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Lyrics and Discussion

Here are some brief summaries of the roots and ideas behind each of the pieces on this recording. I realize that many of you might not be familiar with the specific imagery and spiritual ideas contained in the traditions associated with these rhythms. I’m hoping to find some time to write more thoroughly about the interlocking spiritual/philosophical/rhythmic structure of these rhythms and songs, but for now, I’ll just try to explain a little bit so you’ll know what I’m talking about.

1. Women of Steel is a drum heavy version of the calypso standard "Marianne".  I play an assortment of tom-toms, djuns, songba, and bass drums, timbales and shakers, and of course, the pan.  The groove is a basic son clave riff, and this version is dedicated to all the strong women in my life, and the world around.

2. Spin With The Bull is the title track of the project.  

Shake the rattle, shuffle the deck,
Deal the cards, take the yoke from your neck.
Dance til you sweat but don’t move your feet,
Stay rooted in Kongo, but change up the beat.

All are One and One is All.  Spin with the Bull, paint on the wall.

They’re quick to act, so you’d best respond,
The Turtle can see both sides of the pond.
He eats down below, but he breathes from above,
Are you crying out for war, or dying for love?

The bottles are sequined so you can’t see inside’
The altar is harnessed, but can you handle the ride?
“Makaya!” you may call, to confess all your sins
Is it herbs in the bottle, or could it be pins?

Baka, ti Baka, the chains and the whips,
Invoke the memory of thousands of ships.
Shake the rattle, shuffle the deck,
Deal the cards, take the yoke from your neck.

“Bilolo!”   “Abobo mpya!”

In Haitian Vodou, there are two main nations of Lwa (spirits):  the Rada and the Petwo.  There are styles of drumming and repertoires of rhythms, songs and dances that correspond to these specific entities.  In general, the Rada spirits are cooler, and the Petwo spirits often hot, aggressive, demanding and quick to act if needed. 

The rhythm I’m playing is Petwo, and the lyrics refer to Bosou, the Lwa represented by the image of a bull, whose domain is fertility and protection.  Bosou is closely aligned with Kalfou Petwo, whose spinning horns churn constantly through the cosmos.  Caught up in these revolutions are both the power to heal and the power to kill.  The power of the Bull is to be used with caution.  Petwo is often pulled into a 5/4 feel, which I have done for part of the piece.  To me, this ‘unbalanced’ sort of swirling time signature reflects and reinforces the concept that we are all caught up in the unpredictable gyrations of the horns of the Bull.  Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it!  
Divination and invocation rituals often make use of cards, and celebrants dancing to Petwo rhythms may not move their feet, depicting deep roots to Kongo traditions.  Makaya is a reference to healing herbs used in Kongo traditions, and to a Petwo Lwa of the same name.  At the end of the piece, during the last verse, I shift to a rhythm called Petwo Makaya, to acknowledge this reference. 

The turtle signifies a common usage of reptiles in Petwo ritual and imagery.  The domain of the spirits is reached through water. The turtle inhabits both the domain of the human and the Lwa, and so has knowledge of events in both realms.

Baka and ti Baka are the two Petwo drums, and the rhythms and songs remind us of the necessity to protect our freedom, clearly a concept with tangible meaning in Haiti.  The Lwa protect their people, but demand respect in return.  Many people paint symbols of the Bull on the walls of their houses to demonstrate their devotion to, and secure the protection of the Lwa.
The Creole phrases “Bilolo!”  and “Abobo mpya!” mean, “People, prepare for a pronouncement!” and “It is as it is!”.  …roughly.  These phrases are often used at the conclusion of a ritual, and serve to remind us that we are all caught up in the spinning of the bull.  “All are one and one is all.”

3.    Duel at Dawn is based on a Cuban style called Comparsa that is a lot like Samba.  The ‘Duel’ is between the quinto and the timbales, as they exchange riffs back and forth across the canvas of the rest of the piece.

