Music and Trance – What are the relations between music and Trance in the Palo Monte and Santeria cults?
- by Jean-Luc Jossa, Codarts Rotterdam Latin Percussion, 2007
Thesis-counselors: Eli ´t Hart and Oscar van Dillen
Since I have started playing Latin Percussion, I have always been interested in afrocuban folklore, especially Bata drumming. During a trip to Havana/ Cuba, I had the opportunity to attend several ritual ceremonies of the Santeria and Palo Monte religion. In the Santeria rituals, called Tambores de santo or bembé, Bata drums were played and prayers to the Orishas were sung in order to call them. One lead singer called Akpon introduced the song and everybody responded. People were dancing for their gods and at a certain point some of them reached a state of trance. Their eyes became wide and they started trembling: the Orishas had not only taken control of them, the subjects in question were the Orishas. The energy that came up was incredible! In the Palo Monte rituals, there were no Bata drums played, but Cajones and an iron bell. This time their songs were not for the Orishas, but for the Egúns- the ancestors that were to come and possess the mediums. The energy and the symptoms of trance were similar to those in Santeria. These experiences were really fascinating and impressing to me and therefore I want to dedicate this work to the subject of music and trance.
The phenomenon of trance state, in association with music, appears in almost every culture. Taking a closer look to this subject, we will see that „the relation between music and trance couldn’t be more changeable or more contradictory. In one place music triggers it; in another on the contrary it calms it. Among certain people a musical instrument is said to produce this effect, whereas among others it is the human voice. Some subjects go into trance while dancing, others while lying prone on a bed.“ ( Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance, introduction. Rouget is honorary director of research at the centre National de la Recherche)
This subject is weigh to vast to consider all its forms and faces, so the main question I want to discuss in this work is the following:
- What is the relation between music and trance in the context of the Palo Monte and especially in the Santeria religion?
I want to analyse, if music can cause trance or an altered state of mind of the listener as well as of the performer.
- As long as we choose to consider sounds only through the commotion they stir in our nerves, we will never have the true principles of music and its power over our hearts. (J.-J. Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages)
What is trance?
„It was apparently spiritism that first gave the word „trance“ the meaning it currently has today in the anthropology of religion. It was used in the late nineteenth century to denote the state of the medium when depersonalized, as though the visiting spirit had taken him or her over.“ 3
Definitions of trance
I collected several modern definitions of the term trance, to get an idea about the miscellaneousness of this word.
Macmillian English dictionary for advanced learners: 1a: state caused by HYPNOSIS in which someone can move and speak but is not conscious in a normal way: put somebody in / into a trance. Her psychiatrist put her into a deep hypnotic trance. 1b: a state you are awake but not really conscious of where you are because you are thinking about something else: He came out of his trance and greeted me.
2. A type of DANCE MUSIC with fast regular beats and electronic sound effects that developed from TECHNO in the early 1990s
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company:
- A hypnotic, cataleptic, or ecstatic state.
- Detachment from one’s physical surroundings, as in contemplation or daydreaming.
- A semiconscious state, as between sleeping and waking; a daze.
- tr.v. tranced, tranc·ing, tranc·es
- (Middle English traunce, from Old French transe, passage, fear, vision, from transir, to die, be numb with fear, from Latin transire, to go over or across; see transient)
Trance is a state of mind in which the attention of a person is focused so much on inner processes, that the contact to the direct environment is extensively restricted. States of trance are not only connected to an altered function of the brain. They also affect the circulation, the resistance and the hormonal system of the body.4
As we see, there are various forms and interpretations of trance. In our context we speak of a spiritual trance. This specific kind of trance appears in a ritual context, where dance and music is involved in order to put a medium in a state, so that spirits and gods can manifest themselves and speak through it.
Trance and Ecstasy
Gilbert Rouget points out the difference between Trance and Ecstasy. He comes to the conclusion, that the two states could be compared in the following brief outlines:
- No crisis
- Sensory deprivation
- in company
- sensory over stimulation
- no hallucinations5
I will not consider the phenomenon Ecstasy in this work. And if I use in this work the term ecstatic, it refers to trance, because there is no adjective for it. In a religious context the term possession is often used to refer to trance.
