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 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.