4.    Chango

There’s a rhythm to the world that too often gets stilted
The mighty get rich and the meek just get jilted
When Corporate Structure and National Pride
Come hunting for you, find a good place to hide

Thunder – the merger of cool air with warm
Demands justice and balance from the heart of the storm
And as long as the roots of the rhythm survive
The flowers will dance, as the melodies thrive.

Oba Lube, Oba Lube oba ye!  Oba Lube, Oba Lube, oba ye!
Oba Ye! Oba Yana Yana!  Oba Ye!  Oba Yana Yana!

Drum and dance, sing and play, give and receive, work and play
Blend and flow, change and grow, rhythm, melody, balance – Chango.

Kawo aye!  Kawo aye!  Kawo Aye, Kabe cilé, O!
Kawo aye!  Kawo aye!  Kawo Aye, Kabe cilé, O!

Culture and economics blend and balance through trade
But some tip the scales and elect to invade.
“The war on Terror”, “Spreading Democracy” are handy excuses
To cart away freely what another produces.
Drum and dance…
Kawo aye!…

Chango is the Santería God of thunder whose domain is justice.  Santeriá is an Afro/Cuban religious tradition not unlike Vodou.  They celebrate one overall God, and a pantheon of lesser deities called Orisha who guide us and watch over us in our daily lives.  Most of the time Bata drums (a set of three hour-glass shaped drums requiring much skill and dedication to a repertoire of incredibly complex rhythms) are played during ceremonies called Bembes, however, sometimes the music can be provided on congas and I learned this rhythm as one of the pieces that may be used to accompany the songs and dances of a ceremony.  I’ve only heard the rhythm referred to as “Bembe”, although it may have a different name. 

    This song is about justice, and the storm the world finds itself in at present.  The chant calls to Chango for guidance and celebrates his appearance as a kingly figure wrapped in a beautiful cape.  I believe that respect for each other as global citizens and fellow human beings maintains the balance required to flow and dance with the ever present winds of change and growth.  As long as those root concepts remain intact, we (the flowers) will dance, and the melody of life that is all around us will continue.  Musically, this concept is demonstrated by the fact that if each of the four conga parts is rhythmically synced, in good relation with the other parts, the melody created by their different tones will naturally thrive. Chango, the low bass drum, is at the heart of the piece, keeping us all together, and demanding the balance that keeps it all flowing.

5).  Bonny Light Crude

Yeah, there’s oil in the Delta – Bonny Light Crude
So much Black Gold, but so little food.
Nets hanging to bone dry, boats rotting in slime,
Some are rolling in money, other’s fishing in grime.

Oil Blood Oil Blood
Once fertile fishing grounds drowning in crud.
Oil Blood Oil Blood
Once breathing marsh lands, cauldrons of mud.

Brave men in speedboats are demanding a solution
To the poverty, the slavery, the lies, the pollution.
Their tactics are violent, but it needs to be mentioned,
They’ve tried other ways to get our attention.

Bombings, extortion, won’t bring a long-term answer –
It’s like spreading the plague so people don’t get cancer –
The wealth, the poverty, the corruption, the loot…
All fall from the same tree so let’s tear up the roots.

It’s the tree of addiction: the inability to resist,
That’s turned brother against mother, helping hands into fists.
It’s not enough to blame the companies, the presidents, the CEO’s,
We’re all hooked on the pipeline, we all crave the flow.

So while MEND defends their fisheries and marshes from pollution
Let’s all take a stand, help start the revolution:
A global rebellion without AK – 47s:
Catch the wind, make fuel from corn, harvest light from the heavens.

Yeah, there’s oil in our veins and we’re jacked to the hilt
And nodding out inside this system we’ve built –
Can’t take any more, can’t stand to have less…
How long have we got?  That’s anyone’s guess.
Like an addict – surrender…change our lifestyle or die.
Feel the wind, harvest corn, turn our faces to the sky.

