Mumbo Jumbo
eBook - ePub

Mumbo Jumbo

A Novel

Ishmael Reed

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  1. 221 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Mumbo Jumbo

A Novel

Ishmael Reed

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Ishmael Reed's inspired fable of the ragtime era, in which a social movement threatens to suppress the spread of black culture—hailed by Harold Bloom as one of the five hundred greatest books of the Western canon
In 1920s America, a plague is spreading fast. From New Orleans to Chicago to New York, the "JesGrew" epidemic makes people desperate to dance, overturning social norms in the process. Anyone is vulnerable and when they catch it, they'll bump and grind intoa frenzy. Working to combat theJesGrew infection are the puritanicalAtonists, a group bent on cultivating a "Talking Android, " an African American who will infiltrate the unruly black communities and help crush the outbreak. ButPaPaLaBas, a houngan voodoo priest, is determined to keep his ancient culture—including a key spiritual text—alive. Spanning a dizzying host of genres, from cinema to academia to mythology, Mumbo Jumbo is a lively ride through a key decade of American history. In addition to ragtime, blues, and jazz, Reed's allegory draws on the Harlem Renaissance, the Back to Africa movement, and America's occupation of Haiti. His style throughout is as avant-garde and vibrant as the music at its center. Thisebookfeatures an illustrated biography of Ishmael Reed including rare images of the author.

