Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vibration as Being

Over the years, I have heard many musicians and avid listeners describe music as a religious experience; “Reggae night is like church for me,” people have often told me at Steppin Razor's weekly residencies. While I certainly relate to these sentiments, I might prefer to express my own experience conversely: religion is a very musical experience for me. In fact, most of the things I do, as well as my various identities, possess musical qualities. In my writing and tutoring young writers, I think of cadence and percussion; in my gardening and walking in nature, I sense rhythm and harmony; in my being American and human, I struggle with dissonance, crescendos, and decrescendos; and in my impressions of friends and celebrities, I experiment with tone and timbre. 

If I had never received any formal musical training, I believe that I would still be inclined to think of experience in these sound-centric ways. Whether it is my nature or an acquired disposition, this mode of thinking and listening recently has led me into a study of sound/vibration-as-being. Steven Feld's ideas of acoustemology and anthropology of sound have informed my recent inquiries about the power of music and speech to effect and alter realities, and I look forward to engaging in further dialogue with scholars who are also thinking about sound and performance in new ways inspired by the "ontological turn" and recent discussions of vital materialism -- see Bruno Latour, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marisol de la Cadena, Jane Bennett, Philippe Descola....


It was Jeff Todd Titon, however, who introduced me to the emerging field of ecomusicology, encouraging me to discuss some of my thesis research in the form of a conference paper at the Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC, this past October. When I began trying to organize a panel session with the suggested title, "Vibration as Being in the Environment," I received enthusiastic responses from Andrew Mark (York University), Sonia Gaind-Krishnan (New York University), and Jeannette Jones (Boston University), and our panel emerged as a wonderful discussion about the significance of vibrations in relationships, identity, groupness, healing, spirituality, and deaf experiences of music. I hope to write more about this panel in a forthcoming post. 


One of the most important ideas in the development of our panel was a suggestion from Andrew: changing the name of the panel to "Dialogic Vibration as Being (in) the Environment." Prior to the conference, I had already considered the dialogic nature of sound (see "Vibration as Dialogue"), but this notion of "being the environment" challenged my imaginings of "the I" as an entity-in-place, and I have begun to consider the experience and creation of sound as phenomena within an actor-network, rather than I-and-[other object or collectivity within an arbitrarily delineated "space"]. As a musician, I find it rather easy to think of the deep connectedness within a music scene, a performance venue, or a performance event. One could even argue that the liminal awareness of this interconnectedness is an essential characteristic of a serious performer. As an ethnographer, I suspect it will require a great deal more effort to develop such an awareness; however, my experience during the soundwalk at the conference in Asheville taught me about the power and the benefits of intentional listening.


UNC Asheville's campus is beautiful. I wish they had a PhD program I could apply to.


As we quietly sauntered around the UNCA campus, I realized first how my perception of sonic relationships was impacted by my movements and positions. Harmonies waxed and waned as various tones came in and out of range. The feeling of my feet touching the ground, as well as the sound, altered the way I experienced the rhythms of the machinery, the busy noises of birds and squirrels, and the reverberations of the walls.


About halfway through the soundwalk, I heard the sounds of a car's motor purring and its tires rolling along the wet road. Suddenly, the question of who or what was making these sounds became an adventure: the driver's foot on the gas pedal, the rubber on the asphalt, the moisture on the ground and in the air and trees that absorb and reflect these vibrations; the car manufacturer, the committee who determined the speed limit, the planners who determined which trees would stay and which would be replaced by the buildings, the stairs, and the road; the driver's reason for being on campus, the groceries to pick up on the way home, the speed bump or stop sign up ahead; us, our bodies, walking, wet.


The massive air conditioning units between us and the building, growling and whizzing: no one was standing there turning the motors and switches inside; someone designed these machines, someone else set the thermostat, and many others have determined how warm or cool it should be inside the building. The weather played its part, as well, through its noisy and silent powers, influenced in part by our own impacts on the air and water.


Not only were all of these noises and movements appearing more and more connected; they also revealed a complex sort of agency, distributed broadly and perhaps infinitely. In this moment -- one which was, of course, connected to all other moments -- I began to realize the implications of my new, if only temporary, awareness: my world of cause-and-effect was breaking down; I was no longer I-in-the-world; everything was vibrantly everything, and "I" was just a momentary intersection of movements and intentions. The "space" between my body and other bodies, human and non-human, living and non-living, was not really space at all; it was vibration, a realm in which all were co-present, participating in the life of the world together.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Word, Sound, Power, and I

[The Rastafari] have a slogan that says, "WORD, SOUND and POWER," a trinity. To them the word is both sound and power. It is sound not only because its effect is aural but also because it is capable of quality, capable of being "sweet," of thrilling the hearer. It is power because it can inspire responses such as fear or anger or submission. The articulateness, tonal variation, pitch, and formalisms are the Rastafari version of the sweetness of the sermons in lower-class churches, and to describe this level of expression they use the word "to chant" (Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, 1994, p. 227, italics mine).
The quality of sound, rather than the qualities (measurable and transcribable aspects), may be understood in terms of perception, how the vibrations of a particular act are heard or felt by minds and bodies rather than recording instruments. In a phenomenological ethnography of linguistic and musical expression, while there is certainly room for transcription and technical description, it is within this particular notion of quality that we can frame an experience of expressivity in order to inform an analysis of cultural life. Word-sound power (alternatively written as "word-sound-power" or "word, power, and sound," in addition to Chevannes' usage above) is a Rastafarian concept that signifies the shared experience of sound quality, the agency and spiritual potential of a speaker, and the collective resistance against linguistic forms imposed by colonial rule. When a Rastaman "sounds" (speaks, chants, or beats a drum), quite often he is cognizant of the layers of meaning beyond the indexical definitions of his words or the theoretical components of his musical performance. His tone, rhythm, and timbre are all significant, along with the wordplay involved in "I-an-I consciousness," the creative linguistic practice of Rastafari.

