The Esoteric Lyrics Of Dr. John’s “Litanie des Saints”

Dr John lyrics Litanie de saints meaning interpretation translation

 

In the interest of musical science and research, and since this blog is named after another of his songs, I thought I’d do a post on the possible deeper meaning of the lyrics to Dr. John’s “Litanie des Saints”. I’ll note straightaway that I’m no expert and I’m doing this mostly in hopes of feedback from more knowledgeable music geeks than I.

 

Here’s the typical phonetic lyrical interpretation found on the internet:

 

Ero mante te que le mama
damba la metres
Ero mante te que le papa
damba la moi ido
Ero mante te que le mama
Santa Maria
Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
mama oceon

Ero mante te que le mama
yia malia
Ero mante te que le papa
obea obea
Ero mante te que le mama
ooh bacalia

Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
sambeau sambeau
Ero mante te que le mama
ooh coumalieh
Ero mante te que le mama
mamzelo zoulie zoulie zoulie
Ero mante te que le papa
papa ledvah

Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
San Cecilia

 

The song starts with “San Maron, San Michele”, the latter being a version of Saint Michael the Archangel. Ending the song with a shout-out to Saint Cecilia is appropriate, as she is the patron saint of music. The “ya-ya, ya-ya” refrain could very well be name checking Doctor Yah-Yah, a Louisiana Voodoo practitioner active around the same time period as the more famous voodoo practitioner Doctor John (whom the musician Dr. John took his stage name from).

 

But, why would the rest of the “litany” be less clear? I’m of the opinion that Dr. John, being known for his interest in astrology, New Orleans folk magic, shamanism and folk Catholicism was reciting a litany to a different group of “saints”; the African imported entities that make up the complex tapestry of New Orleans and Caribbean religions: the loa/lwa of Vodou/Voodoo, the orishas of Ifa, Yoruba and Santeria, and their syncretized Catholic saint counterparts.

 

I do not speak French, let alone Creole French or any other variant, so I can’t claim to know every lyric of the song. Here’s my understanding of the lyrics with my personal corrections and questions as I hear them written in bold:

 

Ero mante te que le mama
Damballa Maîtresse
Ero mante te que le papa
Damballa Weido [maybe Damballa-Ayido?]
Ero mante te que le mama
Santa Maria
Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
Mama Oshun

Ero mante te que le mama
yia malia  [?]
Ero mante te que le papa
Obeah, Obeah
Ero mante te que le mama
Obatalá

Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
Changó, Changó
Ero mante te que le mama
ooh coumalieh
Ero mante te que le mama
Mon Erzulie, Zulie, Zulie [my Erzulie?]
Ero mante te que le papa
Papa Legba

Ero mante te que le mama
Ero mante te que le papa
Doce goche goche que le mama
San Cecilia 

 

Damballa (spelling differs) is the lwa Creator. Damballa Maîtresse could be Damballa’s mistress, Erzulie Freda; Damballa Weido or Damballa Ayido could be Ayida-Weddo, who is Damballa’s wife in that belief system. Santa Maria is in line with the other saint references, though Santa Maria is sometimes syncretized with cannabis, ayahuasca and other spiritual herbs in some traditions. Oshun is, of course, one of the most well known orishas. Obeah is itself a kind of religious sorcery. Obatalá is another orisha credited as a Creator. Chango/Shango is an orisha that has a fiery temperament but nonetheless is linked to music, drums and dance.

 

Erzulie is a family of loa/lwa spirits; Papa Legba is the lwa spirit acting as the intermediary between the spirits and humans, or the spirit of the crossroads. Notable old time blues musicians have songs referencing Papa Legba as the spirit came to be seen as the Christian Devil, whom many blues musicians claimed to meet at the crossroads to gain their musical ability. Papa Legba is usually depicted as having a brimmed hat and cane…

 

Dr John lyrics new orleans music

Dr John lyrics new orleans voodoo

 

And then the song ends with due respect to Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.

 

That said, I can’t work out suitable translations for “coumalieh” or “yia malia” though I’m certain those are not correct lyrics. Likewise, I’m doubtful “Ero mante” is the correct lyric, though again I don’t speak another language besides some rudimentary Spanish. Google Translate (don’t judge me) pointed me towards “Ero amante” which Google claims is Italian for “I was loving”, amante I think can also show general passion or obsession for something general such as music so I suppose it’s possible we’re hearing a variation of that.

 

And it’s fun to listen to songs with obscure lyrics and discover what different people will hear! Here’s a video of the song, if you can clarify any lyrics feel free to do so in the comments below!

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s