Friday, August 29, 2008

Possession (pt. 3)


In Greek antiquity, Aristotle observed that "enthousiastic" melodies (associated, as their name indicates, with possession) used the (ancient Greek) Phrygian mode exclusively. The Phrygian mode was said to originate in Phrygia, a kingdom in what is now modern-day Turkey. Also, the aulos was regarded as the instrument specific to Dionysian ecstasies. It was a flute-like wind instrument, which also was seen as coming from the Phrygian kingdom. The music of Dionysian ecstasy was regarded as coming from Phrygia.

Gilbert Rouget in "Music and Trance": "It was indeed from Phrygia (or Thrace, but in any case from Asia Minor) that the Dionysus cult spread (...), or, as the Greeks themselves believed, that it originated. We are therefore justified in saying that, although Dionysian music was Phrygian in instrumentation and mode, it was not because the musical characteristics of this instrumentation and mode in and of themselves (that is to say, their particular timbre or set of intervals) were thought to have any remarkable effect on triggering trance, but rather because they were the clearest sign of Dionysus' identity. This would in any case concur with the general logic of possession. For in fact what is possession other that the invasion of the field of consciousness by the other, that is, someone who has come from elsewhere? Insofar as he is the other, Dionysus is at the same time an elsewhere. This is how he was thought to be, and how his music was experienced. In Dahomey, people of Gun or Fon origin speak Nago when they are possessed by a vodun of Nago origin. Elsewhere, people who ordinarily speak a given African language talk in Arabic if the spirit possessing them is thought to be of Arab origin. When she was possessed by Beelzebub, Jeanne des Agnes spoke, it is said, in Hebrew (...). What is true of speech could also be true of that other language, music."

Rouget's analysis puts in mind Michael Taussig's 1986 ethnography "Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing". In the book, white colonists visiting Indian shamans to be cured of the sorcery believe that the 'wildest' Indians, those Indians who live in the most geographically remote region, have the most powerful healing capabilities. The Indians on the other hand visit markets in Colonial towns to buy 'exotic' Western European grimoires. Here too, the magically powerful Other originates from the mysterious "elsewhere".


So what about the music of Mark Stewart, whom Mark K-Punk described as a man possessed, as "a shell and a conduit which other voices, outside forces, (...) occupy.". K-Punk dic not examine too closely which voices, which forces Mark Stewart channels: Stewart's loa was cursorily described as "...rage and utopian longings...". This raises the question: where, for Mark Stewart's, is the "elsewhere" that haunts him?

Even if the sources of inspiration for his music are diverse, Mark Stewart's first "elsewhere" is no doubt Jamaica: possessed by the dubby or duppy ghost, the Caribbean island's music has thoroughly invaded his field of consciousness.

"Dub arose from doubling—the common Jamaican practice of reconfiguring or "versioning" a prerecorded track into any number of new songs. Dub calls the apparent "authenticity" of roots reggae into question because dub destroys the holistic integrity of singer and song. It proclaims a primary postmodern law: there is no original, no first ground, no homeland. By mutating its repetitions of previously used material, dub adds something new and distinctly uncanny, vaporizing into a kind of doppelgänger music. Despite the crisp attack of its drums and the heaviness of its bass, it swoops through empty space, spectral and disembodied. Like ganja, dub opens the "inner door." John Corbett even links the etymology of the word "dub" with duppie (Jamaican patois for ghost). Burning Spear entitled the dub version of his great Marcus Garvey album Garvey's Ghost, and Joe Gibbs responded to Lee Perry's production of Bob Marley's "Duppie Conqueror" with the cut "Ghost Capturer." Perry described dub as "the ghost in me coming out." Dub music not only drums up the ghost in the machine, but gives the ghost room to dance." (sourced here).

It should be noted though that Rastafarianism - unlike many Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodou - is not a possession cult. As far as I am aware, there are no rituals in Rastafarianism in which, during trance, the subject is thought to have acquired a different personality: that of a god, a deity, genius or ancestor who takes possession of the subject, substitutes itself for him, and acts in that subject's place. Furthermore, alcohol, which has an important role in many Afro-Caribbean possession rituals, is tabooed under Rastafarian food laws (I-Tal).

"[Rasta] has little in common with Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria or the other Africanised remixes of Catholicism. Instead of a panoply of spirits, Rasta has just the one God, the stern patriarch of the Old Testament - not someone with whom you can cut deals, as you can with voodoo's loa. If anything, Rasta is Afro-Protestant, sharing with mainland America's fundamentalists an emphasis on close reading of the scriptures and a millenarian belief in an End of Time whereupon the righteous get transported to the promised land." ("Tangets #2. Back To The Roots", by Simon Reynolds, Wire, September 2000).

Nevertheless, in Rastafarianism communion or 'communial trances' do play a role. "Rasta mystical experience emphasizes the possibility of the immediate presence of Jah within the "dread," or "God-fearer." God's presence brought on an understanding of the fundamental unity of all humanity, expressed in the pronoun "I&I" (which can mean I, we, or even you, with Jah present). Discerning the will of God is an almost Talmudic process, achieved through night-long "reasoning" sessions, part theological debate, part prayer meeting and meditation, which lead to an "overstanding" (rather than understanding) of the truth through union with Jah." (sourced here).

