“Ritual Mix” Mike Weis

A careful selection of ritual music from around the world by percussionist Mike Weis


I’d like to write a lot about this mindblowing mix, but Mike’s actually done it for me. You might like to know that his first solo album is out now on Barge Recordings, and it’s a very special record indeed.

Over to Mike :

The following is a mix of recordings from folk cultures from around the globe that use music not as art and entertainment but as a function to aid in rituals, to accompany ceremonial rites or to express spiritual devotion. Obviously, the aesthetics presented is a hodgepodge but there are some common threads to this collection that I’ve noticed while listening and researching. One is that the music seems to stretch out sinuously, forming layers of concentric patterns without following a direct linear path of a narrative like most Western art and pop music. As one Sufi (the mystical sect of Islam) cleric mentioned, “our music is not represented by bars and staffs, it’s circular, it has no beginning, no end.” Secondly, the musicians all seem to have a spiritual relationship with their instruments, most of which are of modest resources available, mainly trees, animal skins, human voice and hands. Last, and most important, this music seeks to liberate the consciousness from distractions and to transcend the listener/performer/participant to a clearer state of mind. Hope you enjoy.

Track number / Song / Artist / Album

01 Kimpusenji Temple ?, Yoshino (near Nara) Japanese Temple Bells 8th-17th C. Bonsho
The Bonsho (“Sacred Bell”) is an enormous bronze bell that has symbolic power for Japanese Buddhists. Buddhists believe that the sound of the bell is the voice of Buddha and that when it is struck the resonant sound is a prayer that is meant to awaken the hearts of those that hear it. Monks bow three times after each strike. Some of the largest Bonsho are over 30 tons, compared to Big Ben which is 13 tons. These bells don’t have a clapper instead a suspended tree trunk is swung to strike the exterior of the bell, sometimes requiring 20 monks to do so. There are three components to the sound of the bell: the impact sound (“daoon”), the reverberation (“oshi”) and the drifting resonance (“ookuri”). I chose this particular Bonsho recording because it sounds like a cricket is responding to each ring of the bell.

02 Kaleworda Wowui De Dzogbe Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie Agbadza
I studied West African poly-rhythms under Gideon during the mid-nineties. At the time, one of the members of his ensemble had abruptly quit and he needed to fill the spot quickly. To my surprise, I was thrust into the group for a few performances as a bell player. I remember tapping my foot at one point to try to keep up with the frantic pace of the rhythms but Gideon shot me an evil look and pointed to my foot. This was my first lesson of poly-rhythmic listening/playing – remove the self and join the rest of the group!! Gideon was the man responsible for teaching Steve Reich poly-rhythms. Aside from being a master drummer, he is also a high priest of the Yewe Cult of Ghana.

03 Saya Folk-bhajan Saya the midwife Lower Caste Religious Music From India: Monks, Transvestites, Midwives, And Folksingers
Unfortunately, I don’t have much information about this track. Intrigued by the title, I downloaded this album via the Root Strata Root Blog. I love the frailty and relaxed delivery of this woman’s voice.

04 Mun-Kut Samul Kim Suk Chul The Shamans of the Eastern Seaboard
South Korea is one of the few places in the developed world where Shamanism still plays a roll in daily life. Shamans use music as a bridge between the living and the dead to contact, entertain, and appease the ancestral spirits in an attempt to be granted various earthly favors or protection or to assist the dead. Kim Suk Chul, who died a few years ago, was a hereditary Shaman and a master musician from the east coast of South Korea. The music that accompanies Shaman rituals from the eastern seaboard is dramatically more wild, muscular and cacophonous compared to Shaman music from other parts of the peninsula. Some people attribute this aesthetic to the influence that the turbulent, “rough beauty” of the east coast landscape has on the music. Kim’s taepyongso (a double reed considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to play) reminds me of Coltrane’s soprano playing at his outermost stellar regions or Brotzmann’s powerful clarinet! I’ve seen footage of these musicians playing this really loud, fast and heavy music and they’re bodies just sway gently in unison to a calmer, implied pulse within the music. These rituals can last multiple days and nights and it obviously requires an insane amount of stamina. In Korean Shamanism it is preferred to have really good musicians for rituals in order to earn the respect of the spirits. So the musicians must be able to have a deep repertoire but they must also be able to improvise within these layers of complex structure. It’s a subtlety between freedom and total dedication to hundreds of years of tradition.

