Investigating the Cross-Cultural Connection Between Music and Religious Experience
by Robin Sylvan
Music fills the air and deep rhythms lock into an irresistable groove. Swept up in the beat, the dancers enter into profound altered states of consciousness, surrendering to the ecstasy of trance. Powerful energies move through their bodies as gateways to the spirit world open and they feel the awesome presence of the sacred.
Sound familiar? Many of us have had these kinds of life-changing, almost religious experiences on the dance floor at psychedelic trance parties or other electronic dance music events. But this description could just as easily be an account of ceremonies that take place among shamans of Siberia or possession dancers of West Africa. While it may be a revelation for many who live in contemporary Western culture that the combination of music, rhythm, and trance dance can be a powerful source of religious experience, this phenomenon is actually very old, and and has been found in almost every culture around the world throughout the ages. A secret life of trance has been hidden in the West, an ancient tradition of ecstasy that is our heritage, an underground stream of spirituality we can tap into when we enter into psychological entrainment on the dance floor.
Shamanism: Our Oldest Religion
Shamanism may well be our
oldest form of religion, going back over 50,000 years to our days as hunters
and gatherers. The shaman is a strange and charismatic figure, someone
who has died and been reborn, who can travel to the spirit worlds, and
who functions simultaneously as priest, healer, and diviner in the community.
The key vehicle used by the shaman for spirit journeys and healing work
is the drum,
which is often conceptualized as a horse that the shaman rides. A
loud and steady continuous beat moves the shaman into a trance state, enabling
travel to the underworlds
upperworlds, conversations with medicine animals and spirit beings,
encounter with death, retrieval of lost souls, and healing powers or visions.
Once a religious complex that spanned the globe, shamanism is still extant in Siberia, Lapland, and Central Asia. Parts of this complex can be found in diverse cultures like the Huichol Indians of Mexico or the indigenous Bon-Po religion of Tibet.
West African Traditions
In the shamanistic trance state, the shaman's spirit travels out of the body into the spiritual worlds. In the possession dances of cultures like the Fon and the Yoruba of West Africa, this directionality is reversed: the spirit beings travel from their worlds into the body of the dancer so that they can be physically incarnated and present in this world. In these music-religious traditions, the rhythm of the drums also plays a central role. Gods or deities(called loa among the Fon or orisha among the Yoruba) have their own distinctive rhythm and chant that is played by a small drum ensemble. The priests and priestesses dance for long periods of time, entering into trance states, until one or more of them is possessed by a deity, usually signaled by shaking that comes over the possessed dancer. The personality of the dancer disappears and is replaced by that of the deity. The dancer's face, body language, movements, and behavior change dramatically. When the head priest or priestess identifies the possessing deity the possessed dancer is dressed in the appropriate clothes of that deity and will then conduct healings, consultations, or divinations. Many dancers can be possessed at the same time and the proceedings can get quite intense. After returning from the possession state, the dancer has no memory of what happened.
When the Fon and the Yoruba were brought to the Americas in the slave trade, parts of this musico-religious complex made their way into African American religions like Vodun, Santeria, and Candomble, the black churches in the U.S., and even into seemingly secular musical strains like the Blues, which forms the foundation for much of today's popular music.
Tuning the Bodily Systems
The traditions of the Fon and Yoruba are just two of countless traditions across the planet in which music plays a central role in triggering deep religious experiences. It is no surprise that music and religion are so closely linked. Both are multi-dimensional phenomena that simultaneously integrate many different levels of reality. At the physiological level, for example, music creates a shift in the body's various subsystems & heartbeat, breathing rate, muscular activity, brainwaves, nervous system, etc. When the music is strongly rhythmic, it 'tunes' the rhythms of all of these bodily systems and synchronizes them, especially if one is dancing to the rhythm. On top of this synchronization, certain musical techniques then amplify the physical effects to create 'peaks,' particularly the combination of accelerating the tempo (accelerando) and increasing the volume and instrumental density (crescendo). At the psychological level, this peak often translates into the induction of trance states in which the day-to-day functioning of the psyche is restructured: the ego and rational mind are bypassed, strong emotions and feelings are invoked, and powerful altered states of consciousness are accessed.
Traveling between Physical and Spiritual Worlds
These states are linked to
symbolic meanings implicit in the organizational structure of the music.
Certain melodies or rhythms can create associations with the external world,
people, places, events, or even whole cultural systems. One obvious example
of this is the first time each of us 'got it' on the dance floor of a party;
from then on, hearing that music triggers an association with that party
and the meaning that experience holds for us. More importantly, music can
also create associations with the internal
world (or worlds), opening into virtual
of the imagination
that are intrinsically connected to the realm of the sacred. In other words,
music establishes a link between this world and the spiritual world, and
provides a vehicle for traveling between them.
As we have seen in many cultures, the use of music in a ritual context is often specifically designed to do this. Thus, in Indian traditions, for example, ìthe musical notes are the physical manifestations of the Highest Reality termed Nada-Brahman. Music is not a mere accompaniment in religious worship; it is religious worship itself. This demonstrates the integration of the physical, psychological, socio-cultural, symbolic, virtual, ritual, and spiritual levels are all merged into a unified field. There is no separation between music and listeners and dancers, subject and object, mind and feelings and body, physical and spiritual worlds and beings; there is only a seamless multi-dimensional continuum of ecstatic musical experience. It is this extraordinary musical realm we touch into every time we hit that peak on the dance floor and all those dimensions and worlds and beings are present within the unified field of that experiential state.
Reaching Back to the Future
Electronic dance music parties
can bring us into contact
this continuum and the experience can be profound, even transformative.
Yet, what we are experiencing are baby steps compared to the sophisticated
knowledge and techniques of this musico-religious terrain that has evolved
thousands of years. These traditions know the contours of the landscape
intimately, the energies and entities that inhabit it, how to travel to
precise coordinates and call specific beings and, perhaps most importantly,
how to use the incredible powers that are generated for healing, counseling,
divination, and the restoration of harmony.
There is a great deal these traditions can teach us that can make our gatherings more powerful and connected at a spiritual and ritual level. At the same time, we are also contributing something innovative and fresh to this ancient heritage of musical trance. The new kinds of sounds and complex compositions produced by our contemporary artists using electronic tools allows us to travel to new varieties of trancescapes. The added effects of immersive multimedia environments, not to mention more sophisicated understanding and use of psychedelic drugs (including new designer drugs) adds up to a new chapter in the long history of trance experiences. The cut and paste hybridized nature of the musical and cultural production techniques reflects a sophisticated postmodern sensibility that can process the vast amounts of information of the contemporary world in a creative way.
Finally, there is the matter of where the foundations
an alternative global culture that transcends outmoded divisions of race,
class, ethnicity, gender, and nationstate are being built on the dance
floors of our parties. So, while we respect and celebrate our roots in
the ancient heritage of trance music, we are also taking the tradition
forward to the next level of manifestation in the new millennium.