Guelph Jazz Festival 2000

Eshu's Cap: Improvisation at the Crossroads of the Diaspora

Marshall Soules, Ph.D.
Malaspina University-College

In his vernacular theory of the blues, Houston Baker situates the African-American idiomatic music at the railway junction, the place where road crosses tracks:

The railway juncture is marked by transience. Its inhabitants are always travellers--a multifarious assembly in transit. The "X" of the crossing roadbeds signals the multi-directionality of the juncture and is simply a single instance in a boundless network that redoubles and circles, makes sidings and ladders, forms Y's and branches over the vastness of hundreds of thousands of American miles. Polymorphous and multidirectional, scene of arrivals and departures, place betwixt and between (ever entre les deux), the juncture is the way-station of the blues. (7)
Baker's conceit suggests that the blues musician provides "expressive equivalence for the juncture's ceaseless flux" and thus the blues player may be considered a "translator." Baker refers to John Felstiner's notion that translation preserves something of value, as in the giving of a gift, by "keeping it in motion" (206). The blues musician, working in the vernacular--of the slave, "native or peculiar to a particular country or locality"--translates experience at a particular crossroads which is also a node in a network of cultural relations. The crossroads marks both an instance of local expression--in the vernacular--and a point with no fixed address, something of a cultural universal ruled by archetypes and protocols. This paper explores cultural interconnections and we begin our journey with the movement of the African improvisatory spirit across the Diaspora.

Flash of the Spirit

"Listening to rock, jazz, blues, reggae, salsa, samba, bossa nova, juju, highlife, and mambo," writes Robert Farris Thompson, "One might conclude that much of the popular music of the world is informed by the flash of the spirit of a certain people specially armed with improvisatory drive and brilliance."
Since the Atlantic slave trade, ancient African organizing principles of song and dance have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New. There they took on a new momentum, intermingling with each other and with New World or European styles of singing and dance. Among those principles are the dominance of a percussive performance style...; a propensity for multiple meter...; overlapping call and response in singing...; inner pulse control...; suspended accentuation patterning...; and, at a slightly different but equally recurrent level of exposition, songs and dances of social allusion (music which, however danceable and "swinging," remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living). (Thompson xiii).

In his discussion of the translation of West African culture throughout the Diaspora, Flash of the Spirit, Thompson begins by acknowledging the central importance of the gods, the orishas, on both sides of the Atlantic. As is often customary in events which call on the powers of the orishas, Thompson begins with Eshu-Elegbara, a powerful Yoruba and Fon deity god with the "force to make all things happen and multiply (ąshe)" (18). A messenger to the gods like the Greek Hermes, Eshu came to be associated with the crossroads, "not only carrying sacrifices, deposited at crucial points of intersection, to the goddesses and to the gods, but sometimes bearing the crossroads to us in verbal form, in messages that test our wisdom and compassion." Eshu-Elegbara often speaks in riddles--signifying on his listeners--as do many of the pan-cultural archetypes of the trickster. In his discussion of Afro-Brazilian Umbanda cults, Victor Turner relates how Exu is considered to be "ambiguous, being at once good and evil...The relationship of men and women to the Exus is always a risky one for these tricksters can dupe their "children" (as the mediums of the Orixas are called), telling them one thing but doing another" (Anthropology of Performance 52).

To his followers, Eshu is thought to wear the crossroads symbolically as a cap with white on one side and black on the other. (In some versions of this widespread image, the cap is black and red.) One of the folktales associated with Eshu recounts how he wanted to test two men who had sworn vows of eternal friendship without taking Eshu into consideration by making the appropriate sacrifices. Eshu thus fashioned a cloth cap with black on one side and white on the other. Wearing his two-coloured cap, Eshu passed along the road between the friends who were working in the fields. When they stopped for lunch, one of the men insisted that he had seen Eshu wearing a white cap, while the other was positive the god had been wearing a black one. The ensuing argument was so heated that the neighbours could not stop them. Eshu returned, appearing very cool and pretending not to know what was happening. When the men explained their disagreement, Eshu declared that they were both right: "As you can see, one side is white and the other is black. You each saw one side and, therefore, are right about what you saw...When you vowed to be friends always, to be faithful and true to each other, did you reckon with Eshu? Do you know that he who does not put Eshu first in all his doings has himself to blame if things misfire?" (Ogundipe qtd. in Gates 35)

