What is culture that we can both own it and be possessed by it? What kind of entity is it that can be constitutive and yet exchanged, shared yet, at times, inaccessible?
Roger Abrahams's oeuvre has been characterized by the examination of the impact of human performance on forms of sociality. While acknowledging that forms of human expression are deeply embedded in and informed by the past, Abrahams never loses sight of the power of individual creativity to transfigure historical trajectories. In much of his work this interest takes the form of an analysis of intra-cultural differences and intercultural similarities, the tensions between cultural homogenization and the distinction-making processes that characterize modernity and late capitalism. Tracing influences from Africa to the Caribbean to the Philadelphia streets, Abrahams elucidates how culture transforms (creolizes, hybridizes) while still remaining recognizable.
This paper is a small contribution to the abiding interest in cultural transformation and transmission bequeathed to me by Folklore Studies, and, in particular, by the work of Abrahams. It is an example of how history informs cultural expression and how actors - in this case, musicians who because of processes of slavery, found themselves in North Africa and North America - reconstruct history.
What does it mean to possess culture? What is possessed? Who is the owner? How is ownership declared, recognized, and experienced? In what follows, I explore the metaphor of possession as it relates to cultural knowledge, aesthetics and experience. Being "possessed by culture" involves us in discussions of second nature - the way culture inhabits us tacitly; "possessing culture," on the other hand, elucidates the way culture and cultural traditions are objectified, imitated, commodified, and exchanged. Although analytically separate, these two modalities are not mutually exclusive; indeed, culture may possess us like a spirit, voicing its own desires, at the very moment that we seize it and make it our own. Likewise (and again, drawing on analogies with spirit possession), we may be possessed by voices just as we may dominate, appropriate and revoice them. In these few paragraphs I meditate on how hybrid cultural imaginations, spawned largely through processes of transnationalism, are authored and how they, in turn, come to inhabit us as if possessing independent agency. In so doing, I hope to contribute to discussions of how different histories (in this case, racial and musical histories) come into contact, inhabit each other, producing heretofore unimagined "links" in the global imagination, new genealogies that create possible futures.
A Context for Discussion
Last summer I found myself in Tangier, the northern-most Moroccan city that juts out of the African continent towards Gibraltar and Spain, separating the Atlantic from the Mediterranean Sea.1 I was there to visit Abdullah El-Gourd, a master Gnawa musician. The Gnawa are a black minority population in Morocco who came as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa mostly in the 15th and 16th centuries, bringing with them the practices of spirit placation and healing through music and trance. I had met Abdullah when he was on tour in the United States with African-American composer and pianist, Randy Weston and his ensemble. The two of them had been collaborating for thirty years, ever since Weston visited Tangier for the first time in 1969, when El-Gourd was still an electrical engineer for Voice of America radio broadcasting, then based in Tangier. As a m'allem, or spirit master, Abdullah El-Gourd is unique in that he not only leads a ritual life in Tangier, but has an active professional relationship with Weston, who also lived in Tangier in the late sixties and early seventies. While there, Weston had a music club called "African Rhythms," frequented by people like Evelyn Waugh and Paul and Jane Bowles, but also by Moroccan musicians and literati. Although he left in 75, Weston has continued playing with the Gnawa in international venues, and with Abdullah El-Gourd in particular. I was in Tangier to understand how these two men, their two musical traditions and their histories intertwined. I wanted to understand how Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston, while each possessing their own relation to slavery, music and innovation, came to be possessed by a historical narrative that animated and defined them both. Walking up the steep steps from the Tangier port and entering the narrow streets of the medina, I found the house quickly. It was indistinguishable from the others. It wasn't until I entered that I found the sign designating the location. "Dar Gnawa," it said, "Commemorating the Memory of God's Mercy" (dar gnawa tuhiyyu dhikra at-tarahhum).
I was not prepared for what I saw at Dar Gnawa. El-Gourd had transformed his traditional medina ryad into a museum of sorts, an institute for the instruction, practice and promotion of Gnawa culture. There were displays of musical instruments - traditional Gnawa instruments like the three-stringed gimbri and metal castanets, or qraqab; but there were also an African djembe drum, a conga drum and a Hammond B3 organ. The walls were covered with photographs. "These are the ancestors," El-Gourd said to me, motioning to the walls. There were pictures of Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, Dextor Gordon, Thelonius Monk, Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Copeland, Ben Webster, Archie Shepp, and, of course, Randy Weston, who himself was surrounded by pictures of the old Gnawa masters, Ba Hmid and Ba Mas'ud.
"How is it that African-Americans jazz legends come to define the ancestors in Dar Gnawa?" I wondered to myself. Certainly both commemoration and memory were created and displayed here, as the sign said. But of what and for whom?
The soundscape at Dar Gnawa was equally enigmatic. Music blared from a stereophonic system on the second floor, filling up the entire house with sound. Instead of Gnawa music, however, El-Gourd was playing the Malian duo, Amadou and Miriam. This he followed with selections from a compilation of Latin salsa music, which he then followed with some of the more experimental music of Randy Weston, particularly a cut on which Pharoah Saunders screeches on his horn.
"Welcome to Dar Gnawa," Abdullah El-Gourd told me several times, smiling and proud, as I acclimated myself to the surrounds.
"What's this?" I asked, pointing to a large, hand-written poster with lists of names in Arabic.
"That's the progression of the Tangier possession ceremony (treq lila)," he told me, "from beginning to end." Abdullah El-Gourd had written down the names of all 243 songs in the Gnawa spirit-propitiation ceremony. To my knowledge, it was the only documentation of its kind of a ceremony that had, until Abdullah, been transmitted orally.
Abdullah El-Gourd is what von Sydow would call an active tradition-bearer. Indeed, Dar Gnawa is a salon that is open everyday from five to nine where young Gnawis come to apprentice themselves to the master. Abdullah El-Gourd is extremely articulate about the preservation and transmission of Gnawa culture. On the bottom of his chart, for example, he had written the words: "The Way of the Gnawa: The Ancestor's Heritage composed and ordered by Dar Gnawa for [its] preservation from dust. For all koyatis [Gnawa dancers] and Gnawa lovers." Abdullah was preserving this tradition for both cultural insiders and outsiders.
The exhibits at Dar Gnawa are an unusual representation of Gnawa culture - one that is malleable and inclusive of other influences. It is impossible to apply terms like "pure," or even "authentic" in this context. Dar Gnawa is an edifice of hybrid creation in which El-Gourd re-writes the links in history that account for a notion of "culture." Through these displays, Abdullah Al-Gourd has come to possess the until-now oral cultural history of the Gnawa in sound, image and word, but he is also possessed by these media of documentation; they inhabit and determine him in ways that both grant and deny him agency.
Metaphors of Possession
Spirits in Morocco are called al-mluk - the possessors, from the verb ma-la-ka, to own. There is a relationship of power within the body of the possessed, which is often a conflictual one until the possessed submits to the possessor. Spirits cannot be exorcised in Moroccan belief. They inhabit the host. Indeed, a possessed person is said to be meskun - inhabited by the possessors. The body becomes a residence in which the spirits dwell and that they also change irreversibly. This is why propitiation is so important. If the body is not a welcoming host, the tenant will cause troubles for a lifetime. Conversely, by placating the spirit, one also partakes in his or her power. Accommodation is necessary for co-existence, but the possessed person is not diminished by being inhabited; she may even come to master the spirits that reside within her.
There are two ways to interpret the verb "to possess". A spirit possesses another, one is possessed by an incorporeal being, who animates the limbs, causes the mouth to move, the vocal chords to sound. Colors are often related to states of possession, auras appear; incense, or at least certain smells accompany the transition from being one's self to being embodied by a spirit, "inhabited" (meskun) by an other. This relation is a corporeal one, the senses, their synapses and responses, are infused with difference, like barium shot into the blood stream, the body becomes magnetized, transparently dense. Possession requires an alchemical reaction, a transmutation of subtle and dense matter as two different substances encounter and change each other. Culture inhabits us in similar ways. It lives within the confines of our flesh like a second nature.
