a 1996 book and CD documenting unusual instruments, was by Jean-Claude Chapuis, another glass virtuoso who also plays the Cristal. It’s significant too that the Cristal is most widely-known for its use in soundtracks. This is often the fate of new or experimental instruments; Oskar Sala’s Trautonium is permanently linked to Alfred Hitchcock after it was used to generate some of the sounds for The Birds. And I was reading recently about the Hang, a metal bowl used by Cliff Martinez in his score for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Emilie Simon‘s marvellous, award-winning score for the original (French) release of March of the Penguins (2005) featured Thomas Bloch playing his Cristal, glass harmonica and Ondes Martenot. (Simon’s score was deemed by Hollywood to be too weird so the film was re-scored for its American incarnation.)

All this Cristalography leaves little room for an examination of other glass musicians or music, some of whom are considerably more avant garde (and often less harmonious) in their approach. As I said, it’s a big field but mention should at least be made of The Glass World of Anna Lockwood (1970) (later Annea Lockwood), a collection of atonal scrapes, shrieks and clangs produced by various pieces of glass, including wine glasses. Then there’s Angus Maclaurin’s excellent Glass Music (2000), a unique work which Pitchfork called “an album of beautiful claustrophobia”. And Harry Partch, of course, with his Cloud Chamber Bowls. Lastly, minimalist composer Daniel Lentz wrote a stunning wine glass composition, Lascaux, which has recently been reissued on CD. An earlier version of that piece required the glasses to be filled with wine, not water, and for the players to drink the wine at various moments during the perfomance; this would alter the sound of the instruments and affect their playing.

Much of this activity, you’ll note, is lodged firmly at the “serious”, classical end of the musical spectrum, despite the efforts of Björk and Damon Albarn (a Cristal fan apparently) to broaden musical horizons. We’re still awaiting the Joanna Newsom of the Cristal, someone who can take the instrument as their own and lift it away from the classical repertoire and the realm of soundtrack novelty. Throw away your guitars, boys and girls, the crystal world has much more to offer.

Thanks to Gav for his invaluable record collection and assistance with this piece.

Further listening:
Difference Tone: A Cristal Concert | Streaming audio at the Internet Archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A cluster of Cluster
Max Eastley’s musical sculptures
The Avant Garde Project
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode
Chrome: Perfumed Metal
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis
The Ondes Martenot
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau
The music of Igor Wakhévitch

The Séance at Hobs Lane

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Séance, 2001 version.

Drew Mulholland, aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab (also Mount Vernon Astral Temple and Black Noise…), has joined forces recently with the masterful Ghost Box collective, purveyors of finely-crafted and frequently creepy electronica. MVAL’s 2001 release, The Séance at Hobs Lane, is now Ghost Box release no. 9 and comes repackaged in their Pelican Books-derived livery. Inspired by (among other things) Quatermass and the Pit, Séance makes a good companion to the creepiest of the Ghost Box releases to date, Ouroborindra by Eric Zann. Further points us to Mark Pilkington’s 2001 interview with MVAL for Fortean Times.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
New Delia Derbyshire
The man who saw tomorrow
A playlist for Halloween
Ghost Box

Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove

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Do Wah Nanny by Exuma (Kama Sutra LP, 1971).

I came down on a lightning bolt
Nine months in my Mama’s belly.
When I was born, the midwife scream and shout,
I had fire crystals coming out of my mouth.
I’m Exuma, I’m the Obeah Man!

