December 07, 2007

Me Musical Meander

Music from both before and after I monked me


I came to the monastery in August of 1981. I celebrated my twenty-third birthday before that year was out. Since I don’t listen to the radio, my knowledge of popular music goes up to that summer, with a few exceptions (that aren’t or weren’t really popular, at least not among the general public or more “normal” Americans— more about that later).

While we were on retreat this past week, I did some cleaning of my room.

I have some CD recordings of music: some Latin chant, Western classical music, music from different cultures. I took some of these to the “up-for-grabs” table in our community recreation room.

I also went through files on my computer. I came across the iPod downloads I got last Christmas season when I was working in a parish rectory. My brother and his wife gave iPod Nanos and giftcards to everyone in the family that Christmas. I went online and used the giftcard to buy music I was familiar with— stuff from before August of 1981, stuff from my years in junior high, high school and university. Like....

“Hawai’i Aloha,” a Hawaiian-language “love anthem” for Hawai’i and its people. Get Hawaiians together, begin playing this, they’ll all join hands and sing... it’s worse— or better— than holding hands at the Our Father (I don’t approve it) on a Cursillo retreat. What would I know about Hawaiian culture? My family lived in Hawai’i from 1969 to 1973, and then, while living in San Diego, in high school and university, I was in a Hawaiian music group.

Several Hawaiian kahiko (ancient) drum chants. These are poems, often held to be sacred, chanted to the rhythm of a drum or other percussion instrument. One of the recordings I have is of a rare performance of a ho’o’uwe’uwe (“weeping”) chant: the chanter groans the words through his own somewhat racking sobs. The sobs are not faked; the chanter descends into actual emotion.

Also on my computer, and also from my “Hawaiian” days: various Tahitian drum pieces, and some Maori pieces, too (like the “Ka Mate” for the haka dance made famous in recent years by the New Zealand All Blacks team).

“Celebration,” by Kool & the Gang.

“Killing Me Softly,” by Roberta Flack.

“Eres Tu,” by Mocedades. I recall that this song from Spain won the Eurosong contest. I was in high school.

The album “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.”

“Longer,” by Dan Fogelberg.

“American Pie,” by Don McLean.

“Saturday in the Park,” by Chicago.

“Shambala” and “Joy to the World,” both by Three Dog Night.

“Maggie May,” by Rod Stewart.

“Midnight Train to Georgia,” by Gladys Knight and The Pips.

A few Filipino folk songs.

I also had downloads of stuff I meandered into during the years after I entered the monastery, like...

“I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Singers. Although I think this was (maybe) from “before my time,” I was captivated when I heard it in a car commercial that aired while watching the TV news a few years ago.

The “Kyrie” from the African “Missa Luba”— but, unfortunately, I was not able to find the original recording by the African (Belgian Congo?) boys choir that is much more ALIVE than the “polite and professional” rendition I found by the Muungano National Choir of Kenya. I first heard the original on a 33 and 1/3 RPM vinyl record we had when I entered the monastery. It’s all in Latin, but with African melodies, rhythms and percussion.

“Cairo to Casablanca,” an album of pan-Arabic, North African music that my imagination would describe as Moroccan town bazaar with Bedouin tribal feast morphed to get onto an imaginary pop music chart from 1979 (yeah, late-Disco and some Reggae). I found it a couple of years ago in the gift shop of the La Brea Tar Pits Museum. (Me Monk. Me Meander. Especially on day off when living and working in a parish rectory.)

“Tribute to the Elders,” an album of Northern Plains drum songs by Black Lodge, an award-winning Blackfeet tribe family group. I bought it at a powwow. Powwows are great family events. The Indians ban alcohol at the powwow, judging that it introduces impurity to the drumming, singing and dancing. I once saw an elderly Indian woman call over an Indian man to help her gently escort a drunken Anglo tourist lady out of the powwow area. The powwow begins with a ceremony honoring the American flag and veterans in a dance procession. A powwow is usually a Friday to Sunday event, with drumming, singing, and dancing throughout. There are booths featuring crafts, art, music, jewelry, food.

We Benedictines have our own solemn (ornate) Gregorian version of the “Salve Regina.” However, the monks of Einsiedeln Abbey (continuously existing since its foundation in A.D. 934) in Switzerland have their own FIVE-part harmony for it, and they sing it “a cappella,” i.e., with no instrumental accompaniment, in their Shrine of Our Lady after daily Vespers. The Einsiedeln “Salve Regina” is well-known in Switzerland, what with the monastery’s Lady Shrine being a national pilgrimage center, and it could be considered a national musical treasure. I lived in Einsiedeln for the summer of 1990 while I was studying in Europe.

Three pieces from the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings”: “Into the West,” “The Breaking of the Fellowship” (which includes the song “In Dreams”), and “May It Be.” When I helped and lived in a parish rectory (mid-2003 to early this year) I watched the DVD set of “The Lord of the Rings” several times. What did the film trilogy do for me? It affirmed my values as a man: manly virtue, integrity, self-sacrifice. It portrayed beauty, life, truth, joy, unity (“fellowship”)— that men (united in fellowship with hobbits and elves) fought to protect and regain. It was imbued with symbolic Christological themes: prophet, priest, king, servant, even resurrection. It also has Marian themes (Tolkien himself, the devout Catholic author of the story, affirmed that). It even had a sort of Eucharistic theme.

