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Listen to the Word: Deafness and Participation in Spiritual Community

Managing Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf  Studies during February 2012.–LMS

"Church" by Flickr user silent short under Creative Commons license

Growing up I attended many religious services. As an adult I attend church services less often, but it still stands out to me that sound is an essential part of the traditional Christian religious service. Participation depends upon listening, responding, and singing. If the service (or mass, as I knew it growing up in the Catholic faith) reminds us we are a community of people with common religious beliefs, our participation in the rituals is a manifestation—a ratification if you will—of our belonging to that community. (Last month David B. Greenberg talked in our podcast series about how sound—specifically listening to religious services while on the road—allows Christian truck drivers to feel like they are a part of a community of faith.) In addition to singing and responding, there are several sound metaphors that imbue the experience of being a churchgoer: the references to the Word of God, discussions of how God will listen to our prayers, the insistence that we need to listen to what God was trying to tell us, even a parent’s admonishment that one sit still and be quiet while the preacher talks…in sum, to be a practicing Christian requires a lot of listening.

However, in Deaf culture (defined by music researcher Alice Ann Darrow in her article “The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Implications for Music Educators” as “composed primarily of congenitally deaf adults who communicate through sign language rather than speech” but is not limited to them) this takes another shape. When I visited the Deaf International Community Church, located in Olathe, Kansas, I realized that deafness complicates what it means to listen, especially in terms of religious services.

The Deaf International  Community Church (DICC) has been holding services in Olathe since 2010, according to journalist Dawn Bormann from Olathe News. They emerged from a deaf ministry at a local Baptist church, but are nondenominational. At the moment the DICC holds services at the Center of Grace, a rented space. The services are open to the deaf, the hearing impaired, and those who hear; however, the services are geared toward the deaf community.

As I walked into the Center of Grace in late January,  I was surprised to be welcomed by sound. I heard and saw people talking and signing—sometimes at once. Music played loudly from within the temple, and parishioners milled about. I was not sure if I should walk in and not talk to anyone or if I should just act casual. I suddenly felt very subconscious about my sense of hearing. I found an empty pew toward the back—after all, I would be taking notes and didn’t want to interrupt—and sat there, observing my surroundings. Shortly after, Pastor Debbie Buchholz, one of the spiritual leaders of the DICC, walked over to me and introduced herself, putting me at ease.

When the service started, the same woman who had just spoken to me stood in front of the congregation, signing her words. In front of the crowd a voice interpreter spoke for  Pastor Debbie. The effect was unexpected: the hands gave life to words, to sounds, to language while the disembodied (from my angle) female voice translated into sound what Pastor Debbie signed to the crowd. It took me a while to get used to the new sound of the pastor. I had only spoken briefly to Pastor Debbie, yet it seemed surreal to hear another voice speaking for her.

I meditated upon the fact that language is conceived in terms of the arbitrary relationship between signs and sounds. A letter sounds a certain way. Put letters together and you put sounds together. Letters (and their sounds) make words (a compilation of sounds) that designate an object. In this sense, sound is closely connected to making sense of the world. Even though we can create sounds with objects, our bodies are constantly creating sounds as well. The sounds of words come from our lungs out through our mouths and to our ears as they designate people, places, things, and ideas.

At the DICC service, sound—something that we conceive of as naturally emanating from bodies—was disconnected from language. In the Deaf culture language is transformed into hand gestures. Swinging a finger, shaking a hand, pushing down a palm, these small gestures stand in for sound— or stand apart from sound. Even though for me, growing up Catholic, participation came in the guise of listening to the priest, singing along with the congregation, and repeating the prayers, here participation came through hands. They sang with their hands, they prayed through their hands. Being in the DICC service reminded me of how natural and normal we take sound to be. In that space, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my voice, and of sound’s relationship to language.

This brings me to PhD student and Sound Studies scholar Steph Ceraso’s HASTAC blog post on listening with your whole body. In her post she uses an interview with percussionist Evelyn Glennie as a way to reflect upon listening practices and the ability to listen with more than one’s ears. Evelyn Glennie, according to Ceraso, engages in a restrictive sound diet where she sometimes, voluntarily, eliminates sound from her environment in order to become more aware to sound. Ceraso’s words on multimodal listening resonate with me, and put my visit to the DICC in perspective. The DICC service showed how deafness can make sound studies scholars reflect upon the role of sound in our society—and more importantly, how we listen and communicate.

