Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crossposting from Ile Oxumare: Galaxy Around Olodumare

Here's an essay, with a compilation, I posted on one of my music blogs earlier this year.

Where does it come from? What is the source of inspiration for the music we love? Those of us who speak about "spiritual jazz" or "cosmic jazz" what are we talking about: I mean if you play John Coltrane's "Ascension" backwards do you hear the Lord's Prayer or something? These are bigger questions than I can answer, but here's a contribution to the discussion.

In the traditional religion of the Yoruba peoples of West Africa, Olodumare is one of the names of God. Olodumare is found in the patterns of the natural world. By discovering these patterns, by finding one's own identity and destiny in these patterns and rhythms, adherents seek to live the best and most spiritually fulfilled life possible. Key to finding, experiencing and understanding these patterns are divination and music. Through music and divination it's seen as possible to petition the divine world for help and advice in the material world. Helping human beings along the way are the orishas, "gods" if you will, personified forces of nature and humanity that can guide, assist, and open--or close--the paths along the way. There's Obatala, the mountain orisha of wisdom and creativity. There's Yemaya, the ocean orisha of motherhood and familyhood. There's Ochun, the river orisha of love and money. There's fierce Chango, the thunder god of dance and power. There's Babalu Aiye, the orisha of sickness and health. There's Oxumare, the orisha of the rainbow. There's Elegba, the trickster orisha best invoked at the beginning of all undertakings who lives at all crossroads both real and metaphorical.

You're not interested in an obscure African religion? Well here's the thing. The religion of the Yorubas was brought to the new world in the bellies of slave ships. In some places like Cuba, like Brazil, it survived and metamorphosed into the religions of Santeria and Candomble. In Cuba, for example, the songs and rhythms of Yoruba religion gave birth to Afro-Latin jazz. It's plain to see in the instrumentation, the rhythms themselves, and in the occasional mysterious chant surfacing at some point of musical intensity. In other places, like the U.S., traditional African religion buried itself deeper in the subconscious. The Lutherans and the Episcopalians might sing some pretty hymns, but it's in the singing and footstomping and more ecstatic musicality of churches rooted in Black America that the rhythm, the divine pattern of Olodumare, survived.

One of the gifts of our current age is the accessibility of knowledge, and with this knowledge comes awareness, and with awareness comes incredible cross-polination of experience and ideas. Once upon a time--and not so long ago in a historic sense--in the US people had to play drums in secret, out in the woods, at night. No longer. Today everything is connected.

But if, in a much more secular world, the patterns are sometimes harder to see, it doesn't mean they're not there. Today we have space telescopes searching the stars for signs. And you know what they have found? The pattern. Ancient cultures revered the spiral as a mystical symbol: endowing tiny creatures like snails with spiritual meaning. Pretty interesting that those fancy telescopes show the stars themselves arranged in spiral galaxies of unconceivable enormity, eh? When you stare up at those amazing stars that sense of wonder that becomes a kind of spiritual reverence, that's the same moment that so-called spiritual jazz seeks to reproduce on a much smaller, more immediate scale.

Which brings us to this compilation.

These are songs (mostly but not entirely influenced by Latin jazz) bringing the pattern back around. The songs here all contain elements of traditional Yoruba religion--most filtered through its Cuban/American form; all are either instrumentally based in traditional sacred songs or contain vocal sections using Lukumi, the form of Yoruba language that survives in the new world.

This is not particularly roots music. These songs make use of all the evolved musical gifts: western harmonies, developed jazz rhythms and structures, and even an accessibility from funk and pop. The traditional marries the new, and the pattern survives, expanding and growing, like the spiral galaxy itself. The old deities of a traditional religion make new appearances as their names and prayers echo in a newly updated sound. This compilation is not meant to convert you to an obscure religion, but to give you a glimpse at the pattern that makes enjoyment of music a passion with an undeniably spiritual nature.

The title of this compilation takes its name from a composition (not included here) by Alice Coltrane, who spent her life looking for the pattern in her own way. The cover image is an antique wooden "Opon Ifa," or divination tray, from West Africa; the center cut away to reveal the stars.

If you like this music, click on the labels below for more compilations by me, and more music posted on this blog by some of these musicians. A majority of the songs here are taken from albums still in print, so if you like something you can also go out and buy it!

This compilation, with details of track listings and download links, can be found in its original posting here.

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