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Artist Chor Boogie Pursues the Nganga Path

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Artist Chor Boogie Pursues the Nganga Path

Today, at the height of the so-called psychedelic renaissance, the word “shaman” is tossed around with little regard for its deeper meaning. Surprisingly (or not, depending on how cynical you are), it’s an identity people seem increasingly comfortable with bestowing upon themselves. Defined as a religious or mystical figure, who, in traditional Indigenous societies, functions as a healer or prophet, most would agree that there’s much more to becoming a shaman than spending a month in the Amazon and adding the title to one’s Instagram bio.

Most traditional medicine workers spend years—often decades—working under the strict guidance of elders and in their spiritual communities before being given the blessing to share their teachings with others. For Jason Lamar Hailey, better known by his artist’s name, Chor Boogie, the path to becoming a shaman, or nganga by way of the Missoko Bwiti tradition, was one he didn’t realize he’d set out on until he reached the destination. 

The Plants Are in Cahoots

At 22, after struggling with a heroin addiction, Boogie quit drugs and alcohol and spent the next 13 years “militantly sober,” as he put it in a recent interview. The acclaimed spray paint artist had spent several years traveling the world, exhibiting his work in numerous festivals and painting commissions for celebrity clients, until, after over a decade of sobriety, an experience with ayahuasca led to a relapse.

Birds and the Bees 2017, 25ft X 100ft, Santa Rosa, CA. By Chor Boogie.

“It felt like something happened, like a darkness hopped in me,” he says. “It’s not all just peace, love, and happiness with plant medicines. These are gateways to the spirit world. They can open up darkness and light for anybody.”

Boogie’s ’s experience with ayahuasca “is not the story we want to tell in the glorified psychedelic renaissance,” says Elizabeth Bast, his wife and co-founder at SoulCentro, an iboga retreat center in Costa Rica. “I don’t think it was a complete accident. Even though at first glance, it doesn’t look like a good scenario, it was the perfect scenario.” Today, Boogie knows the medicines “are in cahoots;” that without the ayahuasca journey prompting him to seek out opiates, he’d never have been introduced to iboga, the medicine he and Bast work with today.

Finding Iboga

Boogie and Bast first experienced iboga in 2014, after Boogie confessed that he had relapsed and was using heroin again. During a walk in the forest, Bast says she heard the trees whisper the word “iboga,” and without knowing much about it, she felt intuitively that it would play a pivotal role in Boogie’s recovery.

Jason Lamar Hailey, aka Chor Boogie, and Elizabeth Bast. Credit: Anandha Ray.

Iboga is a plant medicine that comes from the root of a shrub called Tabernanthe iboga, which grows in the jungles of Central Africa, in Gabon and Cameroon. It is used in initiation ceremonies as part of the Bwiti tradition, of which there are several different groups and traditions. While Bwiti is most prominent in Gabon (where iboga is regulated by the culture ministry and protected by law), Bwiti temples can be found in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo.

There are different rites and initiations among the different Bwiti groups, but all traditionally use iboga in a ceremonial setting as an initiation or coming-of-age tool. The root bark is dried and consumed orally, sometimes administered in capsules, as dried chips, or mixed into a tea. 

Hundreds of compounds are present in iboga, but its most active compound is an alkaloid called ibogaine. Ibogaine is known for its ability to treat opioid use disorder, and it is used in treatment centers in Mexico and Costa Rica, where it is unregulated, as well as in New Zealand, where it is a fully legal, non-approved prescription medication. Ibogaine is an illegal Schedule I substance in the U.S. 

Iboga does not have a single indication in the Bwiti tradition. In addition to initiation rites, the plant is consumed by healers to diagnose illness, communicate with ancestors, gain insight, and resolve conflict. It is also used in community celebrations and bereavement ceremonies. In light doses, it’s used to boost endurance and enhance vision. 

In the psychedelic community, iboga is often referred to as the “Mount Everest of psychedelics” for its long duration (exceeding 12 hours) and intense physical and psychological effects.

