Cecil Taylor’s Voodoo Poetics

David Grundy


This piece began as a paper presented at Unit Structures – The Art of Cecil Taylor, a conference organized by Michelle Yom and held at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Brooklyn College in October 2019. Elements have also appeared in Chicago Review, Vol.62, No.4 (Summer-Fall 2019), as ‘“Everything you do”: On the poetry of Cecil Taylor.’ Many thanks to Dominic Lash and Bill Shoemaker for their assistance reading drafts, and to Bobby Zankel for an extremely helpful conversation on Taylor’s teaching practice.


Up to now, Cecil Taylor’s poetry has been seriously neglected. There are various reasons for such neglect: much of this poetry was delivered orally, as part of a ritual, multi-genre conception of art; it was generally performed, or recorded, rather than being printed; and when it was printed, the printings were often fugitive. To take one example, in the late 1970s, some poems appeared in Bob Callahan’s New World Journal. These were excerpts from two books, Mysteries and Seeds and Hollers, that Callahan’s Turtle Island Press was going to publish, but the books themselves never appeared, and periodic announcements of other book projects invariably came to naught.[i] There are around a hundred pages of published material from magazines, album liner notes, and other ephemeral sources which have never been collected into a single volume, plus an unknown number of pages of manuscript. The question of the publication status of that work is something that will hopefully be resolved as the long and complex work of archiving Taylor’s writing is undertaken. (Forthcoming books are promised in the editorial hands of Fred Moten, Brent Hayes Edwards and Chris Funkhouser.)

Taylor’s poems are, in essence, theories of musical creation (or artistic creation in general), to greater or lesser levels of specificity. Thus, perhaps his best-known text, ‘Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture’, appeared in the liner notes to Unit Structures (1966) as an explanation of the particular compositional practices behind that album. Likewise, ‘Choir’ and ‘Langage’ are Taylor’s written contribution to his live duo record with Mary Lou Williams, Embraced (1977), sitting alongside her prose description of the planning behind the concert.[ii] These pieces theorize music in a vocabulary drawn from geology, science, and a vast range of non-Western religious systems, from Papua New Guinea to West Africa and Meso-America. Taylor was nothing if not polymathic. Further work could easily be done on other elements of Taylor’s thinking, as mentioned in interviews and poems – the importance of kabuki theatre, of Native and Meso-American thought, West African religion in general, and ancient Egyptian mythology – and elsewhere I’ve offered a more general introduction to Taylor’s poetry.[iii]

In this piece I’d like to focus specifically on the importance of Voodoo to Taylor’s work – about which almost nothing has been written – and to suggest its importance for understanding Taylor’s theory of art, which is also a theory of poetry, gendering, racialisation, and social life. Like Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and others, Taylor is a theorist of his own music, his writings dense and often idiosyncratic. Reading just one page of this work might send one scrambling to all sorts of dictionaries, encyclopaedias and esoteric sources, and the little attention that has been paid to these writings has tended to skip over the references they make to non-Western belief systems. While Voodoo was just one of the ways in which Taylor drew on an encyclopaedic knowledge of world religion to theorize his own music – Yoruba, Meso-American, ancient Egyptian and, particularly, West African mythologies, are all referenced in poems and in song titles – Voodoo histories and belief systems in particular provided a useful analogy, not only for his own practice of music-making, but for the suppressed, Afrocentric histories to which he had been denied access. As he noted in 1984:

“You really have to struggle, to fight. For example, they want you to accept that Africa has been a dark continent, that there was no civilization. This makes your body die. But then you start to read and you discover how people put history wrong. For me this meant a very important process of learning ... This opens up certain things, and might lead to the fact that the breath of your poetic visions becomes more beautiful. The exploration of history is a spiritual process, in order to be able to judge one's self.”[iv]

As part of this exploration, Taylor studied a vast array of religious practices excluded from or demeaned by White Supremacist histories. One of these was Voodoo. It’s not clear exactly when Taylor became interested in Voodoo: he made reference to Voodoo, alongside other aspects of world religion, in his teaching from 1971 onwards, the first in-print reference occurring in 1973. While awaiting Ben Young’s in-progress biography, such details must currently remain somewhat speculative. We can say, however, that many of Taylor’s compositions and poems are named after Voodoo loa (that is to say, spirits – alternatively spelled lwa, the word derives from French ‘les lois’, laws) and practices: ‘Ayizan’ (loa of commerce and the marketplace), Legba Crossing (Legba is loa of the crossroads), Erzulie Maketh Scent (Erzulie is loa of love, an extremely important figure), ‘Da’ (eldest of the ancestors), ‘–Aquoueh R–Oyo’ (Agwé, loa of the sea), ‘Langage’ (a glossolalic mode of speech occurring during instances of Voodoo possession, whose origins are, Milo Rigaud suggests, “a synthesis of all the African dialects which form the ‘Great Magic Language’ of the [Voodoo] tradition”) and the Mysteries manuscript (Taylor refers here to the ‘mystères’, or ‘invisibles’, another name for the loa).[v] Like the Haitian metal sculptures by Georges Liautaud and Murat Briere printed alongside his poem ‘The Musician’ in the surrealist journal Arsenal / Surrealist Subversion in 1976, Taylor’s preoccupation with both poetry and Voodoo has sometimes been understood as an ‘outsider’ element of his practice, as something ‘eccentric’, or unknowable. But, as with those sculptures, if we situate it within an artistic, theoretical and historical tradition, we get something much richer and deeper.

