Musically, this track is directly inspired by the African blues of singer/guitarist Ali Farke Toure. I have loved his music since discovering his album The River in the early 1990s. During the course of writing my album, I received a batch of CDs of my previous album from Projekt amongst which, due presumably to a freak packaging error at the pressing plant, one case contained the CD and tray inlay card for ‘Pathways and Dawns’ but the cover booklet for Ali Farke’s ‘Niafunke’ album. Well, I’m a glutton for signs of fate like that, so I determined to write a song in the Malian blues style.
Although Islam is the prevailing religion in Mali (including the Songhai and Peul peoples of Ali Farke’s home region), its practise tends to incorporate retained elements of the many animistic beliefs which predate the arrival of Islam and which still flourish throughout west Africa. In neighbouring Burkina Faso an estimated 75% of the population practise purely animistic religions, while in Mali, an estimated 35% of the Dogon people are Muslims but their rituals remain predominantly animistic.
The central animistic belief that all things – whether living creatures or inanimate objects – either have or are capable of possessing a spirit or soul is perhaps most outwardly manifested in the use of masks. There are numerous ceremonies in which masks are used to enable wearers to impersonate ancestors or spirits, and dancers often work themselves into a frenzy as the spirit of the mask enters them.
In the Man region of Cote D’Ivoire, many villages keep a treasured collection of great masks which contain the memories of that village. These masks are held to be divine and to be depositories of knowledge. No important action is ever undertaken without first addressing the appropriate mask, and the masks are central to all ritual and custom. The Dogon of Mali believe that when one of their people dies, his or her spirit moves into a mask, and the mask then becomes a central feature of the funeral rite.
The making of a mask is an important and symbolically charged act as the carver effectively brings a life-force into a previously plain lump of wood. (It is this phenomenon which fascinated Brendan Perry, inspiring both the name ‘Dead Can Dance’ and the mask image on the first DCD album cover.)
Once the mask exists and inherits its spirit, the act of placing the mask over the wearer’s face and surrendering to the subsequent possession of the wearer’s body is one of extraordinary power and intensity.
The information in respect of regional relions (by percentage) and specific customs/beliefs of the Dogon and Man peoples was sourced from the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa, 3rd edition.
© Peter Ulrich 2005