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Ethnomusicology Forum
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Music, Spirit Possession and the InBetween: Ethnomusicological Inquiry

and the Challenge of Trance
Richard C. Jankowsky
Published online: 27 Sep 2007.

To cite this article: Richard C. Jankowsky (2007) Music, Spirit Possession and the In-Between:
Ethnomusicological Inquiry and the Challenge of Trance, Ethnomusicology Forum, 16:2, 185-208
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17411910701554021


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Ethnomusicology Forum
Vol. 16, No. 2, November 2007, pp. 185 208

Music, Spirit Possession and the

In-Between: Ethnomusicological
Inquiry and the Challenge of Trance
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Richard C. Jankowsky

The recent renewal of interest in trance, within the field of ethnomusicology as well as
without, warrants a reconsideration of the particular challenges of studying musics of
spirit possession. These include a disciplinary focus on the music, an approach that runs
the risk of artificially abstracting music from the larger ritual and cultural complex of
which it is a part. They also involve wrestling with the limits of epistemology and with
personal convictions and social biases that influence the encounter with the unseen.
Particularly problematic is the tension between native explication of possession trance,
which grants agency to supernatural beings, and the parameters of academic discourse,
which are shaped by the search for rational explanations. These entrenched yet often
unacknowledged attitudes, I argue, can be counterproductive, for they prevent us from
learning from, or even acknowledging, indigenous understandings of the relations
between music, trance, and possession, and ultimately reify the barrier between Self and
Other. Drawing on my ethnographic experience studying and performing Tunisian
stambeli, I consider the potential value of applying a radically empirical approach to the
study of spirit possession musics.
Keywords: Trance; Spirit Possession; Tunisia; Stambeli; Epistemology; Radical
The first time I made musical contact with the spirit world was in the summer of
2002 in the city of Tunis. I had been researching stambeli, a ritual healing music
developed by slaves, their descendants and other displaced sub-Saharans in Tunisia.
Stambeli rituals aim to heal humans by invoking the aid of an elaborate pantheon of
sub-Saharan Spirits and North African Muslim Saints who make their presence
Richard Jankowsky is Assistant Professor of Music at Tufts University. Previously, he was Lecturer in
Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London. Correspondence to:
Room 274 Granoff Music Center, Tufts University, 20 Talbot Avenue, Medford, MA 02155, USA. Email:
ISSN 1741-1912 (print)/ISSN 1741-1920 (online)/07/020185-24
# 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17411910701554021

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186 R. C. Jankowsky

known through ritualized trance and possession.1 The human participation in

stambeli also reveals a mixing of sub-Saharan and North African identities. Most
patients are not black, but rather Arab Tunisian, while the majority of ritual
specialists are of sub-Saharan descent. The main context of stambelis development
was a loosely organized network of twenty-one communal houses (diyar jamaa; sing.
dar jamaa) within the city that served as sites of refuge where displaced sub-Saharans
could find others who spoke their language, shared their customs and could help
them adjust to life in their new setting.2 The network not only served the slave
community, but also attended to the always growing population of freed slaves. Each
house represented a self-identified unit with common origins, language and customs.
Thus, Dar Barnu (lit. The Bornu House)*the only surviving communal house and
the site of my research*congregated people from a common Bornu origin.3
At Dar Barnu I studied under Abdul-Majid Barnawi, known simply as Baba
(father) to his apprentices. He is the galadima kbr (galadima from the Hausa
chief and kbr from the Arabic great), or head of the house, as well as the yinna
(musician-healer and master of the three-stringed gumbr) of its stambeli troupe.
During one of my daily training sessions on the gumbr, a woman arrived at the
house for diagnosis. This was not an uncommon occurrence, as Baba is considered
one of the most reliable and experienced diviners in the community. I stopped
playing as his wife, Baya, called him out of the room to consult with the patient. As
he left, he signalled to me to continue practising. Before doing so, however, I took the
opportunity to indulge in the sweet mint tea and baklava that Baya had left for me. It
also enabled me to rest my sore fingers, which ached from hours of practice that day.
As soon as I resumed playing, the patient shrieked and ran out of the house.
Immediately thereafter, Baya entered the room. Neji! she exclaimed (calling me by
my local name), You just chased away a kufr! Kufr is the Arabic for unbeliever, and
in this case referred to the possessing spirit. Baya told me that, as Baba instructed the
possessing spirit to recite a prayer to the Prophet Mohammed, the patient winced and
turned away. Then she heard me play the gumbr, which scared her right out of the
house. I had, unwittingly, contributed to the diagnosis of a patient afflicted by spirit
possession. Since stambeli spirits appreciate Islamic prayers and are attracted to the
sound of the gumbr, this was a clear indication that a non-believing, and thus nonstambeli, spirit possessed the patient. Baba suggested that this patient, who was
Jewish and likely possessed by a Jewish spirit, be taken to the shrine of Sidi Hmad alTijani, where a Sufi group performs the dhikr. If this diagnosis was correct, I was told,
this solution would work because the dhikr focuses only on God (repeating the names
of God), and Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God.
The reaction of the patient*and of the Dar Barnu household*to my playing
faced me with a dilemma. I became increasingly haunted by my own recurring
thoughts demanding I make sense of the event. How was I to interpret the patients
reaction? Did my playing communicate with the spirit world? Did I believe it did and,
finally, does it even matter? This moment of aporia (Derrida 1993)*a profound
moment of doubt in which knowledge enters crisis*made me question some very

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Ethnomusicology Forum


fundamental assumptions I held about music and the spirit world, and the
implications of such assumptions for the ethnographic project. Although etymologically meaning a lack of path, passage or way (Kofman 1988), aporia, like other
transitional moments, also suggests the possibility of clearing a terrain for new
understandings (Burbules 1997).4 While the aporetic moment exposes our own
epistemological limits, it also urges us to imagine moving beyond them. This is not to
say that I aim to resolve the issues of belief, possession and the limits of knowledge
(or even suggest such a resolution is possible). My aim is much more modest: namely,
reflecting on, and learning from, my own struggles in order to add grist to the mill for
ethnomusicologists concerned with methodologies for approaching music, trance
and the pursuit of meaningful intercultural understanding.
Music, Trance, Possession
The relationship between music and possession trance has long exercised the
anthropological and ethnomusicological imagination. The precise nature of this
relationship, however, has proven elusive, resulting in an abundance of methodological and theoretical approaches. Like the study of spirit possession itself (Boddy
1994, 410), research on spirit possession musics is characterized by a tension between
rationalizing, scientistic and universalizing tendencies, on the one hand, and more
culturally contextualized, phenomenological approaches, on the other. Despite their
sometimes irreconcilable differences, many studies near both ends of this spectrum
share an implicit assumption that possession trance poses some sort of problem to
be solved.5
In the 1960s, anthropologists proposed several musically deterministic hypotheses
on the relationship between music and trance. As drumming featured prominently in
possession cults around the world, percussion was targeted as the likely cause of
trance states. Andrew Nehers (1961) laboratory experiments provided the earliest
scientific evidence that repetitive rhythmic stimuli*more specifically, rhythms
played at a rate of nearly eight to thirteen cycles per second*could impact on the
rate of brainwave pulsations. A year later, he argued that the resultant involuntary
eye-blinking patterns and subjective reactions of his subjects corresponded to
behaviour described in anthropological reports of possession trance (Neher 1962).
Veit Erlmann (1982) challenged Nehers argument in the context of bori possession
music among the Hausa by showing, among other findings, that only 6.1% of the 179
tunes recorded had tempos in that range. Other anthropologists postulated that loud
and repetitive drumming led to trance through sensory overload (Walker 1972) or
disturbances of the inner ear (Needham 1967; Jackson 1968). Such claims were so
generalized that they elicited Gilbert Rougets now famous suggestion that, if they
held true, then half of Africa would be in a trance from the beginning of the year to
the end (1985, 175).
For his part, Rouget emphasized that the relationship between music and trance
relies on the trancer being socialized into culturally specific modes of making that