So you’ve listened to Dr John‘s Gris-Gris over and over and become addicted to its swampy, voodoo-inflected psychedelia. Where to go next? Dr John’s subsequent career isn’t much help even though he dallied with voodoo themes on his next couple of albums; nothing there quite achieves the distinctive flavour (dare we say “gumbo”?) of his first album. Praise Dambala, then, for Exuma, whose career was launched on the back of Dr John’s success but who often manages to sound more “authentic” (whatever that means) than the New Orleans maestro. These are recording studio confections so authenticity doesn’t really enter into it even though both artists strive to sound like feathered and beaded voodoo-priests lifting the curtain on their spooky rituals.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was one of the first to go this route in the 1950s, albeit in a more comical fashion, with I Put A Spell On You (1956) and the very swampy Alligator Wine (1958). The latter wasn’t written by some chicken-sacrificing Baron Samedi but by Leiber and Stoller, a pair of Jewish boys in New York City. Mac Rebennack also started out doing rock’n’roll novelty records, among them Bad Neighborhood by Ronnie & the Delinquents and Morgus The Magnificent by Morgus & the 3 Ghouls. His new persona of Dr John (full designation: Dr John Creaux, the Night Tripper) was taken wholesale from Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans (1946), a book which features a chapter detailing the exploits of the original voodoo chieftain of that name, and whose text includes a number of the songs and chants (including the classic I Walk on Guilded Splinters) adapted by Rebennack for Gris-Gris. His debut album sounds like it was recorded in some deconsecrated church in a New Orleans swamp but was actually created between very mundane pop sessions at Phil Spector’s Los Angeles studio with other session musician friends. Which brings us to Exuma. But who was Exuma? Perfect Sound Forever asked the same question:

Who was Exuma?

• He was a spirit who came from a planet, now extinct, brought to us on a lightning bolt, who had communed with Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx and Vodun priests. When he informed the world of his travels and even warned of Armageddon, he left the Earth, perhaps tiring of the corporeal and moving to the ethereal.

• He was born McFarlane Anthony McKay on Cat Island in the Bahamas in the early 1940’s. He then relocated to New York, to study architecture at the age of 17. He ran out of money for his studies and in 1962, participated in folk music hootenannies. Gaining confidence, he started a group called Tony McKay and the Islanders. He also was in a show called A Little of This ’n’ That in 1965, along with Richie Havens.

• He was a marketing nightmare. Who knew how to peg him? Finding his records has never been an easy task. Often, through dint of color, he was placed in the Soul or R&B bin, even though his music, while soulful, does not belong in either. When his first album was released in 1970, there were sections for music of other countries, however, since he lived in New York and recorded for Mercury, it may have looked out of place there. His music was not Ska or Reggae. He was a contemporary of Bob Dylan’s and Peter Paul and Mary, even playing the Café Wha? and the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, but his music wasn’t quite from the same branch of Folk singing as Dylan, Woody Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. His albums couldn’t be placed in Rock; besides, who would get it if it was put there?

All of the above answers are, in varying degrees, “correct.”

Continues here. Typically with fugitive culture of this kind there isn’t much information around but there’s another appreciation of Exuma’s talents here. As with much black music there’s a political dimension also, despite the magickal doodlings. On Fire in the Hole from the second album, Exuma sings “You can’t build a nation off of bloodshed and expect the blood not to stain the land.” The reference originally would have been to the Vietnam War but that line and others can’t help but have a resonance today.

McFarlane Anthony McKay left the planet Earth in 1997 but happily his early albums are all available on CD. If you’re feeling unfulfilled by current servings of musical minestrone get yourself down to the swamp for a dose of gumbo, authentic or not.

Exuma (LP Mercury 1970, CD TRC 1993)
Exuma II (LP Mercury 1970, CD TRC 1993)
Do Wah Nanny (LP Kama Sutra 1971, CD Castle 1993)
Snake (LP Kama Sutra 1972, CD Castle 1993)
Reincarnation (LP Kama Sutra 1972, CD Castle 1993)
Life (LP Buddah 1973, CD Castle 1993)
Penny Sausage (Inagua 1980)
Going to Cat Island (??)
Universal Exuma (??)
Rude Boy (ROIR 1986) (originally released as Street Life)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis
A playlist for Halloween
Ghost Box
Voodoo Macbeth
Davy Jones