Tribalism in Catholic Music

Jeffrey Tucker writes…

Compositions like this are just beyond me. I don’t get why anyone would want to do this instead of just chant the thing.

So… there was a time in my life when I would have thought this was really great.
So, let me try to explain what it is I used to like about this sort of thing…

The Easter Vigil has a certain primordial, primeval, even tribal sensibility to it. Fire, smoke, water, rites of initiation. It is sacred in a way that no other time is, and its timing is tied to natural phenomenon that were celebrated long before the dawn of modern religion: the changing of the season, the full moon.

The reading of the Genesis story, the flood, the Exodus- these (if proclaimed well, to a congregation prepared by prayer and catechesis) make the ancient past, the stories of our people and our God, present in a way that, while not the same as, is comparable to the present-making mystery of the Eucharist.

Music like the link above plays at these understandings- it gives a sense of shared “tribal” identity, a feeling of participation in some ancient rite. We can imagine ourselves drumming round the fire in some Julie Taymor epic. (Perhaps not incidentally, this is the same impetus for those ridiculous mask/puppet liturgies).

Conservatives and traditionalists, however, misdiagnose the problem- attempting to de-tribalize the meaning of the liturgy (Easter Vigil or otherwise), making a lot out of how these emotions and so forth are not the point.

But I believe that those emotions, that sense of “tribal” identity and connection with the “ancient ways,” and all of that is a huge reason for the particular forms of our Catholic liturgical heritage. The problem, though, is that these sorts of things (the recording here, the suburban drum circle liturgies, the puppet insanity) are really bad ways of creating that identity and that connection.

They are bad because they are too easy, and they are false. Our sense of what is truly tribal and ancient is completely skewed by our entertainment and artistic industry’s re-imagining. From the Rite of Spring to the Lion King, from the African Sanctus to The Mummy franchise, from EPCOT center to Karl Jenkins, Enya, and Avatar- our sense of “tribal identity” and “ancient forms of worship” is completely manufactured… which is perfectly fine if you’re going to a concert, a movie, or a theme park.

But the people who love these faux-tribal beats would be BORED TO TEARS if they had to sit through (or stand through) an Ancient liturgy from any culture- whether it’s the Death and Resurrection plays of ancient Egypt, the Greek theatrical rituals, the Early Christian catacomb Masses, or even a contemporary hours-long drum-accompanied, dance-infused Divine Liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Real tribalism, real ritual, is ghastly boring to modern sensibilities- that’s why the movies dress it up the way they do.

The Catholic liturgy has two sets of “benefits” as it were- the supernatural benefits which we cannot “mess with.” That is, the grace we receive through the sacraments- we receive it regardless of how poor, weird, or ill-conceived things like music or vestments are.

Then there are the (for lack of a better word) psychological benefits- community cohesion, inspiration to live a Godly life, instruction in the knowledge of God, a deeper emotional connection to the faith, etc, etc. These are the things that religion has always done for people, even among the pagans- and they are worthwhile benefits to cultivate within the community.

The progressive, folk-driven, faux-tribal approach to liturgy is trying, very earnestly, to maximize those secondary benefits. This should not be seen as a bad goal, as it so often is by the traditionalists. However, it should be understood that the approach of the last 40 years has been… well, not the best approach.

If we are interested in recovering a sense of our “tribal” identity as Catholics, we need to recover the music that truly belongs to our tribe- not steal some music from another group or try to imagine our own ritualism. If we are interested in entering into the ancient mysteries, we need to realize that time moves at a much slower pace than 180 bpm. If we are going to experience the universal cycle of death and rebirth, we need to embody the liturgy entrusted to those who walked with the man who actually did die and was reborn- not copy some movie recreation of a pagan misunderstanding of that mystery. If we want to feel connected to the Ancient Israelites, we need to fully, actively, and consciously participate in the real (not invented) liturgical structure that was the fulfillment of all their hopes, using the music that evolved directly from their Temple practices.