In fact, one of the most common Rastafarian rituals involves reading a chapter of the bible everyday. The version most commonly read is that of King James. The Rastafarians claim, however, that King James distorted the true content of the bible party because of his inability to translate the Amharic Ethiopian text accurately, and also as a deliberate ploy to perpetuate the suppression and oppression of the black race. So, although the bible is read and venerated, the Rastafarians only choose to read those passages which they ‘intuitively’ feel are correct.” (sourced here).

Many tenets of Rastafarianism, such as the I-Tal diet and the wearing of dreadlocks, are the result of an at once inspired and paranoid reading of the Scriptures, the result of a Ganja-entranced communion with Jah.

Employing Rouget's typology of types of mystic trance, we can describe Reasoning as a mystic religious practice in which "... the relation between divinity and subject is seen as an encounter which, depending upon the individual, is experienced as a communion, a revelation, or an illumination." For Rouget, this type of non-identificatory mystical trance is possession without the embodiment of the deity. Other examples of such non-identificatory possession are the (Protestant) Shakers of Saint Vincent in the Antilles, the Dervishes, the Schlustes (a Russian sect of dancers and flagellants) and the Camisards.


Mark Stewarts music can be described as a non-identificatory possession, directed not at communion with Jah but at communion with the Thatcherite Great Britain of the 1980s, at communion with the Babylon that Rastamen denounce.

Using his politically militant music his to reveal the Western world as a greedy, proto-fascist, paranoid, surveillance-obsessed society, Mark Stewart's use of Dub is informed by late-1970s Western interpretation of Jamaican culture:

"Reggae fans, black and white, (...) looked to the music for "a solid foundation" (as the Congos sang it), for certainty and truth, militancy and motivation. 'Roots rock rebel' neatly condenses how Jamaican music was seen both by rock and by reggae itself. Reggae was anti-imperialist: Rasta's Pan-Africanism connected with the period's post-colonial struggles (...). Reggae was anti-capitalist (...). And reggae was anti-fascist, (...) bringing radical chic to countless student digs with its poster iconography: Peter Tosh, a Che Guevara with natty dreads and black beret; Medusa-headed spiritual warriors Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Culture; Steel Pulse preaching about "Handsworth Revolution"." (from: "Tangents #2: Back to the roots", Simon Reynolds, Wire, September 2000 issue)

Stewart's mid-1980s music also looks forward to the mid-1990s discourse on Dub: "For simplicity's sake, this cluster of ideas can be described as the Afro-Futurist discourse, but it actually has multiple facets: dub as deconstruction (of the song, of the metaphysics of musical presence); the producer as mad scientist, dark magus, shaman, trickster; the 'Macro Dub Infection' notions of dub as post-geographical virus and of dub's sonic instability as an education in 'insecurity'." (ibid.)

Mark Stewart's image as a paranoiac can be compared to Lee Perry's image as a 'mad scientist', a madness which in the 1990s was exalted in terms derived from Deleuze and Guattari's "A Thousand Plateaus". Like Perry, Stewart has been portrayed in the press as being dangerously paranoid, and rumours abound as to "no-shows" at On-U Sound concerts being due to hospitalization. In a 1988 article in NME, the artist was presented as suffering from delusions:

"Sure enough our conversation slid rapidly into the realms of the bizarre. 'Of course I know people who are under surveillance,' he claimed at one point, getting up to close the door, 'I'm under surveillance because my Dad has Grade A security clearance and access to uranium.' You mean you're being watched? 'I'm not under surveillance,' he countered, donning a pair of mirror shades, 'I'm a vegetarian'. Looking straight over my shoulder, he laughed with a sudden, unexpected burst."

Mark Stewart's music interrogates his socio-cultural environment like a Rastaman interrogates the Scriptures: in a state of bleary-eyed Ganja-induced paranoid trance, finding unorthodox meanings occulted behind conventional signs. But where Rastafarians unearth the law of Jah in the Bible, Stewart uncovers the secret workings of Babylon in British society, a society which is nothing more than an cancerous outgrowth of the military-industrial entertainment complex; where Rastafarians find ‘a solid foundation’, Stewart finds semiological quicksand, seeing signs and portents which make him suspect the pavement on which he walks hides concrete bunkers; where Rastafarians expect the End Times to bring a repatriation to the Promised Land of Ethiopia, Mark Stewart anticipates - even desires - a nuclear Rapture.

Like Rastafarian Reasoning, Stewart's music conflates several semiological genres in a musical montage: his work is part political harangue, part invocation of the military-industrial complex and part divination aimed at discovering cryptic/encrypted knowledge by the entranced interpretation of the urban environment. Concealed beneath the city streets Stewart sees a veritable labyrinth of missile silos, blockhouses, ventilation shafts, corridors, and "...cathedral-like vaults with hydraulic platforms resembling Piranesi's prisons, endless concrete galleries leading to vertical shafts and even further galleries (...)" (from here).

The concrete bunkers which Mark Stewart knows beneath the city streets are his second, his true 'elsewhere'.


Here is a trailer for a documentary on Mark Stewart,"ON/OFF: Mark Stewart - from the Pop Group to the Maffia" by Tøni Schifer. The DVD will be released by Monitorpop in october/november 2008.

No comments: