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The Cultural Connection (Tapestry of Faith)

In "," a Tapestry of Faith program

Choosing to embrace multiculturalism requires us to look at music and culture from many perspectives instead of just one. With a single cultural perspective we assume that everyone believes as we do and that we can use the same performance practices and standards for all music. With the multicultural perspective we see that there are many cultural beliefs and that there are many performance practices and standards. This diversity enriches our lives, broadens our understanding of the world we live in, and deepens our appreciation for the music of our own cultures.

Music helps to define who we are, creating our communal self-identity. Our musical likes and dislikes, to a great extent, are defined by the culture we identify with. The reason some people dislike classical music may not be because they dislike the music. It may be because they don't identify with the culture associated with classical music. The same can be said of someone's antipathy to country music or rap music or any other kind of music. Perhaps it is the culture they don't relate to.

Because culture is such an important part of music, we can look at music from a cultural perspective as well as a musical perspective. The differences between a Drum Gahu chant from West Africa and a Gregorian chant from Europe will be primarily cultural. Likewise, the musical standards (quality of the performance) for a gospel performance will be different from the standards of excellence for a Renaissance piece.

Ethnomusicology. The study of the relationship between music and culture is called ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicologists spend many years studying the music of a particular culture. They live with the people they are studying and learn their languages, customs, and mythology. Ethnomusicologists fully acknowledge that no matter how hard they try, they can never fully understand the music of another culture. Most ethnomusicologists also live in the culture of academia, where they publish papers on their fields of interest. They use the same tools to examine the culture of Gregorian chant as they do the culture of Drum Gahu rituals. Modern ethnomusicology has also expanded to embrace the new field of biomusicology, the study of humanity's common genetic propensity to need and make music.

John Blacking was an Irish ethnomusicologist and expert on the Venda people of South Africa. He studied how children from many cultures learned music. They imitate what they hear the adults do. Their imitations are greatly simplified with all the seeds of what they will eventually express as adults. Teachers of children are often criticized for simplifying the music of many cultures with children, but as long as the cultural elements are not trivialized, there is no harm in simplifying the music. In fact it is a necessity. One would not attempt Bach's Magnificat with most children, but one could sing melodies by Bach as an introduction to the glory of his music. The same is true of the complex rhythms of West African drumming or the complicated ragas of India.

Honoring Our Differences. Singing is universal, but our reasons for singing are not. Within the Western music canon, we sing primarily for recreation, performance, or for worship, three very different reasons. There are many other reasons for singing. For many cultures music is a living force. A West African musician might sing as a blacksmith forges a tool. Without the singing, they believe, the tool would have no strength. For them, the music has power. In many cultures singing is used for diagnosing and healing illnesses. Through the use of dance and chant, many cultures use singing as a means of spiritual transformation reaching altered states of consciousness. Many cultures use singing to make powerful connections to their bodies, through a variety of toning practices, and to their ancestral pasts through ancient rituals.

For many cultures singing is not performing at all. For these cultures, music is an act of compassion. By singing, these cultures make the world a more beautiful place. Music becomes an act of sharing. There is no audience for this act of compassion; everyone participates. For us, understanding these radical differences and teaching and celebrating them makes all the difference in the world. If, on the other hand, we view other cultures from a monocultural perspective, we end up with seemingly sanitized (some would say, "white-washed") music. This sanitized music can exist in both conservative and liberal environments. In other words, we can think of ourselves as being enlightened liberals, but still express ourselves within a monocultural framework (while claiming to be multicultural).

Other Differences. Not all cultures have performance traditions with divisions between the audience and the performer. For many cultures there is no division between the talented and the untalented. In her essay, "Gender and Navaho Music: Unanswered Questions"(from Women in North American Indian Music), Charlotte J. Frisbie writes, "In the Navaho world anyone can sing and all are encouraged to learn songs. . . . Not knowing any songs or not having the ability to create them is equated with poverty."

