Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sanging, or, How to Be Forrest Gump in a Foreign Land

Contemporary church music in America is in a sorry state. My experiences have largely involved the Catholic variety of such music, but nothing in my fleeting encounters with other traditions has altered this conviction one iota. Given that American music also boasts talents like Soulja Boy and Pitbull,

At least we beat Canada.
perhaps this does not surprise you; however, most of the church music performed in Italy that I saw was even worse.

Every time you butcher a cantata, Palestrina kills a kitten.
I'm not going to go in depth into what exactly makes this music so bad: (a) that isn't the point of this article,{1} (b) what makes something bad is of course somewhat subjective,{2} and (c) I myself have participated in and even led some of the most pungent examples of said music. Suffice it to say for now that I believe it has given up both the search for beauty (exemplified in the West by much of the tradition of classical music, as well as other genres) and the search for a rockin' good time (exemplified in the West by all the stuff you listen to when you're not at church),{3} offering instead either lyrical and musical platitudes that fit some conception of what sacred music is “supposed to sound like,” or bouncy but ultimately uninteresting tunes that fit some conception of what a holy “good time” is supposed to feel like.

Ugandan church music subscribes to neither of these viewpoints.


{1}    Believe it or not, if you stick with it, this article will eventually get to Uganda.

{2}    However, the general badness of something can be recognized by anyone who is not themselves bad, or so states the corollary to the Emperor's New Clothes Theorem.

{3}    Or 100% of the time.

{4}    Sorry.

Mr. Linder and I walked into 8:30 am mass at St. James Parish Biina,{5} and spent the next hour and a half hearing some of the most spirited, enjoyable, beautiful, and just plain good music I've heard most anyplace. It was all led by a 30-some person choir and accompanied by an organ played with a jaunty as opposed to funereal air, several African drums {6} of different sizes, and various smaller pieces of percussion (including the first washboard I have ever actually seen played live); we realized pretty quickly that the people of this parish knew how to make music.

So when the announcements at the end of mass included a solicitation for new choir members, it took Sam and I about one excited look at one another to decide to audition.

{5}    Spellings vary from Biina to Bbina to Bbiina to Bbinaa; this is a result of the fact that Uganda in general and the central (Buganda) area in particular have a much weaker written culture than anywhere in the western world. For example, my (quite educated) teacher of Luganda, the language here in the center, isn't really sure on the spellings of a lot of the words, even simple ones.

{6}    I'm sure there's a technical name for them hiding somewhere in the recesses of the internet or the recesses of the brains of any of you who managed to pay attention in ethnomusicology classes.

Except it turns out audition wasn't the right word—the best church choir I've heard anywhere just gave us a friendly but perfunctory greeting, and ushered us out to a shaded grassy lawn in a nook of the sprawling parish complex to start rehearsing.

My first inkling that perhaps the group we were joining wasn't some utopian mixture of spirit and musical know-how appeared when one of the men who had been directing the choir during mass asked Sam and I if we were tenors or basses. Sam replied bass immediately, and I identified myself as a baritone, which declaration was met with an inquisitive stare until I explained that it was in between a bass and a tenor. And then our choirmaster decided I should be a tenor without hearing my voice, so I am now for the first time on the wrong side of the a-choir's-two-lowest-sections-are-men-and-tenors species of jokes that thankfully do not seem to be popular here.

The rehearsal that followed was tedious. We spent two hours slogging through a Mozart piece (Missa Brevis in C major) replete with quick runs, accidentals, difficult-to-parse jumps, accidentals made so by accident, dissonance, and a large amount of what some people of my acquaintance know as “crunchy chords.”

You're, uh, doing it wrong.
After that and one subsequent weekday practice, also consisting entirely of squelching through the puddles from Wolfgang's quill, I had a sort of sinking feeling about the whole choir thing caused by the fact that no one knew how to sight-read at all except the admittedly well-trained director; by the fact that the bass section (with the exception of Sam) could produce low notes about as well as a piccolo; by the fact that the tenor section (without the exception of yrs truly) had no way to produce notes as high as we were being asked to sing without shouting;{7} by the fact that the altos showed all the vocal confidence and aplomb of a toddler taking its first steps; and by the fact that several sopranos were apparently unfamiliar with the idea of singing the same note as the rest of their section.

{7}    I'd like to point out, however, that unlike some of my compatriots, I believe I was shouting on-key.

