I confess that one of my favorite music CDs is Sherri Youngward’s “Six Inches Of Sky” (2002). Listening it to gain recently, I was again impressed with its musical plasticity and energy. It moves deftily from the hypnotic to the energetic, from fragile folksiness to energetic rock. Youngward’s compositional talents are wide-ranging, here lyrics frequently touching, here voice beautifully earthy and vulnerable at the same time.
If you haven’t heard of her, it maybe that you haven’t had the happy accident I had, when I discovered this CD for a buck in a bargain bin. Or maybe you just don’t belong to the right church; Sherri Youngward is an Evangelical Christian, and her songs are all about her faith.
So I had to stop and think about that a bit, yesterday. Here I am, a secular Buddhist, an atheist, a former punk rocker, and perpetual ne’er-do-well (in Christian terms), how can I be so moved by Youngward’s music and yet remain wholly unpersuaded to her faith?
I think part of it that there’s no reason I should be. Back in the ’60s, a lot of people (including me) were convinced that music could be made, not only integral to culture (how could it not be?), but determinative of cultural innovations – music could be persuasive and lead ‘the revolution!’ But of course the revolution never happened. Today, ‘classic rock’ stations are played in stores and offices across the country; old drug anthems like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” protests songs like the single’s version of “Time Has Come Today,’ or “Fortunate Son,” promises of better tomorrows, even religion-less ones, like in Lennon’s Imagine – pour from speakers like so much aural confetti. People no longer care what the words mean. Because we were all wrong in the ’60s; music can never ground a revolution. Only political action grounds revolution.
That music forms a strong part of one’s culture cannot be denied. Unfortunately we no longer live in a world filled with isolated communities where music reinforces what is spoken, and blends with what is done, so that the culture of the community is a seamless blanket in which people live. Nor do we even live in a large homogenous culture blanket with ancient religious beliefs and rituals, as could once be found across large swaths of India. Nowadays we live in complex and diverse society, and our cultures are patchwork quilts that cover some people many miles away, rather than anybody near-by; or may only cover individuals and (some of) their closest friends.
One reason I can remain unpersuaded by Youngward’s music, despite being emotionally moved, is because of a previous experience with this a similar issue.
In the mid-’70s, I became fascinated with Jamaican Reggae, and indeed, became a confirmed collector of just about any disc from Jamaica I could get my ears to. (This fell off finally when I lost my record collection entirely in the early 1st decade of the current century due to adverse personal fortune.) I even spent a number of years in the late ’70s hanging around the local Jamaican community, which helped persuade some of that community that not all white people were against them or their political and social aspirations. Yet, I never could fully belong to the Reggae-centered sub-culture of the time, because much of it was invested in the religion of Rastafarianism.
Before discussing that, a quick lesson on the history of Reggae. Initially, Jamaican music came into its own (in the era of recorded music) with a music that swung the American R&B beat backwards, so to speak: Ska. Although some great musicians were involved in the music, it’s primary purpose was to keep people dancing.
However, at about the same time as Ska’s arrival, the culture of Jamaica saw the rise of the religious cult of Rastafari, and Rastafarians would smoke marijuana communally, and engage in chants set to a drumming style known as ‘Nyabinghi,’ which had African roots extending through Jamaica’s history as a former slave culture under British occupation.
By the time Jamaican music caught up with the innovations in electronic instrumentation and recording coming out of America, a new generation of musicians came to the fore, that had were blending Ska influences with Nyabinghi, and coming up sounding what finally became recognizable as Reggae.
Well, what about the Rastafarians? They believe that 1) Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, is god. (Still is, despite being dead, somewhere in the spiritual realm where gods always dwell.) 2.) Marcus Garvey, a major figure of the ‘Back-To Africa movement of the ’20s and ’30s, was his prophet (although they believe in the Christian Bible as well). 3) On Judgement Day, they will be transported back to Africa, which will be transformed into paradise (gods can do that sort of thing, you know). Of course they once believed that they could be returned to Africa just as it is now, but that sort of evaporated after the Ethiopian Revolution, and once major Rasta-believing Reggae performers toured the fabled continent, and found it less than paradisaical.
The popularity of Rastafarianism has waxed-and-waned over the years, and one can see why, just from this brief initial history of its main beliefs. It originated in the rural hills and mountains of Jamaica, and then thrived in Trenchtown, one of the worst slums in the world, by offering what the material culture it found itself in could not – pride in one’s ethnic inheritance and hope for the future.
But while ethnic can be a good thing, it can also bring us into conflict with political realities; ethnic pride alone will not fill empty bellies. And the problem with any hope for the future is that it is necessarily contingent on the future. Joe Hill of the vocal trio Culture had a vision in 1976 that Judgment Day was literally the next year, and sings about this passionately in the song “Two Sevens Clash” (a beautiful song); but 1977 came and went, and Judgment Day got postponed again.
But Reggae has survived the occasionally failed hopes and religious excesses of its Rastafarian performers, and has become a world class musical genre, with now several mutated strains that invite, rather than suppress, innovation among young musicians. I think that is because it truly is the music of a culture, as know experience culture – heterogeneous, diverse, filled with nooks and crannies, with differing people capable of taking in new influences and thinking new thoughts. Reggae is now much more like the blues and soul traditions here in the US, capable of addressing, singing about all manner of experience, not just the religious idiosyncrasies of a certain religious sect.
But of course, any one familiar with the history of Reggae knows that was really always true. On Jamaica itself, Reggae performers would sing about sex, politics, or a recent sporting event with equal ease. It was only as it nudged onto the world stage in the mid-70s that it acquired the myth that it’s soul was Rastafarian and its aim was revolution. And I suppose such myths energized the musicians of the time, and their audiences. How exciting it is to believe, not only that one is listening to a well-written, well-performed song, but that one is also at the same time participating in a revolution – or even having a spiritual experience!
But for music to have any such impact, it must be part of a complex social web that re-enforces the sense that it can – not just the song, but the church it’s heard in; not just the lyrics, but the march where the lyrics are chanted. Once the web is torn music revealed as – well, just something else that humans do to make the time we live seem more meaningful.
That doesn’t make it trivial; that’s exactly what makes it important.