To some extent, the function of these poems might be pedagogical; or at least, to have emerged from within a pedagogical context. Taylor was artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin from January 1970 until 1971, when he moved to Antioch College, Ohio, where he taught until the spring of 1973. Due to greater funding at Antioch, Taylor brought along then-members of his ‘Unit’, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille,  leading a large orchestra in rehearsals of his music.[vi] As well as bringing in vast amounts of new musical material – bassoonist Karen Borca and saxophonist Bobby Zankel, who both played in Taylor’s sadly under-documented larger bands for decades, recall that he brought in new scores to be performed almost every single day – Taylor’s classes also took the form of lectures and, sometimes, readings of his own poetic or prose-poetic texts.[vii]

Taylor had in part been hired at Wisconsin due to unrest among the Black student population the preceding year, involving occupation and civil disobedience. Given that the hire was a political one, as Zankel suggests, the faculty perhaps didn’t take him as seriously as they might: he may have been viewed more as another jazz musician, rather than out of respect for his stature as artist and teacher. However, Zankel, then a student at Wisconsin, notes that, while he’d met other academics with expertise in particular, specialists areas during his time at the university, Taylor was exceptional in that he “seemed to know everything: he was able to integrate and digest elements of music, history, [and] anthropology into a personalized understanding of how to live.”

At Antioch, Taylor’s ‘Black Aesthetics’ syllabi covered African-American music, poetry and dance, the set texts including Janheinz Jahn’s Muntu: African Culture and the Western World (1958), books on Voodoo by Milo Rigaud and Maya Deren, and a host of other material ranging from Godfrey Haines’s Anacalypsis: The Saitic Isis (1836) and Josef Ben-Yochannan (“Dr Ben”)’s African Origins of Major “Western Religions” (1970) to works on Black music – Jelly Roll Morton’s autobiography – work on Black Radical politics – Benjamin Davis’ Communist Councilman from Harlem (1969) and Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) – and poetry by Melvin B. Tolson and Robert Hayden.[viii] It was in this atmosphere of creative possibility – access to good-quality pianos, high-calibre musicians willing to put in the time to learn the music, and, presumably, a well-stocked library – that Taylor’s poetry seems to have really flourished alongside his music. Karen Borca explains that her own role within his ‘Black Music Ensemble’ at this time was not only to rehearse the band when Taylor, Lyons or Cyrille were away, but to provide readable copies of his poems, written in his characteristic, densely-flourished handwritten script.[ix]

As Zankel notes, Taylor “didn’t’ want to be anyone’s father”: he did not expect the musicians in his group to absorb and embrace his philosophy, as did Sun Ra.[x] Thus, for instance, in the large-group rehearsals and performances, musicians would be given poetic phrases, often relating to Voodoo and West African religions, in much the same way that they would be given the melodic fragments, or motifs, of Taylor’s compositions, to be absorbed and transformed into their own personal language, rather than followed as scores or as systematic philosophy.[xi] As Zankel suggests, Taylor “liked to not let you know everything he knew” – partly in order to ensure that each individual musician would find their own way into the music.

At Wisconsin and Antioch, his lectures and poetry readings were explanations of historical phenomena – such as the African sensibility behind the sound of the Duke Ellington saxophone section – and erased histories, in which he would play everything from Bubber Miley to recordings of pygmy music, and liberal doses of Aretha Franklin. These wide-ranging studies intersected with his own theories of musical creation, but it was the music itself that was paramount. As Zankel notes:

“He included many things: he had his own way of integrating information, of integrating his feelings and creating his own version of things. For him it was almost, in the most profound sense, it always came out of, it was about, the music ... Performing music was a religious ritual – it was not like ‘almost’ a religious ritual, or ‘something like’ a religious ritual, it was a religious ritual.”[xii]

Zankel notes that Taylor defined his objective as “motivic possession” in a symposium at the University of Dalston in 1971.[xiii] A rich phrase, this captures the multiple levels of Taylor’s thought. On the one hand, it suggests the rich tradition of spirit possession, from the Christian traditions out of which Coltrane’s music emerged, to Voodoo in Taylor’s work. On the other, it suggests Taylor’s motivic way of playing, which moved from one motif to the next, developed, transposed, transformed, rather than developing from and over harmonic progressions (chord changes).[xiv] This intermingling of spiritual discourse with musicology and aesthetics is characteristic of Taylor’s thought. Likewise, his description of different registers of the piano as the ‘abyssal’ and the ‘astral’, terms derived from Voodoo which he also used to describe the separate areas covered by Alan Silva and Henry Grime’s bass-playing on Unit Structures)[xv].

Assuming (perhaps wrongly) that readers will not be extensively familiar with the history of Voodoo, I’ll offer a brief and necessarily crude summary. Voodoo (also spelled vodoun or vodou) emerges in eighteenth-century Haiti amongst enslaved West Africans, as a syncretic fusion of West African ritual practices with Catholicism.[xvi] It plays a key role in the Haitian revolution. Like the Creole language, it both gave enslaved people the conviction and the means to organize themselves: CLR James famously notes that the insurrection was signalled through a Voodoo ceremony led by the houngan (priest) Boukman – and Voodoo generally serves as a destabilising force, associated with the peasant masses, which the elites constantly try to suppress – François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s cynical appropriation of Voodoo being an exception here.[xvii] Voodoo was an important tool in the spread of the Haitian revolution. That revolution itself marks an important stage in radical theorisations of universalism, in which the French Revolution’s declaration of universal humanity (one not extended to those France had colonized) was taken literally – in James Martel’s reading, ‘misinterpellated’ – in a manner that also revealed race as essentialist fiction (under Dessalines’ 1805 constitution, no white could set foot on Haiti as a master or owner of property, but whites were permitted to stay and be naturalized as Haitians, provided they accepted the designation “black”.[xviii]) In part the inspiration for Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, as Susan Buck-Morss notes, the Revolution itself offers a vision of universalism and world history that radically challenges Hegel’s own concept of race.[xix]

Voodoo’s role in the organisation of and inspiration for the revolution does not, of course, mean that Voodoo was itself inherently revolutionary, as the cynical appropriation by ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier warns, and as Willy Apollon has usefully discussed.[xx] Nonetheless, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot notes, and in terms which we could appropriate to describe Taylor’s own work and his own theory of art, “what took place [in Boukman’s ceremony] was political, but it wasn’t only politics. In any case, it wasn’t politics in the fashion of most of the European people”.[xxi] Voodoo practices also came to North America and became prominent, particularly in the South, as ‘hoodoo’ – and these practices then influenced the whole of American culture through the blues, whose lyrics are saturated in hoodoo. Voodoo itself is a spiritual practice in which possession is central—during Voodoo ceremonies, through ritual drumming, singing and dance, serviteurs are possessed by the loa who ‘ride’ them like horses, who speak and move through them. This form of possession is important in challenging another form of possession—it resists the status of being property, of being a slave. As Joan Dayan says: “The dispossession accomplished by slavery became the model for possession in vodou: for making a man not into a thing but into a spirit.”

Taylor is not the only twentieth-century artist to use Haitian Voodoo or its American cousin, hoodoo. Examples range from Charles Chesnutt to Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, John Edgar Wideman, Ntozake Shange, Will Alexander, and any number of blues lyricists; and from the Caribbean, Aimé Césaire, René Depestre, and the late Edward Kamau Brathwaite (with whom Taylor read in 1994). Speaking very broadly, earlier uses of Voodoo such as those of Chesnutt’s or Hurston’s often have to do with the idea of ‘folk’ culture. There is sometimes an ambivalent relationship here: these writers are struggling with the fact that the Hoodoo/ Voodoo practices they place within literature are often dismissed as backwards superstition, antithetical to urban modernity. In other words, they’re struggling with an association with ‘primitivism’. However, later writers like Depestre, Brathwaite, Reed, Taylor and Shange refuse this kind of distance and the assumptions it carries. Reed is probably the closest of these artists to Taylor, in that his ‘neo-hoodoo’ aesthetic semi-programmatically makes Voodoo an organising principle and explanation of his artistic work. But Taylor’s usage is entirely his own. Here are some of the principal reasons I think Voodoo is important for Taylor’s thinking, and for our thinking about Taylor’s work.

1. Voodoo possession provides a useful way of thinking about language and diaspora.

“If one claims, following a post-structuralist line, that to possess the “gift” of language is to be possessed, then one immediately situates him or herself in a domain familiar to the diaspora. Possession operates both in the spirit work of Voodoo and in the dread slave and Voodoo economics perpetuated by the West. What is involved in possession, in either case, is supplementarity – the immediately mediating appearance, as spectre or shadow, of a second and secondary “self”. In specifically diasporic terms, “being possessed” (as slave, but also as a being possessed) is more than a necessary doubling or inscribed “otherness” of the con-scripted (those who come, as necessity, with writing). For in the diaspora, the possessed are governed not simply by script but also by productive conditions that render their entire play a tripling.
Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987): 53

The passage from Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance quoted above seems to me particularly useful for thinking of language itself as a state of possession. For Baker, the ability to speak, to possess and master language, is itself already to be spoken by, to be possessed and mastered by it. Likewise, for Taylor, language is always a carrying over, a carrying across: one utters, ventriloquises, channels language, as a socially-sedimented form that arises from somewhere other than one’s self.[xxii] This is both terrifying, the result of a condition of powerlessness – think the language bans placed on enslaved peoples – and gives the possibility for improvisational change, for speaking outside, or beside, one’s self, as a means of more truly knowing that self in concert with others, in new and hybrid forms, from Créole to new modes of music.

[...] we have abilities to
          become in otherness’s ourselves 
          transported beyond pedestrian
          terrain /

          Taylor, ‘–Aquoueh R–Oyo’

The second element in Baker’s formulation is that possession relates to the condition of diaspora, possession’s doubleness encapsulating the doubleness of diaspora just as diaspora encapsulates the doubleness (or, in Baker’s terms, the tripling) of possession. For Baker, possession is both Voodoo’s spirit work and western slave and “Voodoo economics”—these all involve what he calls “the mediating appearance or a second and secondary ‘self’”. And that second self links us to the dialectical formulations we find in the work of W.E.B DuBois, particularly in The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction: to double consciousness, which is also second sight, and to those kinds of dialectical claims that DuBois makes in relation to history, where the most marginalised are the most central, the most excluded from democracy carry the greatest democratic hopes, and the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.

2. Voodoo is an unacknowledged central presence, not just in African-American artforms – particularly music – but in American culture as a whole.

Haitian Voodoo is syncretic, a bricolage: it incorporates elements of both Catholicism and West African religion; some of the loa, like Jean Zombie or like Boukman himself, are associated with slave rebellions and historical figures from Haiti as much as African ancestors; it’s both historical and spiritual, cultural and political. And Voodoo, when it comes to America, again adapts, and moves from a position of marginality to an unacknowledged centrality in American culture, through the diffusion of a hoodoo imaginary into American music via the blues and rock and roll. (Michael Ventura’s article ‘Hear That Long Black Snake Moan’ is the key text here, and Paul Garon’s Blues and the Poetic Spirit likewise offers a useful reading of hoodoo’s traces in blues lyrics.[xxiii]) Following through on Ventura, John Mowitt goes so far as to argue that “Voodoo might be regarded as the general condition of musicking in the Americas”, a point I think we can usefully place alongside Taylor’s comments in a panel discussion for the journal arts/Canada in 1967.[xxiv] “Black – the black way of life – is an integral part of the American experience – the dance, for instance, the slop, Lindy hop, applejack, Watusi. Or the language, the spirit of the black in the language – ‘hip,’ ‘Daddy,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘what’s happening,’ ‘dig.’ These are manifestations of black energy, of black power, if you will.”[xxv] If Mowitt’s point risks overstatement, and if Taylor does not here specifically reference the Hoodoo/Voodoo legacy behind the Blues, Rock and Roll, and the Afro-Christian church, the point nonetheless stands. Often unacknowledged Black aesthetic practices structure American life as a whole – just as unacknowledged, demeaned, unremunerated, and racialized Black labour structures American, and world capital.

3. Voodoo refuses the separation of art and the social.

holy consecration
         of continuance
.                  .
unification of all
human potential
into one confluent total
     –  Energy  –
Change, it is in usage of word
          foreign to your home
          vernacular, dark sounds
          the other side of Shakespeare

(Cecil Taylor, from Mysteries)

Amiri Baraka said in the late ‘60s that Taylor was a “secular” artist whose references were “determinedly Western and modern, contemporary in the most Western sense,” influenced by “Europe ... French poets ... and the world of ‘pure art.’” This sense that Taylor’s music was somehow Western – critics picking up on perceived echoes of Messiaen, Stockhausen or other European avant-gardists rather than the jazz tradition – has dogged much subsequent criticism. (The idea that Taylor was somehow able to study the work of Xenakis at music college is just one such misunderstanding.[xxvi]) But place Taylor’s work in relation to Voodoo and a different story emerges. Voodoo isn’t an art practice; it’s a religious (social) practice that is both spiritual and artistic. It refuses those ‘Western and Modern’ divisions of art and life—notions of ‘pure art’ that can be separated from social life, just as a (racialised, classed, gendered) culture elite are separated from the ‘masses’, getting to decide what is and is not art. And this is precisely why it’s important to Taylor. When interviewed by Bill Smith for Ron Mann’s 1981 film Imagine the Sound, Taylor says:

“It seems to me what music is, is ... everything that you do. And once again, the idea about this not being a seminar is that, hopefully, everything that I try to do in this situation has the same kind of control over the senses that the making of, you know, the particular art of music is, you know. So to read or dance, you know, to converse, is all a part of the making of music. So that when, you know, when one looks and one looks and if there is a fuchsia-coloured awning sticking out on the thirtieth floor one says, oh wow. So that, to me what it is is everything one does ...

What one tries to do is think of all the things that have been interesting to you, and once you make the commitment to, you know, poetry, then all of those areas that are germane to your existence as a specialist in music means that you see all of art as a potential harvesting area, and you busy yourself about getting as much of it as you can, and using it whenever the situation allows you to do so.”

So music also includes reading, dancing, conversing, and it’s not just that these things inform music – as part of its “potential harvesting area” –  but they are in some sense themselves music: that an artistic specialism, or, to use Taylor’s word, “commitment,” provides a specific location from which to access a much broader field, again refusing the separation fostered by the administered world. Taylor has this fantastic sentence, “when one looks and if there is a fuschia-coloured awning sticking out on the thirtieth floor one says, oh wow”. And that in turns reminds me of a story Saidiya Hartman told recently, as part of her current project of reclaiming forgotten voices from the archives to form a collective, a chorus – the story of an early 20th-century white rent collector who wanted to evict an African-American tenant because she displayed three flowerpots on her windowsill.[xxvii] For Hartman, this is an example of how people in oppressive conditions turn their life into art, their living environment into art, and how those who oppress them refuse that gesture, even as they then impose simplistic notions of the aesthetic onto those who can be said not to possess them (bringing beauty and pleasure into the lives of people who already have, in Hartman’s words, an “excess” of pleasure and beauty). And I think Taylor is gesturing here towards a similar sense of what Laura Harris might call “the social life of blackness,” “the aesthetic sociality of blackness.”[xxviii] In the Imagine the Sound interview, Taylor then goes on to say: “once you make the commitment to poetry, then all of those areas that are germane to your existence as a specialist in music means that you see all of art as a potential harvesting area”. Both cases are about making life or the lived environment into art. These are theories of aesthetics as life – “the point about this not being a seminar”... So, without directly referencing Voodoo per se, Voodoo and poetry here come together in very interesting ways here in relation to Taylor’s theories of aesthetics. To put it another way, Voodoo acts as influence or resource for Taylor: a way of consolidating, developing and exploring things that Taylor had already intuited, or that were already part of his practice; the “exploration of history” as “spiritual process, in order to be able to judge one’s self” that he mentions in 1984. If Taylor’s use of Voodoo risks charges of appropriation – Taylor himself was not of Haitian extraction (like Andrew Cyrille), nor was he a practitioner – we might argue that there’s a particular kind of license here embedded within Voodoo itself; or at least, within the ways in which the religion developed. Voodoo’s syncretic and mutable form, in important ways a response to the horrors of slavery, and the fact that there are numerous local variants which make it hard to descry an “overall system” (particularly given the absence of a central, scriptural text) prevents dogmatism and allows for improvisation, change and adaptation, while retaining a spiritual core.

