Modern Griots Review: Ancestral Voices

What are the spiritual and physical consequences of us not studying the spiritual and magic systems of the African Diaspora in depth?  This is one question amongst several explored in the British documentary film, Ancestral Voices: Esoteric African Knowledge. Premiering in New York City last Saturday at the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival,  the film delves into several African and African-American spiritual systems that are often demonized, misrepresented or lack attention in comparison to more mainstream religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Filmmakers Verona Spence and Dalian Adofo made this film as a way to educate people on these systems and ancestral knowledge, and interviewed a variety of artists, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders and practitioners, and participants. The interviewees provided a vast amount of knowledge about not only the recurring themes in African and Afro-diapsoric spiritual systems, but also specific elements in different ones, including Egyptian Kemetic, Yoruba, Gabon’s Iboga ritual, The Sky God Tree story of the Akan in Ghana, Caribbean Obeah, Haitian Vodou, Cuban and Puerto Rican Santeria and Brazilian Candomble.

For example, they clarified the controversy over the pantheon of gods and goddesses and how it is actually similar in structure to the relationship between the main god and angels or saints in other religions. There is a supreme god and creator and the other deities are aspects of that god with different powers. Another interesting piece of knowledge was the dismissing of the idea that the spiritual realm is one of chaos. It has its own form of social organization and the relationship between the spiritual and physical realm has to do with the transaction and access between the norms of different organizations.

Other topics were ancestral reverence, rituals, animal sacrifice and the use of life force for positive effects, reincarnation and its connection to ascension, African spiritual systems and their relationship to other spiritual, divination and the binary system, and religious systems and the effect of colonialism and slavery on the perceptions our spiritual systems. One of the most compelling scenes was the actual filming of a shaman’s spiritual channeling or possession. Although most of the interviewees criticized Christianity, Islam and Western media’s influence on the views of African spiritual systems, there was some balance with a few voices from those faiths explaining their own beliefs. I only wished that the film was more detailed about the specific countries and groups from which these faiths came from, such as showing on a map where they were, because at times it was a bit jumbled. Other than that, Ancestral Voices is a strong introduction for audiences who know little about the spiritual systems of Africa to learn more about these rich, powerful cultures, and essentially themselves.

The next showing of the film will be at Schomburg Center in Harlem on December 6. Also, according to Ali McBride of New Jersey’s Afrikan Echoes, who presented the film in the United States, said the filmmakers are planing to do a sequel, including Bayyinah Bello.

Fela Kuti’s “Coffin for Head of State” in the film

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