Segment 20 – Day of the Dead

Today we tried to get ourselves immersed in Mexican culture with the quirky traditions of la Día de los Muertos. Hear us chat about it here:

We played a couple of traditional Mexican tunes to get in the mood: ‘Cruz Olviada‘ by Dorance Ospina and ‘Vamonos‘ by Lila Downs.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico that goes for two days, 1-2 November. The basic idea is celebrating the deceased. People make altars in their homes or visit the graves of their loved ones and conduct various ritual practices to attract their spirits and commune with them. A big part of it is offerings: people leave sugar skulls with the deceased’s name inscribed on their forehead; they cook the deceased’s favourite food; they print pictures and write message to the deceased. Other little idiosyncratic items are also left, like toys for children or little bottles of tequila for adults. Then they play music, dance, have picnics and so on around the graves. It’s sad, but celebratory at the same time.

The tradition can be traced back to the indigenous practices of the Aztecs and other native peoples of central America. These people did not see death in the same way as Europeans – it was just another stage of life. The Spanish invaders had a different reaction, thinking that they were mocking the dead with their use of skulls and so on. They saw it as inimical to the Catholicism they were trying to evangelise and attempted to suppress the celebration, which at that time went for a whole month in about August. Ultimately they gave in and decided to appropriate it instead, moving the holiday to November 1-2, the dates of the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (known in popular Western culture as Halloween). These holidays are also about communing with the dead, so the move was successful. Now, Catholic elements are spread through the celebrations: masses, prayer vigils, rosaries, images of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Over time the holiday has changed shape, and it is celebrated uniquely in different regions across Mexico. In 1910 a cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada made an etching of a rich woman as a skeleton, named La Calavera Catrina (displayed). She has gone on to become one of the defining images of the Day of the Dead. In fact, depicting people as skeletons is a common cultural practice associated with the festival. Cartoonists regularly depict public figures as skeletons, for example. People also write tongue-in-cheek, mocking epitaphs for their friends or other public figures, as if they were already dead. This kind of open, irreverent approach to death is sorely lacking in contemporary Western societies.

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, check out the Holy Kitsch stores in Newtown and Surry Hills for all manner of brilliant and surprising Day of the Dead-related paraphernalia!)

Next week we’re going somewhere very different – Punjab – and looking at Sikhism. Surely some of them make rock music, right?


Segment 19 – Zen Jazz

Flow, oneness, connection, selflessness, immediacy – all of these notions are central to both Zen Buddhism and jazz improvisation. Hear us chat about the links here:

Tracks we played were ‘Rita‘ by Jazztronik, and ‘Kogun‘ by Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Zen is great fun – it’s whole aim is to mess with your understandings of logic and your normal view of the world. Although Buddhism began in India, the Chan school can be traced back in China to the 6th Century CE; from China it worked its way to Japan, where it became known as Zen. According to the stories, the founder of Chan/Zen was a chap named Bodhidharma (pictured). He’s usually depicted as a hairy, wild-eyed barbarian, which gives you a sense of Zen’s underlying ethos. He was also a madman, by most people’s standards: he sat staring at a cave wall for nine years, cutting off his eyelids after seven to ensure he didn’t fall asleep. In another story, a student kept coming to the cave to be taught by Bodhidharma, but the master wouldn’t take him seriously until the student had cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity. Yup.

The basis of Zen is direct insight, not mediated by logic, texts, teachings, dogma and so on. Enlightenment is taken from nirvana (a perfect state to be attained upon death) and placed in satori – brief flashes of enlightenment that can be experienced in life, when the right practices are cultivated. One practice is the study of koans, which are little nonsensical stories or teachings. A famous one asks, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ In another, a student asked his master, ‘What is the true meaning of Buddhism?’ to which the master replied, ‘The cypress tree in the courtyard.’ Ideally, these apparently illogical tidbits will snap you out of the strictures of quotidian logic and allow you to experience satori.