Manipulation of words is among the well-known aspects of Rastafarian cultural life, as it has been used extensively in reggae music, in which the oppressor (up-presser) is known as the "Downpresser Man," understanding becomes overstanding, and the objective "me" is frequently replaced with an "I" that retains the individual's self-determination. Central to this way of speaking is the InI (I-and-I) concept, the idea that all people share the same Iniversal (universal) I, which asserts equality while making a statement about the sort of objectification that, for example, the early Rastafari movement resisted in colonial Jamaica. Yasus Afari, a Rastafarian dub poet and scholar, writes, "Consistent with the RASTAFARIAN philosophy of one love, self, family, inity (unity), oneness and humanity, the I and I language reflects the RASTAFARIAN concept of one-in-all and all-in-one; the one-for-all and the all-for-one"(Overstanding Rastafari, 2007, p. 114, emphasis in original). In some cases, this re-creation of words is aimed at replacing syllables with word-sounds that reflect Rasta ideas: for example, me-ditation becomes I-ditation, u-nique becomes I-nique. In other cases, however, the beginning of a word is replaced with the letter I for no other reason than to reiterate the centrality of the I within the Rasta worldview.

Afari keenly observes that the spoken word is a means by which "thoughts, minds and persons can be transported" to the world that is being expressed through the sound (115). As he demonstrates within his own writing and performance, the word-sounds of Rastafarian discourse "re-mould, re-shape, and re-direct the perception of both the Jamaican and the English language and... revolutionize and re-calibrate the mentality and psyche" (125). InI language strives to create or restore a harmony between the various components and meanings of spoken words, which Rastafarians assert has been lost or suppressed by the Babylon system (a term generally used for institutionalized oppression, especially colonial rule, but which may also refer to any sort of evil in societies and individuals). More than merely symbolic expressions of an imagined ideal, Rasta speech acts are intended as transformative energies, sounds that constitute a new reality. As performative communication, "Dread Talk" may certainly be described as a means of constructing a desired social order; however, Rastafarian perspectives seem to attribute a more tangible creative power to the performance of sound, the vibrations of which have a measurable effect on the cosmos (see my previous entry on Vibration as Dialogue). I will be exploring this aspect of word-sound power in my forthcoming fieldwork, as I consider this creative process of communication with the Iniverse as an extension of the socially transformative power of performative speech. Placing the material world within the scope of linguistic communication, we can see how the environment and all living things might fall within "RASTAFARI's responsibility to free the people with the positive vibes, language, music and the creative energy of the Rastafarian Livity" (127).

In another useful definition of "Word-Sound-Power," R.A. Ptahsen-Shabazz draws a connection between this Rastafarian principle and the Dogon concept of Nommo, which I will explore in a forthcoming post. Noting the importance of "the accurate and proper use of the spoken word in defining, describing, and communicating reality," the author writes, "the Rastafari overstand that language in significant ways creates and governs external reality and should be used to bring spiritual clarity, positivity and further overstanding/innerstanding to that external reality" (Black to the Roots, 2008, p. 216, italics in original). Much in the same way that God/Jah spoke the world into existence (consider the repetition of "Let there be" in Genesis 1, along with the "Word" of John 1), a human agent "creates and governs" reality through word-sounds. Cosmology aside, even in a strictly social sense, the Rastafarian articulates a new order in which individuals are no longer placed into a hierarchy of "I and Thou," but rather given equal consideration and identical agency. The "InI vibration" is one that resonates among the "members of a new race" for which Haile Selassie I appealed to the United Nations in 1963. As this word-sound, "I and I," becomes more commonplace among Rastafarians and people around the world, perhaps it can ring in (either literally or on a conceptual level) an era in which common ideas about "you" and "others" no longer hold the human intellect captive to selfishness and discrimination.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vibration as Dialogue

I have been corresponding with Andrew Mark at York University, Canada, about a panel for the Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC, in October. After reading my suggestion about "vibration as being in the environment," he brought up the notion of "vibration as dialogue," which helped me frame the following reflections on my fieldwork in Jamaica.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit Priest Dermot Fagan at his community, the H.I.M. Haile Selassie I School of Vision, Bible Study, Prophecies, and Sabbatical Worship, in the Blue Mountains of St. Andrew, Jamaica. Fagan pastors a unique farming community, teaching the Rastafari faith with an emphasis on repatriation to Africa, along with some unique interpretations of the book of Revelation with regard to current events. While the focus of our interview was the appropriation of reggae music by non-black, non-Rasta musicians, some of the first thoughts he shared with me pertain to Nyahbinghi drumming. In contrast to reggae, which despite its roots in the Rastafari movement is often considered a non-sacred form (it is even shunned by some Rasta groups), Nyahbinghi drumming and chanting is considered "original" music, a pure form of worship. Every Rastafarian I interviewed in Jamaica made this clear distinction, cautioning me not to equate reggae with their faith and culture.

Priest Fagan described the "one-two order," another term for the Nyahbinghi sound, as a means by which Jah expresses himself mystically, the two-beat pulse symbolizing the cross of Christ, or "judgment to the horizon, and righteousness to the [plumb]." This sound is "emanated and joined by the musical attachment, which mean the singing. 'Cause it not only the drum now reflect the one-two sound, but the songs that are sung in the operation of the churchical expression of the Nyahbinghi Order is so dynamic, meaning every song is sung with relevance, to reflect then ourselves as a people, traditionally and culturally." He continued by singing a song, "Over Land and Sea," expressing a common longing for repatriation, underlining his latter point about the lyrical content being a theological and cultural representation. This being a more obvious aspect of Rastafarian music, I want to return to his other point, the "emanation" and the "mystical" expression that comes through the pulse of the fundeh drum. When he made these statements, I was reminded of the "positive vibrations" I have often heard Rastas speak and sing about. Is this some kind of divine energy? Are there unique powers within the vibrations of Rasta music?

