Radical Anthropology Group, UCL Anthropology, London / 4 July 2017

Tamara Turner is an ethnomusicologist at King’s College London. Her Master’s fieldwork found her studying the Gnawa musical traditions of Morocco, and her recently completed PhD focused on the related Algerian Diwan. Both traditions emerged from the trans-Saharan slave trade, with West African influences blending with Sufi and animist approaches to ritual trance.

Tamara spent 18 months in Algeria gaining the confidence of the relatively small Diwan community, gaining access to their collective but private rituals, which function as a form of social and mental healthcare. The musicians drive participants into various forms of trance — most commonly blends of performative expression and emotional abandon, occasionally dipping into out-of-control ‘possession’ by djinn. This was a dense but lively and enthralling talk, animated by the privilege of seeing Tamara’s video footage of Diwan gatherings (generally not publicly accessible).

Tamara’s focus was on the social and affective aspects of the trance practice. Of course particular rhythms and tones have particular ways of modulating consciousness, but it was argued that these causal patterns were secondary to the deep ambient learning that comes from growing up around these ceremonies. For the most part the trances are never wholly cut loose from the flow of human intent and expectation. People pick up subtle cues over time, and the passion of their dance emerges from a complex social-emotional field. Tellingly, there is only one word used for both ’emotion’ (which anthropologists class as being feeling related to personal experience, to personal relationships and stories) and ‘affect’ (which is seen as being more to do with ‘impersonal’ feelings such as goose-bumps). For these Algerian trance-dancers, embodied feeling is a deep continuum, passing fluidly through the individual’s experience, the community’s collectivity, and the non-human society of spirits.

It was fascinating to hear that some members of the community, in trying to explain the status of their practice to Tamara, named James Brown as a real ‘trancer’. The fine balance and interaction between performance and spontaneity is an interesting key here. Also, the trance dance is aided by others in the community, guarding against injury during dangerous feats of knife-play, guiding the dancer through difficult emotions, and helping when exhausted. Cloaks, the colour of which can signify particular spirits that need to be attracted, are sometimes wrapped around dancers at such junctures. Seeing this, I immediately thought of Brown’s famous ‘cape routine’, his MC Danny Ray covering him as he exhausted himself. I asked Tamara and she said her informants didn’t mention this, but agreed it was an interesting connection.

Photo CC-licensed by Archives de la Ville de Montréal

People dance to process their problems, to get their inner knots and sorrows of relating out, but Tamara stressed she distrusted the deceptive word ‘catharsis’, implying the possibility or desirability of a full release. These ceremonies are regular, and the boundaries between prevention and treatment are permeable — as indeed are those between communal bonding and ‘addiction’ (a negative judgement which some in Algeria pass on Diwan ceremonies).

An excellent talk from the Radical Anthropology Group — I’ll certainly be watching out for the book that should be emerging some time from Tamara’s PhD. Meantime, I might be checking out her recommendation, the authoritative work in the field: Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Trance