Monday, May 21, 2012

The Rhythm of the Saints

The last track gives us the title of the album The Rhythm of the Saints. The story I heard of the title's source comes from the days of the American slave trade. The slaves continued, in the New World, to pray on drums to their usual deities, as they had in Africa. When questioned about this practice, they lied to their "masters" that they were praying with their rhythms to the Christian saints.

The song begins with what was an afterthought-line of "The Coast": "If I have weaknesses/ Don’t let them blind me." It's a plea to be free of deception. Yes, I know I have faults, the speaker says, but I hope I do not therefore miss something important while I am distracted by them.

Here, the thought is continued, "...or camouflage all I am wary of." These weaknesses could also make him miss the warning of something dangerous. Say he knows he should be "wary of" financial come-ons. Yet, he has a weakness for sob stories. While he might not be taken in by someone grinning while selling the Brooklyn Bridge, he might try to help out a person posing as a wronged Third World prince who sends him an e-mail of woe.

The weakness he describes seems to be an over-involvement in whatever emotion he is experiencing at the moment. He doesn't just laugh and enjoy himself, he "could be sailing on seizures of laughter," which sounds both out-of-control and almost violent. He doesn't get over break-ups easily, either, but finds himself slowly, painfully "crawling out from under the heel of love." He hears no answer to his prayer for greater awareness of his surroundings.

It seems he prays to Olodumare, a gender-less, incorporeal Yoruba deity who is the ruler of heaven, the creator of energy, and the source of morality, who also allows for the interaction between creatures and forces we in the West call "The Butterfly Effect." Since the speaker believes that Olodumare is "smiling," he answers his own question. Do our speaker's prayers remain unanswered? No, they have been answered, and in the affirmative.

Then comes this repeated chant: "Reach in the darkness/ A reach in the dark." All faith is, after a fashion, an attempt to grasp something that we can't see in a space that is impenetrable to human senses. Also a reach in the darkness is life itself. If Heaven is "dark" to our senses, then so is tomorrow. Not every "enemy," "obstacle," or blade is visible. Somehow, we must sense their presence before we cut ourselves and "glide away" from danger before it attacks. The speaker realizes the enormity of the task. We must "dominate" even what it is "impossible" to.

Further, we may have thought that it was "impossible" to, for instance, lose our jobs, contract a fatal illness, or lose a limb in an accident-- and yet, here it is, shockingly possible after all. And yet, we must forge ahead. Another weakness our speaker feels he has is that he is not popular. He feels that he is "always a stranger," and worse, "when strange isn’t fashionable" (So not, say, at Studio 54, where it was).

And what is? "Fashion is rich people waving at the door." Whether they are waving at their own door or the speaker's is immaterial-- he can no more enter their rich home than they would enter his poor one. Also, fashion is "a dealer in drugs or in passion/ Lies of a nature we’ve heard before." What's popular? Being lied to. "Tell me sweet little lies," coax Fleetwood Mac; "Lie to me/ I promise I'll believe," pleads Sheryl Crow.

This time, the prayer is directed to "Babalu-aye." He is Olodumare's representative on Earth, and has the power over the Earth and physical things, including possessions but also the body, health and disease. Because of this association with illness, he is seen as a disciplinarian... but also a healer, even if he is depicted as disabled himself.

The image of this god of "spinning on his crutches" should not imply constant spinning, but more like "he spun on his heel." The god turns to leave, as if to say, "Oh, is that all this was about?" tossing the reply over his shoulder as he hobbles over to his next petitioner. So the prayer is: "I never feel like I fit in!" And the reply this time is not just a smile but a verbal answer: “Leave if you want." You don't like it here? Well, who's making you stay? You don't fit in anywhere you have been? OK, so try somewhere you haven't been!

Another "reach in the darkness," to travel somewhere unfamiliar, where even the razors and knives are new. This song forms an interesting companion with "Spirit Voices." In that song, the spirits were eager to interact; here, they are less so, yet still helpful.

The rhythm of the "saints" seems very much like the rhythm of a heartbeat. The same blood that pumps out of the heart is pumped back in, then out again. It helped to voice his concerns aloud, but he held the answers within all along. Perhaps the "darkness" is not a deep cave, or the night sky, or anywhere external. It's dark inside a person, too.

Musical Note:
This song was sampled on a song called "Reach Out" by an act calling itself Eligh. I can only assume that is an imaginative spelling of the name Eli.

Next song: Thelma


  1. Hi, I wonder if you have considered that perhaps the mention of overcoming enemies and gliding away from the knife are references to the Brazilian martial art of capoeira as featured in the video for the obvious child, for example?

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  3. Unknown-- I am familiar with that vivid martial art. The album was made in Brazil, its land of origin (Brazil has also innovated its own variant on jiu jitsu). As for whether the song refers to that practice, I would say it's probably not that specific. As it happens, I have never seen capoeira performers use weapons.

  4. I'm wondering what the background voices are saying. I always supposed that the lyrics "to overcome an obstacle or an enemy," "to glide away from a razor or a knife," and "to dominate the impossible in your life" were providing an English translation for what was being said, but that's just a theory.

  5. Ruthvan--I'm sorry, I don't have the answer to that, or a source for it. I assumed it was "reach in the darkness, reach in the dark" in another language, likely Portuguese. In any case, it seems to be the same phrase or two, over and over.