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188 R. C. Jankowsky

connection. In his magisterial consideration of the diversity of possession musics

throughout the world, he called attention to the paradoxical relationship between
music and trance: while trance by and large cannot occur without music, there are no
formal qualities (rhythms, modes, tempos, frequency, instrumentation, etc.) of music
that appear necessary for trance. While he imposed a sweeping structuralist typology
of trance types by fitting them into categories alien to their respective cultures*
thereby implying that the scholars need for order and control is more important than
the reality of experience for those involved*he did leave us with the invaluable
insight that any relationship between music and trance is first and foremost culturally
Rougets universalist perspective contrasted greatly with the case studies of specific
trance practices in the self-reflexive, experimental studies that emerged in the era of
the crisis of representation (Clifford and Marcus 1986) in anthropology and the
ensuing crisis of experience in ethnomusicology (Barz and Cooley 1997). While
experiential narrative strategies often told us more about the ethnographer than the
people and practices under study, they did provide unusually deep access to the
shifting subject positions, personal feelings and musical experiences of ethnographers
embarking on potentially life-transforming initiations into possession trance
traditions such as Afro-Cuban santera (Hagedorn 2001), Brazilian candomble
(Wafer 1991) and Tumbuka vimbuza in Malawi (Friedson 1996), to which I shall
Throughout the period under review, several deep ethnographic studies in
ethnomusicology eschewed universalizing tendencies and extreme reflexivity in order
to consider musics of spirit possession on their own terms, in practice, among
African peoples such as the Shona of Zimbabwe (Berliner 19756, 1978), the Venda
of South Africa (Blacking 1985) and the Malagasy of Madagascar (Emoff 2003). For
Paul Berliner (1978), the serious study of mbira musical performance was inseparable
from the instruments connection to ancestor spirits and the context of bira
possession ceremonies. By acknowledging the importance of spirit activities among
the Shona, he was able to delve into the complex role of bira music in communicating
with the spirits (who are shrewd judges of talent, thereby upholding musical values),
enabling communal participation in ritual and inviting Shona to reflect deeply on
history and apply its lessons to present-day social conflicts. Ron Emoff s (2003) study
of possession music in Madagascar mobilized the indigenous concept of maresaka *
an aesthetic of reconfiguration and integration of various sonic, visual and historical
textures*to access the subtle ways in which tromba spirits and their music combine
fragments into meaningful wholes by reordering and recollecting the past in order to
empower the present.
John Blacking engaged in a similar search for meaning*rather than explanation*among the Venda, from whom he learned that music, when performed
well, in the proper context and for the right person, enables a dancer to come face to
face with her/his other self, the real self of the ancestor spirit (1985, 67). Blackings
study is also notable for explicitly raising the question of the relationship between

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music and spirit possession. Like Erlmann and Rouget, he found no convincing
evidence for any kind of causal link, and concluded with the provocative proposal
that what at first seems to be a dramatic example of the power of music, namely,
possession by spirits during musical performance, had little to do with musical
influences and that its explanation may have to be sought elsewhere (1985, 69).
Similar deep ethnographic studies in anthropology have also contributed, albeit
more obliquely, to our understanding of music in contexts of spirit possession.
Vincent Crapanzanos (1973) ethnopsychiatric account of trance in Morocco
highlighted not only the centrality of music in structuring ritual by calling
successions of spirits, but also the mediating role of musicians as concerned ritual
practitioners who never stop a tune (rh. ) until the trance is finished, and who may
avoid playing a certain rh. if they believe that the would-be trancer is deemed too
unwell or unfit to participate at the time. A deep consideration of music furthered
Paul Stollers (1989) appreciation of spirit possession among the Songhay of Niger,
for whom the cries of the godji fiddle evoke Songhay ancestors and thereby enable
the fusion of past and present, as well as social and spirit, worlds.
Two remarkable and influential contributions to the study of music and possession
deserve more detailed consideration here, as they consciously employ innovative
methodologies in their attempts to render trance comprehensible. Taken together,
they also illustrate vividly the enduring tension between scientistic, universalizing
tendencies and contextual, phenomenological approaches. In Dancing prophets:
Musical experience in Tumbuka healing , Steven Friedson (1996) took the latter route
by pursuing a phenomenological study of musical healing among the Tumbuka of
Malawi. His experience with Tumbuka possession trance was deep and intimate. Not
only did he become proficient in the drumming for possession ceremonies, but he
was also diagnosed as afflicted by the spirits and therefore had to learn to dance his
Convinced that the radically different Tumbuka experience of music, possession
and healing necessitated an equally radical ethnographic methodology, Friedson
turned to the phenomenological theories of Heidegger and Dilthey to provide his
framework for interpretation (1996, xi). Focusing on his deeply personal experience
of drumming and dancing, he conveys vividly and powerfully his experience of the
perceptual ambiguity of the multistable 3:2 polymetre of Tumbuka drumming.
Creatively and effectively likening the acoustic experience of this phenomenon to
optical illusions (such as the Necker cube) that allow for multiple viewpoints and
conceptions, he described his experience of the music as collapsing the boundary
between subject and object. Music is described as a technology enabling [t]his
loosening up of perceptual boundaries, which, he proposed, seems to be a significant
factor in the promotion of trance states (1996, 143).7 Perception, of course, is
culturally mediated, however, and the 3:2 temporal relationship may or may not be as
mind-altering for Tumbuka as it was for Friedson. As he emphasized from the outset,
his phenomenology is fundamentally a self-interpreting activity (1996, 7).

