Soapbox: Sacred Music

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #122 (Nov 2016) p105. Download a pdf here.

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Alexandra Petropoulos ponders the challenges of performing and listening to sacred music onstage as entertainment, away from its original contexts

Beneath a canopy of brightly coloured fabrics, all glowing in the black light, I stood utterly entranced by what was happening onstage. It was roughly one in the morning several years ago and qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and his troupe were putting on an impressive show at WOMAD Charlton Park’s Siam Tent. It was late but I couldn’t look away and, hooked, I became involuntarily lost in the sound that surrounded me. My sense of self was slipping away, drifting along the powerful voice resounding from the speakers. I felt like I was part of something bigger; I was sharing this moment not only with the rest of the audience that night, but with all of humanity. Who knows how long I was lost in this trance-like reverie, but I remember something suddenly brought me back round, and I became immediately embarrassed. “What the hell was that? Stop being such a hippy,” I told myself. “You’re just tired.”

But why did I become so sceptical of that transcendent musical encounter? Qawwali is, after all, a devotional music, deeply connected to the mystic Sufis of South Asia. But it isn’t my tradition; I don’t have the cultural context to allow myself to have a Sufi experience. I felt like an imposter who was trying to bust in on someone else’s religious experience for a quick dose of the spiritual.

While this wasn’t by any means my first contact with sacred music, it was one of the first times I began to really question the effect of religious music in a performance setting. Religious music is a very personal experience with a strong sense of cultural context and surely the performance of it as entertainment poses particular challenges for performers and audience members alike when divorced of its original framework of space, time, occasion and community. Are performers degrading the sacredness of the ritual or music by presenting it to an uninitiated audience? How can they justify translating their devotional music into a commodity? What is the role of a spectator who is not a member of that specific faith?

As I worry over these questions, Feridun Gündeş – curator for Konya Mystic Music Festival who also works with the Mevlevi (whirling dervish) group, the Meshk Ensemble (featured in #121) – finds the divide between sacred and secular performance much more fluid. “If we take entertainment to mean those activities that help people have a good time and get away from the mundane, then sacred music does that too.”

He has a point. After all, when boiled down to its very core, isn’t all art just an expression of the human condition, something that tries to find some kind of meaning behind our experience in this mysterious world of ours? Up until recent history, our recognition of this mystery could only be understood through the prism of religion. All art was a reflection of this, and creative expression was considered a gift from the divine. Alain Weber, the artistic director of several festivals including the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, points out that it is only a relatively contemporary idea that creativity is linked to the artistic inspiration of an individual. He explains that it was only since the Renaissance that “art became an expression recognised as a human creation with the idea of ‘art for art’ and not as a transcendent act where man was creating through a process of revelation.”

“If performed right, with the right
balance of elements, and if listened
to with an open heart and no
prejudices, what better initiation into a
sacred tradition than its music or dance?”

It is that differentiation – between artist as a conduit of the divine and artist as creator – that builds the rift between sacred versus secular music. If religion could be defined as a system of beliefs devised for the purpose of understanding the human condition and mysteries of the universe, then every religion is simply another dialect of the same language: the same play with different actors. Similarly, both sacred and secular music are trying to arrive at the same destination – the creative expression of those mysteries – via different routes. Sacred music is the explicit attempt while secular music is the subconscious exploration of the riddles of life. How many times has a cheesy pop song given you goose bumps just because it seemed to speak to your inner stroppy teenage self, and what is that other than a deeper part of yourself recognising and sharing a small portion of your journey down the path of human experience?

And maybe that’s what this is all about: sharing this journey we call life with others, be it through religious or secular means. I’d like to believe that performers who have translated their ceremony, prayer or ritual into a stage performance are really just offering outsiders a glimpse at what their particular journey looks like rather than bundling their faith into a digestible package to which tickets can be sold. Kachen Lobzang Tsultrim of the Tashi Lhunpo Monks touring group explains to me that they are “offering a taste of Tibetan monastic culture within the confines of a Western environment, so although the prayers and meditation in our programmes are the same as those we use every day in the monastery, they are much shorter. But we are happy that they are being appreciated by audiences in the West, which we believe will ensure their survival in the future.”

When I ask Gündeş if he feels that presenting sacred music as entertainment diminishes the sacredness of the music, he points out that “due to all the shifts in context [being taken out of its original space, time and occasion], inevitably the effect the sacredness of the ritual has on people is diminished. This, however, does not mean its sacredness is diminished too. Sacredness is a whole different matter and it is more individual.” He goes on to clarify “if performed right, with the right balance of elements, and if listened to with an open heart and no prejudices, what better initiation into a sacred tradition than its music or dance?” Amen.

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