In this time of great oppression, we are returning to old and ancient spiritual traditions: An interview with Janet “Sula Spirit” Evansby
Sula Janet Evans is a singer-songwriter with the world beat/reggae band Zion Trinity and the lead singer of Mojuba, a band that focuses on sacred orisha music. She is also founding director of the Na’Zyia Doula Collective, a member and medicine queen of the Mardi Gras Indian Queens of the Nation, and an Akan/ancestor priest at the Shrine of Impohema in Ghana. A native of New Jersey with a B.A. in African Studies and English Literature from Rutgers, Evans has lived in New Orleans for more than twenty years and is the co-owner of the retail store King & Queen Emporium Int’l on Bayou Road. She is also my longtime friend and sometimes collaborator.
Her book, Spirit of the Orisha, which is available with an accompanying two-CD set, is a collection of thirty-eight song lyrics, with translations and phonetic pronunciation of orisha music. The book also includes a reflection on the attributes of each orisha and Sula’s original artwork. The book and CDs are available on the Zion Trinity’s website.
The book and CDs will also be available for purchase at a Happy Hour Salon featuring Evans as well as Rachel Breunlin and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, the editors of Talk That Music Talk: Passing On Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Way, a Neighborhood Story Project publication. The event takes place from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.) and will feature presentations of Spirit of the Orisha and Talk That Music Talk along with translation and a set of live music.
I sat down with Sula at her house in The Musician’s Village recently to discuss her new project.
Room 220: In writing about the orisha, you explore a subject that spans anthropology, spirituality, and musicianship. Talk about the work that came before you and how yours fits into it.
Sula Janet Evans: The inspiration for this body of work came from many years of being in this tradition and realizing while at Bembes—traditional Yoruba ceremonies involving the sacred Bata drums—that many people would sing the songs, but they were mouthing and making up the words. As a writer and a person who is very meticulous about following tradition and making sure that things are presented as they came from Africa, it was important for me to create a body of work that was very simple. In the mid 1990s, Baba John Mason created the historic Orin Orisha, which is a book of more than 300 pages and an excellent teaching tool about the orisha and orisha music. However, it’s a very involved body of work and is very much for people who are already steeped in the tradition. I was given the vision many years ago to create a CD and book that would be for both the orisha practitioner and the layperson. In 2012, it was time.
Also, while compiling the work, I realized that I needed a Yoruba translator. I went to the spirit and asked who would be the appropriate person, and I was shown my friend, Omoba Adéwálé Adénlé. I called him, and initially he said he didn’t have time to do it because he’s a teacher in Texas and was very busy. After a couple of months, I called again, and he agreed. Without the help of Adéwálé, this wouldn’t be truly respected and authenticated. It needed someone from that tradition signing off. As an American, I can sing the songs from a thirty-year musical perspective, but the correct translations are another issue. Every Sunday, I would sing the songs to Adéwálé on Skype, and he would translate. It was a blessing, and he was the gift!
Rm220: For those who might be unfamiliar, what is the orisha tradition and what does it mean to be a practitioner of it?
SJE: The Orisha tradition originates in Nigeria, West Africa, and is a very ancient tradition that has survived the Middle Passage and four hundred plus years of oppression. It was brought to America through enslaved Africans who were captured in Africa and taken by force and scattered throughout the diaspora. Africans were unable to bring drums, and, of course, their own traditions, so this sacred music was carried in their bosom and bellies and used later as a means of survival and spiritual power. This music was a survival tool for enslaved Africans because then they were able to call the power of the orisha and ancestors to protect them and give them power against the oppressor. Africans were taken from various tribes and put together on one plantation, but the common language was spirit. The orisha have survived in places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Americas and it has been a survival tool for centuries.
Rm220: Thinking about the orisha in light of history and its giving power and voice to the oppressed, how do you see this work relating to today’s world?
SJE: In this time of great oppression, we are returning to old and ancient spiritual traditions in a very strong way because people are realizing that this current system is failing them and they need to find alternative ways to survive and remain balanced. The church is failing people, institutions are failing people—we must turn to the ancient ways of our grandmothers and grandfathers. In this time we are hopefully regaining the wisdom of our grandmothers and grandfathers and going back to the ancient ways to access even greater power. By going to the Orisha and ancestors, we gain strength to fight the oppressor and all negative forces.
Rm220: Off the top of my head, you are a singer, a doula, a proprietor, a craftsperson, a priestess, a leader of your own shrine, a visual artist—your work is on the cover of your book—and a Mardi Gras Indian queen. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head! Why did you choose to pursue this project from all of the various things you are engaged with?
SJE: This project was really bigger than me. It wasn’t something I tried to do. I was just given the vision, and then, one day, when I was healing from the disappointment around a failed adoption, the spirit sat me down to re-channel my energy. I was introduced to the orisha when I was nineteen years old through my first love, Martin Salinas. He came to bring the music to me, and then he crossed over, so this is the very music that healed me after his transition. It was important to me, as I approached the 30th year of his transition, to put out a book that not only honored Martin Salinas (Ashe’) but the orisha and the Yoruba people as well.
Rm220: There are countless orisha songs, and versions of the songs. Will you talk about how you decided what to omit and what to include?
SJE: When I was deciding on what songs would go in the book I just decided that I would listen to spirit and remember the song that I would hear at a ceremony or Bembe. It was important for me to include those songs because I want people to be ready for any Bembe or ceremony. It gives power to the music when everyone is singing in a collective voice. This helps the orisha to come down and a person to be mounted by spirit.
Rm220: This is not just a book, but a celebration of a spiritual path. What are some of the ways that you have, and will, present this work that might differ from the “typical” book reading tour.
SJE: This will be different from a typical book reading tour because it will also involve music and, in some cases, involve one or several drummers, so it certainly would be different from just someone reading.
Rm220: The book is accompanied by a two-CD set. Talk about the musical aspect of this work and how you went about recording it.
SJE: The two CD set actually was quite interesting because I had to really fight to put all the songs on the project . Most of the tracks are in three-part harmony, which our band Zion Trinity is known for. It was our desire to present the music in a very beautiful way and to be unique. We decided to bring strings to represent the grace of the mother and heavy drums on the first CD to representing the male orisha and grounding.
Rm220: Do you see this as the beginning of a series or a bigger project? If so, what’s your next book or project?
SJE: This project has inspired me to move forward to do other bodies of work. My next project I have in my heart and my spirit will be an Akan songbook and CD. I have been a daughter of the orisha for the past 30 years, but my great great grandmother Maria Therese Coin-Coin was an Ewe woman. I was therefore led to Ghana when it was time for initiation. The Ewe tribe originated in Nigeria but, based on Yoruba expansion, they were forced out of Nigeria and into Togo Benin and into the Upper Volta region of Ghana. It was important for me and my lineage to go back to my grandmother’s roots. To date, I’m not very well-versed in Akan songs, so I need to return to Ghana and work with other priests to manifest this vision. A CD and song book for the Akan tradition is next … God willing.