Occupella

Carol sent me a link to the Web site for Occupella, a Bay area a capella singing group. Occupella describes themselves as follows:

Occupella organizes informal public singing at Bay Area occupation sites, marches and at BART stations. We sing to promote peace, justice, and an end to corporate domination, especially in support of the Occupy movement. Music has the power to build spirit, foster a sense of unity, convey messages and emotions, spread information, and bring joy to participants and audience alike.

There’s a link to their Facebook page, where various people have posted tons of lyrics, videos of songs, etc.

If there’s so much singing going on, why is it that at every protest march we have to endure the interminable protest chants in 2/4 time? You know those stupid protest chants: Hey ho, We won’t go, etc. — which repeat over and over and over again ad nauseum, and which make me want to chant in response:

Hey ho, let’s not chant
Those tired old political rants.
And hey ho, the drummers suck,
I mean to say, WTF?
And hey ho, let’s sing instead,
These protest chants are tired and dead.

Music tends to deflate and subvert boring ideological lyrics, so even the most didactic protest song is always better than protest chants. Therefore Occupella gets my full support (for what little my support is worth):

More joy,
Less ranting,
Sing real loud
And drown out chanting!

What, Christmas carols already?!

There are some good carols that don’t appear in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. One of my faves, “O Tannenbaum,” isn’t in the hymnal, and I realized that I had made a PDF file of the sheet music (with a decent English translation of the original German words), sized to fit on a half-sheet, perfect for an insert in an order of service. There’s probably someone out there who could use this PDF, so here it is:

“O Tannenbaum,” PDF file

Um, “MC Yogi”?

Driving home late at night, I was flipping through the radio stations at the low end of the dial, and happened to hear an interview with a yoga teacher who calls himself “MC Yogi,” and who has issued a yogi hip hop album called “Elephant Power” (after Ganesh, natch). Here’s a video “MC Yogi” has released on Youtube:

In a way, it’s kind of fun that someone is using hip hop as a medium to talk about Hindu gods and goddesses. But it also makes me uncomfortable. If you check out some of the live videos of MC Yogi on Youtube, you’ll see a bunch of fit white people in expensive yoga togs shaking their yoga bodies at a retreat center somewhere far from the inner city predominantly black neighborhoods where hip hop was born. That cultural dissonance makes me pause; then throw in comic-book stories about Haruman and Ganesh, and I’m beyond pausing and into discomfort.

Singing school, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our Sacred Harp singing school at the Palo Alto church: we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

Historical note: The singing school was a regular feature of eighteenth century American life, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in America outside of urban areas. The singing school continued through the twentieth century in the rural South in the tradition of Sacred Harp singing (so named because the tune book used by the tradition is titled “The Sacred Harp”), and today is enjoying a revival outside the South in northern and Western cities, and abroad in Ireland, England, Australia, and even Poland. The singing school remains an excellent way to teach people how to sing, which is why I brought a singing school to our Unitarian Universalist church in Palo Alto.

This is what you get when you raise your kids in a UU church

As a religious educator, when I watch kids grow up as Unitarian Universalists, I hope that when they become adults they will be thoughtful and critical of the world around them, they will value the arts, and they will have a sense of humor. Like this:

“A Song.” Written and performed by Eli Grober.

(Click through and leave your comments for Eli on YouTube.)

Millennial hymn for our times

Back in the early nineteenth century, Richard McNemar wrote a hymn commonly called “Babylon is Fallen,” which was included in the 1813 Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises. It is a hymn with typical Biblical apocalyptic imagery, probably based on Revelation 18.21 ff. Today the hymn is most commonly associated with an 1878 tune by W. E. Chute, and the Roud Folksong index number is S227926.

But the words most commonly sung today, e.g. in folk music circles and by Sacred Harp singers, are not the original words; four of the original six verses get ignored, and a third verse (probably added when Chute wrote his tune) is tacked on. I like the original words better, and when I read the first three verses, it feels as though the hymnodist were describing the current financial meltdown in the U.S.:

1. Hail the day so long expected!
Hail the year of full release!
Zion’s walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace:
From the distant coasts of Shinar,
The shrill trumpet loudly roars,
   Refrain
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

2. Hark, and hear her people crying,
“See the city disappear!
Trade and traffic all are dying!
Lo, we sink and perish here!”
Sailors who have bought her traffic,
Crying from her distant shore,
   Refrain

3. All her merchants cry with wonder,
“What is this that’s come to pass?”
Murm’ring like the distant thunder
Crying out, “Alas! Alas!”
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles!
Priests and people, rich and poor!
   Refrain

Continue reading “Millennial hymn for our times”

The last of my general assembly reporting

A few last posts by me on the uuworld.org GA blog:

Scholars of color assess UU history, report on brief talks by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, Rev. Monica Cummings, and Rev. Patricia Jimenez.
Music and cultural change in UUism, interviews with UU musicians Nick Page and Jeannie Gagne.
Commission on Appraisal continues study of ministry and authority, covering the Commission on Appraisal’s report to GA, and brief interview with Megan Dowdell of the Commission.
Moderator’s report: All of us working together, covering Gini Courter’s report to GA.

As before, comment here, or comment on the posts themselves.

(Earlier links to my reporting are here, and here.)

Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.

Because someone asked…

Yes, I sing Sacred Harp music every week in Berkeley. Yes, beginners are welcome. And a great place to check out this wild, raucous, loud, centuries-old genre of indigenous American music is the upcoming all-day singing on Saturday, April 23, in Berkeley — the 7th Annual Golden Gate All-Day-Singing. I know of several beginners who will be singing with us on April 23 — plus a former lead singer of a grunge-core band, a Grammy-award winning singer of medieval music, a K-6 music teacher, a church organist, a singer-songwriter, a couple of old folkies, two or three academics, and several dozen ordinary people.