Transnationalizing Religion Through Music

David W. Stowe

I'm recently back from a stimulating few days in Montreal, whose own university sponsored a lively conference on Transnationalization of Religion Through Music. It's interesting being an English speaker in a French-speaking city in America, attending a conference many of whose papers and discussions took place in French. A little humbling as well. Not surprisingly, many of the papers dealt with locations, traditions, and musical forms outside of the Americas.

How large did America loom in the proceedings? Well, given that the conference was all about tracing transnational flows, location becomes a little tricky to specify; everything is fluid and in motion. Much of the work was done by ethnomusicologists and involved close study of particular, mainly diasporic, communities. But the musics and religions most often originated on another continent before migrating to the region under analysis. By my count, roughly 5-6 papers concerned religio-musical practices occurring in each of the following: Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America. So the Americas attracted a fair chunk of scholarly attention.

Since readers of this blog likely are most interested in North America, here are some of the religious sounds we discussed that flowed to that region: Moroccan Gnawa music and Ethiopian gospel in Canada; Hebrew psalms, Egyptian Coptic music, and Hindu festival Chhau dance performed in the U.S.

Other papers dealt with the flow or influence of religious music originating in the U.S. A couple of papers investigated the flow of Ira Sankey's 19th century gospel songs, in one case to Scotland, in another to the Mizo people of North India. American-style gospel music was traced to the Lisu population of the China-Burma border, to Kenya, and to Ethiopia. By now it's dubious to refer to hip-hop as American music; it's been thoroughly indigenized around the world. Several presentations dealt with religious rap in transit--in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, Israel. Papers also examined flows of music over the Internet, involving Ethiopian, Iranian, Indian, and Brazilian religious music.

Kay Shelemay of Harvard kicked things off effectively with a keynote address that questioned the common sense opposition between nostalgia (read conservative and traditional) and newness (read innovative and open to border crossing), highlighting her own fieldwork on religious music of the Ethiopian diaspora. Then it was off to the races for three days of presentations and performances. Kudos to the hardworking people of the Observatoire interdisciplinaire de creation et de recherche en musique.


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