05 Bujloudia The Master Musicians Of Jajouka Apocalypse Across The Sky
The musical tradition from Jajouka is believed to be the oldest on the planet. Jajouka is an ancient village in the Rif mountains of Morroco that is also a sanctuary of the Saint Ahmed Sheikh, which some believe may account for the musicians magical healing powers and it’s enigmatic secrets. The Sufi trance music is passed down through 1,300 years of generations of the Attar family. Attar, which means “perfume maker” is a Sufi watchword and a deeply mystical name. Audiences have witnessed a mysterious sweet smell, "like ripened fruit’ permeating the air during their performances. Another curious thing about the musicians is their mysterious healing powers which attract outsiders to the remote village in search of cures for their various sufferings. This track is performed only during the holy days of Aid el-Kebir when several thousand pilgrims descend upon the tiny village. In this ritual a boy dresses in goatskins and performs a maniacal dance, feverishly chasing attendants, whipping women with branches and scaring the hell out of the children. This ecstatic ritual lasts for eight nights and some Beo Jeloud boys have not survived the extreme physical, spiritual, mental exertions. Some historians think that this ritual is descended from the ancient rites of the Roman goat-god, Pan but as Muslims the musicians deny this Pagan connection.

06 Song Of The Hyrax (Yelli Version) Baka Forest People Baka In The Forest
The Baka People of the rain forests of central Africa are the continent’s oldest forest dwellers. The Baka women perform a singing ritual, called Yelli in an isolated spot in the forest throughout the night before the men set out for a big hunt. The women enter a “Yelli Trance”, and fly over the forest looking for animals to tie up for the hunters.

07 Ogum Beira-Mar Various Artists Amazonia : Cult Music Of Northern Brazil
Along with Voodoo, Santeria and Gnawa, the Candomble of Brazil is another African Diasporic group resulting from the slave trade. They worship various African deities, or Orishas. During their extended rituals the priests invoke the Orishas and fall into a trance, dancing and performing acts that are symbolic of the Orisha. This is the most joyous song I think I’ve ever heard.

08 Windham Alabama Sacred Harp Singers Sounds of the South
Sacred Harp is one of the earliest musical traditions of colonial America. It’s strictly a choral music that is practiced by Protestant Christians, mainly in the southern rural regions of America. The choir is not used for a church service however, in fact they don’t even perform in a church. The choir gather in private for “singings” and they arrange themselves in a hollow square shape, trading off as leaders that sing from the center of the square. This is intended as a performance for only the singers, no audience unless someone is invited to enter the center as a guest. I can only imagine the sonic experience of being surrounded by these waves of voices. The text are Chrisrtian Psalms and Hymns, musically notated (Shape Notes) specifically for the Sacred Harp performance. The purpose is to show devotion, to sing for God and to uplift the soul.

09 Makam Yegah The Erguner Brothers Preludes to Ceremonies of the Whirling Dervishes

This is the music that is played for the famous Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis. The Mevlevi were formed by followers of the Islamic poet and theologian, Rumi during the 13th Century in what is now known as Turkey. The spinning dance is a physically active form of meditation. The dancers spin in an attempt to reach a state of perfection through the process of abandoning the ego and it’s desires, focusing on God, and concentrating on the music – listening for Sama, the subtle sounds of the spiritual realm of the cosmos. The repetitive circling is a physical manifestation of Islamic cosmology. The ethereal haziness of this song gives you an idea of the beautiful dance that responds to it.

10 Juba Drummers Of The Societe Absolument Guinin Voodoo Drums
Haitian Voodoo is a religion of the new world that came about during the 16th century African slave trade. During their rituals they use drums to bring spirits down to the earth, faccilitating a possession of a worshipper by a specific spirit. Soul Jazz released these pristine recordings last year and I think it’s one of the best recordings of a drum ensemble I’ve ever heard. It documents the broad tonal range of these drums. I had to check the liner notes to make sure there wasn’t a bass guitar or synthesizer in the mix!