Principal symptoms of the trance state
There are a few signs, which can be considered as general symptoms of the manifestation of trance. Hereby I give a list of some of the main symptoms:
…trembling, shuddering, horripilation, swooning, falling to the ground, yawning, lethargy, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, protruding eyes, large extrusions of the tongue, paralysis of a limb, thermal disturbances (icy hands despite tropical heat….)insensitivity to pain, tics, noisy breathing, fixed stare,…6
Where and when does trance appear?
Widely spread throughout the world, possession in its cultivated forms is associated everywhere with music and dance. Be it in the cults practiced in the People´s Republic of Benin, in the Haitian Voodoo, in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, in the ndöp cult of Dakar/ Senegal, or in the various Asian cults- to name just a few, trance is often regarded as the direct result of music and dance. We are therefore faced with the problem of understanding the origin of this power, so frequently accorded to music, of triggering possession trance.
„Lastly, trance as an event, is linked with the successive stages of a ceremony, and does not occur at just any time. A possession ritual is an architecture of time also composed of various phases connected with different kinds of music. It is thus within the dynamics of the ceremony that we need to consider the relations between music and trance.“ 7
I am thus going to examine the various factors connected to the phenomenon of trance, according to the cultural and religious backgrounds and circumstances.
Palo, or Las Reglas de Congo are a group of closely related denominations or religions of largely Bantu origin developed by slaves from Central Africa in Cuba. Other names associated with various branches of this religion include Palo Monte, Palo Mayombe, Brillumba, and Kimbisa. The word “palo” (“stick” in Spanish) was applied to the religion in Cuba due to the use of wooden sticks in the preparation of the altar. Adherents of Palo are known generally as “Paleros”or “Nganguleros”. Membership is by initiation into a “house” or “Temple”. The organizational structure follows the model of a family. During slavery when blood families often were broken up by slave holders, this model was particularly significant and taken literally.
Palo has its roots in the Congo basin of central Africa, from where large numbers of African slaves were brought to Cuba, and to the colony of Santo Domingo, the present capital of Dominican Republic. Accordingly, a great part of Palo Monte’s liturgical chants and invocations are in a mixture of the Spanish and Kikongo languages, other influences being introduced through their presence in Black Spanish-speaking Latin America.
Belief System and Rituals
The Palo belief system rests on two main pillars: the belief in natural (“earth”) powers, and the worship of the spirits of the ancestors. Natural objects, and particularly sticks, are thought to be infused with powers, often linked to the powers of spirits. These objects are known as “nganga” and are the ritual focus of Palo’s magical rites and religious practice. A certain number of spirits called Mpungu inhabit the Nkisi (sacred cult objects, also spelled Inquice, Inquise, and Enkisi). Mpungu are well-known in name and deed, and are venerated as gods. They are powerful entities, but they are ranked below the High God Zambi or Nzambi.
The main worship and practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as a Nganga or Prenda. This is a consecrated vessel filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), human remains, and other items. Each prenda is dedicated to a specific spiritual Nkisi. This religious vessel is also inhabited by a muerto or spirit of the dead (almost never the direct ancestor of the object’s owner), who acts as a guide for all religious activities which are performed with the Nganga.8
The music of Palo Monte
Here I have to state the difference between the rural and the urban form of Palo. In the rural areas of Cuba, Palo- and Makuta- (and also conga-) drums are used, while in the urban areas such as Havana, there is made use of Cajones, which are wooden boxes used as drums. The Palo drums are called –from the lowest to the highest (or speaking in terms of size- from the biggest to the smallest): Caja- Mula- Cachimbo.The caja, in its function can be compared to the Iya of the Santeria drums. It is in direct communication with the subject going in trance (but not when playing Rumba). In addition there is a cata, a piece of bamboo which is played with sticks, a pair of claves and a guataca, an iron bell. And there is a lead singer intoning the chants, responded by all the people present, functioning as chorus.