Bonny Light Crude is the name given to the oil from the Niger Delta Region.  It signifies that this oil needs very little refinement to become usable as petroleum product, and that makes it very valuable to the oil industry.  For decades now, major oil companies have drilled for oil in the marshes and offshore in the Niger Delta, ruining traditional fishing and hunting grounds.  
The people who live there were promised a higher standard of living as Nigeria prospered from the oil market, but so far all the money has gone into the hands of corrupt politicians and the oil executives themselves, leaving the native population living in a ruined, polluted, environmental disaster area.  No one wants to claim responsibility for the effects the oil industry has had on these people, neither the Nigerian Government nor the oil companies will do anything about the pollution or the system of what can only be called slave labor that has been in place to provide “work” for a population that not so long ago survived quite well fishing and hunting in their unspoiled habitat.

Recently, a group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has waged a successful campaign of attacks on oil platforms, pipelines, and oil company officials. While I do not condone violence as a solution, I’m also not sure that if I were in their shoes, I would behave any differently.  These people see no recourse to saving themselves and their families except to somehow stop the oil companies from committing such atrocities, and force someone to clean up the mess. 

So, I do not condemn MEND for their actions.  Furthermore, I place myself on the list of those to blame for what has happened to the people of the Niger Delta.  I am as hooked on oil as any other petroleum product junkie (read: most of us) and so this song is really about waking up our collective spirit to pursue alternative forms of energy, so the wealth, poverty, corruption and loot associated with the oil industry become moot, the oil industry inevitably dies of over-consumption, and situations like the one in the Niger Delta cease to occur.  This is a process we may not see finished in our lifetimes, like the building of the great pyramids, but for the sake of those suffering now, and our children, we must certainly begin!

6)    Wood & Ya Know…  is based on a rhythm from Haiti called Congo.  I’ve used several low drums (congas, songbas, surdos) to establish the two low strokes that begin the phrase, and used bundles of sticks I duct taped together to achieve the sharp, thrashing wood-on-wood pulse.  The melody and support parts are played on Shona style marimbas, and the tune is for Erzulié, La Ren Congo (the Queen of the Congo).  The words of the song would call celebrants to the crossroads for the feast in honor of La Ren Congo.

In Haiti, many of the departed, ancestors, become Lwa and guide us along our life’s path.  In honor of my Grandfather, I played the bell part on his old cast iron fish-frying pan.  As a young child I remember sitting on top of the huge rock over-looking Dog Lake, while he fried bass over a stone oven.  That pan hangs in my studio now, and I thought it appropriate to invoke his spirit for this piece.

7)    Oh, The Tales They Tell is based on a rhythm from Ghana called Gahu.  Gahu is a comparatively new form of drumming and dancing, sometimes called ‘airplane music’ and occasionally used to poke good-natured fun at the European tourists who flocked to Ghana when airplane travel first became popular.  Although the spirit of Gahu is not necessarily critical, I can’t help but to reflect on the ‘tales’, the lies, and the domination, which native Africans have been subjected to at the hands of people from other places.

Oh, The Tales They Tell contains a musical joke that gently reflects upon this history of subjugation.  The breaks are played to the rhythm of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.  If you listen carefully, you’ll be able to pick out the cadence of “Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…a tale of a fateful trip...” on through “the minnow would be lost” in each of the breaks.  (Except for one, which is a more traditional Gahu break I learned from Jerry Faison, a student of the great Gahu master, David Locke.) 

Gilligan’s Island was a funny show, and I watched it when I was little.  However, the thing that I remember most was that the natives of the nearby islands, when they showed up, were always depicted as “headhunters”, to be feared, except that they often weren’t too smart, either.  It is appalling the depth to which our notion of superiority and vulnerability pervade even the most seemingly innocent aspects of our culture.

8)    Latin Angel is a salsa kind of groove built around the calypso standard “Angelico”.  Ok.  There is bass in there.  I stuck to the drums as much as I could, but just had to do it…  All you purists better watch out later, ‘cause I played several guitar parts for track eleven.