The American literary and cultural critic, Louis Henry Gates Jr. sees embodied in this myth not only the question of interpretation--and translation of experience--but also the principle of indeterminacy: the "indeterminacy of interpretation." Both friends are right, and both are also wrong. The hat is both black and white. "The folly depicted here", according to Gates, "is to insist--to the point of rupture of the always fragile bond of a human institution--on one determinate meaning, itself determined by vantage point and the mode one employs to see" (35). Ultimately, Gates traces the indeterminacy provoked by Eshu-Elegbara through the antics of Papa Legba, the Signifying Monkey and other trickster figures, to the role of the literary critic: that person who signifies on the literary tradition through "repetition and revision"--translating meanings, renewing and resurrecting works of art, circulating them like gifts through the cultures of transmission.

Gates notes how this process of signifyin(g), of repetition and revision, has become a staple of jazz improvisation:

Improvisation, of course, so fundamental to the very idea of jazz, is "nothing more" than repetition and revision. In this sort of revision, again where meaning is fixed, it is the realignment of the signifier that is the signal trait of expressive genius. The more mundane the fixed text ("April in Paris" by Charlie Parker, "My Favourite Things" by John Coltrane), the more dramatic is the Signifyin(g) revision. It is this principle of repetition and difference, this practice of intertextuality, which has been so crucial to the black vernacular forms of Signifyin(g), jazz--and even its antecedents, the blues, the spirituals, and ragtime.... (63-4)
For Gates, the repetition and revision of the improvising jazz musician has its counterpart in the intertextual networking of the cultural critic: both trade on indeterminacies resurrected from the tradition, and both operate under the sign of the trickster. Both act as translators hoping to preserve the gift of culture.

Lewis Hyde, who tracks the path of the trickster across cultures in his illuminating study Trickster Makes this World, notes that Eshu's love of chance is second only to his desire to open up the commerce between humans and the divine. In Hyde's interpretation of the story, "Humankind must sacrifice to the gods; that is the single rule that cannot be left to chance. It's an apt exception to Eshu's otherwise constant uncertainty, for sacrifice maintains the commerce between the worlds and gives the mediator his job. Once there is sacrifice, however, once the commerce is established, Eshu can begin to play..." (125). Hyde confirms that "sacrifice connected to Eshu focuses on sites of contingency"--places where there are openings, possibilities, opportunities: the crossroads. While not closing down the possibility of a literal reading of the tales of Eshu, Hyde takes this mythopoetry to stand for the creative process: "There are designs in this world, but there are also chance events, which means design is never finished. In artistic practice open to happenstance, or in the West African arts of divination, human beings have a way to enter into the play of fate and uncertainty, and from that play this world constantly arises." (127) It is interesting to note that Gates and Hyde come to opposite conclusions about the paradoxical story of Eshu's cap: for Gates, the deconstructionist, both friends are wrong in their interpretation; for Hyde, emphasizing the gift of difference, both are right.