"So we now that are the children of the slaves, while we are dancing now, all of the constant sound, one-two, one-two, it kinda ignite the fire that was dormant... in our inner soul, that been suppressed, that been held down. It ignite the soul now, back to something that was lost: our purpose of being." Attributing this igniting power to the Nyahbinghi heartbeat, Fagan did not condemn or dismiss the other musical traditions that evolved in Jamaica before Nyahbinghi was "discovered," as he put it; rather, he saw reggae, ska, Pocomania, and other Jamaican forms of music as expressions of black people "seeking same way to reflect themselves to the land that they were taken from." What makes Nyahbinghi music unique, according to Fagan and other Rastafarians, is that it existed from the beginning of human history, the original music. "So, when we look at the one-two now, the human body that is espoused then, or is invoked then, or is enticed to participate with the... dancin'... something leap. The movements, the gesticulation, and you see him make the move. Why? Because the sound is binding the body, or is forcing the body into that gesticulating way, indifferent to the other type of sounds you have got around." Whereas he described popular forms of music as profane, vulgar, and lacking in "Christ-ness," the sacred sound of Nyahbinghi drumming "is unique because it binds the body, permanently and purposefully, onto the one-two reflection." Hence the need for a disciplined performance of the music; for example, the player of the kete or repeater drum, while being the only one who improvises among the Nyahbinghi ensemble, "will have to come right back to that one-two... him cannot go fast permanently, because that would have led him off into a mania, a poco spirit" (referring to the Pocomania drumming tradition).

Before we proceeded to talk about the significance of reggae and Nyahbinghi's African heritage, Fagan concluded his thoughts regarding the power of the drums with an idea that connects my research to the field of ecomusicology by constructing a relationship between drum sounds and environmental phenomena. "Can you imagine, if this is the cross of Christ, reflecting through the one-two order, emanating that power into the atmosphere... everything around it is bound that is negative. After seven or eight days, with that persistent constancy, judgment come in the earth. Sometimes it is tsunami, sometimes it is whirlwind, uncontrollable ferocity of winds, earthquake that shook, tidal wave that rise." I met several other Rastafarians in Jamaica who expressed the same confidence in the Nyahbinghi sound: when they gather for a sabbatical service or a week-long binghi, the vibrations from the drumming and chanting have a very tangible effect on the world. As Bongo Shephan explained it, "So those three beats from the three different instruments, combined in one, carry a force of connecting with the universe, or connecting with people.... Spiritually, you is livin' clean and doing the things that is upright and right, you can send message through those drums, and it have effect upon people and nations. Like we say, 'Lightnin!' and lightning flash. We say, 'Thunder!' and thunder quake. We say, 'Earthquake!' and the earth shake. Because all these instruments, with word, sound, and power, unfold the fullness of the power of the Almighty, the Creator of the universe."*

Although it is not uncommon to hear participants in a binghi shouting these words, "Lightning," and so on, it should be noted that Shephan is talking about the drums sounds. Like the fundeh drum's pronunciation of "Do Good" with the one-two beat, all of the drums similarly articulate a two-syllable word that symbolizes and invokes an environmental force. Boboshanti Priest Kassa explained the three Nyahbinghi drums - the bass, fundeh, and kete - as the thunder, earthquake, and lightning, respectively. In addition to these "temporal" connections between the drum sounds and the material universe, Kassa attributed a spiritual and bodily (which are nearly inseparable in Rasta philosophy) relevance to each drum, as well: the bass drum is the breath, the fundeh is the heartbeat, and the kete is meditation. “So these three drums, when they play at one time, they connect to your spiritual and temporal.” Kassa and his fellow priest, Navandy Thompson, went on to explain that this “authentically divine music” brings righteousness and salvation around the earth, and that one of the major problems with reggae music (many Boboshanti Rastas shun reggae music because of its musical deviation as well as the sexual content in some lyrics) is that it does not keep the one-two beat at the forefront. However, several Boboshanti I spoke with expressed that reggae has been a valuable “medium of the message,” even if the music can also be used for negative, deviant purposes. Kassa explained, “Word without works is vain; word and works is life” – that is, the message might be present, but the rhythms are essential for the life-giving powers of Nyahbinghi.


Of course, not all Rastafarians would avoid speaking about reggae music as a sacred activity. One of the teachers at Priest Fagan’s school related, “I can’t even explain it, because in reggae music, when it’s authentic reggae music, ya get a whole lot of things from it. You can feel the vibes, you can feel, you can just see the things, the words that are coming, you can actually see, you can visualize, you can relate to it.” Her experience with reggae music seems to be one that recognizes “vibes” as an indicator of authenticity (which may be a marker of spiritual and/or cultural integrity), in which sight, words, feeling, and relatedness are all received from the music as much as any sound (notice that she did not mention hearing, listening, or sound). Ras Ayenton, an elder binghi man who described Nyahbinghi drumming as a “riddim of life that coincides with creation, that makes the rain fall, that ignites with life when sounds travel out,” also praised reggae music as “a riddim that makes you think,” which has the power to transcend boundaries. In what seemed like a word of advice to me as a reggae musician, he said, “Now when you take up your guitar, you take up your guitar strong, man. You shake off, you shell off those discriminator garments. You are one with life now, you are one with nature, you are one with the Most High.”