The rhythms of Palo Monte
In Palo Monte they play rumba, which actually is a secular rhythm, but it is accompanied by special chants. This is usually played to start the (musical part of the) ceremony. Then, two other rhythms which are really “congo” are played: makuta and palo. Makuta is a 4/4 rhythm in a medium to fast tempi while palo is a 6/8, usually played fast.9 I will see the Palo Monte and Santeria religions as similar, speaking in terms of relation between music and trance. I will therefore keep my main attention to the Santeria religion.
The origins of the Santeria religion, or Regla de Ocha, lie in West Africa. The worship of the Orishas (deities of the Yoruba pantheon) came to Cuba during slavery time (18th and 19th century). The region where these slaves came from was known as Yorubaland, today’s south western Nigeria and a part of Benin. In Cuba, slaves from different regions with different languages where mixed in order to complicate the communication and to keep them apart. But nevertheless it was impossible to separate them completely, and that is how slaves started to reconstruct their ancestral cultures and religions, in which dance and music played an important role.10 Since this is not a theological study, I want to keep the focus on the musical aspect of the santeria religion and give only a brief description of how it works.
The Santeria has a pantheon of about 21 Orishas, each of them having certain powers and characteristics. To worship their gods, they have special rhythms and songs played for each Orisha. These rhythms are played on the Bata Drums. During their religious ceremonies, the Orishas manifest themselves through mediums. These are Santeros, which go in trance. In this state of trance, the medium is possessed by one Orisha, which speaks through the subject or in other words: the medium is the Orisha.
- List of Orishas
Elegua – Ogun – Ochossi – Obaloke – Inle – Babalu Aye – Osain – Osun – Obatala – Dada – Oggue – Agayu – Ibedyi – Orunla – Orisha Oko – Chango – Yegua – Oya – Ochun – Yemaya – Obba – Odduddua
The Music of Santeria
In Santeria, two main musical setups are used. In a tambor, three Bata drums are played and the lead singer plays a rattle. In a guiro, three shekeres a conga drum and an iron bell are played as well combined with the same songs. There are as well Bembé drums being used. The bata drums are considered the more sacred drums and are used for all the important ceremonies. I will therefore focus my attention on these drums.11
Different sections of a Santeria ceremony
A Guemilere or Toque de Santo can be held for different reasons. It is held to celebrate the sacred day of an Orisha, to celebrate the anniversary of an individual´s initiation into Santeria (called birthday party), to honour the Orisha of one´s elder in the religion, to express gratitude to an Orisha for a special benefaction that has already be granted or to tribute the Orisha in anticipation of some future benevolence.12 The sections of can be differed as Oru Seco, Oru Cantado, Iban Banlo and Cierre.
The tambor or güemilere, starts with the Oru Seco originally called Oro del Igbodu. In the ancient land of Yoruba Igbodu was the place where the priests received the oracle. In Cuba it is the area of the room set aside as the shrine for the Orisha and used during a ceremony13. In the Oru seco there is no singing. Usually in this part, the drummers only are gathered around the shrine, playing the salutes to each Orisha.
The second part of the ceremony is called Oru del Eya Aranla, which means “ceremony of the main room” 14In this part is accessible for everybody. The lead singer, called Akpwón, leads this section of the ceremony. All the participants together build the chorus, or Ankori. This musical form, where lead singer and chorus take turns is called “antiphonal”15. There is a more or less fixed order to praise the Orishas. This order can vary from house to house. In Havana, the order depends from the “school” that you play and in one neighbourhood or area they play a different order that in another. But it always starts and ends with Elleggua. Some of the toques of the Oru Seco are equal to the Oru Cantado and there are parts of certain toques that are played as independent toques in the Oru Cantado and the Iban Balo.
