‘Exuma’ at 50: How a Bahamian Artist Channeled Island Culture Into a Strange Sonic Ritual
Chances are, you’ve never heard a boast track quite like “Exuma, the Obeah Man,” the opening song off Exuma’s self-titled 1970 album.
A wolf howls, frogs count off a ramshackle symphony, bells jingle, drums palpitate, a zombie exhales, all by way of introducing the one-of-a-kind Bahamian performer, born Tony Mackey: “I came down on a lightning bolt/Nine months in my mama’s belly,” he proclaims. “When I was born, the midwife/Screamed and shout/I had fire and brimstone/Coming out of my mouth/I’m Exuma, the Obeah Man.”
“[Obeah] was with my grandfather, with my father, with my mother, with my uncles who taught me,” Mackey said in a 1970 interview, referring to the spiritual practice he grew up with in the Bahamas. “It has been my religion in the vein that everyone has grown up with some sort of religion, a cult that was taught. Christianity is like good and evil. God is both. He unlocked the secrets to Moses, good and evil, so Moses could help the children of Israel. It’s the same thing, the whole completeness — the Obeah Man, spirits of air.”
The music world is hardly devoid of gimmicks, alter egos, and adopted personas. But Mackey’s Exuma moniker, borrowed from the name of an island district in the Bahamas, was never just that — he lived and breathed his culture, channeling it into a debut album so singularly weird, wonderful, and enchanted that it’s not surprising it’s remembered only by the most industrious of crate-diggers. A cuddly Dr. John dabbling in voodoo Mackey was not; Exuma is a parade, a séance, a condemnation of racist evils.
“The eccentricity of [Dr. John’s 1968 debut] Gris-Gris is, like, ‘Let’s roll a fat joint,'” says Okkervil River frontman and devout Exuma fan Will Sheff. “The eccentricity of Exuma is more like PCP.” Sheff became hip to Exuma when his former bandmate Jonathan Meiburg (singer-guitarist of Shearwater) happened to hear “Obeah Woman,” Nina Simone’s 1974 spin on “Obeah Man.” Sheff was entranced by Exuma’s debut, especially the sincerity of its lyrics and Mackey’s whole-hearted earnestness. “There’s something about when somebody is very devoutly religious, where you trust them not to sell you something,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I mean, they may be trying to sell you their religious beliefs, but their religious beliefs are so vitally important to them that they kind of stop trying to sell themselves.”
“He was unique. He was good,” says Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Exuma became a mainstay later in his career. “He was like a voodoo Richie Havens or something.”
Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey grew up in Nassau, Bahamas, steeped in both Bahamian history and American culture. Each Boxing Day, he witnessed Junkanoo parades — a tradition dating back hundreds of years and commemorating days when slaves finally had time off — replete with music, masks, and folklore. At the movies, accessed with pocket money earned from selling fish on weekends, he saw performances by Sam Cooke and Fats Domino.
“Saying the word ‘Junkanoo’ to most Bahamians gets their hearts beating faster and their breathing gets shorter and faster,” Langston Longley, leader of Bahamas Junkanoo Revue, has said. “It’s hard to express in words because it’s a feeling, a spirit that’s evoked within from the sound of a goatskin drum, a cowbell, or a bugle.”
“I grew up a roots person, someone knowing about the bush and the herbs and the spiritual realm,” Mackey told Wavelength in 1981 of his life back home. “It was inbred into all of us. Just like for people growing up in the lowlands of Delta Country or places like Africa.”
In 1961, when he was 17, Mackey moved to New York’s Greenwich Village to become an architect, according to a 1970 interview, but he abandoned that dream when he ran out of money. He then acquired a junked-up guitar on which he practiced Bahamian calypsos and penned songs about his home. “I started playing around when Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Richard Pryor, Hendrix, and Streisand were all down there, too, hanging out and performing at the Cafe Bizarre,” Mackey recalled in 1994. “I’d been singing down there, and we’d all been exchanging ideas and stuff. Then one time a producer came up to me and said he was very interested in recording some of my original songs, but he said that I needed a vehicle. I remembered the Obeah Man from my childhood — he’s the one with the colorful robes who would deal with the elements and the moonrise, the clouds, and the vibrations of the earth. So, I decided to call myself Exuma, the Obeah Man.”
Mackey’s manager, Bob Wyld, helped him form a band to record his debut album, including Wyld’s client Peppy Castro of the Blues Magoos. “It was like acting. Like, ‘OK, I’ll take a little alias, I’ll be Spy Boy,’ and all this kind of stuff,” Castro tells Rolling Stone. All the members of Mackey’s band adopted stage names, which wasn’t that strange to Castro, who originated the role of Berger in the Broadway show Hair.
“Then I met Tony and then I got into the folklore and I started to see what he was about — this history of coming from the [Bahamas],” he adds. “It was great. It was inventive. We would do a little Junkanoo parade from out of the dressing room, right up to the stage. It was about the show of it all. Coming from somebody who wanted to learn music in a more traditional form, that was kind of cool.”