While at his first iboga retreat, Boogie was introduced to his soul. “It was a mirror image of me—and when I met my soul, he was in proper terms, pissed off. He was disappointed because of all the things I’d done to myself,” he says. Boogie got on his knees and began begging his soul for forgiveness. “It took him a minute, but he accepted. We hugged each other and he whispered in my ear, ‘I forgive you but I’m not forgetting. If you go out and fuck up some more, I’m going to take you out.’”

His soul’s warning was all it took. Boogie decided at that moment, he’d never look back; he’d gotten clean before and he knew he could do it again. In his iboga journey, this meant “going in and taking out the darkness” that had led to his relapse. 

Bast witnessed firsthand how the experience prompted a shift in Boogie, both in how he lived his life—spending more time in nature and studying Krav Maga—and how he painted. “There was so much medicine immediately coming through his art that carried the spirit of the plant,” said Bast. “I saw a very pronounced difference in the energy of his artwork, right before, and right after.” She refers to two pieces, Opium Horizons and Love Dance, as the equivalent of “before and after makeover shots.” 

“Chor always says everybody is an artist,” says Bast. “Life is our visionary creativity, and the way we have a relationship with our mind is the ultimate visionary creativity.”

Walking the Path

Boogie has spent the last decade in study and service, making annual journeys to Gabon to learn from his Bwiti grandmaster Chief Binana and teacher Mama Mocodi, regularly bringing others along with him to get initiated. 

Chief Binana, whose name means “chief of the village,” has been practicing the Bwiti since the 1960s and is highly revered among the Bwiti Tribunal, a coalition of elders. He oversees sustainability and reciprocity projects in the village that Boogie and Bast help carry out. Binana learned from his father, who learned from his father, and so on, according to Boogie: “This is an oral tradition that has been passed down for who knows how long. The Bwiti began when the earth began—that’s their claim.”

Boogie considers Mama Mocodi his spiritual mother. “She was my mother when Elizabeth and I got married,” he says. Her Bwiti name means “the strings that hold up the temple.”

“The first thing to know [about iboga] is that it is not a hallucinogenic plant in the sense that the person who consumes it will see things he imagines,” Chief Binana explains through a translator in an email. “What he sees is real.” Iboga can cure all diseases, he says, but the practitioner “must know how to take it and [dose] it according to the disease of the patient.” 

“Iboga is a gift from God for [people] to allow them to come into contact consciously or unconsciously with spirits, in particular with their own spirit. It is this contact, most often done unconsciously, that allows a patient to be treated because the plant naturally stabilizes his mind,” says Binana.

Last summer, after completing a series of initiations, Boogie was acknowledged by his elders as a nganga (pronounced ‘gan-gah’), a healer within the Bwiti tradition. The path to earning such an acknowledgement isn’t self-directed but guided entirely by the intuitions of elders like Binana and Mocodi. “If they don’t see it,” says Boogie, “it’s not going to happen.” For some, the process can take as long as 20 years. 

“Everyone can become a nganga,” says Chief Binana. “A shaman is a profession like any other that is learned diligently. It’s like school – if you want to become a doctor, you have to learn the medicine. An apprentice shaman must learn the job from a master.”

An important notion to consider says Chief Binana, “is the respect that an apprentice owes to his master because, in the end, it is the master who decides the level of elevation that he will facilitate to his apprentice.” 

“To become a nganga, you must first be initiated into the majority of the different traditional rites and stay close to your spiritual master, in order to know the different plants and their medicinal virtues,” says Mama Mocodi. “All of this takes time. Once you have a good [understanding], your master will decide to give you the blessing: the power to become a nganga.”

Boogie and Bast have regular Zoom conversations with Binana and Mocodi, discussing every ceremony and often sharing songs. Some of the most important lessons imparted, says Bast, include embodying a depth of presence, possessing an unshakeable strength, having respect for the sovereignty of others, and owning the truth.