You may have also seen the phrase ‘Zen in the art of … gardening/tea-making/painting/archery/etc.’ The idea is that with intense practice, any of these tasks can become a form of meditation. When you become utterly absorbed in them, you are able to let the essence of Zen flow through you, so to speak, and again experience satori. It is here that we find similarities with jazz. Jazz improvisation is all about being ‘in the moment’, being ‘at one’ with your instrument, the audience, the world and so on. Improvisers strive to lose their sense of self while playing, letting themselves become their music. “Like Zen, jazz develops a loose, all-embracing awareness of its subject and a lack of premeditation that allows the musician to suddenly strike the right note.” Playing your instrument becomes the meditation, that allows you to transcend your normal thinking and experience and ‘tap into’ something else.

[I should note that this heightened state is experienced by performers of all stripes, from rappers, to sportspeople, to artists. Psychologists have called it flow,and it can be likened to what many would dub a ‘religious’ experience.]

The artists we played today are Japanese jazz artists. Although they don’t draw on Zen teachings or principles directly in their music, the parallels between the Zen and jazz experiences are commonly drawn in Japan. Toshiko Akiyoshi is characteristic of a kind of Japanese-jazz fusion, drawing on some traditional Japanese instruments and melodies in her music.

I wrote about Zen on an old blog of mine many years ago. The koans and stories in this post primarily come from D.T Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Our neighbouring radio programme which also deals with religious music, ABC Radio National’s The Rhythm Divine, have also spoken about Zen jazz.

Next week I’m going to try to find some music that’s associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead – wish me luck! And you can keep getting these posts each week by subscribing on the right –>

Confused about Zen? You’re not alone. One disciple said to his master despairingly, “I cannot follow your reasoning.”

“Neither do I understand myself,” concluded the Zen master.

Segment 18 – Hindu Rap

Take some Indian mythology and put it to a beat, and you’ll get today’s topic – Hindu rap. Listen to the segment here:

(NB: The tracks are now included in the audio here, due to changed agreements between community broadcasters and the music industry. Yay!) The tracks were ‘Ganesh is Fresh‘ by MC Yogi and ‘Siva Siva‘ by Yogi B and Natchatra.

Rap is effectively words spoken rhythmically, and ostensibly has its roots in Africa. It is often linked with hip-hop however the latter is much broader than rap – developing in New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop became a generic lifestyle or culture, including graffiti, breakdancing, as well as the grooving beats of hip-hop music. Both hip-hop and the style of rap are gaining popularity in India, now being common features of Bollywood films.

MC Yogi is not Indian, however – he is a Californian yoga instructor, “a working class mystic,” who draws on a huge range of influences to engender a spiritual experience through his music. He reads the Bhagavad Gita daily, apparently, and his music is deemed to be “devotional music.” In his own words, “it’s a sonic trip, a journey toward the self, toward what yoga masters call the Supreme Soul.” Yoga (etymologically related to the English ‘yoke’) means more in Hinduism than it does in the West. A yoga is a discipline, a path to the divine – and the physical, stretches-and-exercises-type yoga that we know of draws on only one such path. Thus MC Yogi can say that his goal is “a full, authentic, transformative yoga experience … on the dance floor.”

Others are also trying to spread their messages using rap, such as Yogi B & Natchatra. They are Malaysians of Tamil descent, and are leading figures in the Tamil rap scene. They sing in multiple languages, including English, and their outfit is not overtly religious. The track we played, however, certainly is: it takes the form of a long prayer, effectively, singing the praises of a number of Hindu gods. The song focuses on a certain depiction of Shiva called Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (shown above). Through his dancing Shiva is attributed the power to both destroy and create the world. Quite an appropriate god to dance to, then?

Some Hindus disagree. While there is no worldwide, official institution of Hinduism, there are obviously people who are more conservative than others. On one site, Hindus were responding to tracks like these, saying rap was “more suited for a political statement” than praising the gods; one commenter even suggested that Hindu rap was a “desecration of the divine.” It is interesting that a style of music is accredited such symbolic power, the ability to make the sacred profane, to reduce the glory of the gods to such a degree; while others, like the artists, clearly see no issue here, and see their music styles as their own ways to glorify the divine and spread their message. It is impossible to make blanket statements about religions. As confusing as it is, attention must be paid to individual contexts, and the ways that individuals contest the meanings of the symbols they use on a daily basis.