9)     Yemaya is a simple Bata rhythm dedicated to Yemaya.   Usually, Bata rhythms have several sections, variations and conversations between the Iyá and the Ototele (the lowest and middle drum) while the bell and Okonkolo (high drum) keep the beat flowing.  I am not an accomplished Bata player, but love the sound and wanted to include it.  The chant is to Yemaya one of the orisha whose domain is the water.  

10)    Bunchasamba is a combination of different styles of samba, connected by the batucadas (call and response breaks between the rapique and the other drums).  I’m using traditional Brazilian instruments like surdos, rebollo, tan-tan, pandero, rapique, snare, and ganza, but I fear my samba would be considered a bit ‘square’ by samba aficionados.  As Barbara Browning said in her book Samba/Resistance in Motion:    “Samba…contains beats bent so slightly that their variations can’t be broken down even into sixty-fourths.”  Bunchasamba is exciting, fun and danceable, and has some slippery moments, especially in the middle section where the snare plays the triplet part, but I yearn to learn more so that I might really capture that elusive, maybe you have to be born to it, off balance, shoulder shaking oscillation delivered by true samba schools at Carnavál!  Oh, if there were more hours in the day…

11)    Chains Against The Rail  

Down by the mouth of the river, where it meets the sea
Big Black Ship at anchor, off by the rocks there
Looks like a vulture, staring across the bay.
Long line of people, snaking through the forest
Some in chains, others with whips and guns
There is no beauty here, only some kind of twisted promise
With the rising of the sun.

Ibo Gran Muno, O Gran Muno!
Ibo Gran Muno, la fami, O, Gran Muno!

Out in the middle of the ocean, under clouds as dark as night,
Big Black Ship at sail, lashed by the lightning
Moves like a jackal, belly full, weaving through the waves.
Long line of people, brought up onto the deck
Some will raise their eyes, looking for the trail
A haunting rhythm fills the air, and with a song of hope and promise
Chains slide against the rail.

Cast from light into darkness, across a turbulent sea
How have we come to be here?  Where can the spirits be?
From this existence we must fly…
Through the water lies Ginen.

During the slave trade the ship’s crew would occasionally bring the human cargo up out of the hold for cleansing in order to keep most of them alive during the long trip across the Atlantic.  The Ibo people became renown for their tendency to jump overboard into the ocean, since their concept of the path to the spirit world and after life, Ginen, lay through the water.  Finding themselves in an unimaginable, incomprehensible, dehumanizing and excruciatingly painful situation, it is no wonder entire groups with a strong spiritual belief would choose this path rather than return to the holds of the vessel, and remain in a situation they knew was inherently evil.

    This rhythm, called Ibo, and chant come from Haiti. After a certain point, since slavers were no longer interested in the risks of losing a cargo of Ibo in this manner, no new Ibo people were brought to Haiti.  The remaining fami (family) of Ibo grew old and were respected elders in their communities, referred to as “Gran Muno”.  

12)    Ogun Karanga! 

Ile Re, Ile Re, Ile Re Ogun, O!
Ile Re, Ile Re, Ile Re Ogun, O!
Ogun Karanga! Karanga! Karanga ye!
Aye aye aye aye aye ye, Karanga!
Karanga Ye!

Is a song I learned from Ibrahima Kamara.  It’s about Ogun, the God of Iron to whom we pray for strength and flexibility in our daily lives.  The rhythm is Congolese, called Bayé.  I’m doing a bit of mix and match, here, because I don’t know if this song and rhythm have been put together before.  So, with respect, it is only for my own musical purposes that I do so, not to reflect anything authentically folkloric, and I hope I don’t offend anyone by taking this liberty.

In Haiti, Ogun is often depicted as a warrior god with a sword or a machete, so I played the bell part on a machete with a giant nail.  It has a cool, sharp ringing tone I think goes well with the piece. 