We tend to think of singing as either being monophonic (single melody), homophonic (with harmony), or polyphonic (many voices like a round). Consider this quote by Hewitt Pantaleoni, from his book, On the Nature of Music: "Most of the world's harmony is heterophonic. Our Western tradition of precise unisons and carefully planned counterpoint is, in the broad view, peculiar." A simple definition of heterophony is when everyone sings the same melody differently at the same time. The best-known example of the heterophonic texture is in Dixieland jazz. You also hear heterophony in Celtic, Native American, Asian, African, and most of the world's folk traditions. If we listen to the heterophony of a Navaho chant, in which everyone sings the melody in different ways—and we think to ourselves, why can't they get it right?—then we are using our own cultural standards to measure the standards of another culture.

Most cultures learn songs by rote instead of from the written page. Teaching songs by rote doesn't mean we have to dumb down. Sometimes simplicity is measured in humility; by letting go of such things as the written music, a prearranged harmony, and even a conductor (blasphemy!), we open ourselves to tremendous beauty.

Singers from many cultures move when they sing. In the choral music of Polynesia, singers sit on the ground, swaying back and forth. Most black South African choral music would be unthinkable without movement. Movement helps tell the story. Pilipino choirs routinely use elaborate choreography in their singing. North American Sufis offer Dances of Universal Peace. These chants from several world faiths combine dancing, whirling, and a variety of movement with singing (quite joyful and deeply spiritual). They publish songbooks full of wonderful chants. American gospel singers use a variety of steps that bring the music to life. (A word about the American gospel step: Usually the conductor cues when the choir does the step, as opposed to the step spontaneously erupting from the music. The conductor decides when the step will begin, sometimes waiting until after the middle of the piece as opposed to from the beginning. The same is true of the claps on the off beats. The reason is, it can be a challenge to sustain the energy for clapping and moving throughout a piece. The clap and the step lift the energy tremendously.)

There are other vocal timbres besides bel canto. The word timbre refers to the tone of the voice or instrument. The flute has a woody timbre while the oboe has a reedier timbre. Likewise, the timbre of South African choral singing is rich with deep vowels while the timbre of a classical aria would tend to have a more operatic timbre. Eastern European singing tends to be reedy (nasal), while most contemporary folksongs are woodier (folksy). With children, you can use simple analogies to describe the timbre you want them to achieve, such as like a flute or like an oboe. You might have to demonstrate. Children are masters at imitation and can pick up on different timbres quickly. When you ask them to sing more operatic on a hymn like "For the Earth Forever Turning" (Singing the Living Tradition, #163), the results can be spellbinding.

The more we each learn about the differences, the more we learn about the uniqueness of our own cultures. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, studied and performed jazz, the classical raga traditions of northern India, and other traditions. His studies gave him a new perspective on Bach's music. In the 1960s, ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood recommended that every conservatory student study and become proficient in the music of two cultures. He called this bi-musicality.

Respecting Traditions. Because we want to honor cultural beliefs, we must sometimes not sing certain songs from some cultures. We want all songs to be universal, but they are not. The late ethnomusicologist David P. McAllester spoke of how many Native American cultures have songs that belong only to their sacred time and sacred space. Speaking about a song from a Navaho ritual, he writes in his essay, "North American/Native American" (from Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples), "An uninitiated person might use one of these songs improperly, through ignorance, and cause great harm to the community, or worse yet, rob the song of its potency."

Sometimes honoring these beliefs means not singing certain songs. This does not mean that we shouldn't sing Navaho songs. There are certainly many appropriate Native American songs. (See Moving Within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance by Bryon Burton.) The reason we get into trouble is that in our mass culture there are religious songs we can sing on bus rides, in the shower, or wherever we want. When we make the assumption, however, that sacred songs from other traditions can also be sung on a bus or in the shower, we are applying our own cultural values to the values of another culture.

With African American spirituals and gospel songs, we need to be careful not to change words like Lord and Father, because we would be changing another culture's beliefs. Spirituals should be treated with great respect. Either sing them as they have been sung for hundreds of years or don't sing them. This is a powerful statement, a controversial statement, but to assume that the freedom we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists should apply to other people's faiths is simply arrogant. In a world of many cultures, we need to fully respect each other's differences, not try to make everyone conform to our beliefs. There are African American Unitarian Universalists like Dr. Ysaye Barnwell who are writing powerful new music that fits beautifully within the evolving Unitarian Universalist tradition, but if and when Dr. Barnwell and others perform the music of their African American tradition, they make the spirit of its origins come alive. Hundreds of years of oppression, triumph, and joy come alive. The past becomes present—an eternal flame that we can all celebrate and honor.

