Segment 15 – Pagan Electronic Folk

I tell you what, the web of blogs, artists and festivals that constitute the pagan music scene is difficult to navigate. I’ve done my best to pull a few interesting things out! Listen to me incorrectly using the word ‘paradigmatic’ here:

We played ‘Satyros‘ by Faun, and ‘Silence‘ by Delerium (will explain).

Last time we looked at paganism, I defined it roughly as an umbrella term for the pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe, which have been reconstructed and revivified by certain groups and subcultures in the last 50 years or so. Pagan music tends to fall into two main genres: folk and heavy rock (bizarrely). But with the more general resurgence of interest in folk music going on recently, often incorporating electronic influences, we’ve seen pagan bands doing the same. In a sense, just as they unearth ancient religious practices and make them fit in with a modern lifestyle and worldview, they are unearthing the medieval musical instruments and reworking them in light of contemporary trends.

Faun is one such band. Formed in 2002 in Munich, they explicitly call themselves ‘pagan folk.’ They sing in Latin, Greek, Old German and Scandinavian languages, and they play harps, bagpipes, flutes and so on – but they mix these with samples, beats and synthesisers. According to their website, they “combine medieval and ancient instruments with modern influences to create an enchanting and powerful atmosphere.” Those last two adjectives speak to the open religiousness of their music. They draw on pagan mythologies and religious concepts in their lyrics and try to channel them in their music. Their name – Faun – obviously refers to the very widespread figure in European mythology of the horned, goat-legged man.

Now, when we talk about religious music, there are two ways to look at things. Firstly, there are religious people making religious music – like Faun. But we can also look at the music that religious people listen to and draw meaning from – whether or not the artists themselves share their beliefs. I’ve spoken before on the rich fluidity and openness that characterises pagan approaches to spirituality, making them particularly OK with adopting and drawing on widely divergent and surprising influences. It is in this vein that the blogger at The Wild Hunt suggested that pagans should look beyond their tightly-bound subculture for inspiration. They wrote, “the vibrant sacred music of today, the creative force that speak to our Pagan soul,” can be found among artists that aren’t openly pagan. One example is Delerium, which is listed in a number of lists of ‘pagan’ music despite their not seeming to be explicitly pagan. They are clearly interested in the spiritual, however, with songs and albums called Incantation, Karma, and Spiritual Archives. Their music is hard to pin down, ranging somewhere between “dark ethereal ambient trance” and “electronic pop.” I played the song ‘Silence,’ which features Sarah McLachlan, just because you might recognise the main lyric which pops up halfway through!

I found a bunch of other artists that almost fit the bill for today’s segment. Check out Qntal, Omnia, Katya Chilly, Volga and John McNair for some more folky/electronicy/pagany stuff.

I’ve been dying to do next week’s topic: atheist choral music. Yup.


Segment 13 – Candomblé

This is what happens when a complete outsider tries to explain a distinctly local religious tradition:

The Candomblé-influenced tracks we played today were ‘Patuscada de Gandhi‘ by Gilberto Gil, and ‘Malê de Balê‘ by Virginia Rodrigues.

Candomblé is a syncretic religion, meaning that it blends elements of a variety of other traditions. In this case, it mixes the beliefs of a number of traditional African religions, which were brought to Brazil with African slaves. There is a main god, Oludumaré, who is approached via lesser deities known as orixas. These orixas are channelled, appeased, contacted and instructed through music and dance; there is a “vast repertoire of complex drum patterns that are connected to Candomblé ritualism.” Music is absolutely fundamental to these rituals. The drums themselves are sacred, being subjected to ceremonies involving animal sacrifice during their construction. Candomblé is centred in the state of Bahia in Brazil however there are practitioners worldwide – a total of approximately two million, according to some estimates. They represent a small minority in Catholic (and increasingly Pentecostal) Brazil.

Afoxé “is basically Candomblé with the religion taken out.” Put more precisely, it is a secular manifestation of Candomblé, which takes its rhythms and music and uses them in non-religious settings like Carnivals and dances. Some practitioners of Candomblé frown upon the practice, however it has been very popular since the nineteenth century. An afoxé can also refer to a group of people who play this music in a Carnival. The Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi, having been inspired by the Indian political agitator) are the most famous afoxé, having begun in 1949. They were part of the early 1970s resurgence of Carnival and African culture in Brazil, which is when Gilberto Gil – a musician and now politician – joined the movement. He released the song ‘Patuscada de Gandhi’ for the group in 1977.

