Music and dance in spiritual possession

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IN African traditional religion, the afterlife is not perceived as something different from the life of the living — it is simply a continuation of existence in another realm.
For Africans, the current visible world in which we live is interconnected with the spiritual world where the ancestors dwell and have considerable influence on the fortunes and fate of the living.
The ancestors are also referred to as the living-dead.
In the face of misfortune, ceremonies and rituals are held in order to communicate with the spirit world to find out the cause of the affliction and to appease the spirit(s) in question.
The common means by which this ‘communion’ with the spirit world is achieved is through trance and possession.
Music and dance provide a means by which trance and possession can be attained within religious ritual.
It is important to note that while these two forms can be separated to some extent in theory, they are in fact interrelated in practice.
In the West, there is more of a conceptual divide between music and dance, where dance is often interpreted as being aesthetic movement and therefore an image.
However, in Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, music and dance function together in such a way that it may be hard to draw a line between the two.
Dance is really a visual expression of sound and consequently innately tied to music.
Dancing gives the rhythms a visible and physical form.
In some rituals, there is a direct link between music and possession.
Music is believed to have the power to call on the spirit world and to send people into trance.
In many healing or possession rituals, the success of the ritual revolves around the music and how well it is played, thus affecting whether or not an individual will become possessed and go into a trance.
A ritual called ‘bira’ is held among the Shona people of Zimbabwe to mark seasonal changes or misfortune, whose cause is attributed to an ancestral spirit who is calling for attention to a personal or social problem, or who wishes to possess a person. The music of the mbira is what sends the medium into trance.
Its sound is believed to be a bridge between this world and the world of the spirits.
The mbira is not just an instrument to us; it is the way in which we pray to Musikavanhu.
For instance, the Basarwa of the Kalahari in southern Africa and the BaTonga of the Zambezi Valley depend on music provided by the women to send the men who are healers into trance so that they can exercise their healing power.
It is the music that is believed to invite spirits to join the ritual.
Certain songs can be identified with certain spirits.
This means the music can call on a specific spirit to come and attend.
In this way, music can call on the specific spirit whose presence is appropriate to the ritual being held.
Also, if the identity of a spirit is unknown and must be revealed in order to identify the cause of misfortune, different songs can be played until the right music is found that causes the spirit to come down and possess an individual and reveal its identity.
This occurs at bira rituals where it is the job of the musicians to exercise their knowledge of the mbira by playing through songs until they find the right song that resonates with the ancestor causing misfortune.
The result is that this ancestor will come down and possess the individual.
The BaTonga, in their vimbuza dance, also have certain rhythms that are associated with certain spirits.
The master drum, ngoma buntimbe, sounds the spirit-specific rhythmic mode of the vimbuza spirits.
This is how music is powerfully evocative, inducing possession and calling on the spirits.
According to elders, although the majority of spirit possessions may take place while music is being played, its effect is not as confining as some people may believe.
Music can be used to calm possession or to terminate it, and at times does not have to be present at all.
At the bira, the musicians are responsible for keeping the spirit at the ceremony.
If the force of their playing drops, the spirit could drift away shortly after its arrival, and if they do not play with the right energy, possession will not take place at all.
In this case it is the music and musicians who govern the extent and length of possession, as well as the medium’s experience of the music.
It is not believed that any particular instrument, mode or rhythm can be specifically be associated with the inducement of possession, as musical styles and instruments vary so much from culture to culture.
There are cases, however, where emphasis may be on either vocal or instrumental music.
Among the BaTonga, music is primarily vocal, aside from the clapping and the sound from the antelope horns or nyele.
Dance also facilitates possession; it ranges from the wild movements of a person in a state of wild possession to the monotonous bobbing of the head while seated.
Dance seems inspired by music and not vice versa.
It is in many ways an extension of the music through movement, and works alongside it to create the necessary conditions for possession and communication with the spirit world.
Entering into dance, one is able to submit to the energy being generated by the music.
For possession to occur, there must be an opening or clearing of space in order to accommodate the spirit that wishes to take over the body.
Trance is therefore a process of opening oneself up, disengaging thought processes and letting the body be driven by the music.
Dance, in itself, does not seem to have the same power as music to call directly on the spirit world.
Its role is to affect the human being, not the spirit, whereas the music does both.
Dance is used to help put the body into a state of trance and enable the individual to observe the spirit world.

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