Music in the Iboga initiation ceremony in Gabon: Polyrhythms supporting a pharmacotherapy (selections)

By Uwe Maas and Süster Strubelt, Music Therapy Today (online), Vol. IV (3), June 2003


Music is used by traditional cultures worldwide to create and accompany trance states. However, the influence of sophisticated compositions and the choice of instruments on patients' recovery has been hardly examined. Rouget (1990), in his comprehensive overview, assumes that the choice of instruments and music is insignificant. We had the opportunity to assist several Iboga initiation ceremonies in 1999, 2001 and 2003 in Gabon (Central Africa). We recorded the music and finally decided to become initiated ourselves. The Iboga healing ceremony induces a near-death experience and is performed to cure serious mental or psychosomatic diseases, but people also undergo initiation rites for reasons of spiritual or personal development.

After an analysis of the compositions and their function in the ceremonies we come to the conclusion that neither the musical structures nor the choice of instruments should be seen as cultural and incidental qualities: There are indications of direct somatic influences apart from the psychological ones. Not only the absolutely consistant basic metre and the incessant use of polyrhythms, but also the harmonic organization and the choice of instruments in all probability serve to activate the cerebellum and generate theta-frequencies in the EEG. These methods seem to be used consciously to induce particular reactions, e.g. possessional trances and visions. We suppose that the music increases the effect of the drug Ibogaine which is used during the initiation ritual so that patients may need smaller amounts only of this potentially harmful drug.


In many traditional cultures, young adults experience an encounter with death during their initiation ceremony. For this purpose the pygmies use the root of the Iboga shrub. Initiation with this drug was imitated by several other ethnic groups who thought this drug to be more effective than their traditional initiation drugs. In the middle of the 20th century Iboga was discovered in Gabon as a remedy for serious mental or psychosomatic disorders. Consequently the average age of persons being initiated has risen; instead of the traditional initiation rituals on reaching puberty, initiations in the urban sector often serve to solve serious problems or fulfill a desire for self-awareness. Admission to the community of adults of the pygmy village is replaced by admission to the community of initiated people who also meet in future, organize ceremonies and who offer social protection (Goutarel 2000, Gollhofer and Sillans 1997, Mary 1983).

During a stay in Gabon in 1999 we met traditional healers of the ethnic group of Mitsogo in the region of Lambarené and studied their work.

Having observed several initiation and curing ceremonies, and having recorded and analysed the music played during the ceremony, we decided to get initiated ourselves by the Mitsogho in Mitoné in December 2001 (U.M.) and in April 2003 (S.S.). We will concentrate on the Missoko initiation for men. Women's Mabandji initiation, which includes possession trance, is the topic of a separate paper. We start with the report of Uwe Maas' experience with the Missoko initiation. We will report pharmacological results about the drug Ibogaine used in the ceremony, and then analyze the musical compositions and the ritual use of instruments. At the end, we will propose some hypotheses about the neurophysiological effects of the music and interferences between music and drugs.

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4. Music therapeutic aspects of the ritual

To the Mitsogho, continuous musical support from musicians playing the mouth bow and the harp, accompanying percussions and singing is essential for the initiation process. Music is the life-line that reaches from this life to the hereafter and serves as a means of locomotion in visionary space. And that is exactly our own experience, the renewed onset of musical accompaniment, after short interruptions, reactivates the faltering visions, facilitates spiritual communication and improves mental and physical well-being considerably.

Apart from our own Missoko and Mabandji initiation respectively, we were able to observe two Mabandji initiation ceremonies and three healing rituals including possessional trance states among the Mitsogho tribe, and three Mabundi initiation rituals among the Fang tribe. We recorded about forty hours of ritual music all together, to be analysed in detail as follows.

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5. Hypotheses on neurophysiological effects of ritual Mitsogho music

During our initiation ceremonies, we felt a direct influence of music on our feelings and the pictures we saw during the visions. This was especially strong when we were moving ourselves to the music. Is music a kind of medicine that provokes specific physiological reactions, which promote trance states? And if this is so, how do the reactions to music interfere with Ibogaine- induced effects?

5.1. Induction of trance and theta-waves

Neher (1962) reports laboratory research results that demonstrate that flashing lights as well as rhythmic drumming of theta-frequency (4-7/sec) generate EEG-waves of the same frequency and hallucinations. Goodman (2000) studied the impact of rhythmic stimulation on persons assuming ritual body postures known from native Indian civilizations. The traditional rhythms of 6 hertz originated theta-waves in the EEG. Some of the participants reported out-of-body experiences.

Body and Stevens (2000) augmented theta-activity in the neocortex by binaural beat stimulation. This stimulation, slightly different for both ears, was also used in the initiation ceremony of Uwe Maas at the culmination of his visions.