While we can clearly see different levels of appreciation for reggae and Nyahbinghi music within the Rastafari movement, a common thread that I will explore further is this notion of vibration, especially word-sound and drum-sound, as a means of connection, communication, creativity, and transformation. These comments about the ability to feel the vibes and “actually see” the message in the music, the binding force of the one-two rhythm on the body, and the relationship between chanting and nature, seem to reveal a way of perceiving vibrations, not just with the ears, but with all of the senses, with all material and spiritual being. In this regard, music and language, in all of their rhythmic, tonal, and timbral qualities, present possibilities for co-presence, for one I to resonate and co-inhabit the space and time of another I, without inhibiting the vibrational agency of another. And certainly this is not limited to relationships between human beings; by striking a drum or uttering a word with any intention, we emanate our being into all sorts of beings, living and non-living, in dialogue with all. As I gather more ideas about vibration and word-sound from within the Rastafarian cultural perspective, I will consider the implications for all performative practice, artistic and otherwise, including the very ethnography I am setting out to conduct. That is, I will be doing more than asking questions; I will be exchanging word-sound power with another I, hoping that I can do justice to the experience when I transcribe it and synthesize it with the various theories and memories I will bring into my final analysis.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Concert as Ritual

When my band used to have a weekly gig on Wednesday nights, I would often be approached by regularly attending fans in between sets who would say things like, "Reggae night is my church, man." One of the more fulfilling things about being a musician is hearing this type of comment from people in your audience, especially fans who come out on a consistent basis. Not only does it exemplify the dedication that results from admiration - when we like something so much, we often claim to follow it "religiously" - but it also affirms the spiritual component of the musical experience within which we, as musicians, hope to connect with our crowds. There are several such memories of that weekly Reggae Night that continue to teach me about the power of music to bring people together.

More recently, I have attended a couple of shows where I witnessed certain behaviors that I might describe as religious in character. One band in particular comes to mind when I think about musical performance as ritual: Midnite, a reggae band from St. Croix, whose Rasta-themed lyrics and meditative roots influences are foregrounded in their live performances, as well as their recordings. But it is not just their devotion to Rastafari that makes these concerts such great examples of ritual phenomena. Reggae rhythms and lyrical content aside, the movements of the band and its audience demonstrate a sort of liturgical quality that, I would argue, is more or less present in all concert performance.

Now, since I have invoked the idea of liturgy, I should provide a brief background of my own experiences, both with the practice and with the word itself. I attended an Eastern Orthodox Christian church for several years, and I became very familiar with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which dates back to the 4th century, A.D., containing influences from earlier Christian and Jewish liturgies. There is a common understanding among Orthodox Christians that, within the liturgy, participants mystically enter the heavenly realm, outside of time, to worship at the throne of God. Various symbols and movements represent stories from the Bible or doctrines about the creation and salvation of the world, and the culmination of the liturgy is the sacrament of sacraments, the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Christ is present as bread and wine, of which brothers and sisters partake together. The liturgy ends with a dismissal (a word which may imply a mission, a sending out into the world), "Let us depart in peace - in the name of the Lord," with which the sanctified congregants are challenged to return to worldly life with the divine energies bestowed upon them during the service.

My experiences within church worship were enhanced by an awareness of the root words of "liturgy": leito, meaning "public" or "of the people," and ergon, meaning "work." This divine event is, according to this traditional name, "the work of the people," and the fact of Christ's presence in the sacramental elements echoes his words, "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Without claiming that the acts of congregating, reciting of prayers, or following of ritual protocol are causes of the actual presence of Christ and all of its blessings, it may be said that the liturgy nonetheless is a means by which this presence is experienced, along with all of its transformational and transfigurational powers. Furthermore, it is not a function of priest, deacon, or choir alone; it is "of the people" insofar as it requires participation: call-and-response prayers, processions, communion, and creeds spoken or sung in unison. People who attend the liturgy on a regular basis become aware of the aspects of the ritual that church members expect each other to perform: when to be quiet, when to make the sign of the cross, when to prostrate, when to sing. But a certain freedom accompanies these customs in most churches, where alternative behaviors (e.g. sitting while others stand) may be noticeably different, yet they are not considered disruptive. Even babies are often present, and few people seem to mind their wandering and crying. They are, after all, a vital part of "the people."

In every music scene I have observed, and at every performance event within each scene, there are liturgical elements that resemble religious worship. As I have noticed these characteristics of concerts over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to reflect on comments such as that mentioned above, "Reggae night is my church," without considering how the ritual process is at work in the events leading up to, during, and following a concert. Some of the traditions at rock concerts are familiar examples. A show might be scheduled for 8:00 PM, but the band might not start until closer to 9:00 if too many seats are empty. This signals a certain level of cooperation between audience and performer - not so much that the venue managers recognize ticket purchasers' desire to get their money's worth, but that the show is not quite complete without a full crowd to cheer on the band. Occasionally, after the band leaves the stage at the end of the show, the audience will remain, making noise, often holding their lighters up in the air or chanting, "One more song!" or "Otra! Otra! Otra!" until the band returns for an encore. Such interactions begin to break down the dualities of performer/audience and stage/seating, even offering access into that "Holy of Holies," the backstage area where the band hides between sets and before the encore, allowing a sufficient level of anticipation to build before satisfying the demands made by the audience through chaotic but recognizable noise. In this way, audience and performer call and respond via structured and unstructured sound patterns, demanding responses to songs, solos, cheers, moments of silence, and various movements that are all too familiar for frequent concert-goers. When a performer is described as having a talent for "connecting with the audience," this reflects an awareness of the cues and cadences of contemporary concert performance that are expected in many popular music scenes.

For roots reggae audiences, especially where the Rastafari worldview is respected and embraced, the dynamic between performer and audience is often much more quiet and relaxed than in the rock concerts I have observed. Clapping and loud cheering is rare; instead, audience members wave flags of red, gold, and green, sometimes uttering a response that resembles an "amen" more than a "woo hoo." A sort of marching to the beat is typical, in contrast to head-banging, spinning, gyrating, moshing, and motions common in other scenes. Eyes often remain closed for extended periods of time, perhaps suggesting that the music provides a meditative experience for the listener, more important than the event of a celebrity on stage. This varies from show to show, of course, as some performers are boisterous entertainers, while others remain relatively still for the entire show. The most energetic Rastafarian performers I have seen (Luciano immediately comes to mind) are nearly impossible not to watch, as they shake their dreadlocks, slap hands with audience members, and ask questions of the crowd, soliciting cheers for justice, Jah, blackness, herb, and other esteemed aspects of the Rasta faith.