We’re off to Japan again next week to chat about Zen and its influence on certain jazz artists. Namaste!

Segment 17 – Christian Chiptune

What happens when 80s video games meet Christianity? Here us chat about it here:

Songs we played: ‘Mystic Quest‘ from the Retro Pylits; and an 8-bit remix of ‘Jesus Paid it All.’

Chiptune is synthesised electronic music that either uses or is inspired by the sounds of old-school computers and 8-bit video game consoles. True chiptune actually uses the sound cards from these ageing devices, but these days it’s also done through emulators. The heyday of chiptune was in the 1980s when these games were kicking off – the music was lo-fi, single channel, used white noise for percussion, and so on. But it’s had a resurgence in the last decade, with chiptune sounds being mixed with pop and house aesthetics. It’s a wonderful combination of dance music culture and computer game culture. As the Retro Pylits once tweeted: “Dance it up and geek it out!”

The Retro Pylits, from New Mexico, are one of the few chiptune outfits out there who explicitly identify as Christian. They cite God as one of their ‘Influences’ and have songs and albums titled Crucifixion, Spirit, and other Christian-inspired names. While Christianity is not exactly evident in their music – chiptune does not tend to have lyrics, and their music is pretty consistently like a retro video game – they frequently refer to their faith elsewhere. A quote from their Twitter profile summarises the mash-up that we covered today: “We kill Nintendos and Segas. Music paying tribute to salvation.” So chiptune can be prayerful. Ah, the modern world is brilliant.

I also tracked down an 8-bit remix of the popular Christian hymn, ‘Jesus Paid it All,’ from the YouTube profile of Halo44327. The above image comes from the video for the track. The hymn was originally written by Elvina Hall in 1865 in Baltimore, Maryland. The refrain is, “Jesus paid it all / All to him I owe / Sin had left a crimson stain / He washed it white as snow.” It became very popular and covers have been made in many many styles. Just imagine what good Ms Hall would be thinking if she heard the chiptune remix – makes you wonder what twists and turns will be exacted upon today’s cultural products in the centuries to come.

I’m sure the god Shiva is thinking the same thing about next week’s topic: Hindu rap. Remember to click follow in the right margin if you want to keep in touch with Rad Religion!

Christian Spoken Word

Recently we’ve seen a bunch of Christian spoken word (that is, performance poetry, soft rap) videos on YouTube go viral. They often speak to the ‘cutting-edge’ of Christian theological and social developments – or at least, what is popular among some tech-savvy, plugged-in younger Christians. Our first one is called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”

This video caused a huge stir when it was released in January this year (2012). At time of writing it has 22,167,394 views on YouTube and has garnered 123,580 comments, showcasing all the normal vitriol and passion that YouTube seems to draw out of people. The poem was written by Jeff Bethke and produced by Christ is King Productions, a Christian hip-hop production house.

In the video Bethke expresses his disdain for something he titles ‘religion,’ claiming that Jesus represents its opposite. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what Bethke means by ‘religion.’ Although many would take it as meaning organised, institutionalised religion, Bethke denies this was his intention. “If you are using my video to bash ‘the church’ be careful. I was in no way intending to do that,” he wrote. “The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife.”

Instead, ‘religion’ comes to have a very specific meaning in Bethke’s theology. “I meant religion equals any work of righteousness that has someone hoping to earn favour with God,” he told HuffPost in an interview. “Religion is man performing for God. Grace is Jesus performing for man. That fact humbled me, broke my heart, and changed my life.”