The transition from the Oru Cantado to the Iban Balo proceeds without break. For us this is the most important part of the ceremony because if people get possessed by Orishas it happens during this part of the ceremony. The Akpwón is leading the Iban Balo. He has to control the musical flow by choosing the right songs in order to provoke the appearance of the Orishas. This part is more open in terms of order and length. I want now to describe the procedure of this part of the ceremony. The drummers and the lead singer are sitting at the back of the room and the devotees are dancing in front of them. Usually, when a song for “their” Orisha is played, the adepts come to the front and touch the bata drums with their heads. Like this the spirit aña, which is in the drums, will recognize their orisha. Often the ones who attempt to go in trance smoke a cigar and drink rum. These are special items that are to favour the saints. If an orisha comes down, the energie level increases and at one moment the drums will stop. The possessed is then brought to another room and vested in the colurs of his Orisha. When he comes back he dances his (the Orishas) characteristic dance. I will treat the dancing factor in a separate chapter. I am going to cite Joseph M. Murphy who describes the moment where a devotee goes in trance and gets possessed by Oshun.
“The music seems to be coming from inside [the dancers] as if by their movement they were liberating the sound from within themselves. One woman in particular is carried away by this energy, and others begin to channel theirs toward her. The dancing circle clears for her alone, and the drums focus directly on her. Her eyes are closed, and she is whirling and whirling. She bumps up against the human ring that encloses her and gently rebounds back to the circle’s centre. The call and response between soloist and congregation has become tighter and more intense. For each praise name of Oshun, the ile immediately responds esho, “hold”: hold the rhythm, hold the orisha, hold the whirling dancer. Then, with a sharp slap from the iya, she falls to the ground. The drums are silent, and the room echoes. Three santeras help her up and begin to escort her from the room. As she parts the crowd, she is clearly a different person. Her eyes are open now and gigantic, their focus open to the whole world. Her face is illuminated with an enormous smile, and she moves her shoulders and her hips with sensuous confidence. Oshun has arrived. […] A few minutes later, the embodied orisha returns resplendent in a gold gown. Her hair is long and unbound, and, like a true African, her feet are bare. She shows the same magical smile and unearthly eyes. The drummers begin her praises, and all join a litany of her praise names. She dances her acceptance of these with grace, and even blows kisses to her votaries. Her dance is sensuous and sweet, moving from deep down her spine.“16
Cierre means ending in Spanish. So this is the final part of the ceremony. It is similar to the Oru Seco but now the eguns (spirits of the ancestors) as well as the Orishas related to death are saluted17. Eleggua is honoured at the beginning and end of all ceremonies. This ensures his blessings upon the event and guarantees that normal order is restored, allowing the participants to safely return to their homes at the evening´s conclusion. This sequence of events ensures that the Orishas end their possessions.18
The Bata Drums
A set of Bata consists of 3 double-headed drums shaped in the form of an hourglass. They are usually made out of cedar or mahogany wood. Each drum is carved out of one piece of wood. The biggest in size with the lowest sound is called Iya (mother), the middle drum is called itotele (from atele- “the one that follows19) and the smallest with the highest sound is the Okonkolo. They all have a defined function. Basically the master drummer plays the Iya, which leads the rest of the ensemble and has the longest and most complex rhythms. The master drummer has the most freedom to do embellishments and he as well plays the llamadas (calls) for the Itotele. The Itotele player has to be extremely alert. He has to perceive variations of the Iya, and calls that need to be answered. This means that the Itotele player has to know the language of the Iya in order to hear and react to the calls. The function of the Okonkolo can be considered as the timekeeper but it is also rounding out the melodies created by the tree drums. Its rhythmical patterns are the most straight and often emphasize the metric pulse. The okonkolo player is more restricted to the basic pattern and not as free to play variations but there are several Toques (rhythms), which allow him to do so. Again it is about knowing the language and knowing where to speak. I have seen okonkolo players who literally made a poem out of their playing. The three drums differ in sizes and pitches as well as the skins of a drum do, because of the shape of the drum. Here I have to point out, that there are two different sets of Bata drums: the baptized drums, that have fundamento de santo, or aña, also called Ilu Aña, and the non-baptized drums called Aberikula (not initiated). The major difference is that the Aberikula cannot be used in religious ceremonies. The fundamentos de santo underlie a special ceremony during their construction, where a mystery called AÑA is put inside the drums.