One of the most unusual things I‘ve ever heard (even more unusual than a Hawaiian sobbing chant) is a traditional Mongolian “long song” by a Mongolian woman who does things with her voice that I would have never thought could be possible (or human). It’s on the “Silk Road” album that the cellist Yo-Yo Ma put together.

The album, “Call It What You Like,” by Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu. He did the music for Disney’s movie, “Lilo and Stitch.” Due to his way of rendering ancient Hawaiian chants, he’s considered by some Hawaiian traditionalists to be a “heretic”: he uses melody variations and percussion rhythms that are more complex than— and thus depart from— those of ancient Hawaiian tradition.

As a Catholic, a monk, and a priest, what I am doing with this abnormal variety of music?

First of all, being a Catholic, a monk, and a priest is abnormal. I don’t mean pathological. It just is not the norm. How many Americans have so much as seen a Catholic-monk-priest in person?

Secondly (if I could receive permission to do so, and if I were silly enough to want to), I would bet a lot of money that I’m the world’s only Catholic-monk-priest with this kind of music collection.

Well, what’s it do for me?

Except for the pieces from Western pop music (I survived the seventies), it fits in with my experiences of cultures that have retained some unbroken sense of ancient historical tradition, cultures that still consciously express reverence through prescribed rituals devoutly received from the past. I sense that it has contributed to my personality and character, enriching my sense of physical bearing and grace in carrying out, celebrating the Church’s saving Eucharistic worship as a priest.

I say that without having tried or wanted to impose non-Roman cultural expressions onto celebration of the Roman Rite. I’m a member of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, and I grew up in Western culture. I don’t personally need to “inculturate” the Roman Rite for myself outside its historical matrix of Western culture. If a man from a different culture needed to do so, then, by all means, let him do it in those ways that the Roman Rite itself allows and specifies— the Roman Rite allows each nation’s body of bishops to make certain local decisions about some, not all, aspects of the liturgy (after all, there does have to be some real historical center that honesty respects, otherwise we selectively replace real history with arbitrary mythologies).

Whatever is authentically beautiful and dignified in human culture is authentically beautiful and dignified, and is a sign of the Holy Spirit that God breathed into our nature at creation. It is true that original sin and subsequent sins have introduced degrees of distortion into human nature and human cultures.

However, God the Son himself took personal, physical membership in human nature TWICE: at his conception and at his resurrection. Between conception and resurrection, Christ’s transfiguration filled physical human culture with light: human “culturing”— cultivating— of animals and plants, human culturing of sheep-wool and plant fibers into threads and yarns, human culturing of yarns into woven cloth, and human culturing of fabric and spun thread into garments. At the Transfiguration of Christ, even human culture— even the handmade garments of Christ— together with the human body, gave off the light of unearthly glory. Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29.

Whatever is authentically beautiful and dignified in human culture can claim now to have Christ’s membership in it; and, by claiming Christ authentically, human culture becomes even more beautiful and more dignified, losing some of the distortion from sin.

I close on that note, but only after passing through at least Polynesia, Mongolia, Switzerland, and Arabic North Africa by way of the La Brea Tar Pits.

More proof that Me Meander.


6 Comments:

Anonymous Bob Farrell said...

You gotta watch more college football. The haka has now been made famous by the Sugar Bowl-bound UH Warriors. They once even received a 15-yard penalty before the game even started for doing the haka this year.

GO BOWS!!! (They'll always be the "Bows" to me no matter what their sports marketing department calls them).

9:27 PM  
Blogger gemoftheocean said...

"“Eres Tu,” by Mocedades. I recall that this song from Spain won the Eurosong contest. I was in high school." Okay, your penance for causing me agony for even reminding me of that stupid song: You have to hum "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone" 5 times. While on your knees. Since it's Advent the broken glass doesn't have to be as sharp as if it was Lent.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous poulette said...

If you want to experience some fantastically (and authentically) beautiful sounds, try Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. Thracian harvest songs that have a truly otherworldly sound, but the most accessible songs would be Polegnala et Todora or Mir Stanke Le. Then I would highly, highly recommend early South American Catholic music (pre-baroque) from the album Villancicos y Danzas Criollas, esp. the truly lovely San Sabeya Gugurumbé or Ay que me abraso, or else from Florilegium "Bolivian Baroque, volume 2". A-mazing.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

"Eres Tu" is not so bad as:

My heaRRRts
on fi-yerrr
fer Elvira.
OOM papa!
OOM papa!
OOM papa !
Pow! Pow!
Giddyup!

2:42 PM  
Blogger gemoftheocean said...

You're just LUCKY I wasn't drinking a glass of eggnog when I read your Elvira remark! I'd have passed a whole cow through my nostrils. In high school and college my friends and I used to really let 'er rip on country western songs:

"Ya picked a fine time to leave me Lucille,
FOUR HUNDRED CHILDREN and a crop in the field..."

No wonder she left him. [We *knew* it was allegedly "4 hungry children" but still...]

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Greg Cranham said...

Didn't know this had morphed into a listing of really bad songs. I have a few candidates, but I'll spare you the reminder of those. Just glad you stopped off at The La Brea Tar Pits (literally "The The Tar Tar Pits"). I've made many geo-pilgrimages there, and was able to set up a "Desert Rat" field trip meeting with the chief paleontologist. Just picture Dire Wolves roaming down Wilshire . . .

- Greg Cranham

2:59 PM  

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