Virginia Rodrigues is a Brazilian singer who draws on the rhythms of Candomblé and the choral traditions of Catholicism, producing a distinctly Brazilian sound. She is an initiate of Candomblé and some of her songs invoke the orishas. I found one article which railed against Western critics paternalistically being appealed to her religion as “ethnic flavour.” We mustn’t contribute, following the argument of this article, to the transformation of Candomblé into a quirky cultural product which can be sold to tourists and the mass media by a Brazilian government attempting to construct an ‘authentic’ national culture. It is worth remembering that this is a uniquely local phenomenon that is sincerely held by its practitioners.

Next week’s sincerely and openly approached cultural manifestation is taqwacore – Islamic punk – which has its own fascinating genesis. I can’t wait.

Segment 9 – Filk

This week we’re straying far towards the pop culture end of the rad religion spectrum, with a little known subculture called filk. It’s so much more than science fiction folk music. Hear us chat about it here:

The songs were ‘The Phoenix‘ by Julia Ecklar, and ‘Silver Bullet Blues‘ by Michael Longcor.

Filking began in the 1950s, at about the same time that science fiction (SF) and fantasy conventions began happening. These are huge events where thousands of SF fans rent out a hotel in some specific city in the US – these things always begin in the US – and hold talks, screenings, workshops, signings, drinking games, and so on. Musically-minded fans would occasionally bring along a guitar and sit in a corner of the foyer, casually plucking strings, trading tunes, and eventually scribbling down some new lyrics inspired by the convention around them. Thus the phenomenon was born – and became known as filk after a fan once misspelt folksinging.

Filking really caught on in the SF community – Isaac Asimov even wrote a few filks. It has grown and grown and, like everything, now has a decent-sized internet footprint. But the heart of filk, the true filk tradition, is tied inextricably to SF conventions, and that is where filk really belongs and continues to thrive. Because a recorded track will only ever capture half of the filk experience – filking is intensely social. It is about the midnight-to-dawn filk circle, where large groups of fans sit around, pass around guitars, yell out suggestions, sing along together, workshop parody lyrics, and so on. And it is about the community. The best definition for filk music, in fact, is simply the music that filkers play. It may have started with a distinctly folk feel – and that does continue – but other influences are welcomed; likewise, topics of songs range from historical figures, to Shakespeare, to Star Wars, to Discworld, to computing languages and beyond. Filkers also oscillate between original pieces and revue-like SF parodies of mainstream songs (please, please watch ‘LOL Together‘).

Now to justify filk’s inclusion on Rad Religion, I evoked the scholarly distinction between substantivist and functionalist definitions of religion. Very briefly, substantivist definitions say that religions contain something unique in their substance, that is, they deal with concepts that other things do not: be they supernatural, divine, holy, and so on. But early Buddhism and Confucianism were both effectively atheistic (they both nodded towards the supernatural but told their followers not to concern themselves too much with it) and surely we want to include these in our notion of religion? Enter functionalist definitions, which say that religions do things (that is, they have functions) that other things do not. These can include community building, the elaboration of symbols, the construction of systems of meaning, providing sources of identity, and so on. As you can imagine, under these definitions, a lot of things start to look like religions! Political ideologies like communism, community fervour for sports teams, the myths and rituals associated with ANZAC here in Australia – all of these and more can be treated as religions, or at the very least as quasi-religious.

And it is in this sense that filkers, too, can be seen as functioning in ways akin to a religion. As one commentator put it, recent scholars of Western society are exploring “popular culture’s sacred spaces, the way it creates its own web of meaning, its own rituals, myths and communities.” What is a filk circle if not a semi-sacred space where ritual-like rules apply, a place for open communication and creative exploration? Are not SF and fantasy novels functioning as guiding mythologies for these communal practices?

Having said that, here is a list of filk songs dealing with religion in the more traditional sense of the word. Here’s a pretty famous filk dealing with ‘Old Time Religion.’

Head to Interfilk for info on filk that is far more extensive than what I’ve given here. And check out the website for the Pegasus Awards – the Grammys of filk – for lists of important artists and the best filk songs from the last 30 years.

Until next time, think about all the things you do, all the communities that you’re involved in – how many of those operate quasi-religiously? Or perhaps you think all this functionalist stuff I’m spouting is absolute garbage? Leave a comment and tell me so!