In a guiro or bembé, three chekeres, an iron bell and a conga drums are played. While the bell and each chekere keeps a more or less steady pattern, the conga drummer is improvising. He is placing phrases between the singing. The language of the conga drum definitely descents from the bata drums.
The Music of the Orishas
As important as the rhythms are the songs performed for the Orishas in order to call them. Each santo has special songs and toques played for him. When the Akpwón (lead singer) is introducing a certain song, the master drummer has to react quickly and call in the rhythm that belongs to the song. During a ceremony, when an Orisha comes down to manifest itself through a medium, the Akpwón has to know which songs to intone. In trance, the subject is not the same person anymore, but the very Orisha himself. And the Orisha has to be kept happy or to be smoothened. The Akpwón can do this by choosing the right song which, as we know, has direct consequences on what the drums play. It also needs to be mentioned that the Bata drums are actually speaking tongue. As Fernando Ortis writes: “The three Bata “hablan lengua” (speak tongue), using the tonal values characteristic of the languages spoken in the African towns from which the slaves were brought to Cuba. The Bata express themselves in Lucumi language, and their notes, like syllables, taken from the vibrating skins of the drums, come out, in order like sounds in a series, to form the words.” The six skins of the drums can perfectly imitate the tonal Yoruba language. Yoruba speakers have three basic pitches and glide between them. Depending on the pitch, one word can have many different meanings. This is also the way the Bata talk. 20
Who makes the music and in what state is he?
In a ceremony, there are two kind of musicians that act. On one hand we have the tamboleros (drummers) and the Akpwón, who are especially trained and professionals. They are hired and get payed for performing in the ceremony. The drummers have to be initiated into Aña and receive the spiritual power in order to play the sacred drums during a ceremony. They are then called Omo-Aña, son of Aña. Women and homosexuals are never allowed to play the sacred drums. And one the other hand we have the people attending the ceremony, which are responding to the Akpwón by singing the coro (choir). The tamboleros and the lead singer cannot be possessed. This would be incompatible with their function because they are responsible for the course of the ceremony and are the pillars of the ritual. The musicians can of course reach a state of very great overexcitement and a kind of altered state of mind, but this should not lead us to confuse inspiration with trance.
When they attempt to trigger the trance state, the musicians enter into a very close contact with the possessees. Not only are they communicating through words and rhythms and dance movements, but also at a personal level, the emotional level of direct person to person relationships. The power that the musicians have over the possesses is not entirely due to their talents; it also stems from the instuments they play, or rather, from what these instruments represent. In the Orisha cult, “the drums are very much respected, for they are not just musical instruments. They are seen as being the voice of the gods themselves; through them one summons the gods and, at the same time, replies to them.”21
Music and Dance
We saw that the ones being possessed do not make music during a ceremony- but they dance. Dance could be considered as even more important than music since the possessed is dancing and the Orishas manifestate themselves through dancing. In addition, music is largely played for the purposes of dance. A theory of the relations between dance and possession is thus as necessary as the one I am writing about. But this would go beyond the scope of this work and since dance is not my domain, I leave this theory out.
Nevertheless it is necessary to consider certain facts, which include dance.
We can distinguish between to types of dance, which are involved here. We can term abstract dances, whose function is to trigger trance and figurative dances (or mimes), whose function is to manifest the possession state. In our case, abstract dance consist of repetitive movements, which help gaining the trance state. The figurative dance shows the characteristic movements of each Orisha. The movements of the dances are the same motions associated with the orishas for thousands of years. As with the rhythms played on the drums, each orisha has its own dances: Yemayá’s dance emulating the motion of the waves, Ogún’s chopping with his machete, Shangó cracking his axe, to give just a few examples. It is as well a fact that, in trance, people (for example elders) are capable of extreme physical efforts, which they never could do in a normal state.