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A TRUE SPORT, THE Mayor of New Orleans, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the-middle hair style, sits in his office. Sprawled upon his knees is Zuzu, local doo-wack-a-doo and voo-do-dee-odo fizgig. A slatternly floozy, her green, sequined dress quivers.
Work has kept Your Honor late.
The Mayor passes the flask of bootlegged gin to Zuzu. She takes a sip and continues to spread sprawl and behave skittishly. Loose. She is inhaling from a Chesterfield cigarette in a shameless brazen fashion.
The telephone rings.
The Mayor removes his hand and picks up the receiver; he recognizes at once the voice of his poker pardner on the phone.
Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.
The Mayor stands up and Zuzu lands on the floor. Her posture reveals a small flask stuck in her garter as well as some healthily endowed gams.
What’s wrong, Harry?
I gots to git down to the infirmary, Zuzu, something awful is happening, the Thing has stirred in its moorings. The Thing that my Grandfather Harry and his generation of Harrys had thought was nothing but a false alarm.
The Mayor, dragging the woman by the fox skins hanging from her neck, leaves city hall and jumps into his Stutz Bearcat parked at the curb. They drive until they reach St. Louis Cathedral where 19th-century HooDoo Queen Marie Laveau was a frequent worshiper; its location was about 10 blocks from Place Congo. They walk up the steps and the door’s Judas Eye swings open.
Joe Sent Me.
What’s going on, hon? Is this a speakeasy? Zuzu inquires in her cutesy-poo drawl.
The door opens to a main room of the church which has been converted into an infirmary. About 22 people lie on carts. Doctors are rushing back and forth; they wear surgeon’s masks and white coats. Doors open and shut.
1 man approaches the Mayor who is walking from bed to bed examining the sleeping occupants, including the priest of the parish.
What’s the situation report, doc? the Mayor asks.
We have 22 of them. The only thing that seems to anesthetize them is sleep.
When did it start?
This morning. We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things,” were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy,” were wriggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche,” and “lusting after relevance.” We decoded this coon mumbo jumbo. We knew that something was Jes Grewing just like the 1890s flair-up. We thought that the local infestation area was Place Congo so we put our antipathetic substances to work on it, to try to drive it out; but it started to play hide and seek with us, a case occurring in 1 neighborhood and picking up in another. It began to leapfrog all about us.
But can’t you put it under 1 of them microscopes? Lock it in? Can’t you protective-reaction the dad-blamed thing? Look I got an election coming up—
To blazes with your election, man! Don’t you understand, if this Jes Grew becomes pandemic it will mean the end of Civilization As We Know It?
That serious?
Yes. You see, it’s not 1 of those germs that break bleed suck gnaw or devour. It’s nothing we can bring into focus or categorize; once we call it 1 thing it forms into something else.
No man. This is a psychic epidemic, not a lesser germ like typhoid yellow fever or syphilis. We can handle those. This belongs under some ancient Demonic Theory of Disease.
Well, what about the priest?
We tried him but it seized him too. He was shouting and carrying on like any old coon wench with a bass drum.
What about the patients, did you ask any of them about how they knew it?
Yes, 1, Harry. When we thought it was physical we examined his output, and drinking water to determine if we could find some normal germ. We asked him questions, like what he had seen.
What did he see?
He said he saw Nkulu Kulu of the Zulu, a locomotive with a red green and black python entwined in its face, Johnny Canoeing up the tracks.
Well Clem, how about his feelings? How did he feel?
He said he felt like the gut heart and lungs of Africa’s interior. He said he felt like the Kongo: “Land of the Panther.” He said he felt like “deserting his master,” as the Kongo is “prone to do.” He said he felt he could dance on a dime.
Well, his hearing, Clem. His hearing.
He said he was hearing shank bones, jew’s harps, bagpipes, flutes, conch horns, drums, banjos, kazoos.
Go on go on and then what did he say?
He started to speak in tongues. There are no isolated cases in this thing. It knows no class no race no consciousness. It is self-propagating and you can never tell when it will hit.
Well doc, did you get other opinions?
Who do you think some of those other cases are? 6 of them are some of the most distinguished bacteriologists epidemiologists and chemists from the University.
There is a commotion outside. The Mayor rushes out to see Zuzu rejoicing. Slapping the attendants who are attempting to placate her. The people on carts suddenly leap up and do their individual numbers. The Mayor feels that uncomfortable sensation at the nape and soon he is doing something resembling the symptoms of Jes Grew, and the Doctor who rushes to his aid starts slipping dipping gliding on out of doors and into the streets. Shades of windows fly up. Lights flick on in buildings. And before you know it the whole quarter is in convulsions from Jes Grew’s entrance into the Govi of New Orleans; the charming city, the amalgam of Spanish French and African culture, is out-of-its-head. By morning there are 10,000 cases of Jes Grew.
The foolish Wallflower Order hadn’t learned a damned thing. They thought that by fumigating the Place Congo in the 1890s when people were doing the Bamboula the Chacta the Babouille the Counjaille the Juba the Congo and the VooDoo that this would put an end to it. That it was merely a fad. But they did not understand that the Jes Grew epidemic was unlike physical plagues. Actually Jes Grew was an anti-plague. Some plagues caused the body to waste away; Jes Grew enlivened the host. Other plagues were accompanied by bad air (malaria). Jes Grew victims said that the air was as clear as they had ever seen it and that there was the aroma of roses and perfumes which had never before enticed their nostrils. Some plagues arise from decomposing animals, but Jes Grew is electric as life and is characterized by ebullience and ecstasy. Terrible plagues were due to the wrath of God; but Jes Grew is the delight of the gods.
So Jes Grew is seeking its words. Its text. For what good is a liturgy without a text? In the 1890s the text was not available and Jes Grew was out there all alone. Perhaps the 1920s will also be a false alarm and Jes Grew will evaporate as quickly as it appeared again broken-hearted and double-crossed (++)
Once the band starts, everybody starts swaying from one side of the street to the other, especially those who drop in and follow the ones who have been to the funeral. These people are known as “the second line” and they may be anyone passing along the street who wants to hear the music. The spirit hits them and they follow
(My italics)
Louis Armstrong
Mumbo Jumbo
[Mandingo mā-mā-gyo-mbō, “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away”: mā-mā, grandmother+gyo, trouble+ mbō, to leave.]
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Some unknown natural phenomenon occurs which cannot be explained,
and a new local demigod is named.
—Zora Neale Hurston on the origin of a new loa
The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew.”
…we appropriated about the last one of the “jes’ grew” songs.
It was a song which had been sung for years all through the South. The words were unprintable, but the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody.
—James Weldon Johnson
The Book of American Negro Poetry


WITH THE ASTONISHING RAPIDITY of Booker T. Washington’s Grapevine Telegraph Jes Grew spreads through America following a strange course. Pine Bluff and Magnolia Arkansas are hit; Natchez, Meridian and Greenwood Mississippi report cases. Sporadic outbreaks occur in Nashville and Knoxville Tennessee as well as St. Louis where the bumping and grinding cause the Gov to call up the Guard. A mighty influence, Jes Grew infects all that it touches.


EUROPE HAS ONCE MORE attempted to recover the Holy Grail and the Teutonic Knights, Gibbon’s “troops of careless temper,” have again fumbled the Cup. Instead of raiding the Temples of Heathens they enact their blood; in the pagan myth of the Valkyrie they fight continually; are mortally wounded, but revived only to fight again, taking time out to gorge themselves on swine and mead. But the Wallflower Order had no choice. The only other Knight order had been disgraced years before. Sometimes the Wallflower Order was urged to summon them. Only they could defend the cherished traditions of the West against Jes G...

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