Dead Can Dance

A new Ellipsis Arts CD investigates the living music of the world's death rituals

A man from a wealthy family in Madagascar had a dream about his grandmother. She was lonely and needed new clothes. When he awoke he told his family, and they began notifying relatives throughout the large African island that there would be a famadihana gathering in their village. They prepared enough food for a week of feasts and purchased an especially durable and expensive silk, spun by a particular type of Madagascan spider.

For three days a celebration--full of music, laughter, and eating--raged on, until it was time to walk to the stone tombs nearly a mile outside of town where the grandmother, dead for many years, was to be exhumed and revisited. Other deceased ancestors were also taken out to enjoy the festivities, but it was the grandmother, the subject of the dream, who was the primary focus of attention. People hugged her, chatted with her about their lives, and danced with her as the music began anew. Before the day was over, she was rewrapped in the fresh silk and returned to her resting place to the accompaniment of a collection of flutes, blown in flitting, rapid bursts, which melded with the locomotive rhythm of walking bass drums.

A lullaby for the big sleep: Día de los Muertos in Peru
A lullaby for the big sleep: Día de los Muertos in Peru

When a friend told him this story, Jeffrey Charno, a co-founder and executive producer at Ellipsis Arts, a Northern California-based record label specializing in obscure and experimental music, knew that he wanted his next big project to explore how different cultures deal with death.

"People have profoundly different approaches, and everyone thinks what they do is completely normal," he explains over the phone from California. "An African tribal member was told what we often do in this country--how when a person dies we go to the yellow pages and look up a mortuary and turn our loved ones over to a complete stranger. He thought that was barbaric, totally primitive. And if you can step outside your own culture, you can relate to that."

The fruit of Charno's inspiration, an Ellipsis CD and booklet titled Dancing with the Dead: The Music of Global Death Rites, is a rare and wonderful thing: a world music sampler that is both marvelously diverse and cogently thematic. Its 17 tracks run the gamut of ritualistic emotion. The listener is taken from the churning cadences of a fire-and-brimstone eulogy in Pensacola, Florida, to the passionate lilt of Sufi qawwali vocals in Pakistan. There is a raucous funeral march recorded in 1951 by New Orleans's legendary Eureka Brass Band, a winsome Mexican Day of the Dead ditty, and a keening, vibrato-heavy funeral song from a Chinese Buddhist ensemble.

As with most Ellipsis Arts projects, the liner notes are voluminous and complementary to the music. There is an informative, lighthearted essay by writer Greg Palmer, a paragraph-long synopsis for the way each of the world's major religions put death into context, a rumination on the connection between death and food, and a thorough explanation of the setting and purpose of each song. (Interestingly enough, the only glaring omission is the absence of the musicians' names and their specific instrumentation.)

Ultimately the funeral customs this album examines tell us more about how people live in the face of death than about the dying itself. In the Jewish tradition, professional mourners are occasionally hired to create an atmosphere where people are more comfortable venting their emotions. The Warramunga people of Australia scream, gash their thighs right to the muscle, and bloody their heads with knives, a showing of violence that's an expression of respect more than grief and is reportedly the same whether the deceased is a friend or a stranger.

With such a wide spectrum of responses, the album faces a stiff challenge in tying its story together in some neat bundle of sociocultural analysis and "what does it all mean?" philosophizing. If Dancing with the Dead teaches us anything about our responses to mortality, it is that one culture's belief system is as weird and wise as the next. So toss aside the liner notes for a while and simply listen to the music, the art form best equipped to bridge the mystery between the spiritual and material realms.

Hear the otherworldly resonance of dozens of panpipes as a kobi orchestra from the Nasioi people of Papua, New Guinea, plays the song "Funeral Music" while circling a large tree. Swim in the gorgeous, complex harmonies of a 20-piece, bronze-percussion orchestra in Bali or the plaintive, solitary song-chant of a Jewish lament specific to Eastern Europe. Or check out Keith Mahone, a Native American of the Hualapai People living in northwest Arizona, who works himself into a trancelike, repetitious vocal rhythm while singing a "Bird Song" designed to help the deceased find its way to the next life. Each is soul music--in more ways than one.

 
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