“When people go into the experience of iboga, it’s very critical to tell the truth of what we see. It’s a very different approach from a lot of trauma-informed spaces where you don’t want to trigger anybody,” she says. “This medicine inherently triggers people—but it’s only the truth that will carry people through.”

Chor Boogie and Elizabeth Bast. Credit: River DeLieto.

Respecting the Medicine

In the ten years since Boogie and Bast have been working with iboga, they have seen many people come to the medicine and assume the right to carry it home with them.

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“There are a lot of false prophets or false providers out there who use traditional backgrounds to make it seem like they’re someone who they aren’t,” says Boogie. Chief Binana refers to these people as bandits. “Especially after they’ve done this medicine, they feel like they want to save the world – but it’s not that simple.”

Time and presence with Bwiti elders impart a kind of knowledge that can’t be grasped in just one initiation, says Bast: “How we learn in Africa is experiencing states of being that are very difficult for the Western mind to understand, like learning how to look into people’s bodies. It’s not something that is explained… I’m just beginning to understand how much they see, and that requires a lot of hygiene in the mind.”

“Westerners do not understand iboga because they do not know the value and depth of this plant,” says Mama Mocodi. “To know it, you have to live it.”

Boogie stresses that the stakes are too high for inexperienced practitioners to be administering iboga. “It’s like taking a red pill. You’re waking people up, and you can really mess somebody’s mind up. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.” There are also potential contraindications with certain medications. For people with pre-existing heart conditions, iboga can cause arrhythmia and even death.

This is why it’s also not as simple as ordering iboga online and conducting a self-guided ceremony: “It’s not something that lends itself to a DIY experience like mushrooms growing in your backyard, or a cactus that replenishes itself,” says Bast. An integral part of the experience is the community within which the ceremony is held.

Like any plant medicine experience, finding a traditional ceremonial container requires due diligence. Boogie and Bast suggest asking a series of questions that focus on a practitioner’s traditional background, including how long they have been working with the medicine (Boogie says a minimum of 10 years is ideal), and more specifically, what their lineage is, who their teachers are, what their spiritual name is, and whether or not they were given the blessing to share what they’ve been taught.

“It’s not about deferring power,” says Bast. “It’s that when we’re coming into mastery or excellence of an offering, we need another set of eyeballs on us… especially with a medicine like this—a culture heritage treasure—that has real sustainability issues.”

Do Not Abuse Nature

“The Bwiti have one law: do not abuse nature, or the price is misery,” Bast told me in an August 2022 interview for the podcast Ibogaine Uncovered. I immediately wrote it down on a slip of paper and taped it to the bottom of my computer screen.

I wanted to know how this law is being embodied at SoulCentro, the retreat center in Costa Rica where, with the blessing of Chief Binana and Mama Mocodi, the couple offers traditional Bwiti ceremonies. “There’s lots of attention to self-care, because we are nature. We’re not going to be helping anybody if it comes from an empty place,” says Bast. “Replenishing ourselves and doing our own medicine work is very important: looking at our shit.”

It’s also reflected in their ecological impact, the food that they prepare, and how they treat their employees. At the site of their future retreat center, an old teak farm, the teak will be removed and replanted with trees that are native to the area. All iboga is sustainably harvested, meals are organic and locally sourced, and staff are welcome to participate in a ceremony upon receiving medical clearance. 

Chor Boogie, Bwiti nganga. Credit: River DeLieto.

“When it comes to that philosophy, it’s about developing a relationship with yourself, and taking it even further by studying yourself,” says Boogie. “Once we fix and heal internally, we can extend that externally. Iboga helps you gain that knowledge from within.”

On his next trip to Gabon for more training, Boogie, whose Bwiti name, Gnyangou, means he shines bright like the sun, will be acknowledged by Chief Binana and Mama Mocodi as a nima, a level above a nganga in the Bwiti tradition. 

Featured Image: Love Dance is inspired by a vision Chor Boogie had during his first iboga retreat. In the vision, he becomes a superhero called Love Man. At any sign of darkness, he shoots hearts from his third eye.

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