But one can also possess culture like one possesses a car, a coat, or a pet. This relation involves an exchange - money for goods in the case of an object, or food and shelter for affection and companionship. Possessing an object does not require the possessor to be reflexive and conscious of her possessiveness. To possess culture, however, is often qualitatively different. In order to possess culture - to really "own" it, own up to it - one must "come to terms" with it, that is, one must create the terms of culture, to define it, to be self-possessed, to be possessed by an idea of culture. As numerous studies have demonstrated, culture is embodied, imbricated in the layers of the self. It thus must be excavated from the veins and sinews of the body, drawn out and made into a specimen. Culture, because it lives in the unconscious recesses of the nerves and organs, comes to light when it encounters difference - as when liquid hits air, or water turns to gas.
This story is a result of such an encounter - between Gnawa master Abdullah El-Gourd, the proprietor of Dar Gnawa (the House of Gnawa), and African-American jazz pianist and composer, Randy Weston.
Dar Gnawa and the Revoicing of History
The history of the Gnawa is largely oral. Apart from a few books in French, there is hardly any scholarship on the Gnawa at all. Even the slave records from that time period are difficult to access. Unlike other Sufi-influenced groups in Morocco - like the Aissawa, for example, or the Hamadsha - there is no shaykh who has left writings, not even any oral hagiography that is passed on from generation to generation. The transmission of Gnawa culture has been in the gestures, movements and attitudes of the body possessed. And in the musical and aesthetic repertoire, of course. The history is in the voiced songs - all 243 of them. But even the songs themselves do not recount stories. There is no narrative line in the lyrics, only invocations to the different saints and spirits recognized by the Gnawa - Sidi Bilal, Abdelqadr Jilani, Sidi Musa, Lalla Aisha, Si Buhali, others. The names of these spirits are repeated over and over, their qualities praised, their aid solicited. The spirits of the ancestors are still alive. Why then would they need to be conjured in books when their presence is conjured regularly in the bodies of the entranced? As philosopher Edward Casey reminds us, the body remembers the past as a form of presence. Body memory experiences the past as co-immanent with the present. By dancing to the spirits, moving to their dictates and rhythms (as Barbara Browning demonstrates in her book on Samba), history is embodied and made to live in the present.
Abdullah told me that one could not just decide to "become" a Gnawi. A Gnawi endures a long process of induction, initiation and instruction. On the other hand, he said, there are people who are linked, martabit, to saints and spirits of the Gnawa pantheon. The word in Arabic comes from the root ra-ba-ta, to be linked or tied. Randy Weston, said the m'allam, came all the way from Brooklyn martabat, or linked to the spirit Sidi Musa and to the color blue. We know Sidi Musa as Moses, who delivered the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt and into freedom. When I asked Randy Weston if he remembered his first encounter with Sidi Musa he said, "Yes, I remember very wellIt was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life. I had an experience really African. I heard the string instrument out front. Like having an orchestra and having a string bass as the leader. And I heard the black church, the blues and jazz all at the same time. I really realized that we're just little leaves of the branch of mother Africa."
There are links between the pantheon of spirits in Morocco, who, like Sidi Musa, are ancestors, and the ancestors of jazz. One clear contiguity is between the slaves that went to the Americas and those who stopped earlier in the journey, at the tip of North Africa. Commenting on the lack of a written record of history, Abdullah El-Gourd told me that the slaves in Morocco would go through the city singing certain songs, songs known only to them, in order to be reunited with their loved ones that had been separated from them in slavery. "There were no telephones, then," he said joking, "no portables" (or cell phones). Slaves had their own language in song. When they would come into a new city, they would sing the songs, trying to find their own." Songs served as auditory icons of identity, as sound "links". Weston found such a link to Africa in Morocco.
