Ogunde: John Coltrane and Afro-Atlantic Mythopoesis

[In 2008 Wu Ming 1 wrote a series of articles on some strange, "exotic", ancient-sounding titles famous jazz musicians gave to their compositions. The articles were published on Musica Jazz, the oldest and most important jazz magazine in Italy. Little by little they've been translated into English, so you too have the chance to read them. Starting today, we'll publish them on this blog by the end of Autumn. The first installment is dedicated to Ogunde, an ancient Yoruba chant John Coltrane reinterpreted soon before his death.
Wu Ming 1 is the author of New Thing (2004), an "unidentified narrative object" (ie a weird novel) on the NYC free jazz scene around 1967. In recent years he's been writing extensively on Black music, his major effort being a long essay titled Black Noise Supremacy: Notes and Digressions on the Alleged "Whiteness" of Punk and the African Origins of Rock'n'Roll Corporeity (2006, so far available only in Italian and Spanish)].
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Recently on this magazine, Luca Conti noticed how certain titles of jazz and, more generally, Afro-American music compositions recall “a mysterious, unfathomable, even macabre Africa, a place the white man is not allowed to access. Listening to those songs makes you feel like you’re hearing a message that, unfortunately, is not addressed to you and does nothing to include you in the conversation.”
I don’t want to enter the troublesome debate on music being “asemantic”. I will merely state the obvious: a jazz tune is almost always devoid of lyrics, and the title is the only verbal element. Only the title says something. The artist plays with associations and suggests a mood, an environment (albeit vague), a frame of images and concepts. Titling one of his compositions Relaxin ‘at Camarillo, Charlie Parker enriches the music with a sarcastic autobiographical reference (his forced stay at a mental hospital), indicating a possible approach, a key to listening. Naming his song All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother, Charles Mingus imposed a frame, indicating that the piece must be listened to imaginatively, with a willingness to force the cage of reality and a desire to play with absurd assumptions.
In the second half of the 20th century, as jazz rediscovered its African genesis, more and more titles brough up ancient languages, exotic religions or remote civilizations. Other times the title is a word in common use, appended to the music in order to produce incongruous effects. “What does Sunny Murray‘s Giblet reference?”, asks Luca Conti. If the tune is traditional, then the title is not chosen by the musician: it has come down the river of centuries, a phonetic fetish, an uncanny and barely decipherable object. In rare and extreme cases, the title is just an alphanumeric jumble, like a parody of scientific formulas, as in some Anthony Braxton albums, eg Comp. 26 G 99 G.
In this series of articles I will travel back in time and investigate the mysterious worlds hidden in strange, allusive titles. From time to time, I will make a “savage” use of etymology, philology, linguistics and anthropology, and it’s a mystery even to me where I’m going.
Let’s start with one of the last tracks recorded by John Coltrane before he died in the winter of 1967. Ogunde is the opening gem of his posthumous album Expression. Stretched beyond measure, it fills half of the famous Olatunji Concert, Coltrane’s last recorded live performance (April 23d, 1967).
The choice of this tune was influenced by Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian percussionist belonging to the Yoruba ethnic group and the eponymous founder of the Harlem cultural center that hosts the gig. Years ago, Olatunji got Coltrane interested in African music, an interest which, instead of fading, has grown more and more. Before discovering he had cancer, the saxophonist was planning a trip to the African continent and had in mind to reinterpret the songs of the Yoruba tradition.
Ogunde is a Yoruba chant, but Trane has received it from Brazil. In the liner notes of the Olatunji Concert cd, written by the critic and pianist David Wild, we find this brief explanation:

[The] composition [is] based on the Afro-Brazilian folk song Ogunde Varere. Coltrane most likely knew of it from composer Francisco Ernani Braga‘s arrangement, part of a set of eight traditional songs recorded by the classical soprano Bidu Sayão in 1947. Braga translated the title as «Prayer of the gods» and described it as “a negro spiritual in African dialect.”