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190 R. C. Jankowsky

At the other end of the spectrum is Judith Becker, who, in her Deep listeners: Music,
emotion, and trancing (2004), championed musical determinism and universalism in
a search for a rational, scientific and secular humanistic explanation of trance states
associated with music. In contrast to Friedsons subject-based approach, Becker
focused on the object, or Other. After brilliantly contextualizing the continued
Western aversion to trance, she argues that trancers and deep listeners necessarily
experience a different type of Self*a more emotional self*than that of their
(mostly Western) counterparts who assume the Cartesian sense of a disengaged,
controlled and bounded Self. Grounding her inquiry in recent neuroscientific
research, she postulates that trance is brought about by musical rhythmic
entrainment, a kind of structural coupling*the synchronization of multiple bodies
and brains*that shifts the autonomic nervous system into overdrive. She associates
the profound emotional response to this process with the production and release of
certain hormones and monoamines that leads trancers to feel themselves to be in the
presence of spirits (2004, 148). She concludes that trancers are deeply emotional
people who achieve deep satisfaction from the chemical floods engendered by trance.
For Becker, the autonomous self is at the heart of all activity, and cultural practice
merely masks the similarities, that is, the deep emotionality, of trancers universally.
This connection between music and emotion, especially in the context of repetitive
musical stimuli and brainwave activity, has been furthered by recent studies providing
intriguing arguments for incorporating drum-based rhythmic entrainment into the
practice of Western music therapy (e.g. Bittman et al. 2001; Maurer et al. 1997;
Mastnak 1993; see also Clayton, Sager and Will 2004, 18). But in the context of
indigenous spirit possession practices, even if we found ground-breaking synapse
firing or intensification of hypothalamic activity in trance-state brain-mapping, this
would probably be of little interest to participants, for whom the framework of spirit
possession is crucial to situating the experience socially. Indeed, if pressed, people
involved with possession practices might see this incredible activity as further proof
that possession did in fact occur. Thus, we reach the epistemological ceiling of such
an inquiry, and are left at a far remove from the reality of others experiences. We
might equally ask, to paraphrase Michael Lambek (1989, 48), whether the strange
activities of joggers or poets must be explained away as neurochemical activity
associated with emotion.
What concerns me here is the apparent need*whether implicit or explicit*for
the consoling illusions of order and certitude (Jackson 1989, 13). I am not claiming
that the rationalist project is not a valid form of inquiry, only that it has held primacy
of place at the expense of alternative modes of knowing. I am convinced there are
other ways of engaging with others that might foster deeper intercultural understanding. Let me emphasize that I am not claiming that Friedson or Becker are acting
in what Sartre calls bad faith; indeed, both studies are innovative, highly instructive
and useful in varying ways. In fact, my point is that even these two pioneering
works*both of which push the boundaries of ethnomusicological inquiry*are
conditioned by the inherited epistemological assumptions that shape the parameters

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Ethnomusicology Forum


of scholarly discourse on music and trance. It is difficult to accept that there may be
some knowledge that is beyond our capacity to comprehend on its own terms, as
Gary Tomlinson illustrates in his study of music in Renaissance magic. He argues that
we must not ask the question that comes immediately to our lips*that is, whether
Ficinos magical songs actually worked or not*for it is more than most, a coercive
question (1993, 251). The danger in trying to render transparent the magical or
supernatural concepts of Others, he argues, is that it either constitutes an invasion of
the Others space in which we are unwelcome inquisitors or pulls the practices of the
Other into our conceptual realm, which we dominate utterly. In other words, the
danger is in losing the in-between space, the middle ground, of productive dialogic
In a similar spirit, I am propagating in what follows a militant middle ground
(Herzfeld 1997) between universalizing, traditionally empirical tendencies and selfreflexive, phenomenological approaches on the other. This middle ground, I should
emphasize, is not neutral territory, for it is not the negation of the other two, but is
rather a purposeful, if elusive, space of in-betweenness.
From the Experience of Reality to the Reality of Experience
In his 2000 Huxley Memorial Lecture to the Royal Anthropological Institute, Pierre
Bourdieu (2003, 281) challenged his fellow ethnographers to account for the
scholastic dispositions and social biases that shape the often unconscious presuppositions we bring to the field. When it comes to the world of spirits, however, those
biases are often sidestepped or ignored, and the condescension towards sacred
practices, especially spirit possession, remains present, if well hidden. Katherine
Ewing characterizes this bias as a paradigmatic anthropological atheism8 that
equates to an obligatory refusal to believe. For Ewing, the ethnographers refusal to
accept the reality of the supernatural world of the Other constitutes a hegemonic act,
an implicit insistence that the relationship between anthropologist and informant
be shaped by the parameters of Western discourse (1994, 571). Edith Turner (1993)
pushes this line of reasoning to its extreme by insisting that ethnographers studying
spirit practices must believe by going native and fully experiencing the same
absolute certainty about the spirits as her informants.
The primacy of belief in defining our relationship to the sacred and in ostensibly
explaining human actions, however, is arguably culturally specific to inheritors of a
European Christian discourse about religion, and is therefore not necessarily a
reasonable alternative to empiricism (Ruel 1997; Asad 1993).9 Moreover, as
academics, our relationship with, and representation of, those we study is inevitably
shaped by certain parameters of Western discourse. However, I believe there is a space
between the two extremes of belief/going native and atheism/empiricism, and this is
where I think Bourdieu contributes to staking out a middle ground. Reacting to what
he calls the narcissistic reflexivity of postmodern anthropology and the egological
reflexivity of phenomenology, he proposes an alternative methodological technique,

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192 R. C. Jankowsky

which he calls participant objectivation. What Bourdieu wants objectivized is not

only the researchers ethnographic positionality, but also the social world that made
the ethnographer by conditioning her assumptions and unconscious biases. This
social world includes not only personal convictions and identities, but also*and
more importantly for Bourdieu*the scholars position in society and within her
academic discipline, with its national and institutional traditions, shared values and
commonplaces and other habits of thought. Participant objectivation seeks to control
for observer bias; in other words, it entails taking a point of view on ones point of
view (2003, 284; see also Salamone 1979).
Many of the most basic, shared assumptions in modern academia, of course, have
been shaped by the legacy of post-Enlightenment rationalism and post-scientific
revolution empiricism. One outcome of this legacy has been the pathologizing of
trance in the West, which continues to contribute to the received attitudes that
condition the study of spirit possession. This assumption has led to numerous
anthropological theories attributing trance states to such causes as nutritional
deficiency (Kehoe and Giletti 1981), psychological stress (Ward 1989) or multiple
personality disorder (Suryani and Jensen 1993). The desire to explain away trance
also underlies more nuanced anthropological studies that suggest it is a ritual
response to the strain of social, especially gender, inequality (Lewis 2003). Judith
Becker (2004) usefully draws attention to the fact that the Western aversion to trance
is also a product, in part, of the Catholic Churchs association of trance with the
demonic, the stigma of trances place within the occult sciences and witchcraft, and
the gendered nature of trance in Europe and America, which associated trance with
women in vulnerable states of dissociation, susceptible to penetration by unseen,
foreign entities.10 The residual effects of this history of dealing with trance include the
enduring stigmas and stereotypes that hinder our willingness to explore and
understand possession on its own terms.
While identifying and struggling with our own preconceptions is essential to the
task, it alone is not sufficient if we are to perform ethnographies that aim for
discovery and understanding rather than universal truths or essences, that seek to
establish new kinds of human connectivity across the chasms of differing and
seemingly incommensurable traditions. This kind of ethnomusicology is not one
caught up in a quest for truth, but rather a quest for understanding, and requires
direct involvement with others, the establishment of an experience-based common
ground. Such an approach might be called radical empiricism, a philosophical
attitude proposed by William James in 1912 and applied as an ethnographic
methodology and discursive style by anthropologist Michael Jackson (1989). Rather
than focusing on the experience of reality, radical empiricism focuses on the reality of
experience. It entails:
exploring the ways in which our experiences conjoin or connect us with others,
rather than the ways they set us apart. In this process we put ourselves on the line;
we run the risk of having our sense of ourselves as different and distanced from the
people we study dissolve, and with it all our pretensions to a supraempirical