African Rhythm in the Balance

[D]espite stylistic changes over time, jazz retains the continuity of certain underlying practices and values associated with improvisation, learning, and transmission. These factors of continuity, moreover, rest at the very core of the tradition, contributing to its integrity as a music system. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, 14)
Eshu-Elegbara and other tricksters like Papa Legba, in their translation to the New World brought with them not only a philosophy of creativity "open to happenstance." They also informed a robust and durable complex of social and performative practices, and a commensurate sense of style which has, in Thompson's phrase, illuminated the diaspora with a "flash of the spirit." John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Actions in African Musical Idioms describes in considerable detail how these social and performative values are embodied in West African improvisational musics. Chernoff emphasizes how the apparently spontaneous and improvisatory music is performed within a matrix of constraints, some related to the aesthetics of performance, some related to social contingencies. The master drummer, for example, is respected for an ability to, figuratively speaking, negotiate the crossroads; Chernoff writes, "The major improvisational considerations for the supporting drums in particular are dependent on a recognition of the fact that a drum in an African ensemble derives its power and becomes meaningful not only as it cuts and focuses the other drums but also as it is cut and called into focus by them. Rhythmic dialogues are reciprocal, and in a way that might seem paradoxical to a Westerner, a good drummer restrains himself from emphasizing his rhythm in order that he may be heard better...[A] rhythm is interesting in terms of its potential to be affected by other rhythms" (60; emphasis in the original). The style of improvisation is directly related to the social purposes of the music: "Improvisation for the master drummer...lies not so much in the genesis of new rhythms as in the organization and form given to the already existing rhythms, and a musician's style of organizing his playing will indicate the way he approaches from his own mind the responsibility of his role toward making the occasion a success" (82). In this sense, improvisation mediates between the particular accomplishments of the individual and the social needs of the group, the communitas.

In an echo of Gates' emphasis on the repetitive practices of signifyin(g), Chernoff notes that repetition is an "integral part of the music. It is necessary to bring out fully the rhythmic tension that characterizes a particular 'beat,' and in this sense, repetition is the key factor which focuses the organization of the rhythms in an ensemble. The repetition of a well-chosen rhythm continually reaffirms the power of the music by locking that rhythm, and the people listening or dancing to it, into a dynamic and open structure" (112). West African improvisational style is both performance and social practice, and is notable as an aesthetic which seeks to reconcile an apparent contradiction: how to bring spontaneity and restraint into balance. "Ultimately," Chernoff writes, "precise and impressive control of improvisational style distinguishes excellence in African musical idioms, and the worst mistake in such a context is not participatory restraint but random expression" (122). The music "values a particular balance of inherent tendencies.... the concentration on precision and control stabilizes the expression of feeling." Chernoff suggests that the "balancing of disparate modalities of musical expression" lies at the heart of West African improvisation.

The central purpose of Chernoff's study is to explore the interconnections between the aesthetics of African musical performance and its analogous social values. Even though Chernoff tends to generalize about African sensibility in unacceptable ways, the following illustrates his general approach: "To maintain their poise in their social encounters, Africans bring the same flexibility which characterizes their participation in musical contexts: they expect dialogue, they anticipate movement, and most significantly, they stay very much open to influence. The many ways one can change a rhythm by cutting it with different rhythms is parallel to the many ways one can approach or interpret a situation or a conversation. And there is always an in-between, always a place to add another beat...It is not only that one rhythm cannot monopolize all the notes; one rhythm means nothing without another" (158). Protocols of improvisation may seem like a paradox, when, in fact, they are essential for its practice: "From an African perspective, once you have brought a structure to bear on your involvements, and made your peace with it, the distinctive gestures and deviant idiosyncrasies of personality can stand out with clarity" (159). As Gates, Hyde and Victor Turner among others point out, it is the figure of the trickster which signifies the negotiation--the translation-- we humans must make to strike a balance within the system of indeterminacies and predeterminations--chance and fate--which constitute this world.

The Crossroads of the Mind

Associating the principles of indeterminacy and chance embodied by the trickster, with the trope of the crossroads, and the aesthetics of improvised music may seem fanciful. What is fascinating and compelling for me, however, is the widespread occurrence of the trickster across so many disparate cultures. Hyde suggests that the trickster is a feature of those cultures which do not try to deny happenstance and contingency in their explanations of creation. With a trickster figure, "[i]t is perfectly possible to have a system of belief that recognizes accident as part of creation" (121). In a fascinating demonstration of cross-disciplinary synthesis, the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner associates the trickster with the activity of play--an ad-hoc combination of what is at hand with what could be. He gives this playful function a distributed neurophysiological location in the limbic system, at the intersection of energy-expending (ergotropic) and energy-conserving (trophotropic) processes within the nervous system. Turner cites the research of d'Aquili and Laughlin which suggests ...that when either the ergotropic or trophotropic system is hyperstimulated, there results a "spillover" into the opposite system after "three stages of tuning," often by "driving behaviours" employed to facilitate ritual trance....In particular, they postulate that the rhythmic activity of ritual, aided by sonic, visual, photic, and other kinds of "driving," may lead in time to simultaneous maximal stimulation of both systems, causing ritual participants to experience what the authors call "positive, ineffable affect." (165) In effect, repetitive "driving" behaviours, whether sustained by meditation or ritual, may create a state of satori or ecstasy.

