Linda Neale's Blog

Songs in Ceremony

Linda Neale - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A member of our Women's Medicine Wheel ceremony recently asked me to write about songs.  She is not a singer...yet. Thank you, Carolyn, for encouraging this post.


If you grew up like I did, you were taught that songs were "composed" by certain gifted individuals, like J.S. Bach, Mozart and John Lennon.  Then, after much practice, they were "performed" by talented individuals and groups like the New York Philharmonic, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles.  If the songs were  performed well enough, then the rest of us who were not involved in the performance would clap to show our appreciation, and purchase the recording so we could hear the experts sing it over and over again.  Although some of us may sing a song in the shower for our own enjoyment, or sing along quietly with the choir in church,  those of us educated in the modern Western Culture usually approach songs from this performance model. 


I never even considered that there could be a different way to use songs   until quite recently -- the last twenty years or so -- when I began learn songs from various native cultures, and use them in ceremony.


In early indigenous societies, songs were rarely, if ever, sung as a performance.  They were sung for ceremony, in prayer, to call on the spirits, for healing, and to honor something or someone.  This is still the case many places. For example, in 2006 Rod and I visited a village of O’odham Indians (Rod’s tribal group) who had stayed in Mexico thousands of years ago, while others migrated north to settle near the Gila River in Arizona. Music and dance were as much a part of their daily lives as eating. In the evenings, the people would gather in the plaza to listen to the violin, guitar, and accordion and to dance their traditional dances. One evening I was in the plaza with a few hundred Mexican O’odham Indians, some O’odham Indians from Arizona, and three or four non-Natives. The music started and a few people rose and danced, their hands on their hips and their feet moving in a complicated way that seemed impossible to me. When the song was over, I wanted to clap to show my appreciation. I hit my hands together once, then noticed that everyone else was silent. They looked at me strangely, so I quickly placed my hands by my side, wondering why no one recognized the performers or expressed their appreciation in any detectable way.


All evening people took turns dancing while others played music, but there was never any acknowledgment of the musicians and dancers by the others. I interpreted this reaction as a lack of appreciation, so the next day I asked one of the younger violin players why the audience never clapped. He responded that what I was witnessing was not a performance. The listeners were not an “audience,” but rather they were an integral part of the event, just as the musicians and dancers were. The evening’s music and dance was a ceremony -- everyone had a role to play and no one role was better than any other. Without the listeners, the ceremony would have been incomplete.


The music and dance was not the polished perfection that we are used to seeing in modern society.  It was heartfelt, it was real, but it wasn't without flaws. 


How can we use this lesson from the O'odham people of Mexico?  So many people from my culture are afraid to sing, afraid to pray, afraid they are not "good enough", afraid they will do it "wrong".  Maybe that's one reason we seem to have abdicated our prayer and song responsibility to the priests, ministers, the professionals.  I admit to having been one of these fearful people. It took much conversation with myself before I changed my attitude and realized that God  wasn't going  to judge me on the quality of my voice, or how close to the King James version of the bible my prayers sounded. Worrying about "sounding good" only inhibited my connection to spirit.


In ceremony, songs have a use.  They call the spirits in, they send the spirits home, they greet the morning sun, they honor something or someone, they are prayers.  So once again, like with so many aspects of ceremony, it's about intention.  Sometimes songs are only sung by certain groups at certain times in certain ceremonies.  For example, I know a song that is only to be sung by women at the full moon.   Sundance songs are specific to that ceremony -- they are not to be sung at pow wows, house blessings, or other places.  That's one reason why it rarely feels right to sing songs in English at native ceremonies -- the songs weren't created for them.


So what does that mean for those of us who don't know any native songs?   What do we sing?  Well, we can learn some native songs from singers who know where the songs come from, we can wait and Listen and see if songs come to us, or we can adapt existing songs based on their perceived intention. I've used all three of these approaches.  For years I have asked elders to share songs with me, and many of them were happy to do so.   I always ask if I can share the songs with others -- often the answer is yes, but occasionally that permission is denied.  Sometimes conditions are placed on the sharing of the songs, like "only with people who attend the sweat lodge", or "only with women", or "only sing this song during this particular ceremony."  When I share the songs, it's then my responsibility to pass on those conditions. Native songs are quite different than European songs, and some people find them difficult to learn.   However, with the advent of modern recording equipment, all sorts of native songs are recorded and available to everyone,


There are people who are "composing" music, in English, for new ceremonies.  My friend and sundance sister, Debby Gregg, wrote "The Women of the 14th Moon" when that ceremony first began in California twenty-five years ago, and now it is part of every 14th Moon ceremony around the world. There is a new wedding tradition called the "sand ceremony", and specific songs have been written for it as well.

It's often difficult to adapt songs originally designed for performance or for a Christian church service to a specific ceremony.  Recently, however, chants have been written that are more easily adapted for women's ceremonies.  Some of them are old druidic songs, or chants translated from a native language.  It's easy to find these on the internet; one place to start is right here.


So, all you budding ceremonial leaders. SING.  Remember, "You all have a gift.  It's free.  It's the gift of song." Don't worry about how you sound.  Use your voice.  Remember your intention.  And, as Rod would say, "learn to listen, and listen to learn."




Anonymous commented on 13-Mar-2013 02:33 PM
I learned its not about "audience" years ago when a
Swami i knew got up from a circle of people listening to a guitarist play. The young man had composed the piece for the Swami,especially. we were all shocked when the Swami left. Later I noticed the guitarist and the Swami sitting contently under a tree and the young man was playing his guitar. I inquired later what had transpired and the guitarist told me that the Swami said to him that he chooses not to listen to entertainment. I never forgot that lesson: singing, praying, speaking.

Post a Comment

Captcha Image

Recent Posts