Sounds: Belief & Society
by James Early
Hip hop, a contemproary form os oral culture created
predominantly by African-American and Puerto Rican youth of the South
Bronx, finds expression in the Christian rap ministry of Brothers
Inc. 4 Da Lord. Photo © Alex Gomez
Reflecting the widespread and growing public awareness of and interest
in religious beliefs and spiritual meaning in everyday life, the 1997
Festival of American Folklife program Sacred Sounds: Belief & Society
features a variety of religious and spiritual traditions. Through performances
and discussions with Festival visitors, Festival participants from Old
Regular Baptist communities in Kentucky, hip hop Christian worshipers
from The Bronx, New York, African-American gospel choirs and quartets,
representatives of South African indigenous-Christian blends of worship
and popular music, and practitioners of Islamic and Judaic traditions
in Jerusalem, among other religious and cultural communities, will share
their perspectives and feelings about the intrinsic nature of their sacred
cultures and the musical extensions of their faiths into the secular world.
Throughout world history sacred sounds have served as a medium for human
cultures to raise queries, advance beliefs, give praise, and inspire others
to join in exploration of the mysteries of earthly existence and the greater
universe. These sacred sound traditions encompass a broad range of expressive
forms: melodic and repetitive vocalizations called chants; sharp, passionate,
emotion-filled hums, groans, shouts; percussive, rhythmic hand claps and
foot stomps; and extended song, sermon, and instrumental arrangements.
Instrumental music, sung prayers, and mystical chants have been used to
communicate with the divine, to unite religious communities, and to express
moral, political, social, and economic aspirations. Sacred sounds in many
traditions are the central means for invocation of the spirits. The utterance
of particular sounds is thought by many cultures to form a connection
to all the elements of the universe. In some belief systems music and
sound vibrations are pathways for healing body, mind, and spirit. Among
the wide range of human expressive behavior, the capacity to infuse the
joys, sorrows, and humility that characterize religious and spiritual
beliefs into oral poetry, chants, songs, and instrumental music is certainly
one of the most powerful and inspirational ways all peoples and cultures
acknowledge the spirit of the Supreme in their lives.
Although secular and sacred are terms used to distinguish worldly and
temporal concerns from the realm of the universal and the eternal, sacred
sounds are not necessarily restricted to formal settings in which religious
rituals are performed for followers. Civil rights struggles, national
democratic liberation movements, and union picket lines are a few of the
non-sacred spaces where religious music has been consistently and meaningfully
incorporated into worldly affairs.
In the United States the predominance of Christianity and its related
sacred text may readily bring to mind familiar references to sacred sounds:
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord"; "Come before his presence
with singing" (Psalm 100: 1-2); "My Lord, He calls me by the
thunder... the trumpets sound within my soul..." (from "Steal
Away" [African American spiritual]). Inside and outside of the United
States many other religious and spiritual traditions in diverse cultural
communities also express profound beliefs through sacred sounds. For example,
the Upanishads - Vedic sacred treatises of ancient India - teach that
"the essence of sacred knowledge is word and sound, and the essence
of word and sound is OM." Although the languages of many religious
texts and spoken rituals may be inaccessible to different cultural communities,
sacred sounds are generally well received and understood as a means by
which all cultures acknowledge higher states of wonder, consciousness,
and order that transcend everyday thoughts, actions, and activities and
connect one and all to the deeper recesses of the universe. Plato referred
to "music as moral law ... the essence of order, [that] leads to
all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but
nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form."
Physical migrations and telecommunications bring the world's religious
cultures into new mixed worship spaces: increasingly, different religious
services are held in the same place of worship at different times, and
diverse religious services and styles of sacred music come into homes
via radio and television. New encounters that bring previously isolated
community worship traditions face to face sometimes challenge Plato's
"essence of order" and literally jar the religious and spiritual
assumptions, and the very ears, of those of us unfamiliar with other sacred
traditions and expressive cultural behavior. For example, according to
a recent Washington Post report, one of the long-time parishioners of
Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, took offense at a
"particular African-style service" in which Ghanaian immigrants
in the congregation brought forth "offerings with song and swirling
dance, accompanied by drums, synthesizer and electric guitar." On
the other hand, the spiritual awareness of one of the church elders was
expanded through the observance of a different cultural community's approach
to his faith: "I never felt the spirit so strongly."
Festival visitors will meet a variety of religious practitioners and sacred
sound performers whose religious and spiritual doctrines are quite similar
in their acknowledgement of human existence in a grander scheme of organization
created and ruled by a Supreme power(s). They will learn that each group
(American Indian, Islamic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, SanterÆa,
Judaic, Mokhukhu of the Zion Christian Church of South Africa) may exhibit
multiple variations on the sacred sounds of the same religious or spiritual
doctrine. They will observe that in communities defined by religious denomination,
racial identity, cultural style, age group, and gender, sacred sounds
are expressed through a rich variety of artistic forms, with a wide range
of emotional intensity, in a broad spectrum of meditative tenors and creative
participatory dynamics between performers and audiences.
Festival visitors will learn how the lined-out singing of the Old Regular
Baptists from the coal-mining country of the southern Appalachian Mountains
reflects a multicultural history of English/Scots/Irish-based American
melodic traditions. They will witness the intensely expressed belief of
the Zion Christian Church of South Africa - the largest Christian church
on the continent of Africa - and hear how it melds traditional native
religious beliefs and the teachings of Christian missionaries. Through
intimate conversations with participants, visitors will learn about Asian
Pacific American sacred traditions, which are increasingly visible, audible,
vibrant elements of new and old communities across the United States.
Performers of Santería, a synthesis of West African Yoruba Orisha
worship and Catholicism practiced in Cuba, the United States, and areas
of South America, will demonstrate and inform visitors how cross-fertilization
between culturally different worship traditions can lead to what is generally
referred to as syncretism. In the case of Santería, song, instrumental
music (orus), and dance are as central to the basic character of the religious
ritual as the spoken word is in other religions.
The narrative stage in the Sacred Sounds program is the setting in which
visitors can pursue such questions as how the age-old process of passing
different religious traditions and styles from one generation to the next
interacts with the ever-changing popular music scene. Young visitors and
adults can jointly inquire about hip hop, a highly popular music form
among youth around the world that is a creative way for some of today's
youth ministries, such as Brothers Inc. 4 Da Lord, to express their Christian
faith - despite the fact that hip hop is roundly criticized for promotion
of violence, misogyny, and vulgar language.
There is no substitute for direct experience with the vast array of sacred
musical traditions that make up the human family. As sacred belief systems
from around the world become more mobile and their musical traditions
more evident in our home communities, we are afforded opportunities to
visit different worship services and community festivals, make new acquaintances,
and learn and appreciate first-hand the wondrous worlds of sacred sounds
and beliefs. Sacred sound performers from throughout the country and around
the world are also well documented and preserved in the archives of Folkways
Records, a veritable museum of the air at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife
Programs & Cultural Studies.
James Early is the Director of Cultural Studies and Communications
at the Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies.
Support for this program comes from The Recording Industries Music Performance
Trust Funds and the Republic of South Africa Department of Arts, Culture,
Science, and Technology.
Suggested Listening from
the Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Black American Religious Music from Southeast Georgia. 19.
Festival of Japanese Music in Hawai'i, Vol. 1. 8885.
Old Believers: Songs of the Nekrasov Cossacks. 40462.
Rhythms of Rapture: Sacred Musics of Haitian Vodou. 40464.
Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santería. 40419.
Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, Volumes
Yoruba Drums from Benin, West Africa. 40440.