What’s the real story behind voodoo?
That’s what Genesis P-Orridge and Hazel Hill McCarthy traveled to Benin to find out. As the Kickstarter that will help them accomplish their goal nears its final hours, we speak of beauty, dogmatism, serpents, and lives past, present and future. Interview by Daniel Jones and Brandon Rosenbluth.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is a legend across multiple spectrums. As a founding member of Industrial Records, Throbbing Gristle, and Psychic TV, s/he has helped shape the landscape of experimental music for more than thirty years. Hazel Hill McCarthy III is hardly a stranger to Gen herself, having worked on a variety of projects together including designing thee legendary Psychick Bible—not to mention organizing many of LA’s best events via her production company Show Cave. Recently, the two traveled to the West African country of Benin to do a documentary on Vodun, better known as voodoo—one of the most maligned and misunderstood religions in the world. Before they return to finish the documentary and its soundtrack (recorded by Nitzer Ebb frontman Douglas McCarthy and Cyrusrex) they’re embarking on a quest to meet their Kickstarter goal to help finance this unique project. Because what they experienced during their time in Benin was something truly remarkable . . .
What formed the genesis of Bight Of The Twin—no pun intended?
Genesis: Mrs. Hazel came to visit for one long weekend, and she said, “I found these pictures online that are just incredible.” She pulled up this site that had all these photos of the most insanely weird costumes we’d ever seen; far stranger than Leigh Bowery. Some of them looked like Punch & Judy, and all of them were made from this highly embroidered material. They had no logic at all, which of course appeals to me. We looked at them and said, “Wouldn’t it be great to see them in the flesh?” And, Hazel being who she is, went away and later came back to say, “Gen, there’s a festival every seven years in Benin, and that’s when these costumes are worn by the ghosts—which is what they call the heads of the different cults, and that’s why you can’t see their faces. They represent the deity rather than themselves. We thought how great it would be to go, to see this for ourselves, and then Hazel said, “Then let’s go!” She took over—arranged for a film crew, sound people, accommodations, a guide. Now, we’ve been to some amazing places—we’ve hung out with the Hmong people in the Burmese jungle, spent time with the Akha tribes, different types of holy people in Katmandu . . . but we never saw anything so inspirational as when we got to Benin. Thank god there’s still amazing things to find!
How much interest had you had in Vodun before this?
G: Lady Jaye was already into Santeria, which is the Americanized version, and was a priestess of Oshun, who is the deity of sex workers, gays . . . she loves gold, she loves Chanel No. 5! Jaye gradually introduced me to the system and we were eventually initiated as representatives of Elegua, the trickster—which fits perfectly, of course! So we were already aware of that, and when we went to Haiti for our honeymoon and hung out with practitioners there. But we were always thinking that there must be deeper roots to all this—what’s the mother version of voodoo? We wanted the real story, because sadly Hollywood, TV and stupid writers of fiction have just latched on to voodoo and made this horrible, dark, corrupted version of the truth. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s about balance, respecting your ancestors—which also means respecting the past and not repeating your mistakes—and loving each other; sharing what you have. It’s a kind religion, nothing like what’s been pushed at the world. Having been though that process myself, being vilified for trying to set up positive alterative communities, it struck me hard in the heart that these people are also suffering from deliberate misinformation.
Hazel, how did you get in touch with the holy people in Benin?
Hazel: That was another serendipitous part of the filming. I was led to Emmanuel, our guide and translator, who I found through researching articles online. What’s amazing is that his father, Dah Gbedjinon, is a Vodun head. It wasn’t planned at all, so it was something amazing that we were immediately brought into the home of this important priest.
Were they welcoming? It seems like they initiated you into their ceremony very generously.
H: They were very open, loving and friendly. They really wanted to explain the truths about their religion and how things are done in everyday life.
Is it common for them to be so open about their religion?