For Weston, Africa is the source (to invoke Abdullah El-Gourd's term), the birthplace, the mother of all traditions. Encountering Sidi Musa was also an encounter with the great jazz masters, however. What's more, it was an opening into a different mode of being in the world. "When I heard this particular Sidi Musa, after the ceremony I was in trance for about a week. And when I say trance, I was functioning I was moving, but the music took me to a very high level, it took me to another dimension"
There is an inversion, as well as a complementarity to the way Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston define and pay homage to the ancestors and, by extension, to tradition. Both acknowledge the source in Africa itself - Abdullah El-Gourd by invoking the m'allamin, the early Gnawa masters that left their legacy to the present in the bodies and songs of those who possess tagnawit today, and Randy Weston by making frequent reference in his performances and presentations to mother Africa - the place - also defined as the "source" of musical and spiritual tradition. When I asked Randy Weston, for example, what he found so powerful about Moroccan Gnawa music he responded, "It's like after being away from your parents for a long time, your mother and father, whom who love very deeply. And you know they are there, but you may never see them, or maybe you have seen them but you've been away a long time, when you do see them and you realize that what you have they gave you, you become very humble" For Randy Weston, however, Africa becomes the primary place of return, whereas for Abdullah El-Gourd, at least in Dar Gnawa, the ancestors that crossed the Atlantic become primary symbols of genealogical display. These ancestors - African-American jazz men - are, we can postulate, just as tied to Africa (martabtin) as Mr. Weston himself - possessed, or inhabited by the spirits of Africa who know no spatial limitations, who don't recognize borders, who are, in effect, outside of time. "You can't say that the mluk, the owners or spirits, were once alive and are now dead," the m'allam once chided me. "No! They were alive and are still alive today, baqi hayin heta lyum, huma m'a-nah, "they are with us." The spirits corporealize in different forms and bodies, but the spirit of Sidi Musa, for example, animates and literally inspires - breathes life into - the jazz music of Randy Weston just as it animates the ritual music of Abdullah El-Gourd.
Inhabiting History The exhibits at Dar Gnawa remind us that we inhabit history differently. Sometimes we are in possession of our narratives, and sometimes they possess us. Certainly the question of power and agency arises in relation to these voices - though it would be facile to assume that being possessed by a spirit, a culture, a genre of music, an image or an idea necessarily implies domination by the same. Rather, we must analyze the relations of desire inherent in these (subjectifying and objectifying) encounters and the way cultural forms inhabit bodies and imaginations in different degrees of depth and compatibility.
Dar Gnawa exhibits not only the process of being possessed by several cultures somatically, but it also makes claims to the possession of culture, objectifying a notion of Gnawa identity in a very particular way. Interestingly, however, the production of difference at the site of the local in Dar Gnawa has created a construction of similarity at the level of the global, the intercultural collaboration of Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston emphasizing the links of common history and a system of shared aesthetics. Abdullah El-Gourd's genealogical claims to authenticity encompass much more than a single trajectory, going back to the Moroccan masters who taught him, but also to the masters of jazz in the United States. There is no essentialism here. Rather, identity is a matter of "links" that are not spurious but determined by the possessing spirits, a kind of elective affinity. Some people are linked to the spirits and color of blue, others to red, green, white, yellow, black. Affiliations are determined by desire, by the attractions that some spirits have to some people. Identity is not in the blood so much as it is in propensity.
The Gnawa have always experienced otherness in the bones, so to speak. Theirs is a hybrid tradition, composed of a diverse pantheon of spirits with whom they have a corporeal and spiritual relation. They are used to this relation to multiplicity. For them, it is not unusual to give passage to a different modality of being, or for a possessing spirit to reorient one's sense of taste, touch, smell, one's way of hearing and speaking, singing and moving, even one's way of interpreting the world. This is what it means to inhabit a realm that includes not only human beings but the mluk, the possessing spirits, whether they are saints who were once embodied or spirits who have always lived in a parallel realm. The Gnawa and their followers are adept at this kind of habitus exchange. Perhaps this is why their display of culture is so inclusive of other traditions: they recognize and respect the state of being possessed by difference (with all the power relations that implies), while nonetheless never losing the ability to return to the cultural self as they themselves define and "come to terms" with it.