Ethnomusicology Forum


position . . . Accordingly, our task is to find some common ground with others and
explore our differences from there. (Jackson 1989, 4, 17)

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A radically empirical methodology helps students of spirit possession musics in

two important ways. First, it accepts*indeed embraces*the in-between, accentuating moments of aporia as analytically useful. Unlike traditional empiricism,
radical empiricism denies the validity of definitive boundaries between observer and
observed and makes the
interplay between these domains the focus of interest. . . . A radically empirical
method includes the experience of the observer and defines the experimental field
as one of interactions and intersubjectivity. Accordingly, we make ourselves
experimental subjects and treat our experiences as primary data. (Jackson 1989,
3, 4)

Second, it acknowledges the primacy of sensory experiences in finding that

common ground. While sight is a privileged sense in the academy, some of the most
valuable experiences for those we study involve sound, scent, taste, touch, gesture and
other modes of knowing that are too often written off as interference or noise by
ethnographers (Fabian 1983, 108). Radical empiricism is located somewhere between
(the fantasy of) scientific objectivity and excessive self-reflexivity in that it neither
denies the agency and situatedness of the ethnographer nor focuses disproportionately on the actions of the ethnographer. Rather, it emphasizes the hermeneutic
value of acknowledging the interstitial space of inter-existence that arises during the
ethnographic encounter.
Ethnomusicologists have long recognized this space. We find satisfaction in being
privy to a privileged, border-crossing and shared space through playing music with
others. This, I believe, is one of the inherent strengths of the field, as immediate
connections with others can be made through genuine and shared interest in music.
Moreover, ethnomusicologists also realize that much cultural knowledge is revealed
only through performance. Co-participation in music blurs the boundary between
learning about the Other and learning from the Other, and swings the pendulum
towards the latter. It emphasizes what connects us as humans, rather than what sets us
apart as social actors.
This is arguably more straightforward and less problematic in the context of
secular musics, where full co-participation can be achieved on aesthetic and social
grounds. Full co-participation in musics of spirit possession, however, necessitates a
change in ontological register. It is for this reason that aporetic moments in the field
must be interrogated rather than suppressed. I hope it is clear by now that I am not
arguing that one should discard ones own beliefs and take on new ones. Rather, I am
suggesting that we have a great deal to learn by opening up to the possibility of others
experiences and beliefs by expanding our imaginative horizons (Crapanzano 2004).
Radical empiricism recognizes others experiences*even seemingly incommensurable ones such as shape-shifting (Jackson 1989), headhunting (Rosaldo 1984), sorcery
(Stoller 1997, 423; Stoller and Olkes 1987), or, in our case, spirit possession*as

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legitimate and valid (though by no means uncontested) in use. It looks at truth not as
a stagnant property inherent in an idea, but rather as a process, as something that
happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events (James 1978, 97,
emphasis in original). This has quite profound implications for the study of ritual
musics, as fixating on belief or truth poses the danger of directing attention away
from performance, where meanings are always already emergent. The relationship
between belief, performance and the spirit world is summed up usefully by subaltern
studies historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who asserts that spirits are as real as ideology
is*that is to say, they are embedded in practices. More often than not, their presence
is collectively invoked by rituals rather than collective belief (2000, 78).11
And it is here, in performance, that observer and observed share an experiential
space, a shared space and understanding becomes something not dependent on the
distinction between Self and Other, but is rather mutually arising. A radically
empirical approach suggests I take as valid and legitimate indigenous claims about
the relationship between music and spirit possession, while also reflecting upon my
own preconceptions about this relationship. Although they may feel more
uncomfortable, and are certainly more difficult to represent in the textual tradition
of the academy, these alternative methods might well defend against the violence of
trying to fit others into our preconfigured categories and systems. As Richard Rorty
(1979) has remarked, this is why scholars should consider open-ended and ongoing
dialogue with others much more edifying than systematic explanations of others (see
also Jackson 1989, 14).
Music, Healing and Agency in Stambeli
Taking seriously and understanding as valid the claims of stambeli participants
opened up for me two overlapping worlds of experience and understanding. First, a
sophisticated indigenous system of knowledge about the relations between music,
trance and healing emerged. Second, a world of Spirits and Saints charting geocultural connections between sub-Saharan and North Africas progressively revealed
itself to me. Here I will be concerned mainly with the former, as I have presented the
latter in more detail elsewhere (Jankowsky 2006).
The first time I attended a stambeli ceremony, I was unaware of the involvement of
spirits. The scene I initially encountered was that of a middle-aged, heavy-set woman
rocking frenetically forward and back to the sounds of the cyclic melodies of the bassregister gumbr, the call-and-response patterns of praise singers and the deafening
pulsations of the shqashiq (handheld iron castanets) that saturated the air with their
ever-multiplying layers of reverberating metallic overtones. The music increased in
volume and tempo as the musicians closed in on the dancer, whose trance became
even more forceful until she finally passed out, falling flat on her back, whizzing just
inches past me. A few women ran towards her and covered her torso in a brightly
coloured cloth. One of them stroked her hair. She was passed out for several minutes.
I was struck by how calm the musicians remained, chatting among themselves,

