Baffling Smoke Signals: Reggae Veteran's Song about Choosing New Popes

Written by

smoke 2cd coverpopesmokeimgres-5 There is now a vacancy in the Vatican with the sudden departure of Pope Benedict, the first time a Pope has vacated the Holy See since the 15th century.  Certainly stranger things have happened;  my dad used to talk about a female pope in the middle ages, but it’s now clear that Pope Joan never existed.

One of the oddest thing about the Vatican–and there are certainly odd things like the kicking of rabbis at a certain time each year–is the ritual of indicating when a new pope has been chosen.  This involves smoke signals.  If the smoke is black, no new pope was elected;  if white, a new pope has been elected.  If grey, it’s uncertain.  The Vatican conclave of cardinals is poised to vote, either this week or next, on who the new pope will be………

NBC put it this way in a feature about a year ago:

Mixed signals
“The tradition is simple: Black smoke means a vote has failed to produce a pope; white smoke means the cardinals have come to agreement. But the gray area — and the gray smoke — has often provoked confusion, such as in the incident described above, as reported in news accounts from Oct. 26, 1958.

So great was the confusion on that Sunday — there were two false alarms — that conclave marshal Sigismondo Chigi told reporters he would have the cardinals briefed “in the hope that something can be done to remedy the situation Monday,” The Associated Press reported at the time.

The solution, according to Vatican expert John-Peter Pham, was to buy black smoke bombs and pass them into the chapel. The smoke they produced was clearly black, but some of it backed into the room, prompting complaints from the cardinals, he said.

Exactly when the tradition began is unclear, but smoke signals have been used continuously at least since 1878. In past centuries, conclaves were often held in the town where the last pope died, leaving the cardinals to come up with a means of communication on the spot. Sometimes they rang bells to signal a successful election”.

This is certainly an arcane way of communicating in this age of texting and instant communication, yet it persists.  Reggae Veteran Lee Scratch Perry actually wrote a song about it, “Baffling Smoke Signals”.   Like most rastafarians, Perry is  no fan of the Catholic church, but it is a curious little example of how music provides commentary on current events.  One of the key lines goes like this:

“……Baffling smoke signals in the Vatican City,

Baffling smoke signals in the city of iniquity……….”

C.C. Smith, host and producer of KCRW’s African show The African Beat and publisher of the popular music magazine The Beat, tells me that Dave Katz, the preeminent Lee Perry scholar,  says in his book People Funny Boy:  The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry, that “Baffling Smoke Signals” had Perry’s double-tracked voice commenting on the controversial election of Pope John Paul II after the mysterious and untimely death of Pope John Paul I—after just 33 days in office—on September 8, 1978….Perry’s song spoke of the endless black smoke the blew from the Vatican chimneys (pictured above) while the authorities deliberated about who would be the new pontiff, interpreted by Perry to be a representation of the black supremacy claimed by radical Rastafarian theology (I have paraphrased Katz somewhat here).