Spirits inhabit our bodies, whether it be the spirit of Thelonius Monk or Moses. They take root not just in our consciousnesses, but in the muscles of our fingers as we imitate their key strokes and movements, in our breathing patterns as we sway to their rhythms, their particular beat (dukka). We taste them in the infusion of odors that they demand be released into the air. We breathe them in. Sometimes they cause us to expire, but always to experience, in Randy Weston's words, "another dimension." The same is true of cultural imaginations. Cultural memories live in the body as presence. We are possessed by the repetitions that we perform each day, by the sounds that reside in our soundscape. But we are also always involved in the coming to terms with cultural identity, the codification and objectivization not only of other cultures, but of our own. Embracing this dual possession of culture, both Weston and the Gnawa participate in a global economy of aesthetic tastes and styles, while creating a particular relation to history and the ancestors. To quote novelist Michael Ondaatje, "Jung was absolutely right about one thing. We are occupied by gods. The mistake is to identify with the god occupying you."2 I suggest that we not only identify with the gods occupying us (and they are many), but the gods themselves change names, genders and demeanors as they encounter each other in the bodies of their moving and mutable hosts. Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston, for example, are both inhabited by spirits - some cultural, some musical, some localized, some traveling the globe. As these spirits rise up in the occupied body, they themselves transform and we divine the complex process of transmutation that takes place when imagination materializes, when image lodges in flesh and tries to speak.
© Deborah Kapchan 2002
1.An international port before WWII, Tangier attracted artists from Europe and America, as well as the ultra-rich. One thinks of the luxuriously-colored paintings of Eugene De la Croix, the seedy novels of Paul Bowles and the decadent parties of Malcolm Forbes, for example. Literary depictions of Tangier usually portray the city through the lens of expatriate fantasy, citing intrigue, danger, and seduction. And certainly there is a bit of all three in Tangier, mostly due to the drug trade. On the other hand, Tangier today is a city with a huge illegal immigrant population, poor sanitation and few cultural resources. Fortunately the winds from the surrounding waters blow most of the pollution away. But the winds in some seasons do not let the people rest. The chergi, the east wind, blows (if not eternal, at least) too often.[back]
Back to t h e SOUNDING BOARD
Habitation and Possession
- from Dorry Noyes:
Some parallel reflections to add to Deborah's on habitation and possession:
The metaphor of "inhabiting" proved very rich at the first Penn conference.It turned up again last week (2/23) in Bloomington at a symposium on "Carnival, Art, and Identity" organized by Pravina Shukla and John McDowell. The papers emphasized the consciously and visibly constructed character of cultural identity, and John had a particularly evocative phrase summing up much of the work presented: "the projection of identity into inhabitable forms."
Our discipline has moved back and forth between what you might call a Durkheimian and a Marxist perspective on the edifications of culture (without the necessity of conscious allegiance to either project). The former is certainly dominant today, in the sense that as fieldworkers we are predominantly engaged with how actors build culture up from the ground of social and material realities, and endeavor--not unresisted, to be sure--to construct forms they can happily inhabit. We are in love with the festival moment when the forms are brought to a fullness of life in which the cultural, social, and material seem to coalesce.
But the discipline began with a study of ruins--habitations adjudged, however prematurely, to have been abandoned and in need of restoration (gentrification, if you will). And today, from the other end of the historical moment, we study how the forms of heritage have taken on an autonomous life--a "second life" which is certainly better than none, but strikes many of us as the Undeath of Marx's fetishized commodities.
The first Penn conference explored the disruptions of habitus, when the forms are no longer regularly revitalized in interaction, and habit must be supplemented by theory to achieve the same effect--or objectify itself. One response--most poignantly described by Dell Hymes speaking of Louis Simpson and Victoria Howard--is the lodgment of self in the perceived security of texts when the lifeworld is lost.