4. Voodoo challenges binary conceptions of gender and gender roles.

During Voodoo possession, the possessed can embody spirits of either gender; as Joan Dayan notes, these rituals “re-enact a ferocity that annihilates any socialized, or fixed opposition between male and female”. And in her monograph, Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren talks about homosexual houngans (priests), called massissi, linking to West African cosmology and the divine, androgynous cosmic whole, marassa, which splits into male and female. (Series editor Joseph Campbell advised her to cut elements of these passages which linked marassa mythology to non-procreative sexuality from the book.)[xxix] Now without wanting to pin things down biographically – Taylor was ‘out’, but he refused to discuss his queerness in interviews, and we should respect his wishes – I think we can see a queer principle emerging within Voodoo practice that might also be germane to Taylor’s theory of life (as) art (as) life. There’s a beautiful, unpublished poem that Taylor wrote in 2016 which has these lines –

to exist
is the most graceful
non sequitur
of a bare

For Taylor, this transgender state is the condition of human existence as such. And here he’s opposing anything that tries to fix identity to any one, permanent state – hence his dislike of being labelled “gay,” of his music being labelled as “jazz,” and so on. In Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking, John Mowitt argues that Voodoo possession reveals the self – any self – as “but a moment in a rush of restricted possibilities that constitute the social at any given time.” This also goes beyond notions of ‘identity’ as essence – it is mutable, negotiated, dialogic, relational. “Ecstasy is not about surrender. It is about the disorienting recognition of one’s dependence on a relationship, on a field of relations, that an identity manages poorly, if at all.” We are, in Taylor’s words, “in otherness’s ourselves.” This might be revealed and emphasized in the Voodoo ceremony, but it’s also true of all art, and of all life.  Voodoo reveals the socialised nature of identity in ways that academic theories of post-structuralism, the performativity of gender and so on, only came to later. Resistance to the binaries of thought-feeling, body-mind, mind-spirit comes precisely through those forms demonised as overly bodily, hysterical, sexual, pagan.

Taylor uses Voodoo to theorize the musical ensemble – which is also a vision of and a working group for social life – precisely because it challenges this individual focus used to categorise, divide and to exploit human life. And he uses it because it shows how – unacknowledged—black aesthetic practices structure American life as a whole – just as unacknowledged labour structures American, and world capital. Voodoo is also a way to both celebrate and mourn a neglected and demonised African heritage, against the modes of physical disciplining, the division between mind and body that, as Taylor put it in an interview for Cadence, “makes your body die.”[xxx] As a spiritual practice, art “tells you that there is something else, another reality: the immaterial”; it fights against the horror of having been made property – reduced to matter without agency – the denial of that violence and the denial of African civilization and history; it “opens up certain things, and might lead to the fact that the breath of your poetic visions becomes more beautiful.” As in Voodoo, art, spirituality, history and knowledge of self are inseparable: “the exploration of history is a spiritual process, in order to be able to judge one’s self.” And we should note also how important this is for Taylor as a gay man whose body might often have been made to feel that bodily death, that social death, facing the physical violence of the State and of queer-bashers, the psychic violence of shame.

5. Voodoo resists the division of mind and body.

In his poem “–Aquoueh R–Oyo,” Taylor writes: “ ‘they’ have divided the body / treating the mind as divine agent / emotion must be controlled / to achieve ‘purity.’” I think we all know who “‘they’” are here: Cartesian white supremacists, imperial agents of racialization and enslavement. Voodoo’s holistic understanding counters the divisions of gender, of male and female; processes of disembodiment which are also processes of complete reduction to the body – or to an essentialised fantasy of the body, and to processes of gendering and racialisation, of separating individual from collective, from the social; those that gather under the guise of universalism, of the western, the rational, the imperial, the progressive, what Taylor calls “logic, the lowest form of magic.”[xxxi] Calling logic the lowest form of magic is a manoeuvre that not only puts logic in its place, but suggests that what is valuable about logic is precisely that it is a form of magic, rather than what guarantees that rationalism won’t fall for the tricks of wizards and sorcerers.[xxxii] The elevation of logic over all that is supposed ‘illogical’, irrational and superstitious is part of a false universalism: the world made in the image of whiteness as the human, as Sylvia Wyner has noted. By contrast, Taylor’s voodoo aesthetics represent a really radical (counter)humanism, a really radical (counter)universalism.

In his dictionary Juba to Jive, poet Clarence Major defines hoodoo as “the spirit of essence of everything; an early African-American religion with origins in west African spiritual life.” Notice the two parts of this definition: hoodoo is both the spirit of everything and something specifically to do with African-American experience and its links to West African spirituality, and then again, the way these are bound up with the question of the color line, racialisation, and the development of racial capitalism behind present crises of genocide and ecocide.  Voodoo isn’t just a fringe interest, an eccentricity, something to do with Voodoo dolls, with zombie movies or myths of cannibalism, or with primitivism or folk art or outsider art.

*        *        *

So how does this all manifest in particular poems? Taylor’s poetry album Chinampas (1987) takes its title from Meso-American ‘floating gardens’ – agricultural irrigation islands – but the space its texts occupy is principally that of the Voodoo hounfor, the temple where ritual possession takes place. Here, the possessed initiates are “ridden” by loa such as Damballah, who speak through their “horses”.  (As Zora Neale Hurston notes in her invaluable book of the same name, the phrase “tell my horse” has passed into Haitian slang as a kind of subversive nod to ways of expressing the socially, politically, spiritually inexpressible.) This is what Taylor is referencing in passages like these:

incarnate theyselves in the heads of their horses rolling against the cylindrical wood [...]
sea of life, winged sun in the act of shedding all as forces of the invisible obliging those out of tongue to incarnate theyselves
Damballah Damballah Damballah

–(‘12’ 36”’ , my transcription)

For Taylor, these ceremonies give us a way to access hidden histories – “angles of blackness / concealed” – which recall the inaugural rupture of slavery “two centuries before / surrounding darkness / man facing west” (‘7’02”). “o wind o wind o wind / hearts stand in margins”, Taylor almost whispers before being interrupted by what sound like his own version of Voodoo’s “oracle bells”. The ceremonies take on a mournful aspect, occupying the space of the marginal, the forgotten, the transitory and vulnerable. These are poems of waiting – “watching across silence ... at water’s edge”. (‘3’49” ’) The last words we hear on the record are: “We may enter the womb/ And pause.”