    Bayé is a rhythm full of struggle between the parts.  The low drum part plays a slow, 1-4 heavy progression in which you can hear the roots of the blues. (It’s like a bass part).  The other rhythms emphasize the 1-3-5 and 1-3-4 pulses commonly found in African music, though not generally all in the same piece.  Although it’s confusing at first, it’s tons of fun to play!  To keep it together, you gotta be strong and flexible, like iron.

13.)    Peace of My Heart is a 5-minute excerpt from an hour-long piece I recorded in response to requests from local yoga teachers for drum-based music for yoga and meditation.  I used a big, fat bass drum for the heart beat center, a bunch of toms and timbales, bells, chimes, and shakers. The playful, improvisational part is done on Udu’s:  ceramic jug shaped drums of Nigerian Ibo tradition.

The discipline required for me to play fourteen repetitive tracks, each one hour long, proved to be a challenge and a great meditative experience.  When it was complete, it also provided me with a rich canvas upon which to improvise and frolic with the udu’s and some other small instruments that come in from time to time.  It is this balance between discipline and improvisation that brings me great joy in my music and in my life.

14).  Dance of the Dead is Banda!  

There’s a crossroads right here where the flesh meets divine.
Like fruit from the vine, we cling to the line
That the Gods are our keepers, our healers, our friends.
They watch over our trials, and meet us at the end.

Baron Samdi – guardian? Saint?
Some say he’s our friend, some say he aint.
I guess that depends on where you might stand:
Do you slave for the diamond, or wear one on your hand?
He’ll guide you and hide you from high-ranking felons,
But just turn your back and he’ll steal all your melons.
March into the palace, and toss the money all around,
Swirl through the heavens, and take you to the ground.

He’ll dance and he’ll prance and he’ll rise like a steeple,
Bring the people to the spirits, and the power to the people.
His sign is the cross we wear for protection,
The axis of generation, and resurrection.
‘Cause the road of departure is the same as arrival,
But AIDS has it mined, so take steps for survival.
Follow the guide with Klaren on his breath,
It all starts with sex, and continues with death.

Let’s lay upon the alter some Johnny Walker Red,
A fresh laundered shirt – he won’t wear – so instead,
Let’s give him our love, and a ticket back home,
An iPod, and a cell phone with a Yoruba ring tone.

Banda is the rhythm used in Haiti to call and salute Bawon Samdi and the Guedés, the guardians of the threshold between life and death.  He is a bawdy, lusty, mischievous character, whose domain is the threshold between life and death.  Passage from this life is not the end, but the beginning of an existence in the spirit realm, and the Guedes are the Lwa that usher us through that transition.
His symbol, the sign of the cross, may be interpreted as the intersection of the human realm and the spirit realm, and the intersection of the end of this existence and the beginning of the next. Our experience as humans begins before birth, thus Bawon Samdi’s association, even obsession, with the sexual act.  He is often portrayed carrying a staff with a phallus carved at the end, and makes good-natured, lewd sexual references during his arrival at ceremony.
Haiti suffers a high rate of AIDS and HIV infection, and the connection between sex and death is accordingly now more ominous. Occasionally a celebrant may brandish a phallic staff adorned with a condom: a relevant and pertinent reminder for the community to be cautious.

    Besides his role as intermediary, Bawon Samdi is a great protector of the meek, especially children.  He is often sought for help when children are ill.  He fights against government corruption, and protects the common people from the oppression of those more powerful.  However, he is a bit of a prankster, and may, after he throws money to the masses from the windows of the government offices, turn around and steal fruit from street vendors.  These days it would not be unusual to find offerings to Bawon Samdi reflective of modern times:  a cell phone to keep in touch; a plane ticket so he can visit.  Despite his bawdy nature, unpredictable behavior, and somewhat frightening appearance, Bawon Samdi is well loved and respected.