Papa LaBas

(creator: Ishmael Reed)


Ishmael Reed
Papa LaBas (PaPa LaBas is how it is written in the first book) is a black Afro-American aged 50 (and, at the very end, 100) in Mumbo Jumbo, and in his "young 70s" in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. He is a private eye and "noonday HooDoo" (whatever that means). In the first book, he says he is "practicing in my Neo-HooDoo therapy center named by my critics Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral because I awarded the Asson (one of the numerous unexplained terms to be found in these books - but see the explanation in my guest book) to myself. Licensed myself. I was a jacklegged detective of the metaphysical".

The Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral "is a factory which deals in jewelry, Black astrology charts, herbs, potions, candles, talismans. People trust his powers. They have seen him knock a glass from a table by staring in its direction; and fill a room with the sound of forest animals". He keeps 22 trays of loas (according to my dictionary these are Voodoo gods) that have to be fed regularly. According to PaPa LaBas, "The loa is not a daemon in the Freudian sense, a hysteric; no, the loa is known by its signs and is fed, celebrated, drummed to until it deserts the horse and govi of its host and goes on about its business." So now we know.

LaBas is "a familiar sight in Harlem, wearing his frock coat, opera hat, smoked glasses and carrying a cane". He is also Ofdescribed as a "fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It is 50 years old and lithe (although he eats heartily and doesn't believe in the emaciated famished Christ-like exhibit of self-denial and flagellation.) He is contemplative and relaxed, but should not be thought of as being lazy because he is not hard at work grilling, blocking the view of the ocean, destroying the oyster beds or releasing radio active particles that will give unborn 3-year-olds leukaemia and cancer."

In the second book, we are also told that he lectures at the Occult Criminology Department in theTed Cunningham Institute in New York which is "a non-profit foundation for special students", where his subject is "that special criminal who leaves no fingerprints, works alone, you can smell out its spirit. LaBas cracked the toughest of cases." He knows that some people "say I'm crazy. As long as I'm crazy, they'll see me as harmless and will leave me alone so that I can continue my Work. Time in this life is so short."

He says he cannot understand why women "want to be liberated. Hell. You already free - you already liberated. Liberated and powerful. We're the ones who are slaves; two-thirds of the men on skid row were driven there by their mothers, wives, daughters, their mistresses and their sisters." He criticises women who enjoy "exposing your genitals at parties and swapping mates without getting jealous. You keep on letting it all hang out - you keep pulling it all out of yourself until you reach the dingy cave of yourselves and there you will find something cold and clammy that you don't want to know. Mystery is no plaything. Mystery was put here for a purpose. Some things are better left alone."

The name LaBas, by the way, is a creole version of Legba, the old African spirit of communications.

Ishmael (Scott) Reed (1938- ) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in Buffalo, New York where he attended the University of Buffalo, but funds ran out before he had a chance to graduate. However, the University eventually went on to award him an honorary Doctorate in 1995. He became the author of numerous novels and children's books, as well as being a poet, playwright, painter and jazz pianist. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley for thirty-five years - but without ever being awarded tenure there.

In 1976, he had co-founded the Before Columbus Foundation, a multi-ethnic organization dedicated to promoting a pan-cultural view of America. He sees himself as a champion of black culture and hoodoo (traditional African religion), but writes with an originality and humor that is all his own.

Mumbo Jumbo (1972)
Mumbo Jumbo is, according to the cover, a "brilliantly satiric deconstruction of Western civilization, a racy and uproarious commentary on our society. In it, Reed .... mixes portraits of historical figures and fictional characters with soundbites on subjects ranging from ragtime to Greek philosophy." It's "a trenchant and often biting look at black-white relations through history from a keen observer of our culture." Yes, it probably is, but it is a pity that it is also at times totally incomprehensible. The term "mumbo jumbo" (if it helps you to know this) means a "magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away".

The plot defies description. Suffice it to say that one of the characters, Hinckle Von Vampton, proprietor of the notorious magazine Benign Monster (on which he employs just one not-very-bright token black man, whose continuing ambition is to meet Mr Marks and Mr Engels until he is dismayed to be told that that they are dead) is said to have been librarian to the Knights Templar when they were on crusade 1000 years before. As another character reacts: " Why, who would believe such nonsense; it's the silliest, most fatuous thing I ever heard!"

