Questions around ethnomusicology in worship

There’s an upcoming course on ethnomusicology at my old college. It provokes quite mixed feelings. And it has done so for a while.

Broadly I agree with the aims that are behind ethnomusicology in evangelical worship. The premises are relatively simple.

  1. People should be able to worship in their own language, music and culture.
  2. There are those who hold that for some reason western hymnody is somehow the standard for global Christian worship.
  3. There is a valid fear that the colonial notions around western cultural superiority are being propogated and assumed by vast number of churches.

To help the first point and  to mitigate the others there are some whole hearted and genuine efforts to make art forms that represent various cultural heritages and peoples.

I would like to say that this overall a good thing. But I feel that there are some problems that aren’t being addressed within this ‘movement.’ Or maybe they are and I’m just too obtuse to hear it . 🙂

1. It seems to be driven by the West.

A lot of the conversations about indigenisation in worship seem to be coming out of the West. Possibly this is because of a certain ‘feel’ for the post colonial conversations that have been going on since the 60s. It could also be the increased multi-cultural composition of many western cities that has forced the conversation.

The truth is that for many Christians they’ve grown up with a set of cultural norms that are with their church wherever it is in the world. Now a bunch of Westerners seem to be coming around and saying, ‘don’t sing our songs.’

Aradhna is a great band that makes great music. They sing Christian bhajans and travel the world leading worship. They are great people. But why is there no Indian band singing Christian bhajans and travelling the world?

2. The West don’t seem to be doing it.

This is a puzzle. There are so many beautiful folk songs in Western Europe that don’t seem to be sung in churches even through they are already Christian songs. This is my experience in the English churches. I hear the occasional folk instrument but I rarely hear many songs from the indigenous traditions of England.

3. There is a danger of essentialism

Growing up as an English speaking Indian is complex. This isn’t just an issue for Christians but for many generations of urban Indians. It is a question that the band Thermal and a Quarter (whom I was privileged to be part of) have struggled and grappled with. They are true blooded, lovers of India but the music they play is English and the genre is loosely Western rock. We all grew up with this feeling, that we were somehow not Indian enough. But the truth is we were Indian and this is who we were. And this if their consistent message, that their music and their manner doesn’t make them any less Indian.

When I reached London to study, there was an oft repeated question, ‘do you play the sitar?’ I managed to touch an old broken one, once. The truth is, I don’t really like Indian classical music. I have tried. Listened to hours of the stuff. It just doesn’t get me. But I somehow felt that it should.

This is a classic essentialist problem. Because I was Indian I had to like and possibly do music that was perceived to be Indian.

4. People can’t be defined by their community

Amartya Sen places this argument brilliantly in his must read book, ‘Identity and Violence‘. He posits that most human beings can’t be defined by their religious or communal identity. He goes on to say that it is actually dangerous to do so, citing his own experiences in pre-partition India and numerous other examples.

Identity is a fluid thing. More so today than a few centuries ago, but that is the reality. It is possible to find deep meaning in one form of experience and never have it again from that same form. As we grow and change within the changing world, our identity flexes and moves; it never remains static. So to tie identity to a so called culture, language or music is just that. Tying down. My fear is that ethnomusicology in worship is trying to find a ‘sweet spot’ that doesn’t exist.

These are my queries. Of course they are biased upon my own experiences and likes and dislikes. But I think they are valid. I think there needs to be a much deeper theological inquiry into what exactly is happening in the drive towards indigenity. The incarnation proves that the indigenous and the local is the manner in which Christ presents himself, but how do we achieve true indigenity in being the bearers of the good news of Christ?

Reflections on Week 3 of Jacob’s Ladder

Coming up to Christmas the church building gets busier and busier. The space has been very intensively used and it was hard to get the ladder up on some days. On Day 18 I had to get in at 630 am to finish at 830. This however gave a very good visual idea of what Advent was about as I sat in the dark waiting for the light to come in.

The calendar has got longer and longer in duration which is odd considering that we assume that the wait is getting shorter and shorter. This is how waiting feels, as impatience rises the wait seems to increase even though technically it should be getting shorter.

