Review: five music albums for Pagans by non-Pagans

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TWH — During a 2002 concert in Daytona Beach, Fla., by Tool, that esoteric prog-metal band, I found myself shapeshifted. “I would totally trance-journey to the underworld if this was played at a Samhain ritual!” I thought.

Similarly, while listening to a CD by Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I realized: “Wow, this music would blow up my crown chakra at a Beltane celebration!”

Such has been my reaction to hearing live and recorded music many times during the two and a half decades that my Pagan path has coincided with my career as an arts, entertainment and music writer at daily newspapers.

Non-Pagan music (however one may define that nebulous term) can unexpectedly transport one into Pagan space-time. With that in mind, here’s a look at five music albums for Pagans by non-Pagans. My loose criteria for inclusion here: would the bulk of this CD work as the soundtrack for a festival ritual?

Yes, there are more than five such CDs out in the universe. This is the first installment of an occasional series.

Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, Bones (Raven Recording) – ritualists desperate for evocative, consciousness-altering music can just put on Roth’s Bones and be done with it. I am frankly surprised I’ve never heard this music in any ritual setting, and I would not be surprised to discover that the late Roth, a dancer and author of Maps to Ecstasy: the Teachings of an Urban Shaman, was a Pagan herself (although I have not encountered any evidence that she claimed to be).

On Bones, Roth is listed as “music director,” while her husband Robert Ansell is credited with various drums, and a host of other musicians appear.

As a dancer, Roth created the 5Rhythms movement system, which focused on what she called the five rhythms of the body: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. Some listeners have suggested that the six instrumental tracks of Bones are musical portraits of those five rhythms – with an extra track thrown in, one assumes, just to confuse the matter.

Regardless, Bones is essential listening for any Pagan.

Steve Roach, Dreamtime Return (30th Anniversary High-Definition Remastered Edition), (Projekt Records) – Steve Roach’s minimalist instrumental soundscapes have been labeled ethno-ambient, atmospheric electronica, trance and many other terms.

Keep in mind that Roach lives and records from his home in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert – yep, the same terrain where Carlos Castaneda said he met Yaqui Indian sorcerer-shaman don Juan Matus – and you begin to get an idea of Roach’s mindset.

His website,, divides his prolific output into such categories as tribal-ambient, healing arts, desert-ambient, didgeridoo, atmospheric space, and pure electronic.

Dreamtime Return, inspired by Roach’s walkabouts in the Australian outback and the deserts of the American Southwest, is as good a place as any to begin. The two-disc set has just been re-released in a 30th-anniversary edition. Pagans should pay attention to such tribal-trance tracks as “Airtribe Meets the Dream Ghost” and “Red Twilight with the Old Ones.”

*Louie Gonnie, Elements – Meditation Songs from the Diné (Canyon Records) – chant-singing in the language of his Diné heritage, Gonnie weaves gentle yet powerful paeans to earth, wind, fire, and water. (Diné, which means “the people,” is the name the Navajo of the American Southwest call themselves.)

Gonnie achieves a hypnotic effect by multi-tracking his vocals, while enhancing his original melodies and lyrics with the subtle sounds of crackling fire or whispering winds. English translations of his chants are provided in the CD booklet.

Throughout the CD, Gonnie’s connection to the earth is evident.

“Mother Earth, I walk upon you,” he chants in his native tongue on the song “Earthbound.” “Father Sky, I walk beneath you.”

On the title track, he chants: “Within the circle of elements are fire, water, air, and the earth itself. Through this all things coexist. Even though there is science and religion, one thing is for certain, the earth is older than you or me.”

On “Spirals,” he chants: “Within the trees, throughout the misty leaves, high above in the nighttime sky and at the end of my fingertips are spirals. There is a universal connection.”

“Crimson Skies” is an elegy honoring his ancestors: “We look upon you, cloud people, and remember those we have lost. Shower us with comfort, our hearts weigh heavily, and always remind us of our loving memories. This day, let the rain replace our sadness.”

Non-speakers of the Diné language will end up believing they understand Gonnie even without the English translations.

Kenya & Tanzania: Witchcraft & Ritual Music, recorded by David Fanshawe (Elektra Nonesuch Records) — “Witch doctors of the Taita prescribe the healing power of the drums to help sick women,” read David Fanshawe’s liner notes to the raw, frenzied and electrifying opening track on this CD. “After the patients have been possessed by the spirit of the drums for several hours, sometimes for days, their illnesses are expelled from their bodies. In the dramatic finale heard here, one woman screams and another blows a mouth organ as the medicine of the drums reaches its climax.”

The late Fanshawe was an English-born composer, ethnomusicologist, record producer, documentary film editor and sound recordist who literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. According to, “His ambition to record indigenous folk music began in the Middle East in 1966 and was intensified on subsequent journeys through North and East Africa (1969-75) . . . . In Africa he succeeded in documenting hundreds of tribes, achieving such close rapport with local communities that they gave him special permission to record their performances.”

In the liner notes, Fanshawe wrote: “In this recording, I have tried to capture the spirit of a musical heritage now nearly extinct. The music on this album comes from a part of East Africa whose musical traditions remain largely unknown to the rest of the world. Particularly fascinating is the manner in which music and medicine are combined in the indigenous practice of witchcraft; music takes on the power of medicine, and medicine becomes associated with the healing sound of drums, interwoven with beautiful threads of melody.”

Yes, some (many?) definitions of “Pagan” can rightfully include African spiritual traditions and practice. File this phenomenal CD under “Music for Euro-American-centric Pagans by non-Euro-American-centric Pagans,” if you like.

David and Steve Gordon, Drum Cargo: Rhythms of Fire (Sequoia Records) – the brothers Gordon, each multi-instrumentalists, were known for their “nature music meditation albums” and such atmospheric electronica as Music of the Tarot – until, they say, they “attended a fire drum circle in the mountains” in the mid-1990s.

That encounter reset the brothers on the path of world fusion and drum/percussion-only works (the latter often including sparse flourishes of Native American flutes).

Drum Cargo: Rhythms of Fire may not be as adventurous or complex as, say, the world percussion explorations of Mickey Hart, but that just makes this CD more centered, earthy and primitively powerful – and worthy of use in ritual.