New Orleans is a city brimming with diverse life and culture that reflects the many different groups of people who have immigrated to the area over the centuries. They brought their cuisines, folklore, religions, and rituals. All of which shapes New Orleans into one of the United States’ most unique cities. For the black metal band, Mehenet, the city they call home has been a well of spiritual power and strength that has evolved to shape their music. Their new album, Mg’ambu, is a dedication to Quimbanda–an Afro-Brazilian spiritual cult the members of the band committed themselves to.
Ng’ambu is Mehenet’s second full-length album. It follows their 2018 effort, Dii Inferi. The time between records seems to have catalyzed a stylistic and thematic change for the band. Once rooted in political revolution, nihilism, existentialism, and more, their tone has drastically shifted to spiritual exaltation. The new record features five tracks filled with field recordings of New Orleans’ bustling French Quarter, ritualistic arrangements, excerpts from traditional pontos cantados, and fierce blackened compositions.
The album follows a path of life, death, and spirituality through the lens of Quimbanda. The songs touch on powerful spirits (like Tata Caveira on “Horse to the Earth” and Exu Kaminoloa on “The Mystery of Nations”) as well as feminity, witchcraft, revenge, grief, finding inner beauty, and much more. The album as a whole is an enthralling progression in Mehenet’s music and a forceful display of spiritual art and dedication.
Listen to an exclusive stream of Ng’ambu and pick up a copy of it now ahead of its release this Friday through Gilead Media and Stygian Black Hand. Also read a brief interview with the band about the album, Quimbanda, and their home city of New Orleans.
New Orleans continues to experience difficulties in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Please consider donating either your time or money to help the great city rebuild once more. Here are a few local mutual aid groups working hard to help the people of New Orleans: Imagine Water Works, Culture Aid NOLA, El Pueblo NOLA. Additionally, there is an expansive list of information and resources that can be found here.
Mehenet as a band is dedicated to Quimbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion or cult rooted in magic, rituals, and spirits. From how the band describes the religion in press releases, it seems to have a dichotomous impact on Mehenet. What does Quimbanda mean for you all personally? How has it shaped you as people, your life experiences, and music?
Mehenet as a band is dedicated to investigating the anatomy of psycho-spiritual struggle, suffering, violence, error, frailty, tension, and delirium. We have not explicitly or exclusively dedicated ourselves to one way of looking at things, at least for the purposes of writing. In the first album, an album that was largely conceived in abstract terms rather than personal, we were inspired by the historical progressions and disintegrations illustrated in Albert Camus’ works, The Rebel, and in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. We became acutely interested in certain sections in the book, with Bakunin and Pisarev, with Stalin, with the Decadents, the Nihilists, and many others. Rather than just look at these things from purely historical or material analysis, we wanted to tease out certain spiritual forces we suspected as applying pressure “from below,” so to speak.
All of this was tangential from our spiritual leanings in general. We were not trying to, as we are not currently trying, to put out a polemic or apology for any singular religious outlook. Long before Dii Inferi was published we had begun to engage Quimbanda in our personal lives, through our associations with our Cabula, and through near-constant engagement with Exu and Pomba Gira. We hadn’t really thought of giving it voice in a musical sense though, because we were in the middle of this sort of historical and psychological analysis on Dii Inferi, an analysis we intentionally left in a horrific irrationalism by ending the album with a song about Maldoror. But rather than moving on in this abstraction, we decided to ground our next album in what we were doing on a spiritual level, not with large-scale meta-histories and theologies, but with very specific spirits and personal experiences.
In order to better digest all the problems confronted in Dii Inferi, we decided to reflect on how exactly we would turn these poisons into medicine. It was with this spirit that Ng’Ambu was conceived. Does Quimbanda have a dichotomous impact? Yes, in the sense that it always provides a challenge to us. Quimbanda offers options that can elevate or fragment, options that can harm or heal, options that can alleviate the suffering so often bound to need, or which increase that suffering by making the smallest desires unquenchable. Quimbanda shapes us through the very struggles the band is dedicated to investigating. It gives body and name to natural and spiritual forces otherwise vaguely comprehensible and balances to weights otherwise unbearable. Quimbanda arrives as medicine. It might be a mistake to call it religion. While it might be said that our thematic elements drastically changed, we think there is a deep commonality between this album and the last. One album ponders the poisons of the human spirit and their material consequences, while the other addresses the wild spiritual forces themselves, in a distinctly personal fashion, in order to identify our own sicknesses. The irony in the personal element, however, is that it again immediately calls to historical reflections, political meditations, and so on. The personal does not escape either the world or its history.
Musically the change is more pronounced. We were heavily inspired to write something more focused on rhythm, fitting for a practice whose epithets, such as Macumba, reference the drum. We wanted to show some ways in which the culture of New Orleans is a fitting place for a North American encounter with this South American cult. Quimbanda has been with Mehenet from its inception and has only matured as we were introduced to dedicated priests, whom we deeply respect, that took the time to invest in us as god-children.
New Orleans is a city that is so rich in cultural and religious diversity, is there a large community for the Quimbanda religion there?
As it is, New Orleans has had Umbandistas and Quimbanda relics in the city of New Orleans since the 1980s through Brazilian immigrants. However, most of this merely shows up in “Voodoo shops” in the French Quarter and they have, for marketing reasons, chosen to market Quimbanda, Umbanda, and Candomble items under the wider “Voodoo” umbrella. While New Orleans might be a place to encounter images of this Exu or that, it is not a place that obliquely provides access to Quimbanda. There is a Brazilian community in New Orleans, though it is largely, albeit not exclusively, composed of Palestinian-Brazilians. Brazil is a complicated and diverse place with many influences as is New Orleans.
There is a group of initiated Quimbandeiros here in New Orleans and the members of Mehenet, of course, keep in contact and engage with them regularly. The band itself thanks our Tata, our Cabula, and our god family both in song and with specifics in the liner notes of the album for those so inclined to look. Our relationship to Quimbanda is largely inspired by the training we receive there, by the advice of those who brought us in, by shared ritual, and that which we do alone in the liminal spaces of the city. I think it is important to note that it is not for us to speak for Quimbanda but we hope The Good People will accept what we have given in offering.
Mehenet released its debut full-length, Dii Inferi, back in 2018. In the time since that album, how has the band grown and changed?
Since 2018 we think the band has grown into a more cohesive unit. We have an easier time disciplining our writing, to harmonizing our ideas, and we have much less fallow time between writing sessions. There is an excitement to the project which isn’t as weighed down by the oppressive spiritual spams we were so exposed to in the past. We have learned to strike out with one hand and guard our center with the other. We have a greater sense of self and direction; we understand how our various interests reinforce our overarching goals and how they strengthen and supplement one another. I suspect you will be seeing a third grand project in the not-too-distant future which will again reflect a wider conversation.