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.