When you hear music like this, or see misguided white people dressed up in Kente cloth, or hear someone suggest liturgical dance, or any of the other seemingly bizarre practices of the “progressive liturgical movement,” have some compassion for what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their focus on community over hierarchy, experience over doctrine, celebration over sacrifice, emotion over intellect… these are not unworthy viewpoints or emphases. They are needed in our Church- we ARE a community, we NEED to experience the mystery, Mass IS a celebration, emotions DO help us understand God’s great love for us.

But it is the authentic liturgy of the Church, the real traditions of music and prayer, that bring us those “secondary” benefits. The movie music presented here has the best of intentions- but, in the final analysis- it is lacking.

It is lacking because it fake- an inauthentic copy of the truly ecstatic. It is lacking because it is easy- the emotionalism proper to our worship of God should be a fiery, deep, unquenchable passion, not a surface veneer of momentary infatuation. It is lacking because it is alien- not alien to the liturgy (which is universal, and admits of inculturation) but rather alien to (most of) us- it is not the music of our ancestors, and so it can exert no great pull on our genetic memory. It is lacking because it is produced- refined and composed and written down and edited by artistic and commercial interests- it has nothing of the earthy sincerity evident in the devotees of any venerable religious tradition.

For the sake of our “tribal” identity, we need to reclaim the music that is rightfully ours: the ecstatic melismas of the Cantorial tradition, the strophic hymns of the early and medieval church, the mystical organum the late middle ages, the psalmody of the monastics, the truly exotic sequences of Hildegard, the hallucinogenic polyphony of the high Renaissance. That’s the music of “our people.” Those are the base-pairs of our genetic memory, and the soul of our collective consciousness.

9 thoughts on “Tribalism in Catholic Music

  1. Beautiful! I have never thought about it this way, but it makes so much sense! I am forwarding this to my MD ASAP.

  2. Hollywood has invaded and captured our imaginations so that we have a difficult time imagining anything outside of their interpretation of things.

    The Easter Vigil is set up as tribal initiation with its own rites and music; it is the adoption rite of initiation into the family of God. I agree that it is an attempt to excite the emotions and create the sense of community and belonging, but at the expense of raising the whole toward heaven; it has the effect of binding the participants to earth.

    A poco a poco, you move one thing at a time.

  3. I was thinking about the nature of spiritual music this weekend as the result of an experience I had. I was in a church on Saturday while Mass was being celebrated, but I was not part of the assembly; I was in the foyer waiting for an after church event, and was reading, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the music. But all through Mass, the music (singing accompanied by guitar and piano) came to me as a thump, thump, thump. I realized that this was the primary, elemental part of this music: the beat.
    This is different, of course, from the chant and unaccompanied hymns I sing with my Latin choir, or with the chant and hymns at the Anglican Use Church I usually attend, which uses the organ. That music is based on breath. And so, in my musing I thought of the more than etymological link between inspiration, respiration and the “Spirituals Songs” of Adam’s subtitle. The music Adam identifies as our “tribal heritage” is all based on this breathed music, in a way that much modern music is not. It’s straightjacketed by the demands of a predetermined beat and measures.

  4. Definitely agree here, in that breath, as opposed to beat, is the primary impetus of Christian sacred music. While I have no specific studies to prove such, my vague guess is if one were to study world religious music, one would find a separation of beat vs. breath along about the same fault-lines as the separation between hunter/shaman cultures (which emphasize the hero’s individual activity) and agricultural/priest cultures (which emphasize the natural cycle of death and rebirth). (This is just a pet theory at the moment).

    Moreover- Whether pagan (Native American, African animism, Balinese gamelan) or Christian (notably, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church- but I would also include the stomping of the Shakers and the riotous processional music of some Eastern Rite Catholic groups)- I suggest that the authentic use of drum beats in those traditions is very different than the use of drum beats in suburban/middle-class/liberal American liturgical Christianity. In its traditional usage, the drum seems to have an effect similar to unmetered chant: there is a suspension of time, a weakening of the individual’s sense of normal temporal progression. Hours pass feeling like minutes, minutes turn into hours, and the past is made present to the gathered people.

