I’ve described my shape note adventures of the past two days on my Sacred Harp blog. Here are links to part one and part two. Probably not of great interest except to those shape note afficiandos, or those with an interest in traditional Southern culture.
Update 6/19: And here’s part three.
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.
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.
Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, poses an excellent question regarding the upcoming General Assembly (GA) of Unitarian Universalists: “What might we show or teach one another in the hallways and cafés of Charlotte?”
My answer: I really want to share some Sacred Harp singing at GA. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s “theologically incorrect,” but it’s rockin good music that draws in punk rockers — Grammy-winning performers of medieval music — avant-garde sound artists — young urbanites — folkies — and just ordinary people like you. This is whatreal hymn singing sounds like: loud, raucous, unrestrained, by turns mournful and ecstatic.
I kinda doubt there will be many Sacred Harp singers at GA, but if you’re one, let me know, and let’s see if we can set something up.
We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:
Here’s a close-up:
Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.
Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”