Sacred music: A construction of experiences and performances for the world stage

An exploration of sacred music as a musical style and how it is performed in various global contexts.

Blog
Mijke Akkermans
10/11/2018

World music is the term used to describe the giant pool of exotic, local and global sounds originating from a variety of locations and communities, including their cultural construction and consumption. Sacred music is a style within the world music spectrum and can be found in various forms and venues all across the globe. In each setting, sacred music has specific  characteristics, constructed experiences and produced meanings. This blog will explore the frame which constructs this authentic and local style of music and its performance and consumption on the world stage and in the Western market.

Sacred Music

A very important aspect of sacred music is its frame, a combination of factors which classify sacred music as sacred and make it recognisable as such, as there is no definite distinction between sacred and non-sacred music. The artists, audience and world music agents each have a vital influence in the creation and construction of the sacred music category, its meaning and style, and its distribution.

The sacred music pieces of the artist often include repeatable patterns of formal musical elements such as melody, rhythm, texture, timbre, instrumentation and voices. In addition, religious or spiritual lyrics are often incorporated in such music. Even more vital than the musical content is the performance, which includes outfits and the venue where the performance is being held as promoters of the experience of the sacred style. Through enactment and staging of performances on the world stage, where globalized cultural forms and sounds are consumed, musical performances obtain their authenticity and locality. Other defining factors are the audience-performer interaction and the behaviour of the audience, which both contribute to the meaning of the performance and its interpretation of being sacred. Appropriate behaviour, for example chants and religious shouts during performances of Arabs, indicates the audience’s understanding of the sacred.

Sacred music by Heilung

The European alternative music scene has many bands who perform sacred music related to paganism. In the Netherlands, Castlefest festival is one of the places where such music is performed. In 2017 Heilung performed there under the full moon, providing a magical experience especially to those in pagan circles who sometimes speak of magic instead of sacred experiences. What makes Heilung’s performance a good example of sacred music?

Heilung's 2017 Castelefest performance

The answer to this question requires analysis of performance, audience-performance interaction, formal musical elements and spiritual lyrics. During Castlefest, Heilung performed on an outdoor stage with the full moon shining above them, a sacred aspect for those in shamanistic spheres. This sphere was further extended through a cleansing ritual performed by the artists, smudging each other with sage and a feather. Then, the artists gathered in a circle, held hands and prayed together. These actions and their energy can be regarded as a sacred ritualistic gesture in pagan nature religions. During such a moment the artists connect with each other and indirectly with the public, who remained almost silent.

Heilung plays on authentic Nordic instruments like drums, flutes, horns, bells and several other traditional percussion instruments. The singers hold shamanistic drums, which are used in spiritual circles connected to Nordic paganism and for healing processes. It is therefore not strange that Heilung, which means healing, uses such drums. The artists sing polyphonic, one of them producing sounds through their throat. Furthermore, the artists create sounds of wolves and ravens, as these animals refer to the Nordic god Odin and ravens are seen as a beacon of magic. Heilung’s sounds create a trance of a grounding vibe, through which the audience goes back into the core of their soul.

The lyrics of Heilung’s song Alfadhirhaiti (15:46 in video ) (meaning allfather) are entirely in old Nordic, as is their entire repertoire, and refer to the Nordic pantheon, myths and legends. This specific song describes and honors Odin, the god of wisdom, magic, war and death. During the performance wolves Geri and Freki, ravens Huginn and Muninn and two warriors appeared on staged as icons to Odin.

Sacred music in a Western context

World music agents use the frame as an aid to format the marketing of the authentic and pure, the spiritual non-global and local for other markets and transnational audiences. They play into the Westerners interest for the orientalist exotic and spiritual difference by promoting this type of music and cultural practices as a package.

In the pop-music scene fragments and sounds of sacred and spiritual music are used, often unacknowledged and unnamed, by artists to incorporate spirituality and religion in western music. These fragments are developed through juxtaposition, decontextualization, curation and incorporation and become more dance- and sales-worthy. Through this, the sacred can become a celebration of transnational world groove and beats on the one hand, or an anxiety about cultural loss and homogenization on the other.

Gospel and Hip-Hop

In western countries, one of the most popular types of sacred music is gospel. This is likely the case because gospel music is derived from Christianity, a prominent religion in western countries. It has been a bigger part of ‘our music’ than other types of sacred music and because of that, it has a more organic way of infiltrating in modern western music. Every genre of music has its ancestors. For example, jazz comes from blues and ragtime, and  Rock music is forged by blues and country music. Nowadays hip hop is one of the biggest genres as shown by streams and sales, and it has been leading the charts for many years. One of hip hop’s ancestors is gospel and this is something that can still be heard in popular and mainstream hip hop music.

Kanye West's Ultralight Beam

Hip hop originated in the United States. While disco was the biggest genre on the East side, it was techno that was ruling the West coast. But the South, the more religious part of the country, was influenced by gospel music. This lead to different sub-genres. One of them was gospel-hip hop, it had the key elements of hip hop, like the break beat and rap, but instead of techno or disco rhythms it was clear that it was influenced by gospel. One of the first hip hop groups who started to experiment with this, was UGK.

UGK's front, back & side to side

To end this blog, below are several questions to spark a discussion about sacred music and the Western context:

- What are the reasons that sacred music and its exotic influences are a relatively young influence of modern Western music, how did it become popular on pop music?
- Can the songs in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, a bible-inspired rock opera, be seen as sacred music? (For example: Gethsemane)
- Does post-modern commercialization influence sacred music? If so, in which positive or negative ways is this visible?
 

Sources:
Heilung | LIFA - full show. (2017). [Video/DVD] YouTube: Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1BsKIP4uYM&t=1144s

Jonathan H. Shannon, Syrian Sacred Music on the World Stage, in .Jennifer C. Post, Ethnomusicology. A Contemporary Reader. New York 2006. Chapter 1.

Kanye west | ultralight beam. West, K. and Beatz, S. (Directors). (2016). [Video/DVD] YouTube: Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvmmpJFEzk8

Steven Feld, ‘My life in the Bush of Ghosts. World Music and the Commodification of Religious Experience, in Bob W. White (ed.), Music and Globalization. Critical encounters. Bloomington, Ind. 2012, 40-51.

UGK - front, back & side to side (original). (2007). [Video/DVD] YouTube: Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Be-hXxc5yN0
 

This blog is written by:
Laura Thomas
Bram Kuijper
Mijke Akkermans