We can thus say that, in possession, dance is a representation of the gods, but because of its physical exercise, it is, above all, communication- with oneself and with others.
Initiatory Trance and Music
We have to know that during their initiation phase, the santeros “receive” their saints. They are said to be seated in their heads. As well the santeros are “trained “ to go in trance. But the very word initiation almost inevitably implies secret. This is why we are, as a rule, badly informed. Nevertheless it is known that initiation last a period of about three months, but the most important stage consists of a three-week period of confinement. During this time the novices live in a state of consciousness completely different from the one usually considered “normal”. Rouget characterizes these states by two distinct aspects: the ere state and the santo state. We speak of the state of santo (saint), when the novice is possessed by a divinity. This state never lasts more than a few hours. Since it is extremely tiring physically and it is impossible for the novice to take nourishment, it is necessary to put him/her in a different state called ere. (Cossard, 1970, 167) This is a kind of semi-possession, a less violent state of trance. This very state is as well obtained after a ceremony. It could be considered as an intermediate state between the possessed stage and the normal stage. It is in this ere state that, when the mind of the novice has been washed clean of all previous memory, that the orisha´s particular rhythms, songs, dances and all the gods forms of behaviour will be engraved in him.22
So we see that there is a phase in which the santero is in a trance without the triggering of music. We can resume that this initiatory phase is a kind of training to go in trance.
Musical characteristics that appear in trance music
It is often taken for granted that when the music reaches its climax, this would be the moment where possession starts. But this is not the case. In fact, the moment of the possession can be at any time of the Iban Balo part of the ceremony. It is though a fact that if a devotee shows sings of being possessed, the musical intensity rises and volume and tempo increase. The possessee shows “who he is” by the characteristic dance movements of his Orisha. Then the Akpwón and the drummer know which songs to play in order to welcome the Orisha and to smoothen and honour it.
Another characteristic is the repetitive nature of the rhythms. But possession music does not operate only by means of repetition and accumulation. The musical mottoes are melodic or rhythmic statements, and consequently temporal forms. They are capable of being varied an ornamented. In the course of a ceremony they follow one an other and thus form sequences that should be seen as the multiple ways of renewing and developing musical time, which preserves its unity all the while since the pieces following one another belong to the same genre. By thus transforming our awareness of time and space, in different ways, music modifies our “being-in-the-world”. The state of affective resonance that certain kinds of music create in any individual is another aspect of the change it creates in the structure of consciousness. Nothing is more laden with emotional associations than music, nothing is more capable of recreating situations that engage ones entire sensibility. It induces the individual into a state in which both his inward feelings and his relations to the outer world are dominated by affectivity. Music modifies thus – profoundly and in several dimensions- the consciousness we have of ourselves in relation of the world.23
Percussion and Drums- what are their effects on our minds?
It seems quite obvious that percussion instruments, in particular the drum, seem to have a powerful effect on us. For several reasons the drum is surrounded by a particular aura that not only the devotees of certain cults, but as well science lends it very special powers. The often explosive and violent nature of its sounds and the frequently dramatic use to which it is put, indisputably confer to the drum a particularly strong emotional impact. Its sound can be a truly aggressive force, and its vibrations-as we are going to see- can have almost concrete consequences. If, to use Rousseau´s terms, there is one instrument capable of “shaking our nerves”, then it must be the drum. Moreover, it is also the instrument par excellence of rhythm, and therefore of dance. Needham (1967, 607) comes to the observation that “All over the world… percussion… permits or accompanies communication with the other world”. The problem, according to him, is to discover what the exact relation between the concept of spiritual existence and this “non-cultural affective appeal of percussion”. After observing that “there is no doubt that sound waves have neural and organic effects on human beings, irrespective of the cultural formation of the latter”, Needham adds that of all sounds, those that produce the greatest effect of this kind are those obtained by percussion, since percussion involves the “foundation of aurally generated emotion”.
