© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 16, 2011
In what I maintain is a longstanding practical joke against the parents of this country, most states require all children to learn a musical instrument before graduating from elementary school. I say this is a practical joke on parents, not because I miss the value of music as an essential part of education, but because many states, already cash-strapped and resource-poor, have turned, over the years, to the lowest common denominator of instruments in order to fulfill this requirement. I speak of the recorder. Now a recorder is indeed a musical instrument, but it is hardly a thing of beauty in the hands of most 12-year-old children. This is the joke on parents who have to endure the pain of this unloved cousin to the clarinet for many months of seemingly endless evenings of practice.
And in the state I grew up in, this was indeed the case. Come 6th grade, along with your lunch box, backpack and trapper keeper, you picked up a thick plastic recorder as part of your school-going gear. And, like all the other kids in my class, I gave it my best effort. I hung in there with "Hot Cross Buns." I was mostly flabbergasted by "Mary Had a Little Lamb." And by the time we got to "Hey Diddle Diddle" I was really struggling.
Of course, like so many things we subject our children to, when you take a step back and look at it, it becomes quickly obvious that it is much less about what children really need, and a lot more about what parents want. And one thing parents want is to see their adorable kid in his or her cutest outfit surrounded by all the other adorable kids in their class, playing music. And music teachers know this. So, quickly it became clear that this whole 'learning the recorder' exercise was a lot more about performance than it was about learning.
As I continued to struggle with the recorder, rather than give me a little extra attention to help me understand my 'A' note from my 'C' note, I was instead shuffled further and further back behind the others kids who were taking naturally to it. And this hunch of mine, that this was more about performance than learning, was finally confirmed when at our last rehearsal before the big performance, the music instructor took me aside. Now, at first I thought perhaps she was going to finally reveal the error in my technique, finally give me that pointer that would allow me to soar to new musical heights. I wanted to do better, I just didn't know how. Instead, she asked me if, in consideration of the other kids, I wouldn't really blow through my recorder the next night when we played for our parents.
Needless to say, I was devastated. Also perhaps needless to say, if you are starting to pick up on my slightly anti-authoritarian streak, I did not choose to follow the final instructions of my teacher. I would like to tell you that I didn't follow them because instead I went home that night and tirelessly worked on my recorder playing until I had that instrument mastered. I would like to tell you that I was miraculously struck in my sleep that night with the ability to make that horrible piece of plastic sing. But alas, I did neither of those things. Rather, I did two things that I still feel the consequences of to this day, one of which hurt me deeply and one of which was pure joy. I will let you decide which was which.
First, I internalized the concept that I was lousy at music, that it was just simply something I was not good at no matter the effort I put in to changing that. And secondly, at our concert the next night I blew on that god-forsaken piece of plastic like it was a trumpet and I had lungs the size of grocery bags. And the best part was I suddenly felt free to stop worrying about the notes and just let the sound of my anger explode through the end of that recorder. So I learned one other thing that night, only to crystallize many, many years later, that music was a very powerful tool indeed.
Now I am far from the first person to recognize the incredible power of music. But did you know that most of what we think of as American music, that is: Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Rock and Roll and all that came after, are direct descendants of what are called musico-religious communities, and that they still retain some of the core practices that imbue music with its special spiritual power?
Much of what I am going to talk about for the rest of this sermon is also a bit of a tease for an adult RE class I will be offering in the spring on the religious dimensions of popular music.
Now it may at first sound a bit jarring to think that there could be such a strong connection between popular music and religion, since popular music is in this day and age connected to the idea of entertainment and comes across as largely superficial. But if we back up a few thousand years and look at the musico-religious communities as they were in their time, and then work our way forward through history, a narrative becomes apparent that is very different than the one we assume leads us to the bubble-gum pop of Brittney Spears.
But let me begin by talking about a few of the oldest musico-religious traditions we know of. The Australian aboriginal tradition, thought to go back at least 50,000 years, is centered around the practice of sacred myths being sung into receptacles holding the remains of the ancestors, as the assembled group rhythmically beats sticks to support the chant of the holy man leading the ceremony.
Percussion, centered around the beating of drums accompanied by chanting, is likewise central to almost every native American tribe's spiritual practices, from the Kachina dances of the Arizona Hopi to the Sun dance of the Ogallala Sioux, to the Pan-Indian peyote-drumming ceremony of the Native American Church.
In most Hindu traditions found throughout the Indian subcontinent, the very concepts of music and sound are synonymous with the concept of god, of the very substance that makes up everything we know as reality.
And perhaps the greatest example of music-based spiritual communities, and the one most germane to our story today, is the polyrhythmic drum ensembles in the possession rituals of West Africa and the African Diaspora. In these musico-religious communities, young men would train for years to learn precise drumming rhythms, often extremely complex rhythms with multiple layers leveled one on top of the other simultaneously, and each set of rhythms was linked to a specific god. It was understood that if the right rhythms were connected to the correct dance, the dancer would move from a normal state of consciousness to an altered state of consciousness, and during this time of possession the dancer's mind was fully under the control of the god that had been called through that specific ritual and rhythm. During this time of possession the dancer would move, act and speak like a completely different person, and have access to new information and insights. This was an essential aspect of these communities' spiritual lives.
