Posts Tagged culture

New City Music Conference 2015 in St Louis MO July 23-26

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The Backwards Bike and Cross-cultural Worship

Edit: Oops, I used the wrong URL for the video. Now it’s fixed.

It turns out that riding a bike becomes nearly impossible when you rig it to turn the opposite direction. Your brain can’t perform all the processes when just one is reversed.

I wonder what this says about cross-cultural communication. How many brain processes go into singing, dancing, or performing a worship liturgy? What happens when you have to suddenly perform a familiar action like these but one or more of the “rules” have changed when you are immersed in a new culture.

It also says something about the power of our brains to adapt with practice. The video shows that after a few months of riding the bike everyday, you can teach your brain to adapt. There is a path toward understanding a new culture, but it’s not quick and easy. It’s also every difficult to be a “third culture kid” who has to “ride their bike” in many different ways.

When we face an issue from opposite sides of the cultural divide (#Ferguson, #Baltimore) why does it seem like it’s impossible to get someone to “change their mind” to see things from your perspective? Maybe we are assuming that we can give people the raw facts and make to make them completely change their understanding without the more long term process of relationship and community.

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What does “Kumbaya” mean and why should we care?

Race, culture, humor, politics, stereotypes, class, language – a few topics that come up around the song “Kumbaya”.

Kumbaya is pigeon English of the phrase “Come By Here”.  I came across an excellent arrangement of “Come By Here” in the GIA African American Church Music Series. It was done by Uzee Brown Jr.  As I meditated on the meaning of the song, I was struck by the cry of the oppressed for the Lord to hear and respond. It’s a lament and a statement of faith in a God who does see and hear and is able to intercede and deliver. However, it’s a song that is plagued by an unfair stereotype as a symbol of irrelevant and meaningless expressions of pseudo-unity.

Wikipedia led me to this excellent 2006 article by Jeffrey Weiss published in the Dallas Morning News. Here’s a few select quotes:

Sometime between 1922 and 1931, members of an organization called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a song from the South Carolina coast. “Come By Yuh,” as they called it, was sung in Gullah, the Creole dialect spoken by the former slaves living on the Sea Islands. […]

Jump forward to the mid-1950s and the Cooperative Recreation Service, an Ohio-based publisher of songbooks for camps and scouts. Joe Hickerson, a folksinger and former director of acquisitions for the American Folklife Center, credits Lynn Rohrbough, the owner of Cooperative Recreation, with getting “Kumbaya” to the masses. If a camp wanted a music book with, say, 40 songs, Ms. Rohrbough would offer 30 from her stock inventory and add 10 new ones, Mr. Hickerson said. “Kum By Yah” – described only as an “African” song – was part of the Rohrbough inventory by 1956. As a result, it showed up in countless books of camp songs used by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and others. “The camp counselors who played guitar liked it because it only has three chords,” Mr. Hickerson said. […]

For the next 25 years, it was just one folksong among many. But in the early 1980s, something happened. “Kumbaya” became the English-speaking world’s favorite folksong to ridicule, the musical metaphor for corny camaraderie. How? Someone’s wondering, Lord. An extensive (and we do mean extensive) search of databases of newspapers, magazines and other sources turned up what may be the first ironic reference to “Kumbaya” in print, from Aug. 16, 1985. The line is from a Washington Post review by Rita Kempley of the comedy movie Volunteers: “Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps inVolunteers, a belated lampoon of ’60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World.”

Read the article to get the whole story.

Anyhow, the whole topic seems to be a mixed bag of cultural misappropriation, political rhetoric, Baby-boomer nostalgia, commercialization of racial stereotypes, the American-style cross-pollination of  black and white music, to name a few. I’m not sure what to make of it all except to take the song for what it is, cultural baggage and all. In a lot of ways, this song tells a lot more about Black History than if a hypothetical slave-composed spiritual was unearthed by archaeologists in it’s original 19th century form. It tells a more complicated story that goes deeper than face value. Much of African American cultural has been either repackaged in a derogatory form for mass consumption (as in the Minstrel Shows) or (despite good intentions) has been dissected and sterilized by academic study. Kumbaya is an excellent example of a song that was made internationally available but in the process it was robbed of it’s meaning. What would the song have meant if it was left as the local prayer a few saints on the coast of South Carolina?

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What is authentic music?

How do we determine what makes a song or a performance or worship experience authentic instead of commercial, fake,  entertainment, showy, etc? This seems to be a very important question especially to the marketing-savvy PoMos out there who are looking to “emergent” styles of worship. We want to be involved in real worship experiences that are not contrived from an attempt to force a worshipy moment to occur. This issue was the driving motivation behind the “Contemporvant” video that made the rounds a few months ago. Are we just faking it every Sunday? What is the culture looking for in our definition of “authentic” in worship?

Who defines authenticity?

This is the first question that we need to ask ourselves. Is folk music authentic? Does unplugging make things more authentic? What if you are playing Contemporary Gospel music? Is is more authentic to unplug then? Does informal attire, a lack of worship order, or popular style music define authentic? Does ancient prayers, iconography, candles and incense create authenticity? My questions should be leading you to see that the problem lies in the fact that “authenticity” is culturally determined. It’s not as easy to talk about what’s authentic when you are bringing many different cultures into a room. In the end, it’s always going to feel “faked” when a white dude like me attempts to lead a traditional black gospel tune. I’m not the “real thing”. Authentic gets determined by the culture in which the expression is coming from.