Also, Ceraso’s ideas about multimodal listening make me think about what other ways the deaf congregation at the church listens. If listening is a form of spiritual/religious participation, multimodal listening accounts for how the parishioners participate in the service. The body, including the eyes, become a gateway into absorbing the message (the Word of God) and in that way demonstrate alternate ways of listening.

For this spiritual community, the need to worship in their own language brings them together, but so does the Deaf culture. During the service they prayed together for an end to discrimination against deaf people and hoped that God would help those newly born in deafness. As I prayed with them, I realized that the congregation comes to DICC not just for religious guidance but also for affirmation of their humanity and their culture. The space of the church is a place to recharge spiritually but also become socially empowered.

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.

Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway

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This podcast examines the prominent role of audio in the daily spiritual practice of Christian truck drivers. Using the lived examples of these drivers as an entry point, this segment explores the ways in which listening practices help to establish community and ground spirituality for individuals who spend long hours on the road.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Sound and Spirit on the Highway


DOWNLOAD A TRANSCRIPT: Sound and Spirit on the Highway Transcript


David B. Greenberg is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied religion, with an emphasis on Modern American Religious History. This podcast draws from his ethnographic research study, “Highway Religion: Truckstop Chapels, Evangelism, and Lived Religion on the Road.” David also performs and records as a singer-songwriter, and currently lives in New Jersey.

Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices

"Altar Call" by Richard Masoner)

I grew up the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in the Northeast. . .New Jersey, to be exact. And it was this particular religious and cultural world that gave me an appreciation for what music – and sound more generally – can do to move people, to have them inspired and changed. I’d like to expand on Regina Bradley’s recent post,  OutKast and the Sounds of the Southern Black Church,  and her theorizing of sound and space by remixing, spinning and scratching it, by grounding my reflection in a specific religious tradition in which I am most familiar. Thus, I want to use Black Pentecostalism in the United States and its performance of song and sound to better understand and critique the ideas of authenticity and voice we find in the performance of groups like OutKast.

Bradley’s piece traces Outkast’s borrowings from the Southern Black Church; I want to ask, what if borrowing from a common store is a way of theological life, not as theft, but as a means to producing a social world where sound and song are both gift and object of exchange?  The concept of authenticity is a peculiar problem for music performance because implied within it are questions of who has the right to perform certain sounds and songs, or more pointedly, can any one group or even individual “own” a set of sounds and songs?  I think that within the sound world of Black Pentecostalism (though not exclusively there) is the idea that music and sound exist in a public zone, a zone that is fugitive and insurrectionary. The public zone of music and sound experienced in Pentecostalism problematizes authenticity, ownership and the question of who can reproduce such musics.

The notion of the public zone helps us to understand the so-called authentic voice differently.  Rather than it being the “ground zero” instance of purity or the discovery of some sort of truth or “essence,” I think of authentic voice as fundamentally a social experiment.  The performance of song and sound from the public zone is a social experiment in that singing and sounding out are tentative, improvisational processes and they arise to the performance’s occasion. The social experient of utilizing song and sound produces inflection, accent, and most importantly, critical distance from other performances.  Perhaps authenticity is not a reaching toward a foundational claim of origin/ality, but is a reaching outward, an extension, a centrifugal dance and play that seeks escape and refuge, creating sonic spaces in which one can inhabit that are, at the same time, the public zones in and through which contact occurs.

Consider, for example, the 1893 song “I Must Tell Jesus”


And the way in which Vernon Price approaches and touches on the traditional version of the song, especially by withdrawing from and touching off it.

[William Ellis & Vernon Price]

Price’s play is most pronounced, I think, by the way she leaves the song undone, at a particular height, swell, spiritedness. Price left the song as it was – as a social experiment – available for others to enter into performance with her in the space of the refused lyrical end.  Jesus can help us…Jesus (…) Refusing to sing the sounded word “alone” functions not merely as a placeholder, but as a reworking of the performance itself. In leaving the song undone, she leaves it critically open. At the end of Price’s incompletion, the organist’s chording changes tonal centers, from major mode to reflective minor with augmented and suspended chords or what Bradley might call, “takin’ em to chu[r]ch.”