However convoluted Bethke’s own word usages are, the sentiment ties into a long historical development of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Bethke wasn’t the first to say Jesus Hates Religion. From the Reformation onwards, as Western society has become steadily more individualised, we’ve seen Christian theology take the same route. It’s not about following a priest, you don’t need any mediator, you only need the Bible and your own faith, it’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus – this has been the message of Protestant Christianity from the moment Martin Luther rejected the structures of Catholicism. Bethke is ultimately repackaging radical Protestant theology for a new, YouTube-connected audience.

“Religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket,” Bethke says in his video, it’s just “a long list of chores,” like decorating a mummy while “the corpse rots underneath.” There’s something eerily similar in these images to one presented in this next video: “This is us: heap up your good deeds. Chant. Pray. Meditate. Well all of that of course is spraying cologne on a corpse.” Check out “Life in Six Words: The GOSPEL.”

The artist here is rapper Propaganda, in a video produced by Dare 2 Share Ministries, a Colorado-based organisation dedicated to “sparking the fire of evangelism” among young people.

The video ostensibly summarises the message of the Gospels into a six-word acrostic poem. But, of course, no act of summarising is passive: what is ultimately produced is a particular interpretation of Jesus’ message, one that draws on particular historical streams of Christian thought. The primary thrust of the video is that “sin cannot be removed by good deeds,” only by faith in Jesus. This is the doctrine of sola fide, or grace by faith alone, and it is one of the major points of difference between most Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church (thanks again to our old friend Luther).

So don’t strive to be a good person, say our contemporary YouTube preachers. That’s not what Christianity is about. It’s only putting on a mask. After all, Jesus has done everything for you already – you just need to believe that. I just hope the good deeds sneak back in somewhere.

Pakistani Truck Art

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the most curious and distinctive things about roads in India and Pakistan are the trucks – because they are all decorated, beautifully, with bright colours, finely detailed images, intricate tassles, and carefully written messages. It is a uniquely beautiful and fascinating expression of popular Islamic culture.

Image credits: Various examples of Pakistani trucks, the 2006 Melbourne Tram

In Pakistan, truck decoration is a veritable industry. In the port city of Karachi alone, 50,000 people are employed in truck decoration. “Practically every truck is decorated,” says Jamal J. Elias, probably the world’s foremost expert on Pakistani truck decoration. (Oh, academic specialisation is a wonderful, tragic thing.) “Truck culture is so pervasive in Pakistan.” It has become a dynamic, visible expression of Pakistani folk art.

And it’s really expensive. In a country with a GDP per capita of only US$2,800, spending over $30,000 on a new truck and then almost the same amount for decorations, which need to be re-done every five years, is a serious investment. It’s no wonder that the drivers are intensely proud of their trucks, lovingly caring for them and keen to show them off. But why bother?

An economist would say it is advertising. The more highly decorated a truck is, the more likely it is to be chosen to do a job. If every truck is decorated, yours must be too if you want to compete. This may well be the case, but it glosses over the deep significance the decorations can have for the driver. The paintings are a way for the drivers to comment on their families, their religion, and Pakistani society. They are seen as visual reflections of the driver’s lifestyle and identity.

The decorations are highly symbolic, with frequent recourse to religious imagery. But this immediately becomes interesting, considering that Islam is “generally considered an iconoclastic religion,” meaning that it prohibits the visual depiction of religious subjects. Such a prohibition in not mentioned in the Qur’an, but derives from certain hadith (a series of supplementary sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad). Theological justifications say that there is no Creator but God, and that visual depictions of the divine can lead to idolatry.

But the human propensity towards artistic expression is difficult to suppress. Whole streams of Islamic art avoid the prohibited Muhammad but instead depict secondary characters from the Qur’an and Islamic teachings. One subject that is particularly common among Pakistani trucks is Muhammad’s steed Buraq, upon which he made his night flight to Jerusalem (the reason why the Dome of the Rock is where it is). Buraq is usually depicted as a winged, donkey-shaped creature with a woman’s head and a peacock’s tail. Such depictions of trucks ostensibly act as protective charms.