The musical theta rhythm ist maintained for days in the Bwiti ceremonies. It corresponds to a spontaneous trembling (or voluntary movement) of the left hand of men and the right hand of women. This tremor is probably caused by Ibogaine effects either on the cerebellum or on the dopamine metabolism.

We think the EEG theta-rhythm is also supported by the polyrhythmic structures of the music. To play the rattle with the frequency of the elementary impulses (including the forward and backward movements) could be a mathematical solution to endure the different rhythms. Our own experiences show that the perception of inner wave-movements (with a frequency of 6 hertz) continues even when the music stops. Time is no longer felt as a line but as a circle. The inner metrum is felt for days and continues even at night, underlined by the music, which is often also played while the person to be initiated is sleeping.

5.2 Activation of the cerebellum

Music activates the cerebellum like Ibogaine; complex and unknown music is especially stimulating (Satoh 2001, Khorram-Sefat 1997). Dancing and playing the rattles is even more activating than music alone. Quick hand-movements, necessary to play the wooden rattle Tseghe, are known to medical students as diadochokinesis. Patients with cerebellar lesions have problems with this kind of movements. We suppose that the typical Bwiti dance with quick hip movements, performed by the initiated at the end of the ceremony, also requires an activated cerebellum. The dance is seen by Gabonian healers as indication of successful inititation .

We think that activation of the cerebellum by music and movements enhance the effects of Ibogaine. We assume that the cerebellum is also responsible for changed time perception experienced under Ibogaine influence, and by near-death experiencers. Montain climbers and racing drivers who survived accidents often report that they were able to think extremly fast in seconds of extreme danger. Brain structures obviously accelerate thinking processes in moments of risk (Noyes and Kletti 1982). These phenomena occur independent of brain ischemia. Cerebellar structures, the inner clocks, may play an essential role in the acceleration of brain processes. The cerebellum was perhaps much more important for mankind in epochs when men were hunters and threatened by wild animals and quick reactions were essential for survival.

5.3 Polyrhythms to induce or deepen states of trance

There are few studies about the effects of polyrhythms on the human brain.

Neher (1962) reports that optic stimulution by two independent flashing ligths induced hallucinations under laboratory conditions. But the effects of acustic polyrhythmic stimulation have hardly been investigated. So we can only hypothetisize on this subject. During Iboga ceremonies, music is not only an object of reception: people walk around, dance, play the rattle. Gabonian women are able to walk in a 4x3-rhythm and play the rattle in a 6x2-rhythm at the same time. How do they manage to do so and what might be the purpose of such a performance?

Ivry (1997) presumes after several perception studies that the cerebellum has not only one but various inner clocks. Tapping a rhythm with one hand is directed by the lateral cerebellum. Subjects with cerebellar lateral lesions perform poorly in this task. But they show much better results with both hands. The fact that contralateral cerebellum does not influence tapping of the other hand was seen by Ivry as an indication that the cerebellum has at least two, and probably more, inner clocks. Consequently, the cerebellum is able to perform several rhythms at the same time, while our consciousness cannot think two parallel rhythms. Studies with musicians found performance of polyrhythms based on only one principal inner clock. One rhythm was always more accurate than the second one (Pressing 1996). Thinking two rhythms at the same time, as Mitsogho music suggests and as Gabonian women seem to practice when dancing and playing different rhythms at the same time, requires changes in brain functions. These might include a separation of consciousness from cerebellar activity, or a unilateral activation of the right brain hemisphere, which can tolerate contradictions better than the left hemisphere. Activation of the right hemisphere is presumed to play a role during near-death experiences as well, which are frequently experienced in epileptic attacks of the right temporal lobe (Schröter-Kunhardt 1999).

The result of polyrhythmic stimulations could thus be cerebellar activation (useful to find quick and creative solutions) and/or stimulation of the right hemisphere (useful to detect hidden unconscious contents and also for creative thinking)

Concluding remarks

Unfortunately, there are only a few areas where we have a chance to compare African traditional knowledge and international research results. Neither pharmacological, nor musical brain research, has provided sufficient scientific results to compare both areas. But in all cases where it was possible to compare western science and traditional knowledge we found that medical knowledge of traditional healers was state of the art. Their statements about Ibogaine effects, the danger for women, the possibility of interactions and complications between Ibogaine and other drugs have been substantiated by Western medicine. And we ourselves found that Gabonian statements about the effects of the music were true for us. We believe that many procedures in Bwiti are based on neuropsychological knowledge, although it is not yet proven by international science, because international science has hardly made efforts to investigate these subjects. We think it could be useful for pharmacological and musical science to formulate hypotheses on the basis of the knowledge contained in traditional medicine.