"Dancing in the Spirit" by Richard Masoner

But and also: Price could not contain the song to the lyrics.  Words don’t go there.  She screamed, she spoke in tongues, she used melisma, slurred speech, bent notes and exaggerated forms of vibrato.  That is, the song itself functioned as a point of transition, as a vessel to be filled with voice as she was a vessel of outpouring.  Giving, taking, in the same breath, the same sound.  She did not, it seems to me, desire to sing the song “correctly” and her performance of authenticity was not about the reproducibility of the traditional or “original” version. Just as the organist changed tonal centers at the end of her undone performance, so too singing from this Black Pentecostal religious, cultural public zone shifts epistemological centers – knowledge – of what is and is not singing, acceptable, holy.  Her sound broke down the structures that mark her notes as “bent” and her vibrato as “exaggerated.” A normative mode of “correct” or “proper” singing from within this public zone would be to stifle creativity, surprise, discovery.

As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics. The sonic public zone becomes, for Vernon Price’s improvisation of “I Must Tell Jesus,” a point of departure, where the song and the sounds she makes in it socialize, network, change. Songs and sounds, from within this zone, are available for a public engagement; the song and singers are both capacities to be filled, emptied and filled again.  And I think the theological imperative of modern Pentecostalism – that the Holy Spirit fills the individual is important for performance tradition [this difference is indexed by the divergent questions: “did you see so-and-so catch the spirit” versus “does so-and-so have the Holy Ghost” and “when did you get filled with the Holy Ghost?”].  One is filled with the capacity to be filled, with the fullness of the spirit that is made evident by giving it away through song.

Vernon Oliver Price

As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics.  The sonic materiality of Price’s performance rubs up against and caresses, spins and spins off the performances that come previous to that moment in that church. This does not mean that she insouciantly called up the traditional in order to dismiss it. That would imply that Price was both lacking in attention and intentionality. What I think Price makes evident is how any performance of any song – the traditional “I Must Tell Jesus” included – occurs fundamentally within a social context. Any such performance – its “first” or the many that have come after it – are conduits, bridges. What we have then, by way of a sonic public zone, is a space that privileges the accrual of sound and song as a mode of sharing.  The song was not created in order for Elisha Hoffman – writer of “I Must Tell Jesus” – to keep it. He got the song to share it and Price performed it to redouble such sharing. To be in a state of ecstasy is to be “beside oneself” and Price’s singing forced the song into ecstatic posture. Not only was she “beside herself” in praise to God, but she caused others to be beside as well, creating a new space for the beside of each self to celebrate and praise together.

Price riffed on the original, quickened herself to quicken others. She screamed because the heightened emotion moved her. And that heightened emotion moved others as well.

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“Take ‘Em to Chuch”: OutKast and the Sounds of the Southern Black Church

Advertising for Outkast

In 2006, I ventured into Hoosier Country. I found myself in the middle of…nowhere. And I was depressed. No, not because I decided to move to Indiana all by my lonesome on a huge leap of faith to pursue a graduate degree – I was too smooth for that – but because I found myself in a town where I couldn’t watch Outkast’s debut film Idlewild. Where they do that at? I am a Southern-bred, Southern-fed kinda girl. And Outkast was my muse. Hell, as a certified Down South Georgia Girl, all things Georgian were my muse. I planted my feet in red clay. My soundtrack was Organized Noise, the production team and heavy hitters that worked with OutKast, Goodie Mob, and a slew of other folks out of a rinky dink house basement that would later become known as the Dungeon (Family). I took pride in being from the Dungeon. And here I was, hundreds of miles away, frantically trying to find a theatre that would, if only for a brief 90 minutes, thrust me back into that familiarity of Southern life.

Of course, OutKast (comprised of members Andre Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) is hardly considered strictly Southern today. However, their 1994 release Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik shattered perceptions that Southern Rap was an oxymoron. In fact, OutKast’s initial sound updated tropes of southern black resistance and retaliation, fusing a lethal mastery of lyricism and flecks of a contemporary Southern culture too easily dismissed by non-Southerners. Calling upon and subverting the stereotypical traits of the Southern black voice – drawn out, slow, and heavy – OutKast sets up shop in hip hop by showcasing a rich history of Southern flair and homegrown sounds. The album made this intervention at the precise moment when hip hop became much more accessible to a mainstream white American market and the idea of being “post-Civil Rights” gained cultural traction. Combining narratives of being young, black, and frustrated with a sonic backdrop that includes an instrumental arsenal of horns, harmonicas, organs, drums, and bass, OutKast challenged and reconfigured how Southernness, Americanness, and contemporary black experience sounded at the turn of the millenium. Their initial releases seem to pick up the question of what it means to be displaced, Southern, and black after the South settled from its liberatory movements, pulling from the voices, images, and music of Southern protest like the Freedom Singers or Sweet Honey in the Rock and fusing these sounds with hip hop.