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lighting cigarettes, sipping tea. My concern for the dancer must have been visible, as
one of the women looked at me reassuringly, smiled and, as she and the others helped
the dancer to her feet, said, tawwa le beys*shes all better now.
A week later, during my first extended conversation with Baba, the octogenarian
yinna, I asked him to define stambeli. His response, like that of many other
participants, was straightforward: it is a cure (dwa; also remedy, medicine). This
statement, along with my initial encounter with a trancing patient, led me to ponder
what in the music caused this palpably powerful trance state. Was the healing due to
the trance and, if so, was it the catharsis of the trance? How did trance occur? What
musical elements needed to be present? Why did it appear that some songs caused
trance while others did not? These and similar early questions elicited Babas
somewhat cryptic reply that all my answers would be found in the music.
This wonderful affirmation of an ethnomusicological approach, however, left me
more than slightly frustrated. I had immersed myself in the sonic world of stambeli,
and had become a member of the nurturing and incredibly patient Dar Barnu
household. I had already started to learn to play the gumbr, I had made a handful of
recordings to analyse, and I worked interminably trying to transcribe lyrics that, I
later learned, were sung in a manner designed precisely not to be comprehensible
and, furthermore, were considered to be entirely unimportant. Where in the music
were my answers? When I finally had the sense to shut up, put away my notebooks
and microphones and accept Babas invitation to embark on the path (thniyya) of an
apprentice gumbr player, things (very slowly, and at times painfully) became clearer.
Did I find the answers to my questions in the music? No. But that was because I had
been asking the wrong questions.
My concerns at the beginning revolved around the production of trance states and
the resultant healing that occurred. My questions were wrong because they had
allowed only for the possibility of musical communication between musician and
patient. However, Baba insisted that neither he nor his music could heal an affliction;
rather, it is the Saints and Spirits who are responsible. He only facilitates the process
by identifying the afflicting spirit, guiding the patient through the appropriate ritual
offerings and, finally, enticing the spirit through music to descend into the body of
the patient in order to dance. He recounts the story of a woman who believed that he
could cure her of her fainting spells (often a sign of possession), through music, and
without consulting the spirits:
What does she want me to do? She says, I dont want to faint. What can I do? Did I
tell [her] to faint? Should I tell her when I leave the cafe, Now, dont faint! What
do they think, that I preside over them? What the spirits want is for you to give
them what is theirs . . . . Many people come to me and say I want [to be cured of]
this or that . . . . I cant do . . . that. (Interview, 6 May 2001)

One consultation I witnessed recently involved a woman who was waking each
morning with deep scratches running down both of her legs. Earlier that month, she
had come to Baba, who started the stambeli healing process by giving her some

196 R. C. Jankowsky

medicines targeting the Spirits known as Banu Kuri (Kuris Family), a family of
Spirits originating in the Bornu region around Lake Chad. Her condition improved,
suggesting that Babas initial diagnosis was accurate. When she ran out of medicine,
she came back asking for more. Baya ran the consultation, and became frustrated as
the woman insisted that all she needed was more medicine, not any sacrifices or
rituals. Baya spelled out the situation as clearly as she could:

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Listen, when you get a ticket for parking your car illegally, you have to pay the
ticket to set things right. You have to pay for your actions. You have angered the
spirits, and you have to set things right with them. You must make sacrifices to
them. You must make offerings. (Consultation, 2 November 2006)

Although music and healing may appear to be causally related on the surface of
ritualized spirit possession, the foregoing examples highlight a common misrecognition that overlooks a central feature of stambeli. In stambeli, music does not heal;
rather, it facilitates the healing process. Its role is to attract the spirits to manifest
themselves through induced possession. Once a spirit has taken hold of a host, the
music continues to be played for the enjoyment of the spirit, who will be pleased by
this rare opportunity to experience the human world and will ordinarily leave the
host in peace for the remainder of the year. This is considered a successful cure.12 It
is the spirit, and only the spirit, that has the power to heal the afflicted.
My own interpretive dilemma regarding the patient at Dar Barnu, instinctively
framed in terms of belief, was undoubtedly shaped by my indoctrination in an
academic world that treats empirical data as the most valuable form of evidence, as
well as the likely subconscious tension between my self-identification as a secular
humanist and my early upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church, with its
demonization of possession and its own unseen world of saints, angels and other
divinities. It also stemmed from my assumptions about the probable causal
relationship between music and trance, as well as my initial ignorance of the
complexity of the stambeli system of healing. Stambeli healing, like other ritual
healing practices around the world, is not about the simple elimination of a specific
ailment. Rather than restoring a patient to her former, healthy Self, it is more
concerned with transitioning the patient into a new mode of being, with a new social
identity. Furthermore, as Arthur Kleinman (1980) demonstrates, the implications
and relevance of ritual healing often reach far beyond an individual illness. He argues,
suffering must be understood in the context of both larger political realities and local
moral worlds (Csordas 2002, 161). Afflicted persons seeking help in the stambeli
system of healing initiate a relationship with a healing tradition associated with subSaharan traditions cultivated by black Tunisians as well as a relationship with a
pantheon of individualized, named Saints and Spirits that embodies the complex
historical relationship between North and sub-Saharan Africas.
The patient that I scared away from Dar Barnu had come to the house for
diagnosis, and it was determined that the stambeli spirits were not involved. If,
however, it had been suspected that stambeli spirits were at work, the consultation

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would have continued with a detailed discussion with the patient (and often
members of the patients family) of her symptoms, their onset and their context.
These answers, as well as her reading of the patients physical actions (trembling,
vacant stare, over- or under-activity, etc.), contribute to making an initial diagnosis.
Based on this initial consultation, the patient may be given special medicines (usually
from sub-Sahara) or incense, and may be instructed to perform certain ritual
If, for instance, one of the main symptoms is paralysis of the legs, if the patient
had come into contact with a dead body, or if there was reason to believe black
magic was involved, healers may suspect the spirit is one of the Banu Kuri (or
brawna, from Bornu; sing. barnaw) spirits, as they are associated with these
scenarios. The Dar Barnu healers would then give the patient jaw akh. al (lit. black
Java, a dark-coloured incense), which the patient must burn before she goes to bed
for a specified number of nights. She must carry the incense into each room of the
house, and not say bismillah (in the name of God) before lighting it or entering
any of the rooms with it.13 The patient must also take a specified amount of
money, dip it into water seven times and then wrap it in a black cloth. It is often
the case that after this stage of the ritual process the patient is showing signs of
improvement, which suggests that the spirit is responding to the offerings. Lack of
improvement, on the other hand, does not necessarily indicate lack of success.
Rather, it may suggest that the spirit is demanding more time and, most likely, a
larger sacrifice.
After the diagnostic rites, the patient then returns for the divinatory rite. The
purpose of this rite is to identify specifically which spirit is afflicting the patient.
The patient is taken to the arfa (lit. she who knows), a ritual diviner, who first
lights incense to attract the spirits. The patient is seated on the ground, and a
sacrificial animal (a dove, chicken or goat) is circled around the patient. The animal
is then slaughtered, and the spirits are called upon to descend in order to be
identified. To this end, the yinna performs the chains (silsilat; sing. silsila) of spirit
tunes (nuwayib, lit. turns; sing. nuba) until one provokes a significant reaction in
the patient. This can consist of trembling, shaking, fainting or convulsive behaviour,
as well as, more rarely, dance. In any case, the patient ideally emerges all better, at
least for the time being, and the offending (and offended) spirit has been
successfully identified. Soon thereafter, arrangements for the stambeli ceremony are
sealed through the payment of the arbun (cash advance) to the yinna by the
patient or her family. At the ceremony, the musicians will entice the spirit to
descend into the ritual and dance through the patients body until it is placated.
This will defend the patient against further affliction until the ceremony is repeated
the following year. This healing process is predicated on identification of and with
the spirit, and the establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship. The spirits
identity is crucial, as each spirit has different demands, likes and dislikes and modes
of afflicting humans.