It is nearly all set in the 1920s, and is about the rivalry between the newly emerging Jes Grew movement (Afro-American, with connections with jazz, Hoodoo and PaPa LaBas) that is described as a "psychic epidemic", and the Atonists (supporters of Judeo-Christian culture). As part of their plan to meet this psychic plague, the Atonists plan to get Warren Harding elected as the next President of the USA (he was!) and "to groom a Talking Android who will work within the Negro, who seems to be its classical host; to drive it out, categorise it analyze it expell it slay it, blot Jes Grew" (all written, as usual, with a minimum of commas). Meanwhile Jes Grew is spreading fast "and giving America a rise in the town of Muncie Indiana where it is engendering more excitement than the last dental inspection".

It is the author's sense of humour that makes the book so readable, even when you can't understand what's going on. So we hear about "amusing lampoons carved in wood, ivory, and cast in bronze by African sculptors. They depict Whites who went into Africa seeking skins, ivory, spices, feathers and furs. The subjects are represented giving bribes, drinking gin, leading manacled slaves, wearing curious, outlandish hats and holding umbrellas. Their chalk-faces appear silly, ridiculous .... What sidesplitting, bellyaching, satirical ways these ancient craftsmen brought to their art! The African race had quite a sense of humour."

When Von Vampton tries to take his token black employee to a cabaret, he is refused permission by a mulatto doorman. What's wrong? queries Hinkle Von Vampton (no quotation marks with this author).
That man, Sir, he is mite too dark.
Too dark? an astonished Hinckle Von Vampton replies, but isn't this Harlem where the darkies cavort?
They cavort, but on stage; we cater to Brown Yellow and White.
That's ridiculous. I've seen Buddy Jackson in this place and he is as black as anthracite as black as ebony as black as the abyss, an Ethiopian if there ever was.
That's different, sir.
What do mean different? Hinckle Von Vampton asks.
He's the owner.

It is Buddy Jackson who introduces himself as "Grand Master of the Boyer Grand Lodge #1 inaugurated March 18, 1845, by the Prince Hall Grand Lodge or African Lodge #1 chartered in 1776 by the Duke of Cumberland, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England. I am a representative of the United Brothers of Friendship, Sisters of the Mysterious 10, Daughters of the Prairie of the Benevolent Protective Herd of Buffaloes of the World, United Order of the Fishermen of Galilee of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres; I am a delegate from the Eastern Star, Grand Fountain Order of True Reformers and a troubleshooter for the locals: Crystal Fount, Rose of Sharon, Lily of the Valley, Good Intent, Ark of Safety, Neversink, Hand in Hand, Gassaway, Rising Star of the East and Mount Pisgah ... at your service, Buddy says bowing, removing his checked cloth cap and cigar. Smiling, Black Herman, PaPa LaBas and Buddy Jackson exchange the ancient Black hand shake, the vulva embracing the phallus."

The Mu'tafikah (whoever they are) "posing as innocuous exchange students, had repatriated masks and figures - carried to Europe as booty from Nigeria, Gold Coast, Upper Volta and the Ivory Coast - from where they were exhibited in the pirate dens called museums", and are planning next to walk off with a 4 1/2 ton Olmec (stone) head "and must think of a way to deliver it to Central America."

For LaBas, "anyone who couldn't titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian denoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation .... Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing .... Never does I see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint- eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas."

The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974)
The Last Days of Louisiana
is another highly original story, telling how Private Eye Papa LaBas, travels to Berkeley, California, after he had been told by a very well-informed baboon (!) that "There's a man out there. An inventor. He is on the brink of one of the great discoveries of all time, but he won't live to see it. I don't understand all of it. Powers are not as keen as they were centuries ago when we were worshipped and consulted by the Golden Kings. I know that in a few hours he'll be dead." This man turns out to be Ed Yellings, owner of the Solid Gumbo Works that claims to have found a cure of cancer and is developing a treatment to avoid heroin addiction.

LaBas soon finds himself fighting a rising tide of violence propagated by Louisiana Red and militant opportunists known as the Moochers, led by Ed's daughter, the formidable Minnie, new would-be boss of the Gumbo Works, who is, LaBas says, "a special type of psychic crook we want to to find a cure for".

Louisiana Red is a term used to describe the way that disgruntled and miserable workers "related to each other, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin show set. .... The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflammatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and a brand new condominium built on quicksand." It makes a biting criticism of American life at the time.

Moochers are "people who, when they are to blame say it is the other fellow's fault for bringing it up. Moochers don't return stuff they borrow. Moochers ask you to share when they have nothing to share. Moochers kill their enemies like the South American insect which kills its foe by squirting it with its own blood. God, do they suffer. 'Look at all of the suffering I'm going through because of you.' Moochers talk and don't do. You should hear them just the same. Moochers tell other people what to do. Men Moochers blame everything on women. Women Moochers blame everything on men. Old Moochers say it's the young's fault; young Moochers say the old messed up the world they have to live in .... Moochers aren't necessarily poor, though some are; Moochers inject themselves between the poor and what other people who are a little better off than the poor set aside for the poor .... The highest order of this species of Moocher is the President, who uses the taxpayers' money to build homes all over the world where he can be alone to contemplate his place in history when history don't even want him. Moochers are a special order of parasite, not even a beneficial parasite but one that takes - takes energy, takes supplies."