I attended two Midnite concerts last year, and there were elements in both of these shows that I automatically associated with my experiences in liturgical worship. The first show was at Wall Street International in Philadelphia, and the second at B.B. King's in New York City. Outdoor and indoor performances, respectively, the atmospheres differed to some extent: light rain outside, a more tightly packed audience inside; a 3 AM start time in Philadelphia, a midnight start time in NYC; an "underground" vibe at Wall Street International, a classy ambience at B.B. King's. Still, the ritualistic similarities were all there, from the smellscape of "incense" and essential oils to the movements and accoutrements of the audience.

At the Philadelphia show, there were several opening acts, which is not atypical of events in venues that want to cast their nets wide: by showcasing several local or somewhat popular bands, they can boost ticket sales, in some cases. Regardless of the venue or the event, however, most concerts feature at least one opening act, or multiple "openers" and a "main support" immediately preceding the headliner. These performances accomplish several aspects of the overall experience: "warming up" the crowd, or as headliners often say, "Warming up the stage," calling to mind a sense in which these spaces and collectives are heating vessels for the main sacrifice; keeping people entertained, active, and perhaps educated, while the rest of the congregation arrives; providing an incentive for more people to come and bring financial offerings to the venue; and occasionally demonstrating a diversity of musical experiences available to the public - "something for everyone." As with many events in Caribbean culture, there was little concern for time throughout the day, and by the time the main support came on stage, things were over two hours behind schedule. Midnite often starts their shows at or after midnight (they have a sort of slogan, "Time is not counted from daylight, but from midnight"), but their set at this show did not start until after 3:00 AM.

Between the main support and the headliner sets, the DJ played some classic roots reggae music very loudly, and it was nearly impossible to have a conversation. I attempted briefly to interview my friend with my camera, but he misheard the question, and he was so energized at that point that he could not stand still for the camera, anyway. Some people were dancing, others were huddling by the fire (wooden pallets burning in a dumpster), trying to stay warm and dry, and some of us were standing a few feet away from the stage, watching as members of the band came out for soundcheck. Looking around, I was reminded of a candlelight vigil as the faithful stood patiently watching the altar (stage), many with candles (spliffs) in their hands. The anticipation built as some latecomers continued to arrive, until the DJ faded out the music and the drummer began playing softly. The crowd responded to this cue accordingly, quieting the conversation and turning their attention to the stage. If the players of instruments might be considered deacons or lesser clergy, the lead singer was the priest, perhaps performing his own personal backstage ritual in the Holy of Holies. After the band quietly warmed up with a meditative groove, the venue host came out on stage with a sort of call to worship, introducing the band that needed no introduction, and the singer walked out on stage and began singing as he entered.

This was my fiancée's first Midnite show, and my second, so she was a bit upset with me for making her leave early, which was around 4:30 AM. But we were able to take in over an hour of this experience, one of the rare reggae shows that brings out even the most devout Rastafarians who somewhat resent the close association most people make between reggae and Rastafari. During the first song, she was standing next to my friend, a Rastaman, whose eyes were closed as he swayed in place ever so slightly. I am not sure what provoked it, whether she asked him something or poked him, but he leaned over to her and said something like, "This is a very meaningful experience for me." We were standing near the front, so she had not noticed yet that this quiet, peaceful demeanor was typical throughout the crowd. As I pointed this out to her, we also took note of the slight marching movements of those who were dancing, their arms occasionally swinging back and forth, their backs straight and heads lifted high, as if at attention or in prayer to Jah. Some people whistled, shouted "Rastafari!" and various terms common among the Rasta community, and a few people clapped after each song; but overall, this crowd exhibited a much more calm and reverent composure than that of the typical rock, hip hop, or reggae concerts I have attended. This "vibe" was even more evident at the New York show, where we witnessed more dreadlocks, more incense, and some Ethiopian Orthodox processional crosses, not uncommon in the Rasta community.

By contrast, the Luciano set at the Mann Center during the Reggae in the Park festival in 2012 was much more lively. There was not much dancing, but this may have had more to do with the constraints of the seats than the overall setting. Many Rastafarians were in the crowd, waving their flags and wearing their formal attire, but still displaying more energy, which is fitting for Luciano's more energetic brand of reggae. We saw no golden processional crosses, but I imagine they would have never made it past security. The event's headliner being Jimmy Cliff, there were also a fair amount of non-Rasta audience members, as well as people who are largely unfamiliar with the reggae scene, so some of the crowd participation resembled that of a typical music festival. Still, Luciano made sure to fit some ritual elements into his brief set. His band warmed up the stage before he came out, and he began singing a slower, softer song backstage with his wireless microphone before walking out. He changed his attire twice during the set, from a formal outfit, to military fatigues, and at one point wearing a regal cape. Like Vaughn Benjamin, the singer of Midnite, Luciano took opportunities during his set to preach about his Rasta faith; but whereas the former had a more subdued tone, Luciano was more dynamic and actively seeking a loud response from the crowd.

In comparing concert to liturgical worship, I do not mean to suggest that there is a common formula for either sort of event, although there are certainly comparisons we could draw between various religious rituals and any given stage performance, especially when the music is spiritual in character. At some shows, for example, there is a DJ or a band that plays after the headliner as most people file out, and this may be likened to the deacon who consumes the remainder of the Eucharist at the end of the Divine Liturgy, fulfilling a necessary but almost completely unnoticed duty. With these comparisons (some of which are more imaginative than others, I admit) between sacred rituals and non-religious occasions, I simply wish to point out that participation in musical performance (whether as audience, performer, or some hybrid of the two) creates new dimensions of space and time in which liminality, anti-structure, and mystical transcendence are just as apparent as they are in those traditions characterized as liturgy and rite.

