By Rich Hobson
Picture by Stephen Curry
Coventry may not be the spiritual capital of the UK, but it does have its own ghostly connections (most famously as The Specials’ titular ‘Ghost Town’). Although less bleak than depicted in that late-70s portrait, Coventry is still an inauspicious place for an up-and-coming metal band to kick off a mini UK tour. But Vodun have always been a band to embrace life’s alternative paths.
Formed from the ashes of notable leftfield acts Chrome Hoof and Invasion, Vodun are purveyors of a brand of heavy music which conjures the spirit of Black Sabbath whilst infusing it with traditional african-inspired beats and elements of psychedelia. The band took both their name and image from the West African religion of Vodun (more often recognised in its bastardised form as “Voodoo”). With this marriage of style and substance, Vodun are now renowned for their intense (and uniquely colourful) live performances, as well as their entirely distinctive approach to making music in the modern world.
“It’s cool to be weird.” Stood in an underground passage below The Phoenix, I get to chat to the whole band before they gear up for the night’s show. While the band have earned a reputation for their West African-inspired visuals, right now the band are dressed comfortably to beat the Spring chill. So why dress up?
“Our visual identity allows us to express ourselves, push boundaries that we wouldn’t necessarily cross if we were just in black t-shirts and jeans,” explains vocalist Chantal – known in the band as Oya.
“By putting on different clothes, some paint and some make-up you create a sense of transformation” adds guitarist Linz, better known as the “The Marassa”.
“The whole reason we called the album Possession is that when people are in the moment they become possessed by whatever they are channelling. That’s what music does for a lot of people” finishes drummer Zel (Ogoun).
It is coded into the genre’s very roots that things that go bump in the night (devils and gods both) make for some great lyrical material, and Vodun are no strangers to this phenomena. They have earned a fearsome reputation as iconoclasts, their brightly coloured visuals a stark contrast to the usual sea of black (and occasional shade of purple) that typifies the metal genre. Despite adopting spiritual personas (known as “Loas”), the band don’t believe it restricts their freedom of expression.
“When we’re creating we’re not speaking as – or creating as – the spirits,” Chantal explains. “We drew on certain scripts to draw a character and get into a zone when we are performing. It becomes more about giving ourselves over; it really helps.”
“When we began we wanted to be the characters, but as time went on we found that the characters are better for the stage, while personal development exists outside of that,” Zel adds. “We draw inspiration from the characters, but I’d rather be myself.”
This sense of independence is undoubtedly one of the band’s greatest strengths, but it has also been one of their biggest challenges as they tried to earn recognition despite not comfortably sitting in any one demographic.
“It took us two years to get Possession released, because even though people liked it they had no idea where to put us, market us, or promote what we do” says Zel.
This fluidity served to embolden the band, opening paths that wouldn’t necessarily be available to your cut-and-dry metal hopefuls. Lauded in both Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, Vodun found themselves suddenly able to play alongside similarly eclectic acts like Turbowolf whilst being welcomed into the heart of the UK stoner and doom community. There’s just one problem:
“I don’t really consider us a doom band,” Chantal admits. “Mainly because we play way too fast for doom!”
Admittedly, Vodun’s music doesn’t exactly scream traditional doom metal. Retaining the earthy heaviness of Black Sabbath and evocative occult-ish imagery embedded into the metal genre’s DNA, Vodun’s sound comes from a very different plane of existence. Much like Sepultura before them, Vodun found a way to infuse their heavy metal music with cultural beats to create a unique sense of rhythm that is the key to their whole style.
“I was getting very influenced by Afro-beats, so we discussed how we might divulge that into the band” says Zel.
“Where I was living at the time, I was entrenching myself in anything spiritual I could get my hands on, especially things that came from Africa and South Asia”, Chantal adds. “I have a plethora of amazing books and information to delve into and it flowed into the music easily.”
There’s no denying that the frequent sound-bites that are littered throughout Posession to explain Vodun create a more unique image than hearing thunder and lightning for the millionth time.
“It’s funny, actually – originally we had the tracks with original pieces from the Discovery Channel. We asked for permission to use actual pieces from documentaries and they gave us a straight up no and took the videos down from YouTube!”
Undeterred, the band recorded their own sound bites for the record. At a glance, it would be easy to file Vodun’s flirtation with religion as a shock tactic or gimmick as the band explore a largely outdated religion.
“I like to think it’s refreshing, especially given the current climate”, says Chantal. “All religions are founded on the ideals of love and peace, so I like to think it still fits as well as it ever did. What you believe in has always been prominent in music. It’s a medium that we use to express what we’re thinking of.”
Zel nods and immediately reinforces the point. “There’s still a lot that we don’t understand and can’t really understand scientifically. Spirituality can help with that. Understanding how someone on the other side of the world might have a point of view completely different to yours, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect it.”
It seems that ideals of respect are key to what Vodun preach.
“Vodun’s sense of animism really struck a chord with us,” Zel says. “Everyone’s got their own way of respecting their environments around them, not necessarily just respecting The One Voice In The Sky.”
Oli joins in to explain animism further. “I come from New Zealand originally, so Maori culture is a very big part of what we learn. We’re taught about earth gods and sky gods growing up, as well as respect for the ocean, the trees – all that kind of stuff. It’s very different to the brick paradise that is London.”
In a sense then, the colourful imagery of Vodun and its respectful messages act as escapism from the overly calloused message spouted by the Trumps of this world. This sense of freedom through escaping reality is inherent to the religion itself, especially in its historical spread throughout the globe
“Music transcends barriers like that. It’s a fantastic thing – always has been and always will be,” says Chantal. “In terms of general globalisation – there’s no backtracking.”
“There’s no point putting up walls or barriers – it’s already there. The internet has opened up things – sometimes negative, but a lot positive”, adds Zel.
“We found out we had a niche following, a lot of it coming from South America. It’s where a lot of West Africans were taken and moved, taking their religions with them. From there it morphed into Haitian Voodoo and other offshoots. So they know it, or at least recognise it in a certain way and I thought that was fantastic.”
Soon to embark on an expansive tour of Europe that will see them play headline shows on the continent and some select festival appearances, Vodun’s dreams of becoming a global phenomenon may not be too far away. Theatricality and metal are steadfast bedfellows. Same too for the occult. While we might talk about the next big thing, Vodun prove that a band tapping into the genre’s primordial roots might be just what the world of rock n roll needs.