198 R. C. Jankowsky

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Songs of the Spirits

Each member of the stambeli pantheon is identified and summoned by his or her
own unique nuba (lit. [taking] a turn), or tune. The heart of the nuba is the gumbr
melody, which, when performed skilfully and in the proper ritual context, produces
the words (klam) that speak (yitkallemu ) directly to the spirits, inviting them into
the ritual.14 The gumbr is played by the yinna, who is not only a master musician,
but is also the voice of ritual authority in stambeli. Good gumbr technique is
characterized by a remarkable economy of motion, involving subtle finger techniques,
such as hammer-ons, pull-offs and left-hand plucking of open strings, that give the
cyclic melody a flow that would be impossible if the strumming (right) hand
articulated every note. This is especially important in keeping a steady but
understated buzz from the shaqshaqa, the vibrating metal disc attached to the base
of the strings.
Accompanying the yinna are several, usually younger, musicians collectively
referred to as s.unna (lit. workers or craftsmen) who play the heavy, handheld
iron clappers known as shqashiq and sing unison responses to the calls sung by either
a lead singer among them or the yinna. Their incessant, cyclic rhythmic patterns
produce layers of metallic overtones. There are also various shqashiq techniques that
alter this texture by varying the timbre, length and volume of certain articulations.
For example, the upper dome of the pair of shqashiq held in one hand might be used
to strike the upper dome of the other pair, resulting in a louder articulation
(somewhat comparable to striking the bell of a cymbal). This technique is often
employed when one shqashiq player is adding a syncopated variation over the base
rhythm supplied by the others. A variation of this technique is to hit the domes
together while holding the receiving pair of shqashiq loosely together, and then
closing them tightly on the next articulation. This creates a sort of sizzle effect, similar
to the kind a Western hi-hat is capable of producing.
A nuba typically begins simply with the gumbr melody, which should be
recognized immediately by the s. unna, who enter with the appropriate rhythmic
pattern. This first section of a nuba usually includes call-and-response singing of
lyrics praising the spirit, which eventually gives way to instrumental performance and
a gradual increase in tempo. The lyrics are sung in dialectical Arabic with occasional
words or phrases from sub-Saharan languages, especially Hausa and Kanuri. The
vocal delivery is ideally nasal and not clearly enunciated; this is considered a proper
sudan, or sub-Saharan, aesthetic that is in direct contradistinction to the ideals of
Arabic diction. The importance of tastefully manipulating timbre in stambeli,
whether in the gumbr, shqashiq or vocals, cannot be overstated. While these
timbres*and, indeed, the instruments themselves*are indexical markers of
otherness in the context of Tunisian society, they also coalesce to produce an
aesthetic of continual, uninterrupted motion. In fact, criticism of someones poor
playing is often expressed in the form of a simple question: Where is he going? (wn

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The importance of directed movement is apparent not only in the immediacy of

playing technique, but also in the larger structuring of the ritual through the
progression from one nuba to the next. Selection and length of nubas is dictated by
the yinna, who informs his choices based on following the proper routes through
the families of Spirits and groups of Saints, the presence or absence of dancers for a
particular nuba and mood and personal predilections. Proper musical routes
through the pantheon are based on a loosely prescribed, hierarchical order of
unseen characters. At the most general level, this order moves from the Saints, who
are associated with Islam and North Africa and also known as The Whites (alabyad. ), to the Spirits, who are either Muslim or Christian, are from sub-Saharan
Africa, and are also known as The Blacks (al-kh.ul). Each of these categories is
populated by different groups of Saints and families of Spirits, each with its own
internal hierarchies and salient relationships (see Jankowsky 2006 for a detailed
The Saints are, for the most part, considered local, having lived or died in Tunisia
or its North African neighbours. Most have shrines in Tunisia, and are venerated by
Arab Tunisians as well as those of sub-Saharan descent. Some, such as Sidi Belhassen,
were founders of well-known Sufi orders and known for their spiritual teachings.
Others, such as Sidi Frej, are venerated only locally and are known for more visceral
interactions with humans, such as trance. The Saints, with a few notable exceptions,
do not possess humans; rather, they engender trance by taking away the host from
her body. As in other trance practices across Tunisia, these trance movements are
fairly uniform, consisting of repeated, intense and frenetic movements of the torso or
The Spirits, in contrast, possess humans by entering their bodies, and each has
its own distinctive and identifiable trance movements. Each of the three Spirit
families has a different relationship to stambeli culture and history. The Banu Kuri
(Kuris Family) is understood as originating in the Bornu region of sub-Saharan
Africa around Lake Chad (which itself was once known as Kuri). The Bahriyya
(Water Spirits), while also originating in sub-Saharan Africa, complement already
existing Tunisian beliefs about the presence of potentially malevolent spirits in and
around water. The Beyat (Royalty Spirits) are related to certain spirits of the
Hausa bori pantheon, but took on new identities related to the departing Ottoman
rulers (who supported stambeli) as the nationalist government (which suppressed
traditional practices including stambeli) took power at independence from France
in 1956.15
In performance, the Saints and the Spirits are differentiated but compatible.
While their identities may represent the encounter between sub-Saharan and North
Africas, they find common ground in healing humans through embodied
interaction, reacting to the distinctive aesthetics of stambeli music, and in
fostering the relationship between Arab Tunisians and the descendants of subSaharans.

200 R. C. Jankowsky

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The Body in Performance

As the existential ground of culture and self, the body provides the methodological
starting point for Jacksons radical empiricism. When the world of those we study
privileges embodied epistemologies, the common ground we seek should involve
opening ourselves up to the sensory and corporeal (Jackson 1989, 11). For stambeli
clients, the body is the locus of affliction and of its appeasement. Initial signs of spirit
affliction most often include paralysis, syncope, tremors or fainting. Spirit affliction
has real, painful, physical consequences; it is not usefully reducible to a mere set of
beliefs. The oral record at Dar Barnu preserves accounts of the rare clients who died
as a consequence of ignoring the demands of a spirit and the prescribed stambeli
course of therapy. Placating the afflicting spirit is also an embodied process. Through
enticing the spirit to possess the host, the human-spirit relationship is transformed
from one of an unwelcome, aggressive and even violent affliction of the body to one
of an invited and expected accommodation of the spirit within the proper ritual space
and time. The body is also the focus of the healing ritual: blood from the sacrificial
animal(s) is wiped on the clients extremities; the body is draped in banners or
covered in cloaks of proper type and colour; the appropriate type of incense in
inhaled; certain victuals, usually made from the sacrificed animal, are ingested; and,
most dramatic and obvious, the body is penetrated by a spirit and compelled to
trance. The trancing body is also the focus of the musicking bodies of the musicians,
who physically surround the trancer and direct*or better, project*their music
towards the host and her spirit.
In Power and Performance, Johannes Fabian calls attention to the value of attaining
practical*as opposed to merely discursive*knowledge through performing with
others. This knowledge is embodied in movements, gestures and interactions. Closely
allied with the ethos of radical empiricism (and aptly presented in musical terms), he
describes this kind of engagement as a situation in which the ethnographer does not
call the tune, but plays along (1990, 18). In the context of stambeli ritual, playing
along, in its literal sense, meant synchronizing my singing and shqashiq playing with
the rest of the s.unna, following the often subtle cues of the yinna, directing our
musical energies towards the trance dancer and her possessing spirit, and entertaining
an audience.
These multiple and simultaneous interactions, according to Thomas J. Csordas, are
usefully construed as somatic modes of attention, which are culturally elaborated
ways of attending to and with ones body in surroundings that include the embodied
presence of others (2002, 244). In the heat of a stambeli performance, my bodily
experience was multilayered. At the most banal level, the unrelenting alternation of
squeezing together and releasing the heavy metal shqashiq in my hands was physically
taxing, especially if I had gone a long time without performing in a lengthy ceremony.
When the clashing together of my shqashiq synched up with the others, however, my
rhythms would blend into the wall of sound created by the sonic alignment of all the
shqashiq and I would feel transported into a participatory, mutually arising aesthetic