What about commercialism?

So another problem that comes up is the power of the almighty dollar. So much music is created just like any other commercially distributed product, with the bottom line as the primary motivation. If I write a song that sounds like Chris Tomlin, I will sell a lot of records because people want to buy more of what they already like. So, what might have been created (maybe by Chris Tomlin) as an authentic expression of an artist goes out into the world and becomes cloned by the business into a thousand versions of “How Great Is Our God”. This effect happens in every market on the planet. There is no musical genre or tradition that is immune to the power of the dollar to create clones. For every “The Beatles” there’s  “The Monkeys”.  This effect is even seen in the genres that people run to in order to get away from commercialism: folk, country, bluegrass, classical, hymns, jazz, blues, jam bands, punk, indy, metal, thrash all have bands or artists that are sell-outs and poseurs. What do we do to escape it? Do we reject any form of art that has any kind of market drive or value? How does a Christian artist both make money as a craftsman and at the same time preserve artistic integrity? How do we as worshipers choose music to use in our liturgies without just becoming the equivalent of a Top 40 radio station for our particular cultural predispositions?

Where does skill enter in to worship?

Here’s the place where skill starts to get tossed into the mix. Music that is performed with skill is by it’s nature commercially valuable in the same way that a well built chair or car will have value in a market where chairs and cars are in demand. A well written song or a skilled performer will be a commercial commodity. We all hate to see bad musicians become successful because they look pretty, and yet when a skilled musician plays in church, that can sometimes come off as too “showy” or “commercial” because they are playing at a level equivalent to that which we hear coming from the mass media. We might all agree that skill is good in God’s eyes, but in the practical execution, there seems to be an implied expectation in a lot of churches that a display of skill takes away from the glory of God some how. Many musicians adopt an “indy” or “hipster” aesthetic in order to reject what they deem to be commercial. They play songs without skill (simplistic harmony, minimal instrumentation, limited vocal range, intentionally bland vocal style, casual style presentation). I find it comical that there appears to be a hipster backlash that is sweeping the web and I supposed the culture in general. People are starting to see this as just another culture with the same rules of assimilation, popularity, and commercialization that go in to the formation of a tribal identity. But that’s a tangent…skill as it relates to authenticity is determined by the culture. There’s ebb  and flow within the culture as well as generational and class differences are taken into account.

Authentic vs. Accessible

In “Gather Into One”, C. Michael Hawn presents the problems of authenticity in relation to cross-cultural ministry. If I want an authentic experience of my worship music, I need to go to my tribal church. When I attend the church of a different tribe and they attempt my music, they will fail. Have you ever heard a traditional organist play a modern worship song? It always sounds lame (meaning lacking authenticity)and that’s not even a ethnic difference. So, when we blend tribes into one congregation, how do we create an authentic experience? The sending culture (let’s say Black, Pentecostal) has to adapt a song in order to make it accessible to the receiving culture (White Presbyterian). So what do we change and what do we keep? In the end, each culture has to sacrifice the right to authentic worship music in order to have something better: authentic relationships.

I rambled a lot and didn’t answer most of my questions. Can you help me to process this? Did this create any questions in your mind?

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Music is Language

I had to write a one-page paper this week that will be included in the summer ministry packets for our Summer ministry teams. Here’s my first draft. We’ll see if Andrew Stern approves.

Music is Language. When you play a note or a chord, you communicate with someone who listens and processes that information to derive meaning. Even without lyrics, a song can make you laugh or cry, get angry or feel at peace. Language is universal, but languages are born in the context of specific cultures. In order to communicate to a specific culture, you have to learn the language, and it follows that when you perform music in a specific cultural context, you have to make sure that you can speak a little bit of that culture’s musical language.

Here’s an example, from our experience at New City Fellowship. African music is composed an performed in a cyclical pattern. Like a turning wheel, a song continues through time with very little variation or development. To Americans, this music can sound coarse or even annoying  like a skipping CD or a car alarm. However, to the African culture this music speaks clearly of the beauty of the cyclical nature of history and time. Americans can grow in their understanding of that dynamic through participating in African music.

In the summer, we have teams of youth groups and family groups that come here from all over the United States, to grow and learn through visiting some of the inner city communities of St Louis. We have “Backyard Bible Clubs” in which local Christians invite these teams to come to their block to play games, do crafts, and to share simple Gospel presentations for the children. The teams also participate in our summer tutoring programs. Both of these activities involve some music for fun and for worship. However, many of these teams bring songs from their cultural context which can fail to communicate effectively. A song that works in a suburban context might not speak in the same way in an urban context. When a team comes to stay in our community this summer, they need to come prepared with music that will communicate in a conversation.

I have created a demo CD of songs that in my experience have been very effective (fun and engaging) for kids in the inner city. These songs incorporate ingredients from the music of the inner city culture (minor tonality, syncopation, repetition, call and response, back beat, rap, hip-hop). In anticipation of how these songs will be used over the summer, they can be performed unaccompanied, or on acoustic guitar if necessary.  This CD of songs will be included in the packets that are sent to the teams for this summer.  My hope is that these teams will try to learn 3 or 4 songs from the CD in order to not only communicate love to the kids who they are going to be interacting with, but to also grow in their appreciation of this culture learning more about the process of becoming the reconciling Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus.

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