THE BAHAMAS: Exuma, The Obeah Man - Exuma
Take off your colonial-tinted Western goggles, don't immediately judge that which you are not used to, and the record's depths will reveal itself as more than exotic and zany 'black music'
There is so much to say about this album, that I don’t know exactly where to begin. It is arguably the strangest record that I had been presented with at the time of listening, although not the most peculiar that we shall review (keep an eye out for Joel’s review of a Liberian album that will be published here next month, a record that certainly surpasses this one in terms of weirdness). It is fair to say that before this journey of musical discovery, my tastes were fairly unadventurous. I found it difficult to step out of my comfort zone and really appreciate the more experimental side of legendary artists such as David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Prince. Even after this somewhat exhaustive process of exploration, I am still not always overly appreciative of genres and styles that don’t fit my natural proclivity as music ‘to be enjoyed’ rather than ‘to be admired’.
“...this album represents the psychedelic experience far greater than any purported legendary psychedelic album.”
With that in mind, one can understand that I kind of hated this album when I first listened to it. It is raucous, it is frenzied, and at times it is even disturbing. Often I could not help but feel I had been locked in a circus or a psychiatric ward, desperate to return to my happy place. Musically my happy place is soul music, which is what made this album even more excruciating a listen the first time round. This is because Exuma would taunt me with his rather spectacularly soulful voice, regularly leading me to believe that the nightmarish cacophony of sounds such as howling wolves, ribbiting frogs and jarring cowbells would soon be over before sending me right back into the musical equivalent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
However, this comparison, although perhaps a clumsy one, has a whiff of truthiness behind it, as although Exuma’s music is not explicitly about savagery or cannibalism, there is a strong ritualistic and primitive tradition which informs much of the music. It is with this added knowledge, alongside a fairly lengthy period of time to acclimatise myself to other experimental albums, that I find myself finding the album so interesting that I can put my grievances about its freaky nature aside. In some respects, it would not be an understatement to say the album is genius – though one should keep in mind Oscar Levant's famous platitude that ‘there is a fine line between genius and insanity’ when considering that point of view.
The spiritual practice that the album is about, to a certain degree, is called Obeah. Nowadays, practicing this system of justice-making in the Bahamas comes with a punishment of incarceration according to the Bahamian Penal Code, as it is viewed by some as a nefarious form of witchcraft. Yet, for Exuma, this religion of sorts is fundamental to his understanding of the mystical and spiritual realm. Exuma’s curiosity behind such ideas started as a child, as he grew up acquiring a great knowledge of bush medicine. Obeah doesn’t seem to be simply an eccentric quirk of Exuma’s, rather the whole piece almost feels like an exorcism, as if he is exalting spirits and if the listener immerses themselves in the record there is something rather cathartic about the whole experience.
The visceral emotion with which he sings brings a whole new meaning to the adjective ‘raw’ to describe his vocals. On songs like Dambala it truly feels like he is on his knees submitting himself to his higher power. Yet, arguably the most madcap track on the record, Junkanoo, seems to have very little to do with the Obeah tradition. It is a homage to the Bahamian Boxing Day street parade tradition of Junkanoo. The bustling soundscape filled with whistles might seem a bit peculiar and overly upbeat within the context of such an heavily emotional album, preceded and followed by the rather intense Mama Loi, Papa Loi and Sceance In The Sixth Fret.
Overall, my opinions on the album have massively shifted from being completely unnerved to now being full of respect for such an ambitious piece, which I at times (particularly on You Don’t Know What’s Going On) genuinely love. Without wishing to divulge too much about dabbling into the world of recreational drugs that in a previous period of my life I had engaged with, I would say that this album represents the psychedelic experience far greater than any purported legendary psychedelic album. This is not to knock the music of the likes of Pink Floyd or The Velvet Underground, but simply put this so-called ‘freak-folk’ album reminds me of those chemical-induced journeys far more than any piece of music I have come across. One thing it has in common with many of those experiences is that once you let go, the intensity of sensations that are felt, with the waves of both wild highs and deeply painful lows, often feel indescribably primeval.
Yet, the strength of human resilience is often so secure that even though the depth of those emotions are like very little else we encounter in everyday life, when one submits themselves to engage with their subconscious reflections they comes out the other side of it feeling a sense of achievement, sometimes simply by having survived and having learnt from the experience. In much the same way, listening to Exuma, The Obeah Man without the resistance and unwillingness to sit in discomfort that I first had, was a completely different experience that parallels some of those journeys I had been on many moons ago. Whilst, that is something I chose to no longer partake in, this reminder of these experiences put a smile on my face, giving the album a bizarrely personal meaning I never thought that such an unconventional composition could have.