In an upcoming post, I will continue this line of thought by exploring how language - in particular, speech acts or speech events - displays similar characteristics. Like musical performance, verbal performance presents opportunities for creating alternate times and spaces in which cultural realities can be formed and unformed. By setting aside regular occasions for individual or public creative expression, be it conversation, concerts, or contemplation, we exercise our potential to create and discover meaning, to interpret and reinterpret, and to dissolve and resolve the boundaries we perceive in the very structures and environments of the rituals themselves. This is, I will argue, the ultimate motivation behind all communicative faculties: a struggle to transcend a perceived separateness, an effort that begins and ends with testing the limits and potentials of the I.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Writing About Figuring Out What I'm Writing About

I'll be defending my masters capstone (thesis) at the end of the year, after several months of fieldwork and writing, with my wedding somewhere in the middle of the two. My research will be taking me deeper into the Rasta communities here in the Philadelphia area, as well as New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Trenton, NJ, along with a few possible interactions with Rastafarians in Puerto Rico. My capstone committee consists of some brilliant scholars who are helping me formulate all sorts of questions about music and linguistic expression, vibrations, and performativity. While I'm already having a great learning experience, even before I have done any fieldwork (and very little introductory writing), I am having a difficult time pinning down the central question of my thesis. I know I want to focus on the Rasta concept of "the I" or "InI" (I-and-I), along with their notion of word-sound power, examining how this idea is articulated in creative expression, and how it might challenge dualities of "I and Other," "You and I," and so on. But that's about as far as I've come.

So I'm taking some advice from my advisor, which was recently echoed by some friends, and just writing, hoping that the ideas will start to fall into place.

This InI concept has intrigued me since I first heard it in Bob Marley's lyrics nearly 20 years ago, but I became especially curious about this topic after Jake Homiak read a draft of my undergraduate thesis and challenged me to consider to what extent the Rastafari in Jamaica had made me feel like an "outsider" during my stay there. Other common themes from that brief study include the idea that, in the words of Bongo Shephan, "Music transcends all boundaries," along with the view that vibrations from words and drums have a tangible effect on the cosmos. In attempting to synthesize these lessons from my previous research and conversations with Rastafarians, I have been contemplating vibrations, expressivity, and the meaning-making, structure-defying power of language and music. These trains of thought are well on their way to the fields of ecomusicology, performance studies, and ritual theory; however, I want to begin preparing for this phenomenological ethnography with an appropriate, if not selfish, frame of reference: I.

Before delving into the theoretical and ethnographic material about the I and word-sound power, I want to share what I have perceived in some of my past observations of the Rastafari community. My own tellings of my own experiences with Rastafari culture will help to reveal my motivations - a deep love for music, a fascination with language, and a frustration with perceived social boundaries as obstacles against peaceful collaboration and coexistence. A few examples will serve as an introduction, for the reader, and as an exercise in articulating my research focus, for me. In this blog post, I will reflect on some distant memories of my first encounter with Rastafari.


The first Rastafarians I met were in St. Lucia, where I went with a group from my church to help with a summer camp at a church there. I was 14 years old, and although I was familiar with Bob Marley's Uprising album at that point, the only things I knew about Rasta were what the leader of our short-term team had told us: they smoke a lot of weed and worship a dead emperor. Despite being discouraged from engaging in conversations with a group of Rastas who hung out next to the church, I did stop to talk to them once. They seemed friendly enough, and I saw no harm in breaking the rules of my less-than-tolerant superiors. I don't remember too much of the conversation, but the three points I took away from our brief chat have stuck with me:


1. The Rastaman who did most of the talking had a sort of militant tone - not angry or hateful, but one of authority and conviction. I was reminded of this in Jamaica when I mistook such a tone for anger, and a bredren pulled me aside and let me know I had not offended anyone, but that, "We Rasta are a people of fire, so we speak with fire." It is easy to mistake the Rastafarian "burn" for a violent attitude; however, this style of speaking, which I have also witnessed in reasonings at Nyahbinghi gatherings, is evidence of the word-sound power concept, which I will explore in my thesis.


2. He said something about everyone being God. I wish I could remember his exact wording, but what matters is that it intrigued me at the time. In the last few years, I have heard many similar remarks in Rasta discourse. A phrase often heard in the Boboshanti service is a unique example: "Man of right is God in flesh; Woman of right is Goddess in flesh. Man of wrong is Satan in flesh; Woman of wrong is Sataness in flesh." I will be analyzing such statements in my thesis, particularly the interchangeability of "Jah-in-I" and "I-and-I." 


3. He also said something about how he could never die, even when his body is in the grave. Again, it would be helpful if I could remember the exact words he spoke to us that day. Instead, I can only associate this memory with other Rasta ideas I come across in my research, which might help to explain what he meant. This clip from an interview with dub poet Mutabaruka is an interesting (although perhaps not entirely orthodox or typical of Rastafari thought) take on what happens after death. Start at 2:00.




So I approach my thesis research with a curiosity based in past experiences with Rastafari, hoping to shed some light on statements I have heard, symbols I have seen, and rituals I have experienced. In soliciting the perspectives of my Rastafarian collaborators, I hope to bring some balance to my own biases. However, by examining the vantage point of the author as "I," my reader and I might begin to consider this InI language as a possibility for co-understanding or co-presence in this reasoning.

Next time, I will reflect on some experiences at live music events, considering the liturgical character of reggae and Nyahbinghi performance. This will help to ground my work in ritual theory, but more importantly, it will reveal how I am attempting to use language (along with audiovisual media) to create a field of expression in which other I's can co-experience my inquiry.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Day in the Lives

For this week's assignment in my class, CSP 653: "Topics and Issues in Cultural Sustainability: Identity," we were asked to reflect on Kenneth J. Gergen's 1991 text, The Saturated Self, and to respond to the prompt, "Describe some of the different 'selves' that you were today and under what circumstances." I found this exercise, along with our recent class discussions, to be a great entrance into our exploration of this elusive concept of "identity." Beginning in an honest struggle with the question, "Who am I?" will provide us with a lens of humility and compassion needed to purposefully inquire about the collective and individual identities of "Others." As seriously as I considered this assignment, of course, I also had a lot of fun with it....


