The story behind a song: Haunted by “The Rhythm of the Heat” (Peter Gabriel and Carl Jung)

Posted on Sun Oct 28 2007 at 9:37 am in the category 1980s, Gabriel, Peter, Music and religion, Story behind a song, World music -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read:

A 1982 live version of Rhythm of the Heat from YouTube

By haunted, I don’t mean in the halloween sense, but in the sense of losing your self entirely to the spirits, of losing your very soul. One of the most haunting and experiential songs I know of is Peter Gabriel’s “Rhythm of the Heat” on his fourth album (also known as Security; © 1982 The David Geffen Company). The low quality live version are listening to now may not do justice to the song, but it is better than nothing. You’ll have to listen to a high quality version of the entire piece (preferably on your own in the complete dark and with the volume considerably high) to understand the full emotional effect of Gabriel’s brilliant work here.

The complete tune opens up slowly with an initial cry by Gabriel and some mysterious distorted voices. The drum beat begins to slowly build at this point, moving towards the first climactic cries of “The rhythm is around me. The rhythm has control. The rhythm is inside me. . . The rhythm has my soul!!” (© 1982 Peter Gabriel Ltd).

Now the drums are incredibly heavy but still slow, backed by a repetitive chant of “the rhythm of the heat” that evokes spirits, or is it demons. The bass and drum combination is now so intense that it brings chills. There’s a hesitation in the song as it quietens, seemingly bringing relief from the intensity. Quietly: “Smash the radio. . . smash the watch. . . smash the camera (cannot steal away the spirits). The rhythm is around me. The rhythm has control. The rhythm is inside me. The rhythm has my soul!” Following on this second wild, piercing, sustained cry, the song now breaks out into an onslaught of African style drumming (by the Ekome Dance Company) that seems to never end. You cannot escape it. The rhythm has your soul.

In some ways, the Surdo and Ghanaian drum sections in this piece indicate Gabriel’s future direction into world music, which would climax, in a way, in his soundtrack, Passion (1989) for The Last Temptation of Christ. That album is saturated with the sounds of the Middle East in particular, but also Africa. Gabriel ultimately founded a record company and studio, called Real World, devoted to promoting bands and music from around the globe, particularly from “developing” countries.

Where did this haunting song, “The Rhythm of the Heat”, come from?

Gabriel’s song is based, in large part, on psychologist C.G. Jung’s autobiographical description of a nocturnal ritual dance (the n’goma) among villagers in the Sudan (in Africa). Carl Jung (1875-1961), as you may or may not know, was an influential psychologist and student of Sigmund Freud. In the autobiographical interviews collected in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), Jung outlines his own fears of the local villagers in a particular area of the Sudan, that, to him, seemed less welcoming than those in previous African villages.

Sixty men, along with women and children, gathered together and lit fires before beginning what Jung labels “savage singing, drumming, and trumpeting” (p. 271). Jung expresses that “I did not know whether I ought to feel pleased or anxious about this mass display”, a statement which reveals a tension to which I turn below. So the uncomfortable Jung decided to join in the dancing, however hesitantly, and was somewhat comforted to notice the approval he received from the villagers for doing so.

As time passed, Jung reports, “the rhythm of the dance and the drumming accelerated” (p. 271). Here Jung begins to reveal his fears in noting that “the natives easily fall into a virtual state of possession. That was the case now. As eleven o’clock approached, their excitement began to get out of bounds. . . The dancers were being transformed into a wild horde, and I became worried about how it would end” (p. 271).

In reading these autobiographical remembrances that inspired Peter Gabriel’s song, I was struck by the tension within Jung’s own description of his experiences in the Sudan. On the one hand, his trip was ostensibly one of studying the human psyche in what he considered its more “primitive”, not-yet-conscious form, something he describes as a “primal darkness” that will only meet light with the dawning of psychological consciousness (something he believed was possessed by the psyches of Europeans). And so Jung seemingly explains away his fear of the possessive tribal dance as a fear of dying by being accidentally stabbed by the swords of the fully involved tribal members in their ecstatic, “possessed” stage. It is a down to earth fear, so he claims.

On further investigation, on the other hand, it seems that his fear may be a fear of becoming part of this collective psychological experience, a concept that he himself had developed in reference to some supposed universal human psychological makeup, and a fear of losing his soul to the possession of the tribal beat. This, I believe, is what Gabriel saw as well. For Jung concludes his story of the tribal dance with a statement of his own profound, personal experiences in Africa. For, as Jung states:

“I had undertaken my African adventure with the secret purpose of escaping from Europe and its complex problems. . . The trip revealed itself as less an investigation of primitive psychology. . . than a probing into the rather embarrassing question: What is going to happen to Jung the psychologist in the wilds of Africa? . . . It became clear to me that this study had been not so much an objective scientific project as an intensely personal one, and that any attempt to go deeper into it touched every possible sore spot in my own psychology” (p. 273).

Here, then, was the “advanced” European academic in fear of having his soul stolen by the “rhythm of the heat”, and yet unable to come to terms with his own fear and unable to analyze himself fully, let alone the supposedly “primitive” villagers.

Happy Halloween.

Peter Gabriel’s official website can be found here. Real World Records can be found here.

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3 Responses to “The story behind a song: Haunted by “The Rhythm of the Heat” (Peter Gabriel and Carl Jung)”

  1. Daniel Edlen Says:

    One of my most favorite songs of his. The soundtracks to Birdy (which left me in gutwrenching laughter at the end) and The Last Temptation of Christ (which left me in soul-lifting tears at the end) are spine tingling pieces of music. His pop music is incredibly passionate for its genre. And don’t get me started on his work with Genesis…

    Thanks for this in depth about such an amazing song.


  2. pharland Says:

    Hello Daniel,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree about the Last Temptation soundtrack, which is regular listening for me. I still need to get the Birdy soundtrack.


  3. Carl Jung y la música de Peter Gabriel : La Psicología de Carl Jung Says:

    [...] canción Rythm of the Heat de Peter Gabriel está basada en un relato que hizo Carl Jung sobre su participación en una danza de un grupo de [...]