The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony
Historian: Ellis Godard
The Oh Kee Pa is a rite of passage, a physical and mental endurance test, a willed torture into manhood. For young men of the Native American Mandan tribe, it was a means to becoming a warrior. After four days without nourishment or rest, the subject was dressed and painted. Wood slats were then stuck through his skin and behind the muscles in his chest and shoulders, and large rocks tied to his feet. He was hoisted by leather straps hung from the ceiling of a ceremonial hut, and spun until he was unconscious. (See also, an exhibit at the Atlantic City Ripley’s Believe it or Not, or rent the movie A Man Called Horse.)
For Phish, the Oh Kee Pa ceremonies were tests of endurance during which the band locked themselves in a room and jammed for hours on end. The first was in the spring of 1988, and the second, that produced the “Union Federal” track on Junta, recorded in August of 1989. These rites were recorded, though their resemblance to a high school band imitating a John Zorn composition makes for little more than useless noise. But they helped hone the band’s collective improvisation, and allowed the members to develop the musical bond that set them apart from others.
Although the ceremonies are gone, among Phish as among the Mandan, their name has endured, as the title of a gripping instrumental. “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” is a countrified jazz thing, somewhere between the end of the Popeye theme and the end of a bomb fuse. As a short, tight, wacky instrumental, “Oh Kee Pa” is a treble antithesis of the improv ceremonies. Fittingly, however, it is a song that Phish uses for passage: “Oh Kee Pa” has opened dozens of sets and typically precedes “Suzy Greenberg” (in about two-third of its appearances). Given his other anthropological interests (e.g. see “Kung”), Fishman is believed to have introduced the band to the Mandan oh kee pa. But the Jewish half of the band likely knew much earlier about “keepah,” Hebrew for the Yiddish yarmulke, the prayer headpiece worn by Jewish men.