Segment 7 – Rastafari Reggae

We’re heading to sunny Jamaica today, and looking at how religion and music can both be means of social change. Here’s the audio from this morning:

Songs we played: Bob Marley, ‘Chant Down Babylon‘ and Natural Black, ‘Jah Jah Bless‘ [NB: I made a mistake on air when I said that Natural Black is from Ghana, he is in fact from the Caribbean nation of Guyana.]

The Rastafari movement (as it likes to be called, eschewing isms like ‘Rastafarianism’ as Western obfuscations) developed in Jamaica in the 1930s. It is an Abrahamic faith, in that it draws on the same pool of symbols and texts as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the most part, it is a development of Old and New Testament ideas, re-imagined in the context of 1930s Jamaica.

The movement originally grew out of social and political interests. It was inspired by the Afrocentrism of thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, who articulated a common identity for the whole ‘black race,’ calling for them to assert their self-dependence and superiority in the face of ‘white’ Western society. White people were considered to have committed crimes against Africans for thousands of years. The most salient example is the slave trade; especially in Jamaica, where the vast majority of the population is descended from African slaves. There is a need to break the slave mentality and escape from white oppression (or ‘downpression’ in Rastafari speak). Bob Marley sung, “So they build their world in great confusion, to force on us the devil’s illusion.” That is, white people, blind to truth and goodness, have constructed a corrupted system and imposed it upon everyone else. Repatriation to Africa, therefore, becomes a common idea.

The Rastafari movement re-articulates those concerns using Biblical language. Western society is dubbed Babylon, with all its Biblical connotations of immorality, corruption and iniquity. Africa is then referred to as Zion, the rightful homeland of the black race; re-appropriating Jewish notions of the Holy Land. In such a way, the political and social concerns of the community are re-imagined in transcendent terms, giving them greater gravitas.

There are no real Rastafari leaders, and no Rastafari church, however there are a few other elements of its ideology. One is the belief that Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was God Incarnate, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the descendent of Old Testament kings. He was hailed by Rastafari as the one who would establish a holy kingdom in Ethiopia, to which they would return. In 1966 he was invited by the government to Jamaica, where it was hoped he refute these claims and put an end to Rastafari agitations. The crowds at the airport barred him from exiting his plane, however to the government’s chagrin, he did not reject his divinity. Although not Rastafari himself (he was a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian) he in fact gifted Rastafari elders with gold medallions. The epitome of gentle religious tolerance, he would say, “Who am I to disturb their beliefs?” His visit was monumental to the Rastafari Movement. In an important speech to the Rastafari, the Emperor said that they should concern themselves with social change in Jamaica before returning to Africa; a teaching that came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.”

Reggae was being born in the ghettoes of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, at about the same time. Poor Jamaicans – the same people most attracted to the revolutionary Rastafari movement – were listening to American R&B and jazz and blending it with traditional Jamaican folk music and drumming. The musician came to be seen as an agent of social change, bringing the Rastafari message to new audiences. As Marley sung, “Reggae music mek we chant down Babylon.” Indeed, if it weren’t for the international stardom of Bob Marley, who devoutly preaches Rastafari concepts in his music, it is unlikely that the world would have come to know both reggae and Rastafari as well as it has.

Reggae has been, since its outset, a means of spreading the word about the situation of the poor in Jamaica, and a way to challenge dominant Western ways of living and seeing the world. Cannabis use and dreadlocks are, similarly, forms of gentle protest, means of saying, ‘we don’t fully agree with how things have been run so far.’ The Rastafari movement disputed, for example, the drastic concentration of wealth in Jamaica, and called upon the emancipation of the poor. (Marxism, mind you, is derided as yet another ism, another Babylon system.) And by clothing these concerns in religious terms, they achieve an enhanced salience and importance.

A Very Short Rastafari Dictionary (with appropriate Reggae songs):

Jah – God (see Luciano, ‘Jah Deliver Us From All Evil‘)

I and I – replaces ‘I’, as the Holy Spirit is believed to be a living entity that resides in each person (see The Abyssinians, ‘I and I‘)

Babylon – Western society, deemed to be corrupt, immoral, and deceitful (see Peter Tosh, ‘Babylon Queendom‘)

Zion – the paradisiacal homeland, equated with the continent of Africa (see Burning Spear, ‘Zion Higher‘)

P.S. Hindu Jazz next week! No, we will never run out of these.