Turner, however, does not rest here. He notes that d'Aquili and Laughlin are absolutely silent on the question of play, which he sees as a kind of neurophysiological free-agent sampling, revising, re-creating: " does not fit in anywhere in particular; it is transient and is recalcitrant to localization, to placement, to fixation--a joker in the neuroanthropological act." (167) Play is, for Turner, "a liminal or liminoid mode, essentially interstitial, betwixt-and-between all standard taxonomic modes, essentially 'elusive'...Like many Trickster figures in can deceive, betray, beguile, delude..."

Turner's research seems to point to the limbic system as the juncture between the cerebral functions engaged in play--not really a location so much as a place to change direction, the place where analysis and association cross paths, cut one another--a crossroads under the sign of the trickster. Just as research seems to indicate that cause-seeking is hardwired in the brain--"inherent in the obligatory functioning of the neural structures" (165)-- Turner's late work postulates that play and its trade in happenstance is also neurologically determined. "Its metamessages are composed of a potpourri of apparently incongruous elements: products of both hemispheres are juxtaposed and intermingled" (168). Play charts a kind of passage between the hemispheres. Since it involves both analytic and associative processes, it is highly involving. Play originates where analysis and association cross paths, and this location is constantly shifting. "Play can be everywhere and nowhere, imitate anything, yet be identified with nothing....Play is the supreme bricoleur of frail transient constructions..." (168).

More recent neurophysiological research seems to confirm Turner's insights. Candace Pert's discovery of widespread peptide receptors throughout the body conclusively blurred previous distinctions between cognition and emotion, and where they occur in the body. As reported by Fritjof Capra in the The Web of Life, peptides are the equivalent of "molecular messengers" and that these messengers interconnect three distinct systems--the nervous system, the immune system, and the endocrine system--into one single network" (282). Pert's research on peptides--short chains of amino acids--are the biochemical manifestation of emotions, and are translated in the limbic system into cognition about those emotions. In a unique convergence of terminology, James Austin reports in his monumental Zen and the Brain (1999), suggests that the hippocampal formation lies at an "obvious crossroads in the limbic system" where it provides a "single association matrix, one which could affix the stamp of a specific event onto that particular framework supplied by its context...that conjunction between an event, its occurrence in time, its place in space, and the lively coloration it receives from its emotionalized limbic correlates" (182-183). There is little opportunity here to review in detail Austin's ambitious synthesis of neurophysiology and the Zen states of kensho or satori; suffice it to say that he identifies the limbic system as a kind of crossroads of human anatomy where sensations are translated into cognition through the widely-distributed agency of peptides. Is it possible, then, that the archetype of the trickster embodies, as Turner suggests, a deep intuitive understanding of how the human mind translates feeling into action, how it grapples with paradox , how it reconciles the one with the many? As part of his investigation into the nature of Zen, Austin tells how his roshi, his teacher, gave him a koan to contemplate as part of his training. His koan--an Eastern embodiment of paradox--seems appropriate to our exploration of the moving crossroads of the diaspora: "When all things return to the one, where is the one returned to?" (107).