But why is this group so important to our story? Well, if you know our sad history of slavery, then you know that West Africa, due to its geographical closeness to the Americas, was by far more affected by the slave trade than other part of that giant and diverse land mass. Now even West Africa, as a geographical descriptor, is a huge amount of land to speak of. The people that called West Africa their home were as diverse as those who called Europe their home. That is to say, they did not necessarily share language or other cultural norms, but the one thing they did share was music. So, as these hundreds of thousands of men and women were forcibly removed from their home cultures and brought bound in chains to this new and unfamiliar world, it was music rather than language that was their initial touch stone - the one place that they could find common ground and even communicate in that language that is deeper than words.
Music was in fact such a powerful point of connection for these communities that it threatened the White men working to keep these men and women in bondage, so gathering to play music was quickly banned for all slaves in the Southern states, effectively banning their practice of religion. There was, however, one place in the entire South where the musical part of this activity was allowed to continue, a place still to this day called Congo Square, in New Orleans.
Once a week, slaves were allowed to gather in Congo Square and play their drums as long as they did not also pray to their gods. And because Congo Square was the only such place that this could happen, it became the center of music for any Africans who could get there. And at first that is how it functioned - as a meeting place for a displaced people who could gather and share some little piece of home. But the fact that they were not allowed to pray to their gods, but only play their music, inadvertently created a situation where musico-religious possession practices began to cross over into something that looked a lot more like secular entertainment.
Something else began happening in Congo Square. And that was that White people began showing up to watch the drummers. And they liked what they saw, and even more they liked what they heard from these African drummers with their complex rhythms. And so in Congo Square in New Orleans, for the first time in America, a purely religious use of music began to morph into something else, something a little more like entertainment. And as the drummers realized that through their music they could gain money, money that they had no other way of getting, money that could even potentially be used to purchase their freedom, they began playing more and more to the crowds of White people that came to watch, and less and less for themselves, and they even began to incorporate some European instruments as well, especially horns.
This is literally the process that gave birth to the original groups that created the foundation for Blues and Jazz, and by extension all of what are considered solely American music sub-genres: Bluegrass and Rock and Roll. The important thing to understand is that the ingredients that originally lent this music so well to spiritual practice never went away. It was the chanting, dancing and the layered percussion, not the context or the precise instruments, that were the key. And so our music still to this day retains that power. This is something myself and many others have sensed intuitively, and when I began investigating this topic in Seminary, I discovered that others had gone beyond mere intuition to explore exactly why this was the case.
To explain this we must leave the world of music for a minute and talk about the human mind. We have all heard the famous phrase of Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." The implication of this concept is that thinking - the most rational function of our mind - is the one that makes us human; that is, our power of rational thought is what defines the human experience. But the fact of the matter is, our minds do many things other than think rationally. They also: dream, think creatively and irrationally, get swept up and hijacked by emotions; they feel and intuit beyond the known, and much more. But Descartes understood that the rational thinking aspect of our mind was at the top of the org chart, so to speak. For better or for worse, the thinking aspect of our mind has taken primary control and we have a lot to thank for that. But at the same time, those other functions, those less-rational characteristics of our minds, are pretty important too. We just don't want them in control all the time. And this is where music as a spiritual technology comes in.
You see, when you are either listening to or creating music, something magical can happen. It doesn't happen every time you pop on some tunes or tickle the ivories - but I think you know what I am speaking of. Perhaps it has happened to you at a concert for your favorite band, or when you were messing around on your instrument of choice, or perhaps it has happened to you right here in Cole Hall when one of the many incredible musicians this community is blessed with is sharing their gift with us: it is that mystical place where you stop listening to the music, where you stop playing the instrument, and suddenly it is the other way around, the music is playing you. It is an experience outside of time and space - all aspects of our normal human consciousness drop away and we become a part of something larger than ourselves. And this has always been the goal of the spiritual leaders of communities that have used the tool of music within their rituals. Music is, in short, the most effective technology humanity has discovered to temporarily disable the hegemony of the ego - of our thinking, rational mind - to allow all those other transformative characteristics of our minds to have a minute in the driver's seat.
I had one brief glimpse of that experience at my recorder concert in 6th grade. When I stopped worrying about the notes, stopped letting my rational mind control the experience, something larger than me took over, and I suddenly found great joy in simply expressing my pure emotions in sound through that little piece of plastic.
So I do indeed speak these words in praise of music. As we continue to find our way to be the most perfect expression of liberal religion in the Tri-Cities that Mission Peak can be, I am so excited to continue to explore the many ways we too can use the amazing spiritual technology of music to help people connect to that mystery within which we all dance.
May it be so. Ashe.
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