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space. The communal nature of this experience was even more pronounced when the
nuba increased in tempo and intensity, as the s.unna rose up together, each on one
knee, closing in on the dancer with the common goal of enveloping her in our
incessant, overlapping metallic rhythms.16 At the same time, it was the expertise and
knowledge of the yinna that had gotten us to where we were; otherwise, the spirits
would not have descended. The interaction of the younger s.unna with the elder
yinna brings the past to bear on the present; the knowledge that is passed on is
embodied, not verbalized. While much of this knowledge, such as rhythmic cycles,
gumbr patterns and vocal lyrics and melodies may be self-evident to the
ethnomusicologist, other factors, such as manipulation of timbre and large- and
small-scale directed movement, are equally important.
After becoming fairly competent on the gumbr and shqashiq, my subsequent
stambeli musical education transitioned: I was no longer merely learning to play, but
rather playing to learn. Ritual knowledge became not something external to doing or
being, but rather a matter of participation in the ongoing drama of the world
(Jackson 1989, 15). In the midst of ritual performance, the musicians attention is
manifestly focused on the dancers body and the development of the trance. Yet
inseparable from that focus on the individual is the awareness of the identity of the
spirit, who is the subject of our sung lyrics and musically targeted by its own unique
gumbr melody. This also necessitates the awareness of where the spirit is situated in
the ritual order in relation to others who appeared earlier and those who would be
likely to be summoned later. This order is based on the spirits familial relationships
(elders usually precede youngsters), the relationship between spirit families (while the
order is normally Bahriyya/Banu Kuri/Beyat, this can change according to variables
such as time of day, as, for example, the Banu Kuri arrive only after midnight) and the
relationship between the larger categories of Spirits and Saints.
Stambeli musicians, then, have a perspective that is especially valuable and
illuminating because it is essentially bifocal: musicians are involved in the
performative and corporeal immediacy of a clients trance experience (the closeup) and they are privy to cumulative ritual knowledge of the stambeli pantheon, the
entirety of which is never performed in any single ceremony (the panoramic).17 What
I am emphasizing is that the former is impossible to achieve without the latter. The
musicians somatic modes of attention attend to each other and the trancer, while
also bringing into being the spirits whose identities are fundamental to the stambeli
healing process. Stambeli musicians mediate between the human and spirit worlds,
and require deep knowledge of both in order to be efficacious. Their location at the
interstices, at the in-between, is a privileged place, but also a place characterized by
responsibility to others. The same could be said for ethnographers, as well (Figure 1).
I believe it is possible to approach a tradition such as stambeli from different
heritages and points of view if we are convinced of its value and are willing to engage

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202 R. C. Jankowsky

Figure 1 A Royalty Spirit possesses her host, who wears a fez and sits in front of the
yinna (Baba Majid, far right) and the s.unna (r l: Hafiz, Belhassan and the author).
Reproduced with permission of the photographer, Tola Khin.

in the shared experience with others. Performing the ritual music of stambeli offered
me an in-between space, a means of taking up the hoe with the people we see and
study and just digging in, dropping [my] little book of field notes and endless fund of
intrusive queries (Rose 1991, 814). At the time, I did not connect what I was doing to
any methodology such as radical empiricism. I was merely following my gut instinct
to accept the invitation to participate fully in the world of stambeli. As this elaborate
and dynamic system of healing and historical narrative, populated by spirits and
fuelled by music, progressively revealed itself to me, the problem of belief lessened in
importance as the implications of my shared experience increased. I was a musician; I
did what I was told, to the best of my ability, in order to make the rituals successful.
That became far more important than my self-indulgent worries about my own
cultural baggage or struggles with the issue of belief. Others who give us the privilege
of performing music with them deserve for us to take the music*and all its
implications inside and outside ritual*seriously.
My understanding of music and possession has been shaped as much by the
informal, mundane and everyday activities at Dar Barnu as it has been by
participation in ritual. At Dar Barnu, spirit possession was an everyday topic.
Through everyday conversations I learned much, not just about, but from the other

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members of the household. One aspect of these discussions continually struck me as

especially important: otherness was less about essences than about relations. Music,
spirits and people were often described in terms of relations, paths and movements,
not essences. Such an understanding is also central to the attitude proposed by radical
Some might argue that radical empiricism, as a product of a Western philosophical
tradition, should not be imposed onto other contexts. To this I would respond that
radical empiricism is consistent with the ethos of Dar Barnu, where relations are prior
to relata. In fact, stambeli taught me much about what I would later identify as
radical empiricism. Stambeli, like the ethnographic project, is predicated on
otherness and encounter. Its practitioners negotiate these phenomena by reflecting
on and performing a sub-Saharan otherness while also identifying and further
developing a common ground with local North African healing practices associated
with Tunisian and other Muslim saints.
Society and academia condition us to think in terms of measurements and visual
representations. Scientistic approaches to trance, even (or especially) when they map
the brain, are bound up in visual evidence; they are, in traditionally empirical ways,
constrained by the observers gaze. Because the spirits cannot be seen or
quantitatively measured, they are dismissed as illusions or, worse, delusions. Yet
when they are dismissed, along with them go their qualitative virtues: their capacity
to inflict physical harm on humans, their ability to heal and maintain social
relationships with their hosts, their embodiment of suppressed histories, in short,
their social reality. The music, in the context of stambeli, serves as a catalyst for
healing by attracting the spirits. It preserves cultural memory and re-creates and
reconfigures the spirit pantheon. It narrates multiple crossings of the Sahara and their
resultant encounters. This rich world of stambeli opened up to me only when I
changed my research priorities, putting aside my preoccupations with belief, my
preconceptions of trance, and fully taking part in the shared experience of musicmaking. The healing of humans and the narration of an alternative historiography
both rely on the actions of the unseen characters of the stambeli pantheon, characters
whose presence is invoked systematically through music. It is precisely the invisibility,
ambiguity and ineffability that lend such potency to the music and to the spirits. We
would do well to embrace, rather than resist, these in-between spaces.
I gratefully acknowledge Fulbright/IIE, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies
and the Faculty of the Arts and Humanities at the School of Oriental and African
Studies for their generous funding for fieldwork performed in 2001, 2002 and 2005,
respectively. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Music Department
Research Seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 15 March 2005. I
am grateful to my students, colleagues and other participants in the seminar for
generating a rich and productive discussion of the topic. The stimulating and
challenging discussions generated by the students in my 2007 Graduate Seminar in