As we get to the end of the calendar I have had to try and make a decision as to how this is going to end. Traditional Advent Calendars are for 24 days. In the traditional calendar Advent is upto the 24th. Then it’s Christmas. Should this calendar show Christmas? Is this going to be 24 or 25? It’s been fairly ambiguous in my mind. We will see what happens.


Reflections on week 2 of the Advent Calendar

The sounds have started their tangible descent. As more speakers get added to the wire they start coming down. From the concert hall it has reached the kitchen.

I’ve found the pace quite hard. So I actually revised the times of the calendar to fit in with the rest of my life. Doing an immense art project and looking after two bright children and doing the cooking isn’t that easy. We have somehow managed to not depend on take aways more than once!

Going and setting up the calendar everyday feels like setting up for a gig everyday, performing and taking it all down again, going home writing a new song and coming back for the next.

It has also bound me to a one mile area of movement. Which for me is quite strange. It has forcefully rooted me in Penge (which I love), and incited me to listen and look even deeper. Some days Penge feels tense and grumpy. Some days it is full of ribald laughter. To be tied to a place brings its joys and sorrows up close. I’m yet to learn fully, to live with it.

The calendar has also made me aware of the rhythms of the church building. Some of the echoes of those rhythms occur through the videos as people pack up from what they are doing or come to set up for the what comes next. A growing awareness of the rhythm of a place makes us more gracious to why certain irritating things happen as they do. It also allows us to appreciate the tireless work of the unseen, who find a solace, in a work they find meaningful.

Through the week the calendar has generated conversation. People of different ages and cultures have tried to understand what’s going on. A few have actually sat and engaged. This is where a stronger understanding occurs.

The last day of last week saw Kerst leading and evening of song and story, next to the calendar. It was a great time. I felt that he interacted with calendar really well and the calendar gained a lift from his presence. It was a good end to the week.

Reflections on one week of Jacob’s Ladder : An Advent Calendar in Sound

As some of you know I’ve been putting up An Advent Calendar in Sound up at Holy Trinity Beckenham. So here are a few thoughts on the process.

Putting it up and taking it down each day is tough. Most folks wonder why I do that. Well for one the space which the installation sits in is heavily used for other activities. These include a day time nursery, Pilates, Scouts, meal for the homeless, various exercise groups etc. So I’m sneaking in between these activities and setting up. After one activity the space waits for the next one. It’s during that time that I go in and place the installation. So there seems to be a specific resonance of waiting in which the place itself waits.

Plus the work has to do with the particulars of each day. So each day brings its own challenges and work. Putting it up each day and taking it down makes the work itself particular to each day as the whole work stands in marginally different points each day and the speakers are moving all over the wire they hang off.

Does the installation need to be in that space since it creates so much more work? Initially the idea was that installation could be in the actual worship area rather than the church hall. However the whole work is about ordinary and everyday waiting and it just fits better as a work in a space used for everyday activity rather than a haloed one.

From the videos we hear the sounds of people in the hall and this sometimes completely overpowers the sounds from the speakers. However when people are quiet and listen the speakers seem to fill the room. This is the strange nature of sound and listening. From a recording it’s harder to distinguish the sound from the work and the sound from the hall. But if you’re there you can.

It takes a lot of support to get a work like this started and going. My wife’s worked very hard in helping with the actual work and taking up the slack of my not being at home. The children have had countless trips to space and they have done their time too. The encouragement from the church has been immense. There are a few who keep me going by their own interest in the work and in us as a family and persons.

The work seems to have on ocassion made me more patient. Well after being day in day out with the work it has sink in some way doesn’t it?

I’m puzzled about the Christian language around the work or lack of it. I am a Christian and there’s no denying that. And the work actually came out of reflecting theologically around Advent, the spirituality of sound, and an engagement with the early chapters of the gospel of John. Yet other than the initial reasoning, in the reflections, theological language has seemed inappropriate or forced. This is the interesting challenge of belief as a whole. How does the language of the faith, work seamlessly with the whole of our lives?

The waiting continues…