"...as others are incorporated into the self, and their desires become one's own, there is an expansion of goals - of 'musts,' wants, and needs. Attention is necessitated, effort is exerted, frustrations are encountered. Each new desire places its demands and reduces one's liberties." (Gergen 74-75).
I dealt with a lot of "musts" today. Before you dismiss me as another graduate student complaining about my busy schedule, I take full responsibility for these "musts." I brought them upon myself, and I don't mean to complain about them. In fact, with all of the reductions of my liberties through the obligations, desires, distractions, and cravings, there came upon me a sense of potential. In the same moment, I perceived this sense as both a brush with insanity and a brush with the ability to juggle. It was perhaps the closest I have ever come to thinking I might be capable of multitasking. 
Of course, I was likely more conscious of this moment because of the assignment at hand, the attention I have been paying to the many "selves" I embody throughout the day. In that moment, I suppose that particular self was Ben the student in CSP 653. But I woke up today as a different self.

Let the fragmenting begin....

For a few minutes, I was one of the selves I enjoy the most: Ben the happy fiancé, seeing the love of my life off to work in the morning. Soon thereafter, I became aware of a "must," and I suddenly became Ben the graduate student who needs to send some kind of work to his thesis advisor for review before tomorrow's meeting. This particular Ben was not very happy with Ben the overambitious procrastinator this morning.
As I began typing a rough outline of the research I've only just begun, I magically transformed into Ben the hopeful scholar, excited about the work I'm doing and the brilliant scholars I am very fortunate to have on my capstone committee. I was in the zone for a little while, as I began to organize my thoughts and see them written out on my computer screen. But then, alas, a simple text message grabbed me by the serotonin receptors and shook me violently until I was reconfigured into another self: Ben the activist who somehow became responsible for a big project.
This is where Gergen's comments about inadequacy resonate with me:
"It is not simply the expansion of self through relationships that hounds one with the continued sense of 'ought.' There is also the seeping of self-doubt into everyday consciousness, a subtle feeling of inadequacy that smothers one's activities with an uneasy sense of impending emptiness" (76).
At this point in my day, still early in the morning, I am second-guessing myself because someone needs my time, attention, and resources, and I am very short on all of the above. Meet Ben the doubter. "Why did I ever think I could handle this responsibility?" he asks some version of himself. Then, in a rare act of courageous compartmentalization, he decides to put the phone down and delay responding until he has completed the task at hand. But now, Ben the graduate student who needs to send some kind of work to his thesis advisor is struggling to hold on to the frontmost frontal part of the frontal lobe, as Ben the doubter moves in, vying for this coveted position.

Thanks for noticing my blog.

"I knew it wouldn't be long before the Focus Factor wore off," said Ben the pessimist, from his smoky corner in the right temporal lobe, where he sat and underestimated what Big Ben would accomplish today. (Curiously, the appearance of this cynical character coincides with Ben who shuns the use of present tense in storytelling.)
The doubter and the thesis writer somehow found a way to share the driver's seat for a while, and slowly but surely got enough work done to be mutually satisfied. Before Ben the work-from-home employee took the reins (he prefers to think of the brain as a horse, rather than a car, apparently), Ben the facebook addict spent about a half hour fighting online bigotry with the help of his fearless sidekick, Ben the debater who shuns the term "liberal" but easily grows weary of conservative talking points.
Ben the work-from-home employee actually ventured out to a café to do some writing today. For the most part, he was focused and productive, occasionally allowing Ben the friendly stranger an opportunity to smile or say something to the guy who asked me to watch his laptop while he went to the bathroom, and the awkward employee who referenced some of my favorite South Park episodes for no apparent reason. And of course, Ben the happy fiancé enjoyed a brief phone conversation with the luckiest woman in the world.
One highlight of my day came during a little break I took from work, as I enjoyed a bowl of vegetable soup. I was reading an article in the journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, thinking about how brilliantly it might inform my thesis research, when a voice within me said something like, "Am I Ben the ethnomusicologist?" I believe this was an emergent self, and I hope it makes several, consistent, and more confidently articulated appearances in the months and years to come.
As my mental energy waned throughout the rest of the day, I accomplished less and less work, but the rush hour emails and text messages propelled my consciousness turbine, spinning all of the aforementioned Bens toward the cockpit of my brain (see, now it's an airplane), where each self sat almost long enough to steer, but not quite. Luckily, Ben the occasionally health conscious soon-to-be groom met his fiancée at the gym, where a good run on the treadmill managed to set his brain on autopilot for just enough time to let these exhausted selves get reoriented. 
It was in that moment that Ben the slightly detached observer of his exponentially fragmenting selves, with a whisper of suggestion from Ben the student in CSP 653, realized what was causing the flight controls to malfunction: my cell phone. And I use the word "my" because this is the part of the story where I begin to resolve my perspective, returning to a reflection on that moment in which I felt almost insane yet almost plate-spinningly spectacular.
As I realized that the multiple email accounts, the texts, the voicemails, the Chrome browser, and the Evernote app on my phone were all disrupting my ability to focus (not as causes, but as vessels of my several roles, responsibilities, and worldly cares), I realized that I was experiencing what Gergen calls "multiphrenia." But all was not lost.
"Simultaneously, the somber hues of multiphrenia - the sense of superficiality, the guilt at not measuring up to multiple criteria - give way to an optimistic sense of enormous possibility" (150).

Everything is unfolding as it should.

