A New Age Shaman’s Last Dance.

Gabrielle Roth passes at age 71.

Gabrielle Roth

Gabrielle Roth wouldn’t have won any musician polls.  She didn’t really play anything beyond some percussion.  Yet she was responsible for nearly two dozen albums over the last 20 years or so. She referred to herself as an urban shaman and with the floating personnel of her ensemble, Gabrielle Roth And The Mirrors, she released music and conducted dance movement workshops.  Gabrielle Roth passed away on October 22, after a long struggle with stage four lung cancer.

We interviewed Roth and her husband, Robert Ansell in the early 1990s. Walking into their Greenwich Village apartment I found Indian yarn paintings from North Mexico and Persian rugs amid a clutter of drums and percussion.

Drums were at the root of Gabriele Roth’s sound and one of the vehicles on what she called Maps To Ecstasy.  That’s also a book she wrote. Tall and lithesome, with long, dark hair and bright, penetrating eyes she called herself an urban shaman.

“To be a Shaman means to be a wounded healer,” claimed Roth. “It means somebody who has fallen apart and put themselves back together again.  So it’s very human.  It’s just a job.  But a Shaman is essentially somebody who transports, who moves from regular reality to ecstatic states of consciousness and knows how to do that.  And can take other people with them.”

Roth didn’t claim to have studied any shamanic traditions.  She never became a disciple of a voodoo priest or Indian medicine man. but she spent some time at Esalen, the self-actualization institute and studied a spiritual philosophy called Arica.  But she says she was already on a path of using music and dance to heal.  She wrote several books and gave dance movement workshops in what she calls ecstatic dancing, getting participants to into a whirling dervish of trance.

“I created my own form of dance, which is an ecstatic dance form,” explained Roth. “And it’s based in rhythms, specifically five particular rhythms.   The very flowing rhythm, the very staccato, percussive rhythm, a very chaotic rolling, abandoned type rhythm, 6/8.  And a very light and lyrical rhythm.  And then a still rhythm.  And then within this context, I get people to dance their own particular steps, but staying in the context of that state of being.  So it’s really a practice, it’s like, it could be looked at as a workout, or it could be looked at as a meditation, that’s just how you come to it. ”

Here’s one of Gabrielle Roth’s dances from her workshops.

Gabrielle didn’t actually write any of this music.  In fact, she rarely played anything but incidental percussion and sang on a few tracks.  Instead, she guided the music, giving directions to the musicians, even dancing for them.  It sounds a little flakey, but she’s gotten some serious musicians to work with her including percussionist Mino Cinelu who played with Miles Davis and Weather Report, Adam Rudolph who played with Jon Hassell, jazz trombonist and conch shell player Steve Turre, Latin percussionist Sammy Figuroa and bassist Alex Blake.

“I talk to these artists in tongues,” she proclaims. “You know, in rhythms, in feelings, in tones, in landscapes, in images, and it’s like soul to soul.  And we just, you know I totally trust that they will know exactly what to do.”

She started out with earthy and organic slow movement trance pieces with percussion and synthesizer atmospheres which you can hear in the sensual spaces of albums like Ritual.  But as she moved on she tapped into more electronic dance and techno forms which you can hear and see in this video which won’t embed, but is worth following the link.

Gabrielle Roth’s mix of drums and mysticism, world music and primal dancing might smack of New Age opportunism.  She said she never wanted to be a shaman, she just wanted to feel good, to live an existence in a state of ecstasy.  Music and dance is how she got there. Being a shaman was knowing the way.

“Shamans are really map makers,” she said.  “It’s like you find your way somewhere and then you map it.  You know it’s instinct to do so.  So it’s like the cartography of the soul.  And inside the soul what I found was a dancer and a singer and a poet and an actor and a healer in every soul.  That’s what the soul is, it’s those archetypes.  So my work is just to bring those out.  To give them something to do, to find a way to express, whoever happens to be there, you know. ”

Ultimately, cancer proved too much for even Gabrielle Roth’s healing shamanic ways.  She passed “into stillness” on October 22 at the age of 71.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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