From a rooftop overlooking the Queen’s Park Savannah, Keith McNeal could see the hills of Belmont. “There’s reason to believe that the first yard to combine Shango and Spiritual Baptism was in Upper St Francois Valley Road,” he said. Then he remarked that Melville Herskovits, the Jewish anthropologist who established African-American and African studies in American academia, visited Trinidad in the 1930s and wrote about an Orisha shrine in upper Belmont that was possibly the same one, but before Baptist influence. Herskovits also found that “Tocoans,” as McNeal dubbed them, had been deeply Christianised from even then, and there was not one Orisha shrine to be found in Toco. It was disconcerting to hear McNeal, an American, speak with such ease, intimacy and authority about Orishas, Spiritual Baptists, the Hindu goddess Kali, Hindu Sananatists, and “catching power.” McNeal, author of Trance and Modernity in the Southern Caribbean: African and Hindu Popular Religions in Trinidad and Tobago, is one of many foreign scholars who are transfixed by T&T’s mind-boggling range of religions, and how they have survived and evolved over time. For those of us who think bright lights, shiny cars and glitzy skyscrapers have banished belief in the mystical realm, McNeal is here to tell you different, although everyone keeps expecting these practices to die out, they survive, generation after generation, and are, in fact, thriving.
One only has to look at Christianity to see how mainstream Catholicism and Anglicanism have lost legions of followers over the years to “small churches,” as believers seek more intimate and vibrant relationships with God through lay pastors and charismatic leaders. In the same vein, generations of devotees to Kali and Shango, mainly poor and working-class people, have held on to the rituals of Shakti pujas and Orisha feasts respectively. Over the course of a decade, McNeal has faithfully documented the intricate details of these “ecstatic” rituals, where worshippers enter a trance and seem to become “possessed” by a spirit. They take on the persona of the god or goddess they are “manifesting” and may speak in a voice totally different from their normal one, or in a strange language. They often dance as if they’ve gone mad, jerking and falling back. If this sounds a lot like what happens at Carnival time, when masqueraders also behave as if they’re possessed, it is. Aside from the use of alcohol, the dancing, the use of music and the wanton abandonment is very similar to the experience of “ecstatic” worship. While masqueraders “play themselves,” or their alter egos, the Kali or Shango devotee “plays” a god or deity, who speaks or acts through them, explained McNeal, an assistant professor of comparative cultural studies at the University of Houston. He took pains to delineate the difference between “possession” and “manifestation.” If someone is possessed, then something has a hold on them, causing depression, disquiet, some malaise. “Something’s pulling the string, and it’s not you,” he explained. “This is negative. Trancing and mediumship, however, and what happens in pujas and feasts, is positive. People want it to happen. Everything they do provides for what they call manifestation of deities, which, in local parlance, is catching power.”
Trancing, he says, is done by devotees to transcend themselves or mobilise these forms of cosmic energy (which are called ashé on the African side and Shakti on the Hindu side) to do something beneficial to others—to heal, to care for, even to reprimand. The two are related in that spiritual affliction—such as possession or some other malady—brings the person to the Orisha yard or Kali temple. Having found relief—through the transformation of the healing process—many feel an awakening of new energies, and they interpret it as Shango’s or Kali’s calling them to service. The ritual of trancing and manifesting deities, which was labelled as “obeah” by colonial authorities, has also been misunderstood by polite society. In fact, McNeal pointed out, anything African or seemingly African in those days was dismissed as obeah, which, technically, refers to herbal-oriented healing to solve specific problems. African drumming, with its awesome, almost mystical power to energise and mobilise, was seen as very dangerous by British colonials and the plantocracy—and justifiably so. It is the heartbeat of all African expression across time and space, from reggae to soca to nyabinghi. And it is the key to opening the door between this world and the next. In Kali worship, tappu drums are used. Western secularists might say these rituals and belief in spirits and gods are a way of dealing with psychological issues, but then all religion, as McNeal pointed out, is our way of dealing with the “imperfections and difficulties and suffering of being human. It gives us a cosmic matrix in which to resituate ourselves and realign ourselves.” McNeal, a Fulbright scholar affiliated with the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, studied anthropology, comparative religion and psychoanalysis. He grew up in a Southern Baptist home in the US, but from early on he found himself questioning his parents’ core Christian beliefs.
He chose to do his first degree in comparative religions and spent a year in Bihar, India, where the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. He describes himself as an agnostic firstly, and secondly, Buddhist, “if anything.”
His work has been published in, among other places, the Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions; Caribbean Healing Traditions; in a forthcoming book on death and mortuary rituals in the Caribbean; in several academic journals; and Caribbean Beat magazine. He is working on a new book on the politics of sexuality in T&T. McNeal conceded that he has “felt something” amid the drumming of all-night feasts. He is careful not to dismiss what individuals believe as not being authentic or “real.” What is genuine is their desire or need to communicate with the spirit world through these rituals. These ritual spaces outside of the mainstream or orthodox religions also allow for more alternative gender and sexual expression. For example, women can have more power and authority than in everyday life—some have their own yards, for example. Although it is usually men who have the technical knowledge to carry out the feasts, Orisha worship allows for more alternative sexual expression than many devotees have in society. “You have transgender spirit performance, women who impersonate male gods, male devotees who impersonate female goddesses, homosexual men who are not necessarily ‘out,’” McNeal said. “Their religious devotions can become a vehicle for indirectly expressing that part of themselves.” Shakti worship, however, has remained patriarchal for the most part. In line with Hinduism and the Indo-Caribbean system of power relations, Shakti worship follows the tradition of male dominance.
However, even within this sphere, there are possibilities for women to create their own spaces. One of the largest Kali temples in Trinidad, McNeal mentioned, is headed by a woman: her husband was the head of the temple, but he died and it was unclear who the leadership would pass on to and so she became the head. Middle-class Orisha devotees tend to distance themselves from Christianity and the Catholic syncretism that many Shango worshippers practise, and there is a tension between the middle-class Afro-centric Orisha movement and grassroots Shango practitioners. While the Orisha movement has helped to dispel the stigma and myths about Shango-Orisha worship, and contested colonial legislation that criminalised forms of African religious expression, Shango devotees are not necessarily concerned with positioning themselves politically or identifying themselves as black or African. “The identity and racial politics at play here are very convoluted and a source of friction,” McNeal concluded. Shrines and temples are not found only in remote rural areas but all across Trinidad, from Petit Valley and Blue Basin in Diego Martin to Belmont, to Chaguanas. McNeal says there are more Kali temples now than there were ten years ago, especially throughout central and south Trinidad. Both Orisha and Kali worship inevitably underwent changes and incorporated diverse influences in dynamic and innovative ways. Orisha worship has incorporated elements of Hinduism, such as putting up jhandis; while Kali worship (Shakti puja) represents an amalgamation of various north and south Indian Hindu traditions and practices, and a bit of imagery from Islam, as well as Guyanese influences. However, while live animal sacrifice has mainly tapered off within Shakti pujas, it has not within Orisha worship. McNeal’s meticulous observations and analyses of these two practices make his 400-page tome a fascinating read. However, the text is quite formidable. This is an academic’s presentation to the academy on a topic that has engaged scholars for centuries. However, his field work and findings are crucial to understanding how the marginalised and the working-class in this country seek solace and relief in the divine, and should be studied closely by local scholars and politicians alike.