Segment 23 – American Buddhist Folk

Guitar-pickin’ monks and bluesy Buddhists are our topic today. Listen to us chat about the cultural flexibility of Buddhism here:

We played a couple of American Buddhist folksy tracks: ‘Yashodara‘ from the Venerable Heng Sure; and ‘Zen Gospel Singing‘ from Bryan Bowers.

Buddhism, throughout its couple of millennia of history, has exhibited an incredible ability to adapt to new areas.There are plenty of stories of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) meeting and converting the local gods of new areas – a pretty clear allegory for the process of co-opting and converting the local culture. Every time it has encountered a novel culture, Buddhism has succeeded in co-opting parts of that culture and incorporating them, creating unique Buddhisms in every part of the world. As a result, Chinese Buddhism looks very different to Sri Lankan Buddhism – and they both look very different to American Buddhism. Especially since the 1960s, Buddhism has been growing in America. This is partly a result of immigration from parts of Asia, and partly a result of ‘white’ Americans converting. These Americans obviously take their own cultural background with them when they go to Buddhism. As such we are seeing ‘mantra songs’ emerging in a wide variety of American popular music genres. Buddhists welcome these cultural products that are simultaneously distinctly Buddhist and distinctly American; it is simply the latest in a long process of regionalisation and slow morphing in the Buddhist tradition.

The Venerable Heng Sure was born Christopher Clowery, a white Methodist. He converted to Buddhism in grad school in the 60s, and is best known for conducting a 2.5 year ‘bowing pilgrimage’ – where he bowed to the ground every two steps – across half of California, for world peace. In 2008 he released an album of American Buddhist folk songs. We played ‘Yashodara’, in which he takes Gautama’s choice to abandon his wife and newborn son to live a holy life as an ascetic, and depicts it as an act of supreme love. “When I get free, I’ll come back for you,” he sings. Not sure where I stand on that one.

There are plenty of other American Buddhist folk artists out there. Ravenna Michalsen is often mentioned as an example of a contemporary American Buddhist singing mantra songs in distinctly American styles. Check out Tricycle for a great magazine looking at Buddhism from an American perspective.

We also played a track written by Mark Graham and performed by Bryan Bowers called ‘Zen Gospel Singing‘. I thought this was genuine when I first heard it – a poignant tale about the realities of converting to Zen Buddhism and still wanting to sing gospel music. Now I’m fairly sure it’s a parody! Either way, it’s interesting to hear the Buddha being praised in old time gospel tunes.

Rad Religion is off for another two weeks, but we’ll be back with more fascinating religious-cultural mash-ups in December.


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 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!