This is my animation of a musical spoken word poem by my late friend and collaborator, Dr. Roi Kwabena. The piece is titled “Deep Obeah” and is perhaps the most musical and most sung of the pieces that he produced and that made its way onto his Y42K album. Also, so far this is the only one of my productions in which Roi actually appears and performs at several points. It may be my favourite piece by Roi, and perhaps the best of the videos thus far.
“Deep Obeah” is possibly Roi Kwabena’s expression of his own sense of frustration with the almost radioactive accumulation of global injustice, shock waves that make themselves felt far and wide, rendering life on this planet increasingly toxic, increasingly impossible for many if not most. The work symbolically turns to obeah, “sorcery” to bring events beyond one’s control more into alignment with a desire for a better future.
Eurocentrism and African Power
The work validates obeah, which is also a strategic move that was part of Roi’s public anthropology. Obeah had long been scorned by colonial elites in the Anglophone Caribbean, and their pseudo-nationalist Afro-Saxon successors who more often than not were intermediaries and facilitators for the neo-colonial project. Under British colonialism, obeah, like drumming — both emphasized in the video — were banned. In Jamaica, obeah was repeatedly banned: in 1760, 1781, 1826, 1898, and 1938. Moreover, obeah, like vodoun (“voodoo”) in Haiti, was associated with numerous slave revolts: the Kromanti slave revolt led by Tacky in 1760, the Baptist War of 1831–32, and the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. Obeah could be vital in imparting a sense of magical invulnerability, critical in mobilizing slaves for resistance and rebellion.
In the neo-colonial period, Dr. Eric Williams, noted historian and first Prime Minister, himself scorned widespread “ignorance,” he a creature of the Enlightenment, and reportedly said it would not be long before the obeahman would be rehabilitated (Moore & Johnson, 2004, p. 107). Of course, the real problem with “obeah” is that it was an alternative source of power, a challenge to the mystique of the paramount leader, and all must be razed so that a centre can be fabricated. Unlike the ethnologist and dictator of Haiti, Papa Doc Duvalier, Williams would not remake himself into the arch sorcerer of the island if that meant shunning Oxford.
Obeah is decidedly of African origins, which is not to say that it was not “remixed” in the Caribbean. Obeah came with Twi-speaking Akan slaves from the Ashanti region of what is today Ghana. The Jamaican Maroons have preserved several of the Twi religious names: “Yankipong (or Nyame) as the Supreme Deity. Below the Supreme Deity are the spirits of the ancestors (‘duppies,’ cf. Twi adope, ‘spirit’)…In addition to obeah-man (assuming, of course, that this is derived from Twi obayi-fo, ‘sorcerer’), Maroons have preserved the name of his counterpart, the priest, in the form kumfu-man (derived from Twi okonfo). Among the general Jamaican population, kumfu-man has been replaced by myal-man. (Myal seems here to mean ‘spirit’; the precise African language etymon is uncertain.)” (Payne-Jackson & Alleyne, 2004, p. 36). Henry (2003, p. 55) writes that obeah came from the Popo people of Dahomey.
In Trinidad, an obeahman of great repute is still remembered, Samuel Ebenezer Elliot (1901-1969). Ebenezer, popularly known as Papa Neza, was a “merikin”: of African-American descent, settled in Moruga, among freed American slaves who fought alongside the British against the nascent United States. Papa Neza never took money as payment for his services from the many clients who sought his assistance given his widely regarded powers. Instead Papa Neza might take any money that was left for preparing the four communal feasts that he would host each year. This is important, because while many have seen obeah as a practice motivated by selfish gain, and harmful to the “community,” it is a practice that is in fact sustained by the community. (See Carolyn Kissoon’s article in the Express, “A trip to the obeahman — When all else fails…” [10 May 2009)].)
Obeah is Science
Obeah is not a religion, as much as a practice, a process, a belief in magical intervention in the world. One can find obeah practice in numerous Afro-Caribbean faiths, such as the Revival/Pukumina church in Jamaica, or Shango and Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad. In Jamaica, Revival was connected to both obeah and healing:
Magical beliefs are termed Science by Revivalists and the source of supply for this belief is invariably one of the numerous books published by the DeLaurence Company…. These beliefs relate primarily to healing and sorcery, and are therefore found primarily in these contexts in Revival Cults. Science is considered by many to be as powerful as the use of spirits…. The healer and the obeah-man are usually not two different people; invariably each practises both, some being more renowned for obeah, and some for healing. [Seaga, 1969, p. 11, quoted in Payne-Jackson & Alleyne, 2004, p. 115.]
[Perhaps those who played Grand Theft Auto III will remember the Rasta DJ on the game’s built-in array of radio stations, saying things such as, “We love the Scientists on KJAH!” or “You want knowledge? Get yourself a Scientist. You want fight? Get yourself a gun,” or something about “me so ‘fraid ah you Mr. Scientist man.” I say this in case some wondered what all that “Science” talk was about. Apparently Rock Star Games, the maker of GTA, has some fairly good cultural consultants who occasionally appear to be the source of some decent, credible inputs.]
Do I believe in obeah? Absolutely. And I know that, as Roi says in his poem, he is still “manifesting and distributing spirit blows.”
May black spirit hands reach into their chests,
and crush their hearts into powder.
Capture the shadows of those who prey on others,
and bury them in foul dirt.
Turn their tongues against their own heads,
striking them as they feast.
Make them drown in a cup of water,
and boil them in their beds as they sleep.
Resuscitate the warriors, and steel the fighters,
turning the vanquished into victors.
References and Further Reading:
Clark, Austin H. (1912). An Ingenious Method of Causing Death Employed by the Obeah Men of the West Indies. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 572-574.
Clarke, Peter B., ed. (1998). New Trends and Developments in African Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Djedje, Jacqueline Cogdell. (1998). Remembering Kojo: History, Music, and Gender in the January Sixth Celebration of the Jamaican Accompong Maroons. Black Music Research Journal, p. 67.
Girlado, Alexander (n.d.). Obeah: The Ultimate Resistance. Slave Resistance: A Caribbean Study [website].
Henry, Frances. (2003). Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Socio-Political Legitimation of the Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faiths. Cave Hill, Barbados: University Press of the West Indies.
Moore, Brian L., and Johnson, Michele A. (2004). Neither Led nor Driven: Contesting British Cultural Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920. Mona, Jamaica: University Press of the West Indies.
Moorish, Ivor. (1982). Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and its Religion. Cambridge UK: James Clarke & Co.
Murphy, Joseph M. (1994). Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston: Beacon Press.
Olmos, Margarite Fernández, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. (1997). Sacred possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Olmos, Margarite Fernández, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. (2003). Creole religions of the Caribbean: An introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: NYU Press.
Payne-Jackson, Arvilla, and Alleyne, Mervyn C. (2004). Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing. Mona, Jamaica: University Press of the West Indies.
Savage, John (2007). “Black Magic” and White Terror: Slave Poisoning and Colonial Society in Early 19th Century Martinique. Journal of Social History, Vol. 40, No. 3, p. 635.
Thornton, S. Leslie. (1904). “Obeah” in Jamaica. Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 262-270
Turner, Mary. (1998). Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787-1834. Cave Hill, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press.
Udal, J.S. (1915). Obeah in the West Indies. Folklore, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 255-295.