Guyanese Komfa – a drum wok ritual

Updated: May 26, 2021

The colonial authorities quickly learnt the dangers of allowing the slaves to dance, drum and ‘have fun,’ and aspects of slave culture were forbidden. Overtime, there was a move toward more creolized, Pan-African ethnic associations that challenged the colonial plantation system, a process that culminated, in the case of Haiti, in revolutionary transformation.’ Patrick Taylor, Nation Dance (p.4)

The intention

Just as it is impossible to stray from one’s shadow it is not possible to deceive spirit. Yet we attempt to do it all the time. Many of us theorise about our ‘ancestors’ – how we must honour them, keep their memories alive and so on without actually doing anything that would fulfil the intention. After a while, it becomes a dead tune bombarding the heart with its dryness. Spirit yearns for the kind of elevation that would invigorate its power and energise us. Hence the enslaved danced, drummed and ‘had fun’ which as the above quotation shows were expressions opposed to the barbarities of their oppression. The dance and drumming and ‘having fun’ were embedded acts of liberation. In the dancing, trance would take place as the spirits (of deities and ancestors) wrested control from the oppressed vessel and guided their progressive actions towards independence; also girding them with spiritual sustenance. The drums were invocative, empowering the spirits to rise. The gaming (ring play – as we called these in Guyana), would mask strategies of escape or combat – as with Capoeira of Brazil.

I hear many Africans refer to their jobs as being on the plantation. When coupled with the mundane rhetoric of paying homage to ancestors (by word alone) this is a dire prospect for the spirit housed in personalities espousing the idea and not the act of honouring ancestors and being thus spiritually liberated. The Haitian revolution remains a guiding light to the way in which political will was served by cultural and spiritual power. The intention behind organising a Guyanese Komfa ritual was therefore to elevate practice (for a change) in contrast to theory in terms of the way we enact our diasporic cultures. I don’t believe another such ritual (at least of Komfa) has been attempted in the UK. We wanted those who attended to experience the power of ancestral spirits, to call on them in a meaningful way, to participate in song and dance that would elevate us beyond theory and analysis of said experiences. It was interesting to see how difficult it was for some to let go, which might suggest a clinging to the drudgeries of the very plantation they denounce, perhaps having somewhat internalised its form. The drum wok ritual aimed to provide a space for us to release those mental chains; some of which are locked so tightly as to trick even the most politically conscious among us in believing they are liberated. For some political consciousness is all that matters, yet many of the revolutionary strategies we know were influenced by a collective spiritual power enshrined in the ancestral memory of enslaved Africans. The Haitians used theirs effectively!

Pouring libation and offerings to ancestors for successful outcomes.

Why Guyanese Komfa?

Dr Kean Gibson’s book Comfa Religion and Creole Language in a Caribbean Community remains the only complete work about the Komfa practice of Guyana. It inspired my own research of the practice. I had observed that unlike many other African derived spiritual practices there’s hardly anything on Komfa. Brian Moore, in his book Cultural Power, Resistance and Pluralism: Colonial Guyana 1838 – 1900 also provides some information of the practice. Through his work, we know that Komfa was formerly associated with Mammi Wata, from its West African roots but later fused Christian elements through the well-known religious group the Jordanites - known also as ‘the white robed army’ due to the head to foot whites they adorn.

I also felt Komfa could be well accommodated (as an artistic perspective) by the discipline of literature. Inspired by Jamaican Sociologist Erna Brodber’s novel Myal, which is linked to Kumina I have composed a novella with Komfa as the central theme. The combined disciplines of social science, cultural studies, critical theory and literature were used to produce my thesis which will be published jointly in 2016 by Way Wive Wordz Publishing and Bogle L’Ouverture Publications as Guyanese Komfa: The Ritual Art of Trance. The novella will be published independently under the title Something Buried in the Yard. These publications will be worthwhile contributions to Guyana’s 50th year of independence, particularly as they serve as homage to our ancestors.

Phillip Moore photo of Jordanites

So what is Comfa?

You can get a fuller overview about this practice from this issu of Culture Pulse magazine, but I’ll give a brief outline here.

