There is something outrageous about music that relies on disequilibrium. It is at once the most inclusive and alienating, it is vibe without cognition, it relies heavily on audience to reach transcendence. That’s immediacy. That’s primary source.
Nathaniel Mackey has a “preoccupation with origins”. (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 6) He uses language, the musicality of language, and the musicality he can impose upon a violent lexicon to seek out the alchemical moment when “source” becomes “re-source,” (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 6) rather than an atavistic dreamscape of syncretized religion and partially digested stones. Mackey invokes the names of Haitian Voudou deities and spirits, recapitulating their identities to address their induction into constantly evolving, geographically diverse populations of the faithful. His “Ghede,” for example, has a stockpile of signifiers, monikers chosen for him according to his potent if frequently dubious behavior. This reflects, of course, the traditions of Voudou spirits, whose personalities were much more like the gods of the Ancient Greeks than the Christian saints with whom they are aligned. Ghede is a sort of Chiron figure, who controls access to the underworld, who is also known for his dancing, his clown-ish antics, and his propensity to joke around. He is decidedly neither good nor evil, but is merely amused by human beings. He is the last hope of the dying, and the last to attend, in black, their ceremony. (http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/voodoo/shortlist.htm). This, however, is just one, summerical version of “Ghede.” There are many iterations of him, and he himself is many and of many. Mackey manipulates that multiplicity with keen awareness of its cause, as well as something seemingly akin to glee. Ghede is powerful. Ghede is divine. But this Ghede is as coarse as he is irreverent, his own multivalent identity exposing his inexact origin, and thus his mutable allegiances.
While extolling the virtues of his “medicinal dick” (“Ghede Poem”), the giddy spirit refers to “the untranslatable shouts of a previous church.” This phrase seems to dexterously encapsulate the spiritual angst of syncretized religion. The “previous church,” the first, ancestral channel of faith, is forcibly inaccessible to those who practice its New World iterations. The words, the spaces, the ceremonies, were all destroyed or irrevocably severed from their practitioners. All that could be carried was preserved; what could be preserved was music.
In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 6,” Mackey provides a passage from William R. Bascom, an American folklorist and anthropologist in the mid-twentieth century. In his study of “Cuban Santeria,” Bascom observes that the primary spiritual force of the “santos” resides in the stones central to the ceremony, the most powerful of which “are said to have been brought from Africa by the slaves, who concealed them in their stomachs by swallowing them.” (“Song of the Andoumboulou: 6”). The source of divine power and the resource for its invocation and religious use, exists in these stones carried over the Atlantic–surfaces eroded and warped by stomach acids but indigestible to the last, shrunken (they could not have started too big either to be swallowed), weighty and diuretic, and agonizing in their bodily transport. A stone cannot be assimilated into the body wholly and must be ejected, naturally, violently: something akin to a birth. This still-birthing process is a visceral enactment of syncretic religion in the New World–carried painfully in the blood and organs of practitioners under the most extreme and abject conditions a human body can be exposed to. These variant and complex religious frameworks were forced to take root across hemispheres and islands, while those who practiced them were barred by law from language, ceremony, history, and family. What Mackey knows and gives us in his poems is a feeling toward what could have and has remained. That’s rhythm: music, stones, and faith.