204 R. C. Jankowsky

Music and Trance at Tufts University were also invaluable during the final stages of

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Throughout this essay, Spirits and Saints in the upper case refer specifically to stambeli
categories of the unseen world, while the lower case for spirits and saints indicates their more
generic counterparts.
There are competing theories of the etymology of the term stambeli. According to my
teacher Abdul-Majid, the term comes from the sub-Saharan word sambeli, which
transformed into stambeli because it is more intuitive for Arabic speakers. Indeed,
sambeli is a Songhay term relating to an illness or misfortune attributed to spirits and
sorcerers (Stoller 1997, 12 13) and a Hausa word for a dance of the youth and maidens
(Bargery 1934, 894). The popular perception in Tunisia, however, is that it derives from
stambuli, the Arabic designation for something from Istanbul. This theory speaks to
stambelis connection to the Ottoman court of Tunisia, which gave the stambeli community
a voice through the Bash Agha, a high-ranking slave and official in the court who supported
the practice and served as a spokesman for the black community. It seems likely that both
forces *historical association (stanbuli) and the pragmatics of pronunciation
(sambali) *may have been at work in the naming process. Sambali, according to
numerous Tunisians, is, if not difficult, at least awkward to pronounce, and the practice of
stambeli did become associated with the late Ottoman regime, which not only tolerated
stambeli, but even hosted performances at the court during holidays.
This network of houses in Tunis also included, at one time or another, Dar Askar, Dar Badiy,
Dar Baghirmi, Dar Bakaba, Dar Barnufi, Dar Darfur, Dar Debarin, Dar Gambara, Dar
Ghadamsiyya, Dar Guway, Dar Kano, Dar Mai Takim, Dar Nefis, Dar Shwashna, Dar
Songhay, Dar Torbega, Dar Tubu, Dar Waday, Dar Zgayyat and Dar Ziriya.
Victor Turners (1977) elaboration of Arnold van Genneps notion of liminality is perhaps
the best-known anthropological discussion of the potency of the in-between. Unlike the
liminal, however, the in-between spaces I am discussing are not characterized by a change of
social status through rites of passage. However, these spaces are liminal in that they are antistructural; that is, contingent upon the structures (the worldview of observer; worldview of
observed) presupposing them and therefore not without structure.
There is a great deal of slippage between the concepts of trance and possession in the
literature, and no consensus on the definition of either term. For the purposes of this article,
trance refers to possession trance, which, following Lambek (1989), associates trance
behaviour (ritualized dancing, gestures, speaking as others, etc.) with a cultural theory that
attributes it to the possession of the self by an external agency (37).
It is, I believe, no coincidence that the Moroccan experiments (Dwyer 1982; Crapanzano
1980; Rabinow 1977) in reflexive anthropology all involved the anthropologists encounter
with seemingly incommensurable practices involving the agency of spirits and saints.
While this conclusion has been construed as coming very close to musical reductionism
(Janzen 2000, 62), Friedson did clarify in a subsequent article (2005, 124) that he was not
suggesting a causal relationship between music and trance.
For similar claims about the dominance of methodological agnosticism in the field of
religious studies, see Cox (2003).
In his trenchant critique of the Western imposition of the concept of religion as a universal
category, Talal Asad argues that it is preeminently the Christian church that has occupied
itself with identifying, cultivating, and testing belief as a verbalizable inner condition of true
religion (1993, 48).

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Rouget (1985) alludes to each of these issues in seventeenth-century Europe through his
consideration of tarantism in Italy and demon possession among the nuns of Loudon in
Foreshadowing Chakrabartys suggestion by over 60 years is E. E. Evans-Pritchards
ruminations over the fieldwork he undertook for his 1937 study Witchcraft, oracles, and
magic among the Azande (1976). In a question to himself (which also foreshadows
anthropologys reflexive turn by half a century) he asks if one can properly study a
phenomenon like witchcraft if one does not believe in it. He answers that, practically
speaking, it would have been impossible not to accept the social reality of witchcraft, as no
Azande would accompany him on a journey or a hunt unless he consulted the oracle and
was reassured that witchcraft would not threaten the endeavour. Living among the Azande,
he, like them, had to arrange his life around the practice of, and discourse about,
Not all ailments, of course, are caused by the spirits, and therefore stambeli cannot treat
everyone. It does not claim to be able to heal any type of disorder; rather, it claims only to be
able to help with afflictions by spirits *and then only certain spirits. Western medicine is
not only recognized by stambeli initiates, but prized by them. However, just as stambeli will
not be able to help with, say, diabetes or high blood pressure, modern medicine cannot cope
with afflictions by the spirits. Indeed, almost all the narratives of initiates first stambeli
experiences describe their symptoms and their ensuing visit to a doctor or hospital. It was
only after the doctors could find nothing wrong that most patients consulted with a stambeli
Uttering bismillah is a means of protecting oneself against the jnun (also jinn ), potentially
malevolent spirits of which the Quran speaks and some of which are believed to work for
Satan. As stambeli Spirits are not jnun, uttering bismillah might offend the Spirits, who are
holy ones (s.alh.n ).
In some cases, such as a pre-sunset ritual of celebration or street procession (kharja ), the
t.abla replaces the gumbr and fulfils the same function.
The French kept intact the governing apparatus of the Ottoman court during its colonial rule
over Tunisia (1881 1956).
The normative increase in tempo and intensity of each nuba is ideally symbiotic; it was
usually impossible for me to discern whether it was the yinna, s.unna or trancer who was
initiating the gradual shift.
As stambeli is predicated on the power of sound to mediate between human and spirit
worlds, I am not satisfied with mobilizing visual metaphors to state my case.
Unfortunately, as other scholars of spirit possession have noted (Stoller 1997; Friedson
1996), the English language privileges metaphors of the visual over those of the aural.
However, these distinctions are useful for drawing attention to the value of the musicians
Perhaps it was easier for me to find common ground with the stambeli community, with its
urban and Mediterranean context, market economy and mass media, than it was for Jackson
among the more isolated Kuranko. Perhaps it was easier for them to accept me, since their
history and traditions are transnational and based on encounter with others. We certainly
experienced a common ground in the weeks following 9/11, when music lessons and
discussions of stambeli gave way to shared grieving, weeping and worry as we huddled
together in Dar Barnu (against the advice of the US embassy), glued to the images broadcast
on Al-Jazeera. Baya wept for the innocent lives lost. Baba scorned the hijackers as hijacking
the name of Islam. We shared the feeling, expressed by Baba repeatedly, that the world will
never be the same.

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