Referring to the triggering of trance in Haitian voodoo, which is extremely similar to Santeria, Needham claims that it results from disturbances caused by the sound of the drums “in the inner ear, an organ which modulates postural attitudes, muscular tonus, breathing rhythms, heartbeat, blood pressure, feelings of nausea, and certain eye reflexes.”24 Or as Sheila S. Walker (1972, 17-24) writes in her chapter about the neurophysiologocal aspects of possession: “The most fundamental element of possession is the presence of neurophysiological changes, and these era most frequently produced by a sensory bombardment, usually in the form of the sonic driving of the drum rhythms.” Eventhough these are considered as facts, the “why” of the relation between percussion and transition remains open. We see thus that there is some kind of an effect caused by the rhythms and the sound of the drum. In order to find an explanation of the relation between the ritual music of santeria and the triggering of trance, we must consider the neurophysical aspect without going to deep into medical science.
A neurophysical Theory on the effects of Drumming
Given the present state of our knowledge, there is no valid theory to justify the idea that the triggering of trance can be attributed to the neurophysiological effects of drum sounds. There is a doubtful, rather pseudoscientific theory by Andrew Neher, claiming this very effects of drum sounds but it does not stand up to examination.25 This does not mean that drumming is never responsible for entry into trance, it means only that when it is responsible it is so for reasons of another kind.
The conditioned reflex
There is another theory – that I partly support, which we owe to the research and work of Herskovits. This idea is based on considering the mechanism of entry in trance as a conditioned reflex that is due to a musical stimulus. Basing on Herskovits who thought of reinserting the trance phenomenon into the general system of religious representations, we are able to say that possession trance should be viewed as a normal state resulting from apprenticeship to a cultural model, itself largely determined by history. Herskovits based his general interpretation of possession as it can be observed in the Brazilian candomblé. As the candomlé and the santeria have the same origins and developed similarly I will take over this theory and apply it on my research on santeria. Herskovits writes: “The psychological process we have in view is that which is very clearly defined by the expression “conditioned reflex”, which means that every time a specific stimulus is applied, there is a corresponding reaction, the individual having been accustomed to behave in this way in response to an agreed-upon signal. There is nothing abnormal in this process – quite the contrary, since it represents the psycological level at which a large part of our existence is lived. Now let us imagine a person who has been brought up in a cultural environment in which there is a profound belief in divinities, and in which he has been taught since childhood that he will receive, or be capable of receiving, one of these divinities; that these deities are summoned by the intermediary of specific drums rhythms and chants, to which they respond by descending upon the heads of those chosen to serve them. There is a good chance that, in the presence of the stimulus constituted by all the factors of a given situation conforming to the indications I have just given, the response will not be long delayed, and that possession will take place.” (Herskovits 1943a, 25)
This perfectly fits with what I wrote in the chapter about initiatory trance and music. We can assume that in this phase of initiation – by means, which are not clearly known, that those “reflexes” are being trained and conditioned. There is only one problem in Herskovits´ theory as Bastide claims. He says that the music does not inevitably lead to trance because the same rhythm that one day of ceremony will produce a possession in an individual, will produce nothing if he hears it outside this context. This means that the hearing of a particular rhythm is not a physical but psychic stimulus, associated with a certain day and a certain place. It is also necessary for the initiate to have his body purified in certain herbal baths. A set of factors, regulated by society, must all be presented together otherwise the music will have no effect at all. As Bastide writes: “It is not a stimulus (music) that determines trance …it is the total situation that acts…it is the total situation that causes music to lead to trance. It is for “conditioned reflexes” that, once initiated, the adept can go into trance again upon hearing certain musical Leitmotifs.” 26
This leads to raise the question if it is legitimate to speak of conditioned reflex in these circumstances, since either it is one, in which case it ought to occur in response of its stimulus in any situation, or else the stimulus sometimes does not obtain a response, in which case it is not a reflex of this type that is involved. The question is important, since it involves the level of consciousness at which the mechanism of entry in trance operates. It may thus be better not to speak about a conditioned reflex since the triggering of trance by music is subject to so many restrictions. We could say that rhythmic motifs played on drums are the basis of “a sort of conditioned reflex” acquired during initiation. Or as Jaqueline Monfougat-Nicolas says: ”The music does not induce the trance itself but the form it must take.” 27
In my inquiry, we have thus seen that a number of favourable conditions must be present in the induction of possession trance. We have learned that initiation plays a major role in the process and that the course to be able to get possessed is set in this period. We have seen that the use of percussion instruments and drums, with their repetitive rhythms combined with singing have an effect on our minds. We have discussed the physical effects of music on the inner ear. We have as well taken notice of the importance of dance in relation to trance. In the last chapter I have analysed the conditioned reflex, which to a certain degree explains the phenomenon of possession trance. We have seen that the social and cultural aspects, the belief system and the ritual concept are of importance and that the trance state is very much sought-after by the adepts of the cults in discussion.