With sacred Jewish music, we need to be sensitive to the use of the Hebrew name of God. According to Josh Jacobson, "The holy name of God, the tetragrammaton YHWH (often written out as 'Jehovah') was considered so sacred in ancient Israel that it could be pronounced by only one person (the High Priest), in one place (the innermost room of the central Sanctuary in Jerusalem), once a year (Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement). Therefore, Jews generally avoid pronouncing that word, substituting instead, the euphemism, 'Adonai' which means, 'my Lord.' More observant Jews will even avoid pronouncing that word, and will use a euphemism for a euphemism, usually 'Hashem' ('the Name') or 'Adoshem' (a word which has no meaning, but incorporates elements of both words, 'Adonai' and 'Hashem'). The word 'Adomai' was invented by choral conductors as a substitute which comes closer to the sound of 'Adonai'.

"In my Zamir Chorale we generally will sing 'Adonai' in a sacred text. Of course, if an individual member is more strictly observant, he/she could sing 'Adomai' while the rest of the choir is singing 'Adonai' and the sound would not be discernibly altered. The only time we will consistently use 'Adomai' is when we are chanting a blessing (the formula, 'barukh attah adomai . . .') which is intended for a specific liturgical use only. For example, the blessing over the Friday night wine— as in Kurt Weill's wonderful 'Kiddush' —would be inappropriate for a Sunday afternoon concert where no wine is being blessed or consumed."

David Tilman, who is the cantor at Beth Sholom Congregation (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a Unitarian) in Elkin Park, Pennsylvania, once told me that, as a rule, if a Jewish piece was written for worship and you are singing it outside of worship, you should change 'Adonai' to 'Adomai' or 'Adoshem.' He says that if a piece was written for the stage, like Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, then singing the original 'Adonai' would be fine. Because it can be controversial (with many opinions) it is always safe to discuss with your singers your use of these sacred words before singing them.

Authenticity. Complete authenticity can only be achieved by the original culture in the original setting. As soon as people from outside the original culture perform an arranged setting of a song from that culture, several degrees of authenticity are lost. A Zulu unaccompanied group in South Africa singing Solomon Linda's 1939 song, "Mbube," would be authentic. An American rock group singing the same song in doo-wop style with its American words, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," would be less authentic. A North American children's choir singing it and thinking it's a Walt Disney song would be even less authentic. Do we despair that we can never get it right? No. This is where the beauty of multiculturalism comes in.

If a single piece of music arises from one culture, it is said to be authentic. Authenticity in its purest form is a culture making its own music in its own place and time. But authenticity in its most corrupt form is a culture singing the music of another culture with no knowledge of or respect for that culture. When we teach a piece of music from a culture other than our own, we naturally aspire to be as authentic as we can be, which means getting the right sound and teaching as much as we can about the song's culture: telling its stories and respecting its traditions.

But many of us fear that if we are not authentic enough, we will disrespect the tradition. Our fear often leads to avoiding the music. We need a new understanding of the term multicultural. If a single piece of music uses styles of music from more than one culture, then that single piece is multicultural. Debussy, Stravinsky, Copland, Bernstein, and living composers like Glass and Bolton have fused classical traditions with jazz, Latin American, raga, West African drumming, and an endless list of popular music styles. More and more of today's choral composers (me included) revel in combining cultural elements.

"Hope for Resolution," by Caldwell/Ivory, is a popular example. It combines the Gregorian chant, "Of the Father's Love," with the Zulu prayer, "Thula Sizwe," adding a piano part reminiscent of old-time black gospel music. "Of the Father's Love" and "Thula Sizwe" are both cultural compositions. "Hope for Resolution" is a multicultural arrangement of the two. In my choral compositions I have used cultural styles ranging from jazz, raga, bluegrass, gospel, Celtic, and salsa to Baroque. For me, the cultural palette is one of the five palettes every composer draws from (whether consciously or unconsciously): the musical palette, the physical and emotional palettes, the cultural palette, and finally the spiritual palette. (See my essay, "Composing from a Cultural Perspective," at www.nickmusic.com/newshome.html).