Segment 6 – Pagan Fusion

Before starting, I would like to admit that I have felt pretty drowned by the wealth of pagan musical material out there. The cultural sphere that we could broadly label ‘contemporary neo-paganism’ is full of overlapping, confused and vague boundaries, syncretism, and a distinct sense of playfulness. I make some pretty crass generalisations here, and freely admit it: we’ve got to start somewhere! I do hope we can return to the neo-pagan world in future.

Hear me get lost in a mess of historical periods and re-interpreted symbols: 

And here are the songs we played on air: ‘Elemental Chant’ by Wendy Rule; ‘Hymn to Herne’ by S. J. Tucker

Paganism is a disputed term, but for our purposes here it can refer to the pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe. It was not a single, unitary religion by any means; there was a patchwork of slowly overlapping systems of gods and rituals and folklore, each of which was unique to its own local area. Some broad tendencies can be identified, however, including: polytheism (many gods and goddesses), nature worship (being connected to the land and attuned to natural cycles), and magical ritual (invoking the gods in times of need through symbols and incantations).

The pre-Christian religion of the Romans was also ‘pagan.’ Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire until the Emperor Constantine converted in 312; Theodosius declared it a Christian Empire in 380. Over the next 700 years the rest of Europe was ‘Christianised’ in a long and confusing series of missions, conquests and political intrigue. The rest, as they say, was history, with Christian hegemony dominating Europe more or less ever since – although things have been changing over the last hundred years or so.

In the mid 20th Century, especially after WWII, disillusionment with the traditionally dominant European cultural modes – be they Christian or Enlightenment-rational – was on the rise. Some people looked East (triggering a chain of events which has led to Buddhist Death Metal, among other things) while other people looked to the past: to paganism. They picked up ancient texts, looked to archaeological evidence, and reconstructed something approximating the old pagan religions. Thus, neo-paganism.

Neo-paganism takes many forms, and there is a real acceptance of individuality in neo-pagan circles, of the form, “I’m a witch, but if being a druid works for you, go for it.” Witchcraft is a specific subset with its own particular history. The dominant source of inspiration for contemporary witches is the Wiccan tradition, with its duotheism of the female (the Earth Mother) and male (the Horned God) divinities. Perhaps we can explore that in detail some other time.

Wendy Rule, born in Sydney but now a resident of Melbourne, identifies as a witch. She plays music for a spiritual purpose, to “bring us in contact with the Divine.” The song we played, ‘Elemental Chant,’ draws on ritual language to evoke a sense of mystical energy and power; when she intones the names of the four elements and says “I stand at the centre and acknowledge each quarter” she is drawing on imagery of the ritual circle that witches draw in order to make their spells efficacious. Wendy explicitly says, in fact, “My live performance is ritual.” She also brings a peculiarly Australian flavour to these ancient European traditions: she is pictured on her website with Uluru in the background, and in one song refers to “Artemis of the Eucalypts.”

S. J. Tucker seems to engage with the neo-pagan community more generally with some fascinating genre-confused music. In the song ‘Hymn to Herne’ she evokes the tradition of the horned hunter named Herne, who haunted (phew alliteration) a certain forest in England. (Here is another story about a man trying to find Herne’s Hollow.) In referring to him as the Horned God, however, she links Herne to a whole panoply of other pagan horned figures, from the Celtic Cernunnos to the Greco-Roman Pan, to the Horned God of today’s Wiccans. Unfortunately, many people today (Christians and non-Christians) tend to associate horned men with Satan; however the pagan imageries actually predate the depiction of Satan as a horned man. The ignorant accusation that neo-pagans are Satanists is, therefore, erroneous and offensive.

There is much much more pagan music out there than these two singer-songwriters can allude to. Perhaps in future we can explore the pagan metal of Inkubus Sukkubus, the syncretic magic of Faith and the Muse, or the electronic medieval sounds of Qntal. Until then, blessed be!

EXCITING NOTE: Steph Liong, my host on 2SER, is taking a much-deserved study break for two weeks, so I will not be on air again until June 14 (when we’ll be looking at Rastafarianism and reggae). Rad Religion will, however, continue unabated! Taking a break from music, we’ll be doing something visual – perhaps some experimental modernist church architecture. Same spot, next Thursday! And remember you can subscribe to the blog on the right –>