Say the word “trance” and people may think you’re referring to a style of music popular in dance clubs, represented by hypnotic, repetitious rhythms and with roots in electronica and disco. The word and the idea go back much farther than contemporary club culture, though. Trance is actually an ancient practice.
Simply defined, a trance is when a person enters into an altered state of consciousness and is not aware of what is happening around them. The person may have full motor control, but does not respond to external stimuli. It can be a calm state between sleeping and waking, or an intense state of ecstasy. Music, and particularly repeating rhythms, can induce a trance through what is called entrainment – when the body’s natural rhythms (heartbeat, breathing, and most importantly brainwave activity) sync up with the external auditory stimulus (the sound, in other words).
Music intended to induce a trance-like state through rituals and celebrations is but one part of the rich and varied musical history of the African country of Sudan. South Sudan is a new country, splitting from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil wars. With its mix of African and Arab cultures, and over 300 ethnic groups spread across the varied landscape, musical expression takes many forms. Afrobeat, reggae, hip-hop, rock and folk are all popular music forms in the capital Jubal and around the country. Traditional as well as more regional music is common as well, produced by the many cultural and ethnic groups.
The music on Trance Percussion Masters of South Sudan is performed by the Zande, a group of people living predominantly in Central Africa. In the past, most Zande were animists, believing that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds, and that spirits live in natural objects, plants and animals. The predominant religion practiced by the Zande now is Christianity, with some holdover traditional animistic beliefs. Music is an important part of Zande culture and goes hand in hand with religious ceremonies, as well as everyday life. The “Wayo” of this collection is not a soloist or band, but the community itself.
Now some qualifiers. Trance Percussion Masters of South Sudan comes across much like a sampler collection, as five of the 11 songs clock in at under two minutes. One of them doesn’t even feature any percussion, as it’s acapella. Also, if you’re expecting slow, repetitive beats, meditative and “trance-like” music (at least as the West commonly views trance), prepare to be surprised. The music here is high energy and celebratory – it sounds more like a street party than a ritual or ceremony. It’s also rare that you get to just focus on the percussion, as each track prominently features vocals.
All that said, the playing throughout is brilliant. Many textured polyrhythms are performed on three-person xylophones, log drums, bells, and an assortment of other percussion instruments. The rhythms repeat themselves in spirals and criss-crossing patterns. It’s communal music, with instruments being passed from person to person during performance. The hollowed out log drums are especially soulful, their resonance connecting with something deep and primal.
“Koya Mo Were Baramu (Now You Are Like a European)” (the title referring to the return of displaced Zande from other countries, after civil war) is a good representative track. A cadre of xylophone and log drum players immediately launches into a complex interlocking pattern while a lead female voice sings over the top. A steady rhythm of shaken tambourine-like bells joins in. Occasional answering female and male voices enter the mix. In the last section of the song the lead woman’s voice is replaced by a male singer while the rhythms continue uninterrupted until the song dissolves in laughter at the end.
From track to track there’s a bit of sameness, due to the music being removed from its context. The listener isn’t there in the moment, seeing and experiencing the music being made, being part of the whole environment. This is an important ingredient in listening to this type of music, but of course, hard to duplicate from a mere recording. In the end, Trance Percussion Masters of South Sudan is a valuable ethno musicological document and the spirited and highly skilled playing and performing allows a glimpse into an otherwise rarely seen world.