The centrality of music to the Black religious experience

I’m sure I’ve written up this incident here before but cannot find it. It points to the centrality of music and esp of rhythmic music in the Black religious experience even though many African-American churches eschew the core of that, which is possession. We attended a UU church whose membership was very White, upper mid-west, a bit elderly. Nice music but not Black music. We invited my wife’s cousin to go to church with us. She is very much a church lady and went with her big church hat, all dressed up. What she encountered was not that. Lots of flip-flops and shorts, although the older people dressed up a bit.

Everything was going along OK (later she said the sermon sounded like a lecture – compared to the fire-breathing sermons she was used to, it was) and then the congregation stood to sing a hymn. As it started up I was standing right behind Christine. She is a bit broad in the beam and I noticed her hip twitching. It took me a minute to realize she was trying to find the beat. After entertaining myself a while watching this exercise in frustration, I did as a good cousin should (have right away) and leaned forward and whispered, “Christine, there’s no beat.”

“Oh,” she replied.

She’d probably never been in a church where the music wasn’t highly rhythmical with cross-rhythms expressed through hand-clapping and foot-tapping and tambourine-slapping. Lots of scholars have written about this but it still escapes people that this behavior goes in an unbroken line, through Vaudou, Santeria, Candomble, and all the possession cults developed by the enslaved Africans, back to the possession cults of West and West-Central Africa. The purpose of the music, esp the rhythm, is to induce possession by a god; in the North American setting it became the Holy Ghost.

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