The band recorded Exuma at Bob Liftin’s Regent Sound Studios in New York City — where the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Elton John also laid down tracks — giving the bizarre record a slick sheen. Mackey once said that the music came to him in a dream, and he set the mood in the studio accordingly. “It was so free form. We turned the lights out, we’d put up candles, he’d get on a mic and he’d just start going off and singing crazy stuff and we followed it,” Castro says. “You would go into trances. In those days, I was a little hippie, so yeah, we’d be smoking weed there and getting high. It became a séance almost. It was like, ‘We’re going into this mode and we’re going to see where it takes us.’”
“There were no boundaries with Tony,” he adds. “It was free for him. It’s kind of like what people felt like when they played with Chuck Berry. If you talk to any of the musicians who played with Chuck Berry, you just had to be on your toes because he would change keys in the middle of the song. But there was also the spiritual stuff, you know, just the crazy voodoo-ish stuff. It was just so free for him.”
Everyone Rolling Stone talked with for this story compared Mackey to Richie Havens, but the similarities only really extend to, perhaps, Havens’ role in the Greenwich Village scene and the rich quality of his voice. “You can put on Dr. John and Richie Havens and water the plants. It’s good background music,” Will Sheff says. “But if [Exuma’s] ‘Séance in the Sixth Fret’ comes on shuffle, you’re going to skip it. It’s active listening; it sends a chill down your spine.”
Exuma is a kind of aural movie — fitting, as Mackey went on to write plays — that starts off boastful and proud with “Obeah Man” then descends into darker territory. The second track, “Dambala,” is a melodic damnation of slave owners: “You slavers will know/What it’s like to be a slave,” Mackey wails, “You’ll remain in your graves/With the stench and the smell.”
“It reminds me of Jordan Peele movies — movies that deal with sort of the black experience, a collective trauma,” Sheff says of the song. “He’s cursing a slaver and there’s something so intensely powerful about that.”
Then there’s zombie ode “Mama Loi, Papa Loi,” a frankly terrifying story of men rising from the dead, featuring guttural yelps and groans. “Jingo, Jingo he ain’t dead/He can see from the back of his head,” Mackey sings. That leads into the comparatively peppy “Junkanoo,” an instrumental that recalls the parades of the musician’s youth. Things get dark again with “Séance in the Sixth Fret,” which is just that — a yearning ritual in which the band calls to a litany of spirits. “Hand on quill/Hand on pencil/Hand on pen/Tell me spirit/Tell me when,” Mackey intones. The more accessible “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” follows, leading into epic prophecy “The Vision,” which foretells the end of the world: “And all the dead walking throughout the land/Whispering, Whispering, it was judgment day.”
The strange, gorgeous record was released on Mercury Records, and at the time, the label had high hopes for its success, as it was apparently getting solid radio play. “The reaction is that of a heavy, big-numbers contemporary album,” Mercury exec Lou Simon said at the time. “As a result, we’re going to give it all the merchandising support we can muster.” But the album apparently failed to break through, and Mackey left Mercury in 1971 after releasing Exuma II. His legacy lived on in the corners of popular culture: Nina Simone covered “Dambala” as well as “Obeah Man,” with both tracks appearing on It Is Finished, a 1974 LP that failed to take off. Mackey himself went on to drop still more albums but mostly operated in a quiet kind of obscurity.
“What he didn’t have was the commercial base, you know, the formula,” Castro says by way of explanation. “Let’s face it, the music business is very fickle and it boxes you in. And if you’re going to join that world, it’s in your best interest to commercialize yourself and to come up with a formula that works. He didn’t have that formula.”
Mackey did find a home, though, at the newly minted New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1978, an atmosphere that seemed more in keeping with his spiritual aesthetic than mainstream radio. “New Orleans is the most receptive place in the world to the artist, this music spirit that flies around in the air all the time waiting to be reborn and reborn,” he told Wavelength in 1981.
“He was a Caribbean Dr. John, so to speak,” festival producer Davis says. “When I heard [his album], I said, ‘Well, that’s us.’ This guy with feathers on his head, his big hat. Everybody loved him and he became part of the festival family.”
“I think he was the first Caribbean act that we had,” Davis adds. “I hesitate to say that he was a trailblazer because there weren’t a lot of people following in his footsteps.”
In the end, Mackey died as he lived, surrounded by his artwork at his home in the Bahamas in January of 1997. Castro visited him before he passed. “He had a cane,” Castro recalls. “Now he needed the cane. It wasn’t a blue walking stick. He wasn’t in the best of shape and all his paintings were rolled on the floor around him.”
But that’s not the vision Castro sees when he thinks of his friend and bandmate. “I still can see Tony walking down the street now with the jingle-jangle and the hats and the dashiki and the trinkets and his walking stick,” he says. “It’s like yesterday.”
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