Pausing on the impossible collective re-entry into the womb, Taylor doesn’t seek to recapture an originary essence. As he put it in 1966:

“It is not the origin but acceptance of hypothesis, that ultimate authority, poetry depends. The unknown, ever before life force our spirit considers action in reaction … Move forward recognition not in experiment but as test of their singularity, unity and sanity.”[xxxiii]

In 1991, Taylor released another instance of Voodoo poetics, this time in collaboration with The Art Ensemble of Chicago on the album Dreaming of The Masters, Volume 2: Thelonious Sphere Monk. Taylor doesn’t appear on any of the Monk tracks, but instead recites poetry on a lengthy piece where the Art Ensemble’s use of synthesizers gives a kind of ’90s-era Afro-Futurist edge to their ‘little instruments’ soundscape. Taylor’s words explicitly link possession to sound: “muse in field of long tone / spread by devoted loa”. Sound captures “what exists ... in blackness / the resonant hierarchy”; “collaboration opens the spirit”, “spirit incarnation” is “incarnation of historical dialectical surmise, in the dance that is to be ... stepped.” This “historic dialectic” is a “dialogue” which has been demeaned as “mumbo-jumbo.” Taylor responds by (semi-)sarcastically inverting vaunted western values associated with imperial domination, proclaiming “logic” to be “the lowest form of magic”; outside white supremacy’s claim to universal knowledge, Voodoo practice concerns “the original conception of joining and growth, shared by all who are people”. During the recording, Taylor briefly sings “Wade in the Water,” a song he recalls his father, “a store of knowledge about black folklore,” singing around the house. Historically, this spiritual masked, within the Christian notion of baptism, a West African ceremony in which the priest drives a cross into the river bed as a bridge facilitating communication between the realms of the living and the dead; it also served as advice to fugitive slaves to throw bloodhounds off their scent—Harriet Tubman is said to have used it this way. Here, Taylor taps into a resistant history, a history of survival, from the encoded fugitivity of runaway slaves to Afro-Christian baptism, Voodoo water rituals, and the oceanic distance of the Middle Passage.

Another water ritual appears in the title to Taylor’s 1973 poem ‘–Aquoueh R–Oyo’, dedicated to the loa of the waters (whose name is more commonly spelled Agwé), captain of the ship that carries the dead to the afterlife, crying tears for the departed and assisting the souls of those who suffered in the transatlantic slave trade.  In ceremonies for Agwé, the possessed initiate enacts a spiritual return to West Africa reversing the Middle Passage and sailing to the city of Ifé, which is referenced in Taylor’s poem ‘Garden’.

First sanctity was link, original hookup,
had then width, simply of all following
to come being–Ife–house of life, centre
of the world (Yoruba) Ile-Ife
ceremonies fountain finding protection
long ancient stream echo's as sticks
consecrated libation healed certain
chambers ...

Ile-Ife most sacred citizenship there
encompassed more of then, which was, all ever was

Ifé is both a real city in Nigeria and a dwelling place of the spirits, a mystical city accessible through the transports of possession. To access it, the houng’an (priest) strikes the vèvès, ceremonial diagrams containing ancestral power, with an asson (a calabash rattle), while the hounsi (congregants) roll on the ground to simulate the movement of waves on the voyage from west to east, before being helped to their feet in a symbolic rebirth by one possessed by a mystere from Ife, the ceremony closing with a prayer.  Taylor again describes this ritual in the poem “Da”:

vertabraes seam’d atolling
meteor pa-zzanin a hissing
asson adorn bells past

Stars hiss like snakes, bones become bells, as the realms of astral and abyssal merge and come to meet on the earth. Ancestors are contained in objects, in the texts and images of the vèvès: “interior walls covered / with VeVes, ritual / design of God. Spirit / Ancestor / Symbolized”.[xxxiv] Such enclosure in objects both mimics and challenges the objecthood, the fetishism and reification of racial capital, and the ceremony both relives and reverses the middle passage and its sufferings.

Harold Courlander notes that ceremonies don’t have to take place in the hounfor, but can take place “at waterfalls, on the seashore, in sacred groves, in ordinary homes, in a boat at sea, or under a sacred tree.” Zora Neale Hurston describes such a ceremony by a stream in her work on Haitian Voodoo, Tell My Horse. “The spirit Agoue’ ta-Royo enters their heads and they stagger about as if they are drunk. Some of them talk in the unknown tongues.” This appears to be a joyful ceremony, but there’s a sense of threat and loss, too – the houngan tells Hurston that she shouldn’t participate as Agwé can carry off those whom he chooses to a land beneath the waters. And without tying the meaning of this ceremony down too much, there’s a fairly clear link to the unfathomable losses of the Middle Passage. This is emphasized all the more in Maya Deren’s account – for, if Hurston tends to emphasize the anarchic, the joyous, and the disruptive, Deren focuses more on loss, exile, sadness. In this beautiful passage, she describes two women possessed by Agwé:

“There was something in their regard which stilled everyone. One had seen it in the faces of those who prepare to leave and wish to remember that to which they will no longer return. They met each other’s eyes, and as a way was cleared for them, approached each other, and crouched down in an embrace of mutual consolation, their arms about each other’s shoulders, their foreheads lowered, each on the other’s shoulder. So mirrored, they wept.”[xxxv]

Yet this weeping is followed by rebirth; after a ritual boat is sunk in the ocean, the chorus and drums “burst forth all at once into a vivid song of ‘rejouissance’. It was the first song of joyous nature since the beginning of the trip.”