The book is described on the cover as "a Hoodoo (the Afro-American version of voodoo) detective story and a comprehensive satire on the explosive politics of the '60s" that "exposes the hypocrisy of contemporary American culture and race politics". In fact, there is very much less about Hoodoo than in the first book, beyond references to such things as "inherent psychic energy" and the talking baboon (if that really is Hoodoo), and, although the plot is (slightly) more coherent, LaBas still does not actually do very much detecting. I must admit that I found large parts of the narrative quite incomprehensible, including the frequent appearance of a tiresome black actor called Chorus who keeps on telling us, for no apparent reason, about Ancient Greece and Antigone.

And you need to know more than I do about the America of the time to understand passages such as: "Berkeley's known as Literary Town, maybe because Bret Harte once read a poem at Berkeley's School for the Deaf or because Frank Norris ('McTeague') flunked math at U.C. Berkeley. However, the real talent came from the town of oyster pirates who skyline was 'gothic gable'. Oakland, California, produced Jack London, Gertrude Stein, Joaquin Miller. Berkeley was a traditional 'dry town'- there was a scandal very early when Cal founder Doc Durant found that his helpers were selling bootlegged booze out after his Oakland School for Boys." However, if you're lucky, you get the general drift of what's going on

However, the parts I could understand were certainly both entertaining and hard-hitting as when the author describes the Gross Christian church as "San Francisco's truly avant-garde centre of worship. The first thing you came upon was the entrance, over which could be seen a sign spelling out 'PEACE' in the manner of the garish neon signs one saw at the bottomless topless clubs on Broadway. Rev Rookie's church was a reconverted niteclub .... Rev Rookie had a motley congregation and really didn't care about their life styles. He had twisted old John Wesley's philosophy so that he had forgotten the theology he started out with. Rev Rookie was real ecumenical. Gushing with it. I mean, he ecumenicaled all over himself, but he wasn't one of those obvious old-fashioned preachers. No, when he spoke of God, he didn't come right out and mention his Hebrew name. God, for him, was always a 'force', or a 'principle'. The Christians looked the other way from their maverick minister in San Francisco; after all, he was packing them in, wasn't he?"

There are lots of remarks like, "I hears the nigger is running some kind of bizness. Colored folks ain't cut out for no bizness" and "Niggers can't do nothing right; not a damn thing." So perhaps it is no surprise that the author has not much time for public opinion: "Do you know what the people want? They want lots of blood; monkeys roller-skating; 200 dwarfs emerging from a Fiat, and lots of popcorn - that's what they want. Scorn you when you alive, but if you die - a hero's funeral. The people gobble up anything in the limelight and then ask the seconds. That's the people." All this is understandable in the America of the time, but happily the author's sense of humor never seems to desert him. He describes one of Minnie's bodyguard as "dressed in a Wonder Woman's outfit, white boots, spangled chest, short shorts". She knows "Karate Kung Fu Thai Boxing Tai Chi Chaun Akido Tae Kwon Do Judo Jiu Jitsu Samurai Sword and Kick Boxing."

In the end the Gumbo plant is set alight and two of the villains shoot each other. Two not very bright Moochers decide to try to pick up some easy money by donning pink ropes, sandals and shaving their heads, although one of them still keeps his derby hat on. Not knowing quite what they're doing, they hopefully chant, "Karmels! Karmels!" - but the crowd just laughs at them. They discuss Minny the Moocher and one of them points out, "It's a new age, Andy. She's one of them emaciated women".
"What kind of woman is that, Fish?"
"She believes that the womens have received a raw deal, a bum rap, and a bogus turkey."

The book ends with LaBas flying back home, and noticing a bizarre headline: ZOO ATTENDANT'S SKULL FRACTURED: BABOON CHARGED." Serve the attendant right for despising such a well-informed and talkative creature?


There is an interesting article about the author on the Modern American Poetry site, a pag on Wikipedia and numerous other references on the web.



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Mumbo Jumbo cover
The covers, and the contents, are nothing if not original.
Drawing
The first book is illustrated by drawings and photos but their relevance is not always all that obvious.
The Last Days of Louisiana Red cover
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CONTENTS LIST