11 Jindo Ssitgimgut Chae Jeong-Rye Jindo Intangible Art Culture Series 2
Here’s another South Korean Shaman piece but this one is from the opposite side of the country in Jindo Island where Shaman rituals and other folk traditions are still well-preserved. The music associated with this type of Shaman ritual is much more lilting and ethereal in aesthetic compared to the massive sound of east coast Shaman music. Traditional Korean music is rooted in Yin / Yang philosophy where opposites are constantly working in harmony. I’m currently learning Pungmul (traditional Korean drum troupe) at a Korean-American culture center in my neighborhood and one of the first things that I had trouble with was the motion of the music. Most Korean music is technically in a 3/4 time signature but if you try to follow it like a Western-style Waltz rhythm you fall off from the rest of the group. The reason being Korean rhythm isn’t about counting, it’s about following your breath so the result is more of a tension and release feeling, like the ebb and flow of waves. The Shamans call this “nothing rhythm” or “shaman rhythm” – draw your breath and then hit the drum when you release the breath. The rhythm notation isn’t as important as the energy given to the phrase, which is indicative of the fluidity of all Korean traditional music. This track is a segment for the musical accompainment to the Ssitgimgut ritual which is a kind of cleansing exorcism for the dead when the soul is not at peace and thus struggling to make a safe passage to heaven. The Shaman performs a dance intended to comfort the soul of the dead.

12 Funeral Dance (Kenya) Various Artists East Africa Witchcraft & Ritual Music
In East African countries witchcraft medicine is still used as a means to cure ills and music is one of the main ingredients in healing rituals.

13 Jesus Is Real To Me Mrs Mary Lee & Congregation Sounds of the South
When I was in college I once had a summer job photographing families for church directories. There was this one Baptist church on the west side of Chicago that invited me into one of their services during a lull in my work schedule. I couldn’t believe the energy and excitement of the congregation, it was the complete opposite of what I knew of as “church,” growing up as a Roman Catholic. These people were ecstatic – singing, dancing, stomping, clapping, smiling and having loads of fun. They seem to be uplifted and recharged after the service, as was I. I think African-American Baptists have a similar relationship to music and religion as Sufis.

14 Malu Semchen: Invocation of the Masters of Enlightenment Monks of Dreprung Loseling Monastery Lama Chöpa: A Buddhist Tantric Celebration
The Lama Chopa is a commonly used piece of sacred music among Buddhists of Central Asia for the purpose of daily meditation as well as for funeral ceremonies. This track is the opening segment of the long, continuous piece. It is meant to awake the inner meditative mind of the performer and “to invoke the forces of goodness from the ten directions.” This track sounds primordial to me, the sound of the earth forming.

15 Chabako Gnawa Music Of Marrakesh Spirit Masters
The Gnawa people were displaced from Sub-Saharan Africa (Mali, Senegal, Burkino Faso, Gambia, etc.) and brought to Morocco as slaves following a long war in the 16th Century when the Moroccans captured Timbuktu. The Gnawa converted to Islam, via the Sufi sect but never really let go of their African Animism and Polytheism, continuing to practice their possession rituals. This is the reason why Gnawa music doesn’t really have that Arabesque sound that is indicative of most north African music, it has more of a earthy, desert Blues vibe with complex West African polyrhythms and call and response vocals. They use music as a means to induce a trance state in participants in order to open up the consciousness to allow for communication with Jinn (or spirits). They are called upon to help people who are mentally disturbed, to treat scorpion stings or to “cleanse” a house of evil spirits. Experienced trancers sometimes dance with knives, slashing their skin and mouths without bleeding!

16 Bubaran Javanese Court Gamelan from the Pura Paku Alaman, Jogyakarta
This is the only track on this mix that isn’t really folk music. This is a classical gamelan orchestra meant to be played for royal ceremonies. This specific track is played at the end of a ceremony as the guests exit. I think I’ve been hearing this music in my dreams since I was born. So beautiful, so creepy.