In the contemporary middle-class U.S. we see the literal lodgment of persons in houses as a similar edification of selfhood. Of course the obsession with security is part of this--walls and locks and missile defense shields mirror our claimed invulnerability and convince us that it is safe to act accordingly. But increasingly, in a mobile world in which we lack a constant audience for our performances, we make paradoxical demands on our dwellings: they must protect us from other people but also substitute for them. Our possessions offer us recognition of our identity and accomplishments, and so they come to possess us in turn. Paying off the mortgage, fixing up the kitchen, finding the right wallpaper become ends in the themselves: indeed you could say in Kantian terms that the house is treated an end, not a means, and is thus conferred ethical personhood. Consuming consumes us: the house draws life from us.
That is most of us: the mobile middle who have the hope but not the assurance of a stable dwelling. For us the dwelling is everything. But the metaphor of possession by culture, as folklorists usually use it, draws instead upon subaltern experience in which security is not expected and where subjects, perforce, live out in the world and are vulnerable to its incursions.
But what happens if we turn the metaphor around and consider those who think of themselves not as the possessed but the possessors? Lately I have been trying to make sense of the simpler bits of Paul Valéry, a modernist poet who certainly cannot be claimed for folklore. Taking Narcissus as his exemplar, Valéry writes strangely erotic poems about the life of the brain when the life of the body in the world is renounced, using our same metaphor of habitation:
IntérieurWhen the speaker is not the subaltern woman who is the stereotypical subject of possession but an elite male, the felt relationship to inner life changes. But why is the renounced female body so seductively present, even if so rigorously subordinated? The next example offers a more shocking account of intellectual experience, drawing on a familiar Mediterranean folk image for the female genitals:
Une esclave aux longs yeux chargés de molles chaînes
Change l'eau de mes fleurs, plonge aux glaces prochaines,
Au lit mystérieux prodigue ses doigts purs;
Elle met une femme au milieu de ses murs
Qui, dans ma rêverie errant avec décence,
Passe entre mes regards sans briser leur absence,
Comme passe le verre au travers du soleil,
Et de la raison pure épargne l'appareil.
A slave girl with long eyes laden with soft chains
Changes the water of my flowers, dives in each successive mirror,
Across the mysterious bed proffers her pure fingers;
She places a woman in the middle of these walls
Who, wandering through my reverie with decency,
Passes between my glances without breaking their absence,
As glass passes across the sun,
And spares the apparatus of pure reason.
(note: the translations are roughly literal approximations)Les GrenadesThis is more than Athena born from the head of Jove: here we see Jove violating not a mortal woman but himself from within. This is male creation not simply appropriating female procreation--to use Marta Weigle's terms--but inhabiting the same metaphor and assuming the same vivid sensory presence.
Dures grenades entr'ouvertes
Cédant à l'excès de vos grains,
Je crois voir des fronts souverains
Éclatés de leurs découvertes!
Si les soleils par vous subis,
O grenades entre-bâillées,
Vous ont fait d'orgueil travaillées
Craquer les cloisons de rubis,
Et que si l'or sec de l'écorce
À la demande d'une force
Crève en gemmes rouges de jus,
Cette lumineuse rupture
Fait rêver une âme que j'eus
de sa secrète architecture.
Hard half-opened pomegranates,
Yielding to the excess of your seeds,
I think I see sovereign foreheads
Exploded with their discoveries!
If the suns endured by you,
O inter-yawned pomegranates,
Have made you, worked on by pride,
Split your ruby partitions,
And that if the dry gold of the rind
At the demand of a force
Breaks open in red gems of juice,
That luminous rupture
Makes a soul I once had dream
Of its secret architecture.
Is it simply a choice of name, incorporation or possession? Do we conventionally associate one label with male poets and another with subaltern women? Is Valéry with his slave no more autonomous than the woman with the djinn? Or do you inhabit culture, our intimate architecture, differently (as Bourdieu argued) as a renter, a payer of mortgages, or an inheritor?