G: We only had that once experience with them, so we’re not sure. Haiti was very closed off. They were much more paranoid, and with good reason because Haiti is were they base a lot of these completely fake movies, so the whole place has this awful weight on their shoulders from being the “home” of this awful Hollywood voodoo. When I was there with Lady Jaye, however, they showed her all sorts of things. They had no fear, nothing to hide. No disguises or rosy lenses, because there is nothing to disguise. It’s a nature religion about respecting and honoring history and ancestors . . . “Walk through the jungle and leave no trace of your feet”, as the natives say. Those sorts of feelings are so rare in Western culture, which is dominated by greed, and corruption, and cynicism—success, career, and consumption, material things that people think will save them from dying. The attitude in Benin is so different. If a person only had one chicken, they’d share it without a second thought—even if it meant they had no food the next day. Try and find this in New York or London. You’d be hard pressed to get an empty beer bottle.
Hazel, had you ever done a documentary of this scope before?
H: This is the first one! This documentary has turned into a beautiful beast. We went there to document something, and we weren’t even sure what it was at first, but it’s unfolded into this wonderful, large project. The narrative is about the twinning, but the bigger picture is about shedding light on not just Vodun as a religion, but also as a different way of living and loving. I think that’s where that duality comes from: this ominous idea presented by outsider, contrasted with the culture it truly is.
Douglas McCarthy is composing the soundtrack with Cyrus, right? How was their aural interaction with Benin and the people there?
H: The plan is to go back to Benin for the twin festival, which happens in September—that’s why we have the Kickstarter going on right now. Cyrus and Douglas will be traveling with us to record the soundtrack, incorporating some of the soundscapes of the environment and using a variety of tools to evoke the weave of the land.
You mentioned that Benin’s religious culture was very open to you. How hierarchal was it?
G: The ‘ghosts’, the high priests, had acolytes who were learning the prayers and the rituals. It was passed down hand by hand; it has to be done one-on-one, the knowledge passed by touching the hands of the mind. You have to experience these altered states through ritual. You can’t get it from a book. The first night we were in Benin, we were sitting in that town square. We looked across and saw this amazingly tall and slim person wearing robes and ritualistic necklaces, which was a giveaway that he was one of the ghosts, the priests. Even from that distance, he radiated a power and charisma that we could feel. The next day, Emmanuel invited us to meet his family, and the man we’d seen the night before was his father Dah! So in twenty-four hours, not only had we accessed the top guy to ask questions to, but he was related to Emmanuel, who already trusted Hazel. This made it so much easier for us to open ourselves to each other, to see how we are as people without preconceptions. On the second night, Dah looked at me and said, “You had a twin who died.” He knew it was a “she” as well. He said to me, “You need to create this doll, so that she can be in constant spiritual contact with your soul, interlinked.” He asked me if I wanted to create a doll of Lady Jaye, and of course I said yes. So that was how the first ritual happened, which they allowed us to film all the way through which, to our knowledge, nobody has ever been allowed to do, possibly because nobody ever asked!
And when you explained the project to Emmanuel and his people, what was their reaction?
G: We didn’t, actually. Emmanuel’s understanding of English wasn’t wide enough to really grasp the concept; it was more intuitive on their part. But there was no conflict between what we were doing and discussing with them. We looked at a lot of the dolls that were being worn by the people, being washed in bowls outside of houses and none of them had earrings. But when we got mine, Dah had burned two holes in the ears because, he said, “She always wore gold earrings, so I’ve made holes for them.” How did he know?? It was so beautifully spooky. It was stunning. Within two or three days, they made they decision amongst themselves and the other heads of houses that we were cool, that we weren’t trying to sensationalize anything, that we truly just wanted to know. Benin is the only country in the world where Vodon is the state religion, and has been continuously for ten thousand years. That’s three times longer than Christianity.
Which makes sense that there’s so much misinformation about it.
G: You’ve hit the nail on the head! One of the negative critiques of voodoo is that, “Oh, they sacrifice chickens.” At Christmas and Thanksgiving, millions of people sacrifice turkeys and geese, only they don’t honor them and say, “Accept my apologies for taking your life so that we may live.” There’s no respect to the life given, at all. Christianity itself is a blood religion, and Christ the ultimate blood sacrifice: drink the blood, eat the body. Which is the sicker one? So yes, it’s obvious there’s been a deliberate spreading of misinformation; because of the potency and strength of Vodon itself. When people feel threatened, when something is different, they attack something. It’s another form of control. There was absolutely nothing that felt dark about what we saw.