Andre Benjamin Onstage in 2003, Photo by Tulane University Public Relations

In order to discuss how they challenge and reconfigure notions of Southerness, Americanness, and contemporary black experiences, we should look at their musical nods to the black church. OutKast draws heavily on the Southern black church through sermon-esque flow, call and response, and snatches of “chuch” (lose the ‘r’) music. The black church is a staple in OutKast’s sound, reflecting what Guthrie Ramsey refers to in Race Music as community theatre, a site where “cultural, communal, and family memories associated with forms like music often become standards against which many explore and create alternative and highly personal identities for themselves” (33). The Southern black church provides such a site for communal and collective memory not only in Outkast’s music, but in African American history. Celebrated and upheld as a site of refuge from an abrasive and openly racist white supremacist environment, the black church provided a safe haven for freedom of cultural expression and social commentary unavailable in Southern white public space and discourse. OutKast challenges this older, static definition by updating its purpose to reflect the shifting social climate of the late-20th century American South. While they continue the resistance narrative tradition by bringing their marginalized experience to the forefront, they also sonically reorient mainstream views of contemporary Southern black life.

Instantly recognizable across OutKast’s recordings, their funky blend of sacred and secular musics–the blues, gospel, and hip hop–give sonic texture to something quiet-as-its-kept in black churches, how the so-called “bad” folks still come to church on Sunday, even if they were unholy on Saturday night. OutKast plays upon this unspoken understanding in songs like “Jazzybelle” from 1997’s ATLiens, “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” from their 2000 release Stankonia, and the straightforward “Church” from SpeakerboXXX/The Love Below (2003).

A particularly striking instance is heard on “B.O.B.,” a song which brazenly discusses issues that are often reserved for closet prayer and silent suffering. As Andre weaves a lyrical assault on the poor conditions of living in the black working class:

One-Nine-Nine-Nine, Ano Domini, anything goes, be whatchu wanna be

Long as you know consequences are given for livin – the fence is

too high to jump in jail

Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – HOT!

Get a life, now they gon’ sell

Then I might cast you a spell, look at what came in the mail

A scale and some Arm and Hammer, slow grow grid and a baby mama

Black Cadillac and a pack of pampers

Stack of question with no answers

Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS

Make a nigga wanna stay on tour for days

Get back home, things are wrong

Well not really, it was bad all along

Andre rhymes across an instrumental blend of bass and the church organ, inundating his listener’s ear with agency and anger. The church organ is as angry and explosive as his flow, with riffs and keys banged out loudly, quite different from the soft accompaniment often heard in a church setting. By heavily utilizing the organ and church choir at the end of the track, chanting “Bible music electric revival” OutKast subverts and updates the celebrated Black Church Revival, a gathering of church folk and the lost, swinging church music to give a voice to the marginalized black working class. The hybrid, urban sound of “B.O.B.” provides a space for the reclamation of a disenfranchised southern African American narrative that blends the suffering trope mandating much of African American religion with current trends in cultural expression reflected in Hip Hop. In Idlewild (which I FINALLY saw a year later, by the way), Andre and Big Boi visually annotate their secularized black church by creating an imagined community in rural Georgia that revolved around the jukejoint Church. OutKast’s audio-visual syncretism paved the way for later acts like Pastor Troy, who secularizes tropes of black masculinity and leadership in the black church, likening them to the struggles of being at war with those who don’t understand the struggles of a young black south.

The black church provides OutKast with a blueprint for reconciling displacement and authenticity by creating a sound that maneuvered a Post-Civil Rights landscape of shifting markers of social-economic identities and race. By connecting the historical context of the Southern black church with Hip Hop, OutKast’s sound reflects not only the historical residue of a pre-Civil Rights Movement South but also the constant search for a space of expression in an era where a stagnant or nonexistent “modern South” is a popularly comfortable disbelief. Perhaps this is why I was so desperate to find a theatre showing Idlewild; I found myself a geographically displaced Southern black youth searching to situate and sustain a new layer of my own post-Civil Rights narrative.

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