The Rite Stuff

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Writer-documentarian Greg Palmer’s quote on the back cover perfectly describes this collection of disparate songs about one of humanity’s two immutable life events: "These grief rituals had only two things in common. Food was always served, and everybody I met thought what they do is normal and what everybody else does is weird." Palmer worked on a PBS documentary called Death: The Trip of a Lifetime and wrote the introduction to this latest CD-book from Ellipsis Arts, dedicated to the music of global death rites. Like other Ellipsis projects, the packaging is magnificent. There are scores of brilliant, colorful photos of everything you always wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask. Compiler extraordinaire Michal (Planet Squeezebox, Unblocked) Shapiro has put together a collection which runs the gamut of human funerary practices, including American gospel, an Ashkenazy Jewish cantor, Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, Pakistani qawwali, and even a track featuring the Famadihana of Madagascar. This particular music set — played primarily on flutes and drums — is part of a Malagash ceremony in which the dead are exhumed from their tombs, rewrapped in fresh cloth and, at times, seated at an "exhumation feast" before being reburied.

Another Dancing with the Dead gem is "Vaishava Jan Tou Tene Khaiye," a bajhan (Hindustani devotional song) that was played at Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. Sanjukta Sen’s emotional pleas are brilliantly matched by moving photos in the book, including a stunning image of Tushar Gandhi pouring the ashes of his great grandfather Mahatma into the Ganges river.

Probably the biggest drawback to the CD is that the music, like the funerary practices, is so varied that it doesn’t make for the best repeat listening. Still, for anyone curious about the subject that faces us all eventually, Dancing with the Dead makes for fascinating reading ... and listening.

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