West Meets East

all day long
wearing a hat
that wasn't on my head


Daniel Belgrad's recent book The Culture of Spontaneity surveys the importance of improvisation in American arts since World War II. As such, it is a record of the meeting and interaction of African aesthetics--exemplified by bebop and other jazz forms and their influence on the Beat writers--and other cultural expressions of spontaneity: surrealism and automatism; Zen Buddhism; Jungian notions of the collective unconscious and archetypes; and the directness of vision in the art and spirituality of the Americas' indigenous peoples. Jackson Pollock, for one, was significantly influenced by the rock paintings of pre-Columbian Native American artists. Pollock was among those abstract expressionist painters who recognized in indigenous art an unselfconsciousness and spontaneity missing from more conventional art forms. This understanding was fostered by Jung's belief that archetypal symbols and figures emerged spontaneously from the psyche to restore a sense of balance. The visions of the collective unconscious, said Jung, are called forth to remedy a certain "waywardness":

These primordial images are numerous, but do not appear in the dreams of individuals or in works of art until they are called into being by the waywardness of the general outlook. When conscious life is characterized by one-sidedness and a false attitude, then they are activated--one might say, "instinctively,"--and come to light in the dreams of individuals and the visions of artists and seers, thus restoring the psychic equilibrium of the epoch. (qtd. in Belgrad 58).
The artists who valorised spontaneity in North America after WWII almost universally felt that the times were out of joint, unbalanced by a reigning ethos of rationalism, determinism, and social engineering. The time was ripe for the disruptive interventions of the trickster. At this crossroads of cultural dialogue, there occurred a strange and fascinating exchange of improvisatory strategies: disrupting the social order to restore a sense of balance and justice.

An exemplary meeting of East and West occurs in Jack Kerouac's "Blues and Haikus," a recording he made with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn in 1958. To Kerouac, "The two of them play like brothers. My feeling about Zoot and Al is that they play and pray like pretty babies. A compliment. I don't mean 'immaturity,' I mean Holy Blakean babies, soft on the mountainside with their soft reeds and sweetest ideas. Zoot and Al blow thoughtful sweet metaphysical sorrows" (qtd. in Millstein). Against these sweet saxophone improvisations, Kerouac juxtaposes, in the manner of call and response, his haiku poems. Traditional Japanese haiku are short, highly structured records of a particular "moment of emotion in which human nature is somehow linked to all nature" (Henderson 22). The conventions or protocols of haiku--the number of syllables, the use of the present tense, the prohibition of direct statements of feeling--are all designed to "recreate the circumstances that aroused the poet's emotion" (23). The almost universal insistence on the immediacy of the moment and the directness of description make haiku a performance medium designed to convey the impression of spontaneity, an experience of the moment, and thus a fitting expression of Zen sensibility . Kerouac's familiarity with bebop and haiku allowed him to make an intuitive synthesis of cultural forms that is reflected in Blues and Haikus. [Play a selection from Blues and Haikus.]

Though highly-structured in form--the strict alternation of Kerouac reciting his haikus followed by the improvised responses of Sims or Cohn--the resulting dialogue exploits chance arrangements through the juxtaposition of elements. The immediacy of the exchange is supported, rather than inhibited by the aesthetic constraints which give form to the performance.

The paradox of indeterminacy as the context for dialogue is embodied in the figure of Eshu and his black and white cap. The conundrum he puts to the two friends is the question of how to maintain stable social relations which may at any time be subverted by chance happenings, or diverse subjectivities. The tale of Eshu's cap reminds us that in any act of interpretation both black and white must be accounted for: the two friends are both right. And they are both wrong in their insistence that the cap is one colour only. As Lewis Hyde and others point out, a trickster like Eshu tests and reaffirms the status quo by promoting chaos, disruption, and displacement. In this confrontation with paradox, this moving crossroads, culture is fashioned. The individual finds a home in the community; play brings social balance. And the gift of culture is translated from one world to the next.


Austin, James. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Baker, Houston, Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life; A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems.. Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford, 1988.

Henderson, H. G. Haiku in English. Rutland, VT: Charles Tuttle, 1967.

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kerouac, Jack. Blues and Haikus. 1958. With Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Rhino Records, 1990.

Millstein, Gilbert. "Liner Notes." Blues and Haikus. Jack Kerouac, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn. Rhino Records, 1990.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ, 1988.

(c) Marshall Soules 2000