Neither Taylor’s music nor his poem, “–Aquoeh R-Oyo,” specifically reference rituals like the ones Deren and Hurston witnessed and, in some cases, recorded.  Instead, he likens the Agwé ritual to the interactions of the improvising musical ensemble. In his music and in his poetry, Taylor is not simply re-enacting these ceremonies, but re-creating them, creating them anew; instead, Voodoo is an integral part of his own individual poetics, ethics, and aesthetics; both a way of describing his music and art practice and that practice itself. As Voodoo itself was fused from a disparate series of West African ritual practices – Ibo, Yoruba, Mahi, from Dahomey, the Congo River basin, Togo, and Nigeria – so too Taylor’s disparate influences – West African, Haitian, Japanese, Russian, Native and Mesoamerican – coalesce into a “total area,” an “unknown totality,” ecstatic and revelatory.[xxxvi] I don’t mean to suggest that the syncretism of Haitian Voodoo itself – as a specific manifestation of West African religion within a specific cultural context – and Taylor’s own syncretic artistic-spiritual practice are exactly the same. As Bobby Zankel notes, Taylor himself never went to either Haiti or Africa, though he travelled to Europe and to Japan, not feeling that he needed to make the pilgrimage as many others – from Langston Hughes to Sun Ra – had done. Paradoxically, Taylor’s understanding of the religious practices from which he drew inspiration appears to have come more from book learning and academic research than from encounters with practitioners or participation within such systems, many of which – Voodoo in particular – have an oblique reference to scriptures, to the written word. To an extent, Taylor’s interest in a range of originally distinct mythic, cultural and ritual practices from around the world is not much out of step with much of the American “counter-culture” of the 1960s in particular, whilst also sharing the Afro-centric emphasis of musicians and artists such as Sun Ra, J.A. Rogers and Dr Ben. What’s perhaps unique is just how thoroughgoing his incorporation of this material into his own artistic system is, not only in terms of a philosophy of life, but in terms of the specific formal dynamics of improvised and composed musics.

There’s much more to say here, and I should stress that this research is ongoing. But I hope that in the above I’ve given some idea of why we should attend to Voodoo in Taylor’s work, and how this is a kind of radical humanism, universalism, diasporic internationalism that crosses and re-crosses boundaries of race, gender and time, even as it’s attendant on the violent historical processes by which those are inscribed. Taylor’s musical and poetic work crosses discourses and registers and the boundaries that break down life and art into compartmentalized boxes of racialized, sexualized, and gendered separation. It is part of a total way of living, and it has much to teach us today.