I walked into mass the following Sunday apprehensively, having almost forgotten why I have always loved singing and why I joined the choir. We sat in the pews reserved for the choir, directly to the right of the circular church's altar, which church already contained 800 people inside and many more crowding at the three perpetually open doors.{8} Sam claims that, the open-air nature of the space notwithstanding, it generally approaches Venus-level temperature and humidity where we sit. I am not inclined to argue.

{8}    A comparison between church attendance here and in America—this is one of 6 Sunday masses at Bbiina parish, all similarly full—will have to wait for another post.

And then the singing started, and all thoughts of possible heat stroke faded from my sweat-soaked head.

We hadn't been mistaken about the quality of music last week: the choir we had sung with the last two rehearsals had been haphazardly raking bear claws across a sleek chalkboard, compared to the way they sang now. We didn't know any of the songs—they sing standards that they all know the arrangements to at mass and then rehearse things, like the Mozart, for special occasions like weddings and stand-alone concerts—but it didn't matter. You listen to the person standing next to you and sing what they sing. Or sing some other harmony. Every song was composed of exceptionally simple chord progressions. The arrangements were 4-part but never anything migraine-inducing. But there was always a good and simple melody; there was always some rhythm that made you feel something more than a medical-grade case of existential apathy.

Those things are all good, and all often lacking in the contemporary Western church music of my experience. I'd propose, though, that the real reason singing in a church choir here didn't feel like a slow march to the casket has to do with self-consciousness. Most of us in the west spend a positively staggering amount of time and mental energy worrying about what others will think about us. We worry that our actions will not be understood as they are intended. We especially worry that we will be embarrassed, shown to be insensitive, clueless, or, worst of all, ridiculous. And so we control and censor ourselves, not even so much in words as in the way we carry ourselves and the range of actions we permit ourselves. It's not even a conscious thought process, usually—just a faint sense of terror at really allowing oneself to act exactly how one feels. Of course, this doesn't apply to all situations, but the relief we experience when allowed to exist for a time without that fear of embarrassment—with close friends, or, ironically, when we're intoxicated—illustrates how powerful the feeling is the rest of the time.{9}

{9}  The relief is so palpable that when we have the choice we nearly always choose to escape our fear: in your free time, you probably want to be alone, with close friends or family (if your family is indeed an embarrassment-free zone for you), or drinking (or perhaps two of the three).

And while it's clear that Ugandans are not exempt from the general tendency to care what people think of them and act to minimize embarrassment, none of that shows up while singing in church. Masses or services or whatever make us beholden to decorum, compel us to not embarrass ourselves and do something that will prevent us from showing a fingernail around any of those present lest we die of shame. That is both fine and true of mass in Uganda—all the ritual and formality of the universal Catholic mass is performed. But when it comes time for us to do something like singing, which is not an explicitly defined part of that ritual, but more a collective expression of the musician and everyone else present, we falter and can't shed that attention to propriety and not making an ass of ourselves that for us goes part and parcel with being in church.{10}

That's why Americans trying to groove and/or look joyful while singing upbeat songs in a house of worship too often look uptight, stiff and formal, with what is clearly an artificial smile stamped across their face—because that's the problem, they're self-consciously trying to act like they're happy, not actually forming their actions and expressions more-or-less organically from a real sense of joy.{11} Our choir here, on the other hand, just lets go of their fear of embarrassment and goes.

But you know what's really wonderful? After a couple Sundays of somewhat nervously clapping along {12} and trying to sing pretty, even I managed to get rid of that nervousness, and now the choir has a pair of Forrest Gumps singing along with them.

{10}  Which is why for most religious musicians I know, technical perfection takes precedence over emotive power: it's the only way to make music better while maintaining the type of conduct we associate with church.

{11}    If you think I am being too harsh to the sacred music of America/Italy/wherever, please know that I am not trying to offend you or anyone else. I make no claims to have the authority to define the purpose of church music, or even to determine how well it accomplishes that purpose. I'm merely saying that the subjective experience of listening to and performing church music here is qualitatively different, and is for me a whole lot more enjoyable and beautiful.

{12}  The choir, like most African musicians, claps on beats one and three, not the two and four we associate with “soulful” music. This is particularly amusing to me because on one piece of music I own—an a cappella arrangement of “Bring It On Home”--the arranger (who, if you're reading this, Billy, sorry) wrote a note that's been imprinted in my mind saying “[finger] snaps happen on two and four. There will be no wacky white-boy snapping on one,” which led to me being the wacky white boy my first Sunday clapping on two and four...

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