It’s amazing; we’d hang out in that town square beneath this massive six hundred year-old baobab tree and drink cold beer. Next to the tree was the Temple of Pythons, the Vodon temple and directly across from that was a Catholic cathedral. We asked Emmanuel about that, and he said that when the Jesuits arrived and said, “ We come to represent our One True God” the Benin people went, “Oh great, you have a god you worship so you should have a temple too!” So they actually built it for them! What a difference of attitude: “We’re not threatened. We love the fact that you have a belief system.” And sometimes we’d sit there and see a particular clan or house wandering through the church grounds, singing Vodon chants and bashing all this percussion, making these amazing complex rhythms. One day, there were all these little girls outside the church in confirmation outfits—all in white, with white angel wings, all quietly organized and waiting to go into the church. Then one of the houses marched past them, chanting and singing and celebrating—very visceral, very pure. It was so compelling to watch them celebrate life like this.
Now, almost everyone we’d met had lost someone—a mate, a child, a twin—through disease or starvation. There’s a high attrition rate. But nobody was depressed! They’re still smiling, celebrating with arms open in every possible way. It’s one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever experienced.
H: There is very little grief there, but I feel like what the twinning and these little dolls represent is a knowledge that this person is not really gone—that they’re still a part of your life. I can’t really think of a parallel in the US like that. We have tombs and murals and urns, but these little dolls are true connections, reminders that this person’s spirit is till around.
But the people of Benin have such a different connection to the dead—maintaining a connection to the spirit world. The people who act as a bridge between the two worlds are even called ghosts.
G: Isn’t that great, that name? Why can’t we all be called ghosts? We’ve already had experiences where we feel like Lady Jaye has been in contact, and we do believe in alternate dimensions of consciousness that are capable of leaking through into what this material world appears to be. It wasn’t a great leap for us to accept and acknowledge that. We’ve already accepted the idea of an ongoing karmic process where you try and make choices in a more and more positive way, and where you try to remain in contact with those you unconditionally love. One of the strangest moments on our journey is when we met this little girl, and she had a Psychick Cross on top of her hair!
H: We kept asking her mom what that symbol meant, and she just said that it was decoration!
G: We took that as a confirmation that we were in the right place.
And you take your Lady Jaye doll with you everywhere, Gen?
G: All the time! If she’s not around my neck, she’s in my purse. When we get a drink or eat, she has some too. She has clothes that match some of my clothes . . . she’s kind of like a Vodon Barbie doll, but much more potent than you would imagine. The next phase is that we’re going to paint her lips bright red, like Jaye’s. We have some of her hair, so we’ll put some on as well so she represents Jaye even more. We definitely feel more connected to Jaye than ever, though we’ve always been connected.
It’s a revelation to go somewhere and everything is integrated—no separation between belief, ritual, daily work, trying to eat—it’s all interlaced and integrated. The only other place we’ve been where that was true was Kathmandu. You can walk down the street, which has shrines just everywhere—in corners, under houses, the most awkward places—and you’ll see someone dressed for a day at the office stopping to pray or give an offering. Sometimes they’ll actually stop and do a sacrifice on the way to work; meanwhile people are sweeping cremation ashes into the river, while down the bank dishes and clothes are being washed in the water. It’s this vivid cycle where nothing can be isolated; it all has to fit with the way of living. That’s something we always felt we never got from the Western belief systems. One of the problems for all of us in the West is the lack of positive connection to the past, present and a future. We’ve lost that ability and substituted materialism, careerism and consumption. We’ve substituted all for of those for something much more priceless and holy, which is loving each other and sharing what you have in order to enhance every life. Whenever you see that, it’s a stark reminder of what we’ve lost in the West. That’s what this film is for, in the end: a reminder that we need to rethink our relationship with materiality, that we need to re-integrate real things into our lives. We believe in what we call “big love”. Love is the glue that holds the phenomenal universe together.
Were you aware of the importance of twins in Vodon before you arrived?
G: Not at all!
So the overlap of the Pandrogeny project was serendipitous as well!