Other favourite religious subjects for trucks include Muhammad’s horse, various famous Mosques, and Arabic calligraphy. Written messages of adoration are permitted in Islam – explaining the opulence and intricacy of Islamic calligraphy – and indeed, “Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck.” Folk symbols like fish (representing good fortune) and women’s eyes (representing beauty) are also common. And all this is squeezed on there next to secular images such as film stars, Pakistani flags, and poetry. Fascinatingly, there are unspoken rules and traditions about what kinds of designs go on what parts of the truck. This is a complex, fully-formed folk tradition, replete with symbols drawn syncretically from religion and popular culture, all combining into a unique communicative system.

The tradition has also been seen internationally. For the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the city of Melbourne had one of its trams decorated in full Pakistani style.

For more information on this fascinating folk-religious-artistic tradition, check out this New York Times article, or Jamal Elias’ book, On Wings of Diesel.

Segment 16 – Atheist Choral Music

“We are One” may look like a Buddhist idea, but it’s also proudly proclaimed by an atheist classical composer named Kenley Kristofferson. Hear us chat about him and atheist choral music more generally:

The two tracks were ‘Cosmos‘ (Movement 3) and ‘We Are Stars‘. [We also played Steve Martin’s hilarious track ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘ before we began.]

So all this began in recent years, with atheists gathering on online forums and finding that a large number of them enjoyed listening and singing choral music. But as the Melbourne Atheists have said, “If you want to sing in a choir, but don’t like religious songs, what choice do you have? Not much.” Some choral atheists would even join church choirs, just looking for opportunities to sing, belting out Handel’s Messiah without believing a word of it. For many this involved a bit of an internal struggle. They loved the music, but disagreed with the content. Especially being asked to sing in church, even leading the congregation, put many in difficult and uncomfortable situations.

Some manage to rationalise their way out of any discomfort, for example by reimagining the specific religious tales into general commentary on human experience – the Jesus story is not about salvation for these choral atheists, but about noble self-sacrifice. One evangelical commentator online claims that such choral atheists are among the most ‘hardened’ to the gospel out there.

Another way to avoid the internal conflict is to adapt the traditional hymns to express ‘atheist’ messages instead. It is here that we see a bit of the angry anti-theism that has unfortunately come to be equated with atheism in the last ten years. The Melbourne Atheist Choir had small contingents singing in the foyer at the 2010 and 2012 Global Atheist Conventions in Melbourne, with lyrics such as, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, / All things live and natural, evolution made them all.”

But tongue-in-cheek parody isn’t enough for some people. There is a general push in the atheist movement towards positive values, with less of an emphasis on the negative, anti-religion stuff. Thus some choristers want to be able to express these deeply-held positive principles and values through music. They want to be overwhelmed by emotion when they sing, to imbue their performances with the passion that religious singers can. Enter composers like Kenley Kristofferson. He writes choral pieces that engage emotions that can be hard to find in the rationalist atheist worldview: awe and wonder.

But of course, these emotions aren’t that hard to generate. The more we learn about the natural world – from the minuscule depths of microbiology, to the simple grandeur of a mountain range, to the inconceivable vastness of the universe – the easier it is to be humbled and utterly compelled by the beauty of the world around us. A quote from atheist astronomer Lawrence Krauss gets us closer to this sense of the numinous:

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

Krauss is drawing here on the imagery of Carl Sagan (1934-96), who is also the primary inspiration for Kenley Kristofferson’s music. Sagan – astronomer and science populariser, famous for works such as Cosmos and The Pale Blue Dot – had a knack for reworking the language of science in such a way that it could inspire beauty and awe. One such quote was, “We are star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” He even went so far as to suggest that “a religion … that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Kristofferson writes, “Carl Sagan has taught me how beautiful science and the universe can be, and that understanding something enriches the experience, but doesn’t take away from the mystery that draws us to the big questions of life.” He transforms those feelings of reverence and mystery into quite inspirational choral arrangements, which are based on quotes from Sagan, such as “the cosmos is also within us” and “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Next week we go in the opposite direction entirely: from atheist to Christian, and from choral to 8-bit chiptune. It’s going to be epic.