In defining multicultural music, it is essential to distinguish between authentic music and music that "borrows" from other cultures. I have heard pieces that sound South African, but were actually written in the United States by composers with a great love of South African music. World Music Press (www.worldmusicpress.com) publishes my transcription of the South African anthem, "N'kosi Sikel'i Afrika," as sung by Joseph Shabalala and his group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I spent two weeks studying with Joseph, transcribing his music. I sat down with him and sang each part of "N'kosi" from beginning to end to get his comments and changes, both to the pronunciation and the pitches. The published octavo, with extensive performance notes and historical information, is as close as I could get to an octavo representing authenticity. Boosey & Hawkes publishes "Shout the Praise," a composition of mine inspired by Psalm 150, which fuses gospel forms and salsa rhythms—a choral fusion.

There is, of course, a whole spectrum of gray areas between the world of authentic performances and the world of cultural fusions. One could argue that a concert of Zulu music celebrating 80 years of Zulu culture, from traditional to sacred to pop, represents many subcultures within the Zulu culture and is therefore a multicultural concert. In the same way, a concert spanning J. S. Bach's long career and many styles could also be considered multicultural, since he absorbed French, English, Italian, and other cultural styles during his lifetime and the environments in which he composed were each unique.

We come here to a seldom-discussed aspect of multiculturalism: the authentic music of every culture is actually a fusion of other cultural traditions. And this brings us back to the idea that all music is multicultural. Few cultures over the course of human history have existed in isolation from outside cultures. Their music evolves because cultures interact with other cultures, continually creating something new. For example, traditional South African Mbube singing owes as much to European hymnody as it does to traditional Zulu or Xosa chant. The same is true of Polynesian gospel music and other regions of the globe where European traditions have been assimilated into the cultures.

When Jewish scholar and composer Bonia Shur was asked to compose a song as a healing force of reconciliation between conflicting Black and Jewish groups in Cincinnati, Ohio, he created a piece called "Amen/Ose Shalom" that combined a traditional Hebrew prayer for peace and the familiar African American "Amen." The power of the piece comes from the merger of two cultures, creating something of both worlds that is also quite new. Nick Spitzer, the host of a radio show that has no cultural boundaries, admits, "I'm not a multiculturalist... I'm drawn to the boundaries where cultures meet and overlap and simmer together."

Assimilation is a broad term that can refer to the people of one culture choosing to absorb another culture, or it can refer to a culture being forced to strip itself of its own culture, in order to conform to a mass (often oppressive) culture. Whether intentionally or simply through "osmosis," the music of every culture from classical to folk to pop is a merger of many cultural styles that took place over many generations. It could therefore be argued that every individual piece, from a Bach motet to a Zulu prayer, is in itself multicultural. The songs of every culture are like living things: they evolve. Authenticity may simply represent snapshots in time. We focus on one timeframe within the evolution of a choral piece and we honor that moment's authenticity.

Here are four recommendations:

1. Don't trivialize a culture by insulting its traditions. It may be clever to sing "Go Down Moses" in the show choir style, but it is ultimately disrespectful of the spiritual tradition.

2. Distinguish between authentic and fusion performances. If your aim is to be authentic, teach the authentic intonation (not always with traditional Western tuning), teach the right timbres, use authentic instruments, and, most important, teach the stories that give power to the music.

3. If, on the other hand, you want to sing the music of another culture, but you don't want to change your timbre, intonation, or other traditional Western ways of singing, be honest. Honesty comes in the simple admission that the music you are performing represents another culture merged with your own choral sensibilities. Elements of both cultures will be present. This can be wonderful.

4. If your aim is to celebrate the intentional fusion of cultures, you also need to be honest. There is great beauty in the mixture of cultures. I have heard Bulgarian choirs singing with West African drummers, bluegrass bands playing with jazz bands, and the "Soulful Celebration" fusion of black gospel with Handel's Messiah. Each of these fusions honors the cultures from which they evolved.

In time, each of these fusions will become old traditions in themselves, and future performers will spend hours and hours discussing the correct authentic performance practices, which snapshot in time to honor. Hopefully, they will make the music their own, which is what we all do to keep the music alive. The music will live on as the living, changing spirit that all music is.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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