David Wild has no fault, he merely reported other people’s errors and approximations, but if we proceeded backward from these scant data, we would enter one dead end street after another.
To begin with, Ogunde Varere is a title that doesn’t exist. In the version recorded by Bidu Sayão (orchestra directed by Heitor Villa-Lobos!) the song is called Ogunde Uareré. In fact, there is no “v” sound in Yoruba language. Who knows who was the first scribe to make this typographical error which, after bouncing several times here and there, is now part of the Coltrane vulgata.
Secondly, as we shall see, the correct translation is not Prayer of the gods.
It would be even worse if we started the journey from a review of the CD published in 2001 on an Italian weekly, where the journalist called Ogunde “a nice little song of the Afro-Brazilian tradition.”
“Nice little song”? Such a description could suit My Favorite Things, but certainly not Ogunde, because we’re talking about the hard stuff here, ie the cults, rituals and fetishes of the Afro-Atlantic world: Candomblé in North-East Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Voodoo and Obeah in the West Indies.
That’s right, the song in question is known from the Caribbean to Brazil, and the opening line has many variations, due to deformations occurred in the oral tradition, as well as in transcriptions made in different periods and geographical areas. To follow these travels on the Net one must force Google, bend and stretch the search to the extreme and, when it breaks, run where the splinters fall, sift the soil and check every pebble. In this way, in the Caribbean area we can find Oggúndé Arere, Ogun de Arere, Oggundere Arere e Ogun rere Arere. However you transcribe it, it is an ancient Orikì (invocation) to the African deity Ogun (Ogum in Brazil, Oggún in Cuba, Ogoun in Haiti).
Ogun is one of the Orishas, the spirits of the Yoruba religion that – to put it very simply – “mediate” the relationship between the humans and Olodumare, the creator of the universe, a Being that is remote and unknowable as such. This relationship between a God who is “higher up” and a multitude of “intermediate” figures also exists in the Catholic pantheon, which is full of archangels, saints and martyrs. This parallel allowed African slaves to disguise their beliefs and make them acceptable in the New World, by “dressing up” each Orisha as a saint of the Canon (hence the word Santeria). In Cuba, Ogun corresponds to Saint Peter. In Brazil he corresponds Saint George. To be more precise, the Orishas are manifestations of the supreme God: on a different plane of existence, they are Olodumare. If in Christianity God has three personas (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), in the Yoruba religion He has several dozens of them, and the matter is more fun.
Ogun is the lord of war, metals, anger, blades, incandescent things, fever and the butchery of animals. Accordingly, he is the protector of blacksmiths, miners, barbers, butchers, surgeons, hunters, soldiers and generally anyone who uses metal tools to cut, dig, drill, beat, forge, cauterize and so on. Ogun’s colors are black and purple. “Arera” is one of his attributes and it seems to mean “king of Ire” (a place in the state of Ekiti, Nigeria), although in some texts it is translated as “butcher”. Certainly you don’t dedicate “nice little songs” to a guy like that, one that came down from the sky during the Creation, hanging by a thread of spider web and waving a machete.
Francisco Braga was a composer of operas and symphonic music. His main influence was Ricard Wagner. In his version of this orikì every edge is beveled, every asperity is smoothed down, the melody is adapted by force to the Western scale. The 1947 recording retains very little Candomblé. Yes, the words are there, those arcane Yoruba formulas (“Ogunde arere / ile bogbo lokua / Ogun wanile Ogun walona“), but from how Bidu Sayão sings them, it might be Ecclesiastical Latin. No more swirling blades, no more red-hot iron, the fever is off and the furnace extinguished. Farewell to Africa.
Revitalizing the Orikì is the task Coltrane undertakes twenty years later. Ogunde‘s studio version is quiet and tense at the same time, intimate and yet open to the world. Here the tune becomes an invocation again. A prayer. David Wild writes that this music has “an impassioned, supplicating quality.” After the opening theme, Trane starts the search, the sax rummages in the corners of memory, “in the back of the Black man’s mind.” It’s a bird’s eye view on the Black diaspora. Trane leaves Brazil and flies back to Africa passing through the Blues. Ogun is still far away but the music calls him, blows and revives old embers, fans the timid flame that a few weeks later, at the Olatunji Center of African Culture, will swell to become a majestic blaze. In the endless live version (more than twenty-eight minutes), Ogun appears and dance on embers, amidst bushes of sparks, swinging a machete over everyone’s heads.
There is a painting by Davide Minetti, an acrylic on canvas made in 1997. Coltrane emerges from the shadows and a white light illuminates his face. He wears a dark suit jacket, his shirt is blue, his eyes are closed. Behind and around him, thick brushstrokes are causing black waves. Munch-like bends on a fiery red background.
The name of the work is “Ogunde varere”.
The circle keeps closing, the cycle keeps starting again.

– Originally published on Musica Jazz no.3, year 64, March 2008.

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We are the Wu Ming Foundation, a collective of writers based in Italy. We are the authors of several novels and non-fiction books written with literary techniques (which we prefer to describe as UNOs, Unidentified Narrative Objects). As of February 2014, four of our novels are available in English: Q, 54, Manituana and Altai. This is our blog in English. Ugly and rarely updated, in bad need of a restructuring, but it's better than nothing. Our livelier, regularly updated blog is in Italian and it's called Giap.