In Comfa religion Gibson writes that, unlike other African-Caribbean religions (that stem mainly from Yoruba in Nigeria), Comfa is ‘essentially Bantu’ (2001, pp. 35-37). Dale Bisnauth (1996) more specifically provides an Akan derivation of Komfa. The name is linked to Okomfo (akomfo – plural) - an Akan word meaning, traditional Priest, soothsayer, diviner. It refers to trance/manifestation – on hearing the beating of drums, which is still seen in the related practice of Akom in Ghana, for which there is an annual festival. I’ve opted to spell Komfa with the ‘K’ to reconnect it to Akom and also to the similar Kumina practice in Jamaica. In Guyana when this happens we say ‘so and so ketch comfa’ (in other diaspora societies it might be referred to as ‘catching spirit’ or ‘getting hit’ or ‘he head hol’ he’ or being ‘mounted’ by spirit…). Whilst other practices recognise deities (like the Orisa), Komfa is comprised of an ethnic pantheon of spirits – African, Amerindian, Chinese, Dutch (Djukas of Suriname), East Indian, English (European) and Spanish, all of whom have contributed to the historical, social and cultural development of Guyana.

I was too young to remember and therefore be afraid of the Jordanites, a millennial religious organisation likened to spiritual Baptists across the Caribbean. They roamed the streets zealously proclaiming Old Testament damnation on the unrighteous. A story tells that one such Jordanite, parading through my ancestral village Seafield (42) was stoned by some young boys. The elders hadn’t condemned their actions. The Jordanite cursed the village, saying that no boy child would grow up in the village, they would die. Parents started sending their boy children to live elsewhere. Thus Jordanites appeared to both adults and children like liminal spirits/ghosts sent from some mystical place to chastise them. They were scorned and vilified. Fear has a way of masking itself, however, and I would say that for as many who regarded their proclamations as nonsensical there were those who were simply afraid of them. They mostly operated in Guyana’s capital Georgetown, and were also called ‘Faithists’ or ‘Spiritualists,’ by which names practitioners of Komfa are also known. The only thing I knew about Komfa was that it was something frightening that ‘happened’ to people; ‘something’ overwhelmed them to the extent that they had no control of their behaviour. This vague understanding was lodged in my subconscious as something real and terrifying, just as the many tales of ‘jumbies,’ ‘ole higue,’ ‘bacoo,’ and ‘obeah.’

During slavery and colonialism practitioners of African derived practices were imprisoned, sometimes killed for practicing Obeah. This photo depicts 'outlawed' practitioners in Jamaica.

Letting the power fall

The decision to do a Komfa ritual stemmed from observing Africans seemingly on standby or pause at a number of our cultural events where drumming is taking place. There’s a kind of frigidness that renders our bodies immobile – someone called it ‘spiritual arthritis.’ Whilst the drum and drummers call, through at times wonderful drumming – there’s little response – as though the slave master is still overseeing and forbidding us to move in ritual celebration. The drum’s power is invocation for our response. Yet we’ve become weighted down, obviously by struggle and our entrenchment to it, so we either don’t hear the call or we refuse to let the power fall.

Many who attended the ritual came with an intention behind which I feel was a subconscious communication with spirit. By this I mean – their spirit wanted to be in a space where it would find release but the longing was subjected to some sort of reticence about freeing up by the personality (outward/obvious expression of the self) fronting the spirit. Several faces were fixed, perhaps ready for a longwinded lecture about the practice, which I had explained was not going to be forthcoming. Arms were folded as though prepared for battle – perhaps one between the spirit and the personality. We might say it was curiosity that brought many out on this Bank Holiday Monday but once there defence mode kicked in. We who were organising/planning had hoped that people would dance – impromptu – willed by spirit to do so. Yes, we didn’t take up time explaining and over-contextualising we wanted the power to mediate the ritual experience and enable a collective letting go. This kind of letting go would be something like the release of long-held breath or shackling of heart; it would be like removing invisible blindfolds that had blighted one’s vision; removing likewise invisible chains from wrists and ankles, that heavy neck clasp posing as a decorative piece of adornment – sparkling but without power to ignite transformation. There was some eventual response but it was ultra-long in coming. I have since checked my expectations; realised that it was a first time and development comes in stages – re-membering the psychic splits (dispossession of ancestral traditions etc) is a process one must wilfully go through; thereby acknowledging trauma and seeking space for timely release.

