by Cameron Fisher
“You don’t know whats going on,” Exuma bellows on the explicitly entitled “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” and with it, the listener becomes subject in the strange, devout music of Exuma.
Tony McCay, stage name Exuma, was a Bahamian musician active largely in the early 70s, in New York, where he manifested a distinct, jarring and visceral form of folk steeped deeply and, more importantly, genuinely, in the practice of Obeah, an African diasporic religion practiced in
the Caribbean. Exuma is his 1970 debut, born during his time in New York, and driven heavily by his practice of the rootwork of Obeah.
Between peaking, distorted kick drum thundering at occasionally jarring intervals, the strange sounds of wolves and crickets and frogs, and haunting wails from the backing vocals, Exuma and his overdriven, peaking guitar weave together spells and self-mythology through which he
becomes both poet and shaman. After “Exuma, The Obeah Man,” the album’s opener, we are guided into the melodic and sorrowful “Dambala,” beautifully covered by Nina Simone on It Is Finished, where McCay appeals to his spirits to bind the souls of slavers to the very dirt in which they’re buried.
Broadly speaking, Exuma recounts and preforms ritual and spell, and through repetitive guitar and percussion (particularly, a wide range of bells and jangly things) crafts the architecture of a trance state that feels, in turn, both alien and comforting. From this base, the album traverses its established themes and expresses a great angst underpinning it all that progressively moves into apocalyptic tones. On “Mama Loi, Papa Loi,” in one of his clearest expressions of dread, Exuma demands and cries: “touch me/touch me/fix my head… there ain’t no force/there ain’t no man.” Finally, he concludes the albums with songs of damnation that ring disturbingly true today, in which humankind is lost to wealth and blind to the signs and prophecy before us. “Man’s time has come,” he groans, before the album descends into its end of noise and weeping.
Amongst all this is his ever so slightly distorted acoustic guitar and folk adjacent chord progressions, warped to a vision beyond what we might immediately associate with folk. You could say its freak folk, whatever that means. Its certainly freakish, by most standards, but to say so without caveat is to imply a wickedness and to condescend: Exuma presents not only his religion in an uncensored manner, but he tries, sincerely and poetically, to ask us to look at the world we’ve made. Considering his context, which is to say, 1970, New York, its difficult to say his words and music are anything short of prophetic, and in his vision, its angels rather than teenagers who remind us that soon, “man will pray to die.”
In short, it is impossible to ignore the force behind Exuma, and to miss his music is to cheat yourself of an oft-forgotten genius. Both his first album, Exuma and second Exuma II cut deep, and regardless of one’s identity or god, the deep spiritual passion behind his music and words is clear, visceral, and deadly serious.
Image Credits: rateyourmusic.com, bahamasentertainers.com