    Modern usage of drums and pseudo-tribal rhythms, both because of the cultural associations and (moreover) the specifics of performance practice, do not accomplish those things. They serve to entertain, to stir up quickly-passing emotions, and (most of all) to paper-over the boredom of non-commitment present in almost everyone’s experience of institutional liturgy (regardless of style or tradition).

  5. My extended family is very involved in the Native American church, a kind of syncretist attempt to integrate authentic Native music and ritual with Christian themes and worship, and I sometimes attend their services. Most of the time I attend a fairly traditional Catholic parish, and once a month I held lead a chant group at a different parish nearby where we celebrate mass in the EF – Traditional Latin mass.

    You are absolutely right about the usage of drums at services like these – though I would not call them pagan when they call on the name of Christ, have readings from Scripture and practice baptism in the name of the Trinity – but you also nailed the suburban/liberal attitude toward this. My dad’s memorial service was conducted in this rite, and the poor unsuspecting friends and acquaintences who showed up expecting a brief service of less than an hour eventually had to bow out after 90 minutes with no end in sight. I’m sure they thought the drums and rattles and songs of praise in our native tongue was “cool” — for the first 45 minutes or so. Little did they know that the full liturgy is actually an all-night service, and that the “devotional” they were attending would go on for five hours or longer.

    Though I am still learning even one song in my native Ho-Chunk language, I was conscripted once to chant the (English version of) the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil.

  6. Thank you for your input here. I’m always a little wary of making statements about what is going on in musical cultures outside my own, so it’s nice to hear that I was pretty much on target in regards to the effects of drumming in traditional religion.

    And, obviously, I wouldn’t call what you described as “pagan” either- sounds to me like Christian inculturation at it’s best, and exactly what the Church means when it uses that word. (Are you familiar with the Jesuit’s work in translating the Mass, especially the Chant Propers, into Native American languages? Fascinating stuff, and also particularly humbling with regards to what we liberals tend to think of as “inculturation.”)

    As I said in a comment over at the Cafe:
    Authenticity- whether squarely inside the Roman tradition, or in an organically developed syncretic usage, or in any of the ancient Rites of East or West… These things are HARD.

    Like marriage, they require commitment, fidelity, trust. You can’t just give up when the novelty wears off; you can’t wander away looking for the next thing that inspires you or gives you back “that feeling.” Whether it’s drums and rattles, or Gregorian chant, or the honeymoon trip- of course it’s exciting at first. And of course it will get boring from time to time. But the rewards of a lifetime of devotion and service are beyond anything we can imagine during that first date, that first drum beat of the heart, that first sighing line of the ancient song.

    Drink water out of thine own cistern, and the streams of thine own well:
    Let thy fountains be conveyed abroad, and in the streets divide thy waters.
    Keep them to thyself alone, neither let strangers be partakers with thee.
    Let thy vein be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth:
    Let her be thy dearest hind, and most agreeable fawn:
    let her breasts inebriate thee at all times;
    be thou delighted continually with her love.
    Prv 5:15-19 DRA (ed.)

  7. Re: all night —

    Of course there are Catholic traditions of staying up all night praying. Vigil is from “vigilare”, to keep watch (in a military sense). St. Jerome stayed up all night and wrote a whole short book defending little old ladies who stayed up all night praying in church.

    But there’s a not-so-fine line between inculturation and syncretism, and it’s a shame that syncretism wins so often.

  8. It has always amused me that so many white, middle-class American Catholics (and non-white American Catholics who are very, very far removed from any ancestral cultural identity) try to create Hollywood-esque tribal identities for themselves when we as Roman Catholics already have a tribal identity that even Hollywood recognizes. When Hollywood portrays Catholics in film, television, even advertising, what do we see? Monks and nuns in habits, traditional architecture, chant and polyphony and hymns, not drumming, giant puppets, or churches that look like multi-use auditoriums.

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