G: In fact, their ‘ultimate’ god—if you want to call it that—is Mawu-Lisa, an androgynous deity who embodies both male and female in separate aspects—python for male, chameleon for female— that make the one whole. When we heard that we said, “Oh my god—androgyny! We’re right!” Androgyny actually is an ancient and ongoing divine description of the human situation!
Plato described that as well, didn’t he?
G: Absolutely, and once you start doing research you discover that there’s actually a mother religion that’s global. So then you realize that dogmatic, patriarchal and Abrahamic religions are just about economic and social control. It reminded me just how unhealthy Western dogmatic systems are, and that as a species we really have to reconsider our role: what is it that we can experience that is so priceless about life? It’s love, for everyone—male, female, male-female, female-male, everyone. It doesn’t matter who, because we’re all divine.
Is that something you try to express through the music of Psychic TV as well?
In fact, the new album that comes out in November is called Snakes. The title track is all about our second-to-last day in Benin when they suddenly sprung this mini-ritual on us. We were sitting on benches, and Dah was in his big chair, and one of his acolytes came in. Dah said something to him, he leaves and then comes back with a big glass jar filled with dead pythons and chameleons floating in some clear liquid. The acolyte grins and pours out a shot of the liquid, and drinks it. Then he pours another, and Dah drinks it. Then he looks at me and smiles, pours a shot and I drank it. All the way around the crew, Hazel, Douglas and everyone had one. Then Dah says something else, and the acolyte goes away and comes back with a jar of black powder. One after the other, from the acolyte to myself, had to lick some of this powder off of the floor. By this point we were wondering about the health risks of such a thing, but then the acolyte comes back with a jar of white powder, and the whole process was repeated. It wasn’t a challenge, it was Dah saying, “Don’t be afraid. You can trust me.” And, we did. Nobody got sick or felt bad, but Hazel and I both started tripping in a very strange way when we got back to America. It was very psychedelic in an unusual way, and it took about a day for it to happen. Whether it was hypnotic suggestion or what, we don’t know. Quite honestly, we don’t care. It was an act of faith—we trusted Dah, and we still do. We’ve met some amazing people on this planet, but he’s right up there. The people there were all beautiful; it’s a society so closely immersed, not just with the physical, but the emotional and spiritual levels within themselves. We came back thinking, “If only everyone shared what their resources are, and looked to heal each other and the outside, what amazing and miraculous societies we could create!” Benin is a really positive template for society.
Do you think everyone has a twin in this world?
G: That’s a big question! Personally yes, we believe everyone has another half, and that the purpose to go on living is life-loops—same as in Buddhism, there’s a karmic cycle that spins until you find that second half. And when you do, my goodness, you know when you do. Everything else just pales into grays around them, and this one being and yourself become vividly illustrated with color and energy and love. Who knows how many lifetimes it takes? But that is there for everybody, and everybody will eventually meet that other. Once you accept that this is your purpose for being materially alive, the sooner you will jumpstart yourself spiritually and realize that, having helped yourself, the next part is to help other people. The individual finds potency or magickal energy not to become egocentric or clever or to be admired, but to then become a servant to those who haven’t arrived there yet. It’s a calling, like being a priest or a probation officer. Whatever you learn, you have to share. That’s what Hazel is doing with this film.
That’s been your mission with Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth as well—the sharing of information.
It’s been an obsession. We feel fortunate that we realized early on that the individual was worth nothing without the love and trust of other people. That your true worth, your reflection as a human being, is how you inspire other people. It doesn’t matter how many, just always give back. ~
Stills credits: Hazel Hill McCarthy III, Drew Denny, Douglas J. McCarthy, Lewis Teague Wright, Eric Nordhauser, Hypolite Apovo and Emmanuel Sardou Gbedjinon.
Trailer credits: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Dah Gbedjinon, Adepts, Drew Denny, Douglas J. McCarthy, Lewis Teague Wright, Eric Nordhauser, Hypolite Apovo and Emmanuel Sardou Gbedjinon. Tracks by COUM Transmissions, DJMREX and Atem Hein.
Published July 23, 2014. Words by brandon & Daniel Jones.