[i] ‘From the Mysteries.’ New World Journal, Issue no.4, Spring, 1979; 7-16; ‘From Seeds and Hollers’. New World Journal, Issue no.5, 1980, 11-14.
[ii] Excellent written accounts of the Taylor / Williams encounter which also pay particular attention to the dynamics of its written framing are provided in Brent Hayes Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017), Linda Dahl, ‘Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor: Embraceable You?’, Jazz Times, March 1, 2000 (https://jazztimes.com/features/profiles/mary-lou-williams-cecil-taylor-embraceable-you/), and Benjamin Givan, ‘‘The Fools Don’t Think I Play Jazz’’: Cecil Taylor Meets Mary Lou Williams’, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 35, Issue 3, 2018: 397–430.
[iii] See ‘Everything you do’.
[iv] Meinrad Buholzer, ‘Cecil Taylor: Interview’, Cadence, Vol.10, No.12, Dec. 1984:6.
[v] ‘Ayizan’ is the name of a piece on Taylor and Mary Lou Williams, Embraced (Pablo Records, 1977); Legba Crossing and Erzulie Maketh Scent are live recordings from 1988, released by FMP Records the following year. The other titles are poems: ‘Da’ is printed in the liner notes to Dark to Themselves (Enja, 1976); ‘–Aquoueh R–Oyo’ in the liner notes to Spring of Two Blue-J’s (Unit Core Records, 1973) and Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) (Enja, 1978); ‘Langage’ in the liner notes to Embraced. The quotation on langage is from Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, trans. by Robert Cross (City Lights, 1985 (1953)), 132.
[vi] For more on the Antioch residency, see Dave Barber, ‘Open Space for Creativity: Cecil Taylor at Antioch’, WYSO, 2016: https://www.wyso.org/post/open-space-creativity-cecil-taylor-antioch A little-known chapter in Taylor’s creative life, none of the large group music that Taylor produced ever received official release, though the solo record Indent was recorded at Antioch (1973, Unit Core Records; reissued on Arista in 1977). Archival work conducted by Benjamin Young towards Taylor’s biography will hopefully uncover information on and recordings of this period as Taylor’s vast legacy is digested.
[vii] Karen Borca, interviewed by Ken Weiss, ‘Blood on the Floor Bassoon’, Jazz Inside, Vol.8, No.11, January-February 2018: 20-28. Bobby Zankel, interview with author, 21st February 2020 (passim).
[viii] Zankel (op. cit.). Zankel notes that the syllabi served more as a guide to the field than a strict index of the content of classes: Taylor would reference a vast variety of texts and recordings which often did not include any of the material on the syllabus.
[ix] “He had written it down but it wasn’t annotated in a concise way. He had it in books and pieces of paper laying around so he wanted it organized.” (Borca, op. cit.)
[x] Zankel (op. cit.)
[xi] Though no recordings of Taylor’s ensembles at this time were officially released, bootlegs can be heard. The use of spoken ensemble chants can be heard to good effect on the later recordings Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (Soul Note, 1985) and Legba Crossing (FMP, 1988).
[xii] Zankel (Op. Cit.)
[xiii] Ibid
[xiv] This can perhaps be heard most clearly on Indent, as well as in Jimmy Lyons’ playing in Taylor’s ensemble. Useful technical analyses of the solo work have been provided in Lynette Westendorf, ‘Cecil Taylor: Indent—‘Second Layer’’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 33, No. 1/2 (Winter - Summer, 1995): 294-326; Kaja Draksler, ‘Cecil Taylor: Life As... Structure within a free improvisation’(http://www.kajadraksler.com/Taylor.pdf); and Mark Micchelli’s paper at the Unit Structures conference – ‘Decoding Cecil Taylor: Transcription and Analysis of an Improvisation from Imagine the Sound’, which it is to be hoped will be published in due course.
[xv] “Two or three octaves below middle C is the area of the abyss, and the middle range is the surface of the earth, the astral being the upper register” (J.B. Figi, “Cecil Taylor: African Code, Black Methodology”, Down Beat (July, 1975): 13). For Silva / Grimes, Zankel (Op. Cit.).
[xvi] According to Bob Corbett, the word ‘Voodoo’ derives from the Dahomean (modern-day Beninois) word vodu meaning ‘god’ or ‘spirit’. Milo Rigaud provides an alternative explanation: “All aspects of the ritual must above all be considered secondary to the idea of the word Voodoo itself, which is sometimes spelled vo-dou or vo-du, since everything essential to the knowledge of the mystery is implicit in this word. The clearest explanation of this essential idea is that vo means “introspection” and du means “into the unknown.” ” (Secrets of Voodoo, p.85)
Though there is no consensus among scholars, alternative spellings are adopted according to the Haitian Creole pronunciation. For a helpful summary, see Bob Corbett, ‘The Spelling Voodoo’ (1998): http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/Voodoo/spelling.htm.
[xvii] On Boukman, see CLR James, The Black Jacobins (Penguin Books, 2001 (1938)), 69-71. For Voodoo’s relation to subsequent Haitian politics, see Joan Dayan, Haiti, History and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995). Michel-Rolph Trouillot identifies Creole and Vodou as the principal forms of resistance before the Haitian Revolution (‘Fire in the House’, cited below). More broadly, Créolité – as theorized, in particular, by Eduoard Glissant – might be an interesting lens through which to view Taylor’s work, as suggested by Jessie Cox’s paper at the Unit Structures conference. (Cox, ‘Cecil Taylor’s Posthumanistic Musical Score’, unpublished paper)
[xviii] Martel, The Misinterpellated Subject (Duke University Press, 2017). On Dessalines and blackness, see Richard Seymour, ‘The Blackness of Dessalines’, Lenin’s Tomb, 2008: http://www.leninology.co.uk/2008/08/blackness-of-dessalines.html.
[xix] Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).
[xx] Willy Apollon, Le vaudou: Un espace pour les voix (Editions Galilee, 1976).
[xxi] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, translated by Benjamin Hebblethwaite and Mariana Past, ‘Fire in the House’, World Literature Today , Vol. 88, No. 1 (January/February 2014), pp. 28-31 (translation of an excerpt from Trouillot’s first book, written in Haitian Creole, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti [Controversial Issues in Haitian History] (1977)).
[xxii] I use ‘language’ here to mean both musical, written, and spoken language, while acknowledging the multiple levels of complexity, historical controversy and metaphorical displacement involved in doing so. Those questions are perhaps for another article…
[xxiii] See Michael Ventura, ‘Hear that Long Snake Moan’, in Shadow Dancing in the USA (Tarcherperigee, 1985); Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit (City Lights, 1996), and Julio Finn, The Bluesman: The Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas (Interlink Books, 1992).
[xxiv] John Mowitt, Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking (Duke University Press, 2002), 83.
[xxv] ‘Black’, Arts/Canada, October, 1967, Issue no.113, “black”. [Panel discussion between Taylor, Ad Reinhardt, Aldo Tambellini, Michael Snow, and Harvey Smith.]
[xxvi] See the very useful work done by Allan Chase on Taylor’s studies at the New England Conservatory. Chase, ‘Cecil Taylor’s Education & Student Writings’, October, 3, 2019 https://allan-chase.com/2019/10/13/cecil-taylors-education-student-writings-and-some-thoughts-on-his-relationship-to-contemporary-classical-music/
[xxvii] Hartman was talking at a workshop called ‘Riotous epistemologies, freedoming black geographies’, Tate Modern, London, October 2019. The book in question is Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (W.W. Norton / Serpent’s Tail, 2019).
[xxviii] See Laura Harris, ‘What Happened to the Motley Crew?: C. L. R. James, Hélio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness’, Social Text (2012) 30 (3 (112)): 49–75. Fred Moten picks up on this term in his recent Stolen Life (Duke University Press, 2018).
[xxix] See Moira Sullivan, ‘Maya Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Ritual and Myth in Haiti’, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (University of
California Press, 2001), 232, fn.46.
[xxx] Meinrad Buholzer, ‘Cecil Taylor: Interview’, Cadence, Vol.10, No.12, Dec. 1984:6.
Sphere Monk (DIW, 1991).
[xxxii] I’m indebted for this point to bassist Dominic Lash, who I paraphrase here.
[xxxiii] ‘Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture’, printed as liner notes to Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966).
[xxxiv] Taylor, ‘from The Mysteries’ (Op. Cit.)
[xxxv] Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods Of Haiti (McPherson and Company, 1953), 129.
[xxxvi] “Total area” is Baraka’s phrase in describing Taylor’s music; “the area, an unknown totality” Taylor’s own formulation in ‘Sound structure’. Taylor and Chris Funkhouser briefly discuss the “total area” with relation to Olson in ‘ “being matter ignited…an interview with Cecil Taylor’, Hambone, No.12. Online, 1994: https://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/funkhouser/ceciltaylor.html


© David Grundy

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