To conclude, I tempt to say that we can sum up that music, words and dance create at the same time a great “physical effervescence” (Rouget, p. 317), which creates psychophysiologocal conditions apparently very favourable to the appearance of trance.
Music alone has may not have the power to put people in a possession trance, but is an indispensable element in the Santeria and Palo Monte cults. Nevertheless I claim that music has a great force of whatever magnitude and that there remains something magic about it.
- Yuka Drums (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Cajon (http://esquinarumbera.blogspot.com)
- Palo Shrine (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Bata Drums (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Bata Dums (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Guiro Ceremony (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Shekeres (http://www.folkcuba.com)
- Tamboleros playing the sacred batá drums (http://www.latinamericanstudies.org)
- Ellegua dancing (http://www.earthcds.com/galleries/cuba)
- Bembé Drums (http://www.kabiosile.org)
- Ochún, Agayú and Changó (http://www.kabiosile.org)
Bibliography (in order of appearance)
- Rouget, Gilbert (1985) Music and Trance- A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession. The University Of Chicaho Press
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1781) Essay sur l´origine des langues. Edited by C. Porset. Bordeaux: Ducros, 1970
- Macmillian English dictionary for advanced learners
- The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company:
- Jeanne Schmartz (2006), Eleggua, Who Is He? What Music Is played To Honour Him? Codarts, Rotterdam
- Amira & Cornelius (1992), The Music of Santeria, Gilsum: White Cliffs Media Company
- Schweitzer, G.K. (2003). Afro Cuban Bata Drum Aesthetics. Doctor Dissertation, Univertsity of Maryland
- I am Time (1997), Cd Booklet
- Verger, P. (1967) Trance and convention in Nago-Yoruba spirit medium-ship.
- Needham, R. (1967) Percussion and transition. Man, n.s., 2:606-16
- Walker, Sheila S. (1972) Ceremonial spirit possession in Africa and Afro-America. Leiden: E. J. Brill
- Neher, A. (1962) A physical explanation of unusual behaviour in ceremonies involving drums. Human Biology 4:151-60.
- Bastide, R. (1955) Le principe de coupure et le comportement afro-brésilien. Anais do XXXI congr. Internacional de americanistas, pp 493-503. São Paulo.
- Herskovits, M. (1943a) Pesquisas etnologias na Bahia. Bahia: Museo d´Estado
- Monfouga-Nicolas, J. (1972) Ambivalence et culte de possession. Paris: Édition Anthropos
- Rumba/ Palo – extract from a Cajon ritual in Havana/ Cuba; recorded by myself in 2004
- Makuta – idem 1
- guiro – “Ebioso” : Cardona, Milton (1985). Bembé (CD) American Clave B000005A2M
- Tambor – “Changó” : idem 3
Author and License
- This thesis is writen by Jean-Luc Jossa
- Text is released under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0
Jean-Luc Jossa is a percussionist from Luxemburg. He studied latin american music at the CODARTS conservatory in Rotterdam and while travelling to Cuba (Havana)and Brazil (Rio de Janeiro & São Paulo). He performed with different international artists and bands in Luxemburg, Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy, England and Canada. Jean-Luc is currently living in Berlin working as a freelance musician.
more information on http://www.myspace.com/jeanlucjossa