The ganda

In Guyana the ganda (the ceremonial or sacred space) would be prepared in the yard. However, we created one of good likeness in the Johmard Community Centre, Colliers Wood. We used crocus bag fabric (to represent the earth/ground), a large palm leaf plant symbolic of our far away Africa, in which a stick of cane was placed. We created the ganda circle with cornmeal, flour, white chalk (or efun in Yoruba) and Irosun (or divining powder). Priestess Osunyemi added Veves (symbols) for Ezili Danto and Ayizan which are found in Haitian Vodun – Ezilie was the entity the Haitan revolutionaries called on for protection during the struggle for their liberation; Ayizan represents the old, old ancestors, forcibly removed from Africa. We added calabashes containing cooked food for the ancestors (shine rice, a Guyanese dish made with real coconut milk, stew black eye beans, boiled corn, roasted sweet potato and fufu for African spirits), Pepperpot (in homage to our Amerindian ancestors), chick peas and potatoes (for other ethnic spirits related to Guyana); rain water, river water, eggs (in a calabash of water, not broken as would ordinarily be the case), a new pointer broom (in upright pose); on plantain leaves we put more corn (the popping king, reflecting fertility/productivity and abundance), yam, cassava, raw rice, sugar (for which our ancestors laboured to produce from the cane they were forced to cultivate); cowrie shells (our old time money) and coins (money of this time/space which we all need). There were bottles of brown and white rum, Banks Beer, Malt drink and sweet drink and so on. The experience of creating the ganda is somewhat indescribable.

The drummers and the wok

One of the most impressive aspects of the Komfa ritual was the drums. This really established the ‘drum wok’ – and it was a fully Pan-African representation – since many of the drummers were from different countries; none were Komfa drummers. We had arranged for Prince Morgan – for me an exceptional drummer to lead others who wanted to participate. With no funds to pay them (anyone) we relied on their good will – which was more than generously forthcoming. I counted 11 drummers – not including their young sons who participated with such delight in the session. We asked – though we didn’t get a picture of it – the drummers to enter the hall from the entrance by walking backwards (in keeping with Komfa rituals in Guyana), as a way of bringing the ancestors in (their world being reverse of ours). It was magnificent to see how they embraced this; a powerful image resting in my memory. The first tune we played was ‘Nation’ a song familiar to most Guyanese: ‘nation a whey yuh nation, nation a whey dem deh?’ It’s a call for the various (African) Nations to recognise themselves as part of a collective, thus ‘all ah we a one generation…nation a whey dem deh?’ We had sprayed the drums with rum and high wine and so they communicate, spirit played loud and hard, calling and calling the personality to take back seat for this day and let it (spirit) take over.

I must pay particular tribute to each of the drummers, though all their names aren’t known to me: Ras Prince, Siayoum Karuma, Kent James and his master drummers quartet, brothers Chauncey, Eli, Tuup, John, Gary. And likewise to Keith Waithe who was masterfully accompanying on the flute, and guiding the rhythms of his native Guyana. Along with the occasional conch shell callings, we know the vibrations positively roused the spirits.

Trance – let’s go there!

There’s no adequate dictionary definition for what ‘trance’ is as far as I’m concerned. Simply they say it’s to do with being ‘half conscious’ and is ‘characterized by an absence of external stimuli.’ This doesn’t express what is happening internally, what kind of energy is prevailing; the intensity of the ‘hypnotic state’ they say characterised trance. If we call on the ancestors – the positive ones (maternal and paternal in the individual case and those who’ve contributed to our liberation at community level also) and have prepared our space (cleansed it properly) we need not fear what that power might be. We would in truth welcome it. If the power seems to overwhelm an individual, we have means to calm it. If the power seems negative – again we have means to revert it. Hence the rain water, white rum, florida water, Kananga water, metal object (we used a horseshoe bracelet as we didn’t have a cutlass) for protection, all of which are available in the ganda. Such power manifesting would give us the opportunity, in any case to question it – ask why it has come – since it chose this moment to reveal itself and has been with the individual or someone in the room all the time. Or we simply let it dance and allow us to experience ecstasy.

Trance is the means by which spirit negotiates and communicates with the physical – it’s the aligning power of the spiritual and material realms. It allows the personality to be subdued - fleetingly. For the personality is bound or binds us to the material world to which we are part but ought not to control us the way it does – to the extent that we fear the power of this release. After this release through trance, we will learn a power that cannot be taught or expunged – it is enmeshed in expressions of ‘I Am’ – the Divine. This is why for Haitian and Orisa worshippers being mounted by a ‘god’ (deity) is the central purpose of ritual, for it frees spirit from the ego/personality that dominates the individual and their destiny (their purpose for being). Through trance we (re)connect to source and learn the Path of our destiny. I know that a number of Guyanese who know about Komfa would stay far because of the inevitably of going into trance. I know too that this ambivalence is not peculiar to Guyana.