I was once a limb-flailing infant, unable to make sense of the myriad stimuli of my world; and then I organized that world into sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and thought. I once defaced walls and furniture with crayons, markers, and pens; but then I learned to neatly reproduce what my parents explained to me as letters, numbers, and representational images. I used to get drowsy or dizzy reading Levi-Strauss; but... well, I still do, although that could just be a matter of poor translation from the original French.
We fall, we get up; we fragment, we re-organize; we become completely powerless over our chaos, and then we find our deepest strength in faith, hope, and love.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"I" and "Love" and "Choice"

Photo by Mark Patterson

I just started taking a course (my final course in the MACS program) on the concept of identity. Between this course and some occasional thoughts that arise from my fieldwork for my thesis, benthropology.com will be little more than a showcase of what I'm working on in school for the next several months. This blog post is slightly modified from the first assignment I submitted for class. We were asked to post a picture and explain how it represents our "core identity." Here goes....

As you all know from [our discussion of Rogers Brubaker's thoughts on "identity"] the other night, I don't exactly believe in this concept of a "core identity," a "self," or whatever you want to call it. I'm not going to argue that it's not there, only that I can't demonstrate that it is, much less what it is.

So, instead of trying to articulate "I" in terms of "Who I Am," I would rather speak of my identity in terms of "What I Love." Although that can be a very long list, I think it comes down to just a few things that are represented in this picture.

1. Music. I'm thinking back to the [Introduction to Cultural Sustainability] class when we were all asked to say a few words about our cultural identity. I explained that, despite my upbringing in a Christian family, an awareness of my American nationality (i.e. pledging allegiance to the flag hundreds of times in my childhood, but really taking more pride in my WW2 hero grandfather), and occasionally exploring my Irish, German, and allegedly Cherokee roots, I no longer feel that I closely identify with one cultural group. When I look back on the last 30ish years that I can remember, there is only one thing that I have done and enjoyed frequently and consistently enough to consider labeling myself accordingly: I am a "musician." But, when it comes down to it, I think that most (if not all) sentient beings are musicians; I just happen to get paid for it. What really matters in this identification is that I am passionate about writing, listening to, performing, thinking and talking about music, much more so than anything else I do that could be called a skill, habit, pastime, or vice.

2. Nature. [The photo above] is an engagement photo that was taken out in my parents' yard. We sat on an enormous log that was washed up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I always feel at peace among, in, and on trees (interpret that however you'd like), and I think it's fair to say that I identify with "nature" (plants, animals, rocks, all that stuff) in a way that is comparable to how I identify with many of the people in my life. It's obviously not exactly the same connection - I don't have verbal conversations with clouds or anything like that - but I identify with the whole of my environment.

3. Silliness. We had some sillier pictures taken during our photo shoot, but I'm sure my fiancée would kill me for using one of them here. This one captures another thing I love to do: laughing and making people laugh, especially by doing nonsensical things. Laughter is, ironically, something that gives me a sense of purpose, though it is usually triggered by ideas and events that appear to be meaningless and absurd.

4. Family. I have 3 brothers, 2 sisters, 2 awesome parents, 13 cousins, 4 uncles, 4 aunts, a couple of cats, some siblings-in-law, and many more people whom I consider family, even if they aren't technically so. We all have a variety of cultural, political, and religious persuasions. Even among my immediate family, there has been some drifting away from the Protestant tradition we all grew up with. Some of us are beer people; others, wine people. Despite all of our differences, I feel more connected to them than to anyone else in this world. And despite all of our commonalities, it is the fact that they are "family" that makes me intentionally identify with them - not because they are my blood relatives, but because I choose to keep calling them "family."

And now I'm about to start a new family with the awesome woman in this picture. When I first met her padrino (godfather) on New Years Eve 2012-13, he must have handed me 10 shots of rum, pitorro, or coquito, each time saying, "Bienvenidos a la familia" - "Welcome to the family." So not only am I starting a new family; I'm also marrying into a family I haven't known for very long, but who will be part and parcel of this "identity" that I'm choosing. That is really the essence of what I am - or rather, what I love: choice. Not "in law" or "by blood." But in love and by love is how "I" come to be. I love that which compels me to love.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Der, Die, Das: Gender and the Future of Baby Showers

A couple of months ago, I saw this article about Germany's "third gender" option for birth certificates, and I bookmarked it so I could jot down some thoughts, but I've been busy with school, work, life, and whatever else it is that I do all day. In fact, I haven't blogged in almost a year and a half, since I started in my masters program, but I resolved to blog on a somewhat regular basis in 2014.

Go figure, my first blog post of the year is about something that might make most readers uncomfortable. In part, I chose the topic of intersex babies because I am hoping to provoke reactions from those who know more than I do (that's most of you), and I am keeping this blog post short and sweet for that very reason. But mostly, I want to raise awareness of this issue, something that doesn't seem to get much publicity but certainly affects millions of lives.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, 1 in 100 children are born with bodies that differ from "standard male or female." This includes a variety of chromosomal and phenotypic variations, and not all are immediately noticeable. While many infants' genitalia is surgically removed or altered to resemble more closely the "acceptable" male or female parts, other individuals do not discover signs of their intersexuality until later in life.

While this issue is clearly related to discussions of LGBTQ rights, it transcends the "biology vs. choice" debate, challenging the "male and female he created them" basis for gender consciousness in many societies. I do not mean to dismiss the important efforts for equality in gender and sexual lifestyle preference; however, I think that a more productive conversation might begin with an unabashed look at the realities of intersex babies, youth, and adults who struggle with issues of identity in societies that uphold sexual dimorphism as foundational to social cohesion.

Having heard very little public debate about this, I hope to glean some insights from various perspectives. Decisions such as Germany's law, which creates a category of "indeterminate sex" in public records, have bioethical, religious, cultural, sexual, and many unknown implications for the way we view and treat individuals, communities, and ourselves.

Please weigh in by commenting below, and look for more blog posts in the near future. I'll be working on my thesis this year, and I promise to share some of my thoughts on my current research.