Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Music You Don't Understand

Recently, a friend of mine caved in to social pressures and joined Facebook. (It is inevitable. Resistance is Futile. One cannot help but be assimilated into the Zuckerborg.) Excited to show my friend all the fun ways Facebook is useful in sharing interesting articles and things, I posted a video for one of my favorite songs by Amadou and Mariam on her facebook page.

Now, Amadou and Mariam are from Mali and most all of their songs are not in English. Many are in French, but many are also in languages from the Sahelian region of West Africa. After I posted the video, another friend commented and asked "How on earth can you love a song you can't understand?" She then said (tongue-in-cheek) that they could be making fun of folks from Mississippi and we wouldn't even know it.

This got me to thinking. It is true that I really have no idea what Amadou and Mariam sing about. In fact, I have no idea what all the international musicians for whom I have music are singing about (and I have a lot- I have somewhere between 60-70 non-English speaking albums). I assume they are singing about the same stuff other people sing about: love, loss, joy, sorrow, life, death, anger, peace.

This got me thinking about another topic that has passed through my mind over the years. I have A LOT of African artists in my collection, many of whom come from predominantly Muslim countries. I also really like Middle Eastern music a lot. I am QUITE certain that I have plenty of music in my collection that are praise songs. Those would be praise songs to Allah and probably Mohammed. In my Indian music collection, I'm sure I have songs that are praise songs to Hindu deities.

So here's my thought, followed by a question about which I would love to hear people's thoughts: I know people that are Christians and they ONLY really listen to Christian music (or really only read Christian books, watch Christian movies, etc). They do this for any reasons, but I assume it is mostly to express their faith in God. So here's the question: As a Christian (which I am) should I be listening to music that is celebrating a faith I do not practice? Again, I cannot understand most all of what is being said, so I don't know the content of the lyrics. So for instance, if I know an artist is Muslim, don't understand the words, but can clearly see the title of the song is something about "Allah" should I listen to it? On some level, is listening to this music indirectly participating in worship of belief I do not hold?

And back to the original thought, how can you love music that you cannot even understand? Please share.

I would love to hear people's thoughts on either of these questions. I have my own opinion but I'll hold off sharing because I would really like to get other people's thoughts on this (though you can likely glean my opinion from the fact that I own 60-70 non-English speaking albums representing many faiths).

Share your thoughts in the comments section.


Mark S said...

Am I the first one? Really? That's kind of cool... Am I supposed to say 'first'? I think I have seen that before.

Mark S said...

Nope, I was supposed to comment. Let me start off by saying that Chris most certainly does NOT keep it real. I think we can all agree on that.

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

I'll bite. That's a tough question.

For me, _knowing_ makes a big difference. As a teen, I quit singing along with "My Sweet Lord" when I found out what the "hard to understand" words were. (Confession, many songs in English could also be making fun of people from Mississippi and I'd have no idea -- I don't have the ear for mumbled, mushy lyrics.) I also cringe when I find myself singing along with songs like "Love the One You're With" or "Only the Good Die Young" -- songs that strongly poppose what I believe (darn them for being so catchy!)

Humming along, or trying to harmonize with something I cannot understand is difficult, but I will try for the challenge.

You know that I enjoy learning Latin chant, and I use it a great deal in the music for Mass. I don't expect that the congregation will ALL know ALL of what is being said/sung. I do know that the words I am singing are ancient, proven, prayerful, and are part of the patrimony of our Church. I also make an assumption that the congregation will know that these words are part of what makes us distinctive, a link to our fathers in the faith, and are appropriate for the Mass. I am also tickled to learn a new piece, begin singing it at the end of Communion, and hear it coming back at me from a congregant or two or ten.

So, music I don't understand? Depends on the context. Music I _know_ pays tribute to a diety, idea, belief that I cannot accept -- no.

[My verification word is expoot -- a release of noxious gasses?]

K.C. said...

Chris, if you only limited yourself to things that you completely agreed with or believed in, you would be missing out on great music, literature, etc. that could make your life better, and if you are really worried about the religious aspect, maybe strengthen your faith. If one is never tempted, then how do we know that we are moral, good, etc.? So, just enjoy.

baldman76 said...

Oh, KC- I'm not worried about the issue, I just think it's a fun topic with some interesting implications.

And thanks for sharing, St. Liz. When I have more time, I'll jump into the mix with my thoughts and follow-up questions. I don't wanna challenge anyone per se, but I'd like to press forward with some of the ideas that I think are rolled up into the questions.

And Mark, really, I keep it so real you can't even recognize the realness of it.

wagsandpurrs said...

That's a very interesting question. I think if you like the music, well, you like the music.It's not like some rap that advocates killing and raping. You KNOW the music is probably praise music. So, I would enjoy listening to it if I were you.

Erica said...


Eh, music is music and we love music. I don't have an issue listening to music that I know is of another religious orientation. My belief is strong enough that I am not worried that I'm going to change religions because I am listening to it. And especially if its in another language that you don't know, well, then your brain isn't putting the same meaning to it that the people who recorded it are, so I say it's harmless.

If there is music I am offended by or that makes me uncomfortable, then, yeah, I am not going to listen to that. But then there is some times I let free speech lead the way, cause man, I love that new Kanye.

Hi Mark!

Greg said...

In college, I used to love a Catholic hymn called "Lord of the Dance" (confession, I still do). One of my friends, who was VERY Catholic, sweetly took me aside and explained to me that the song appropraited pagan imagery, and in that song Jesus used to be stylized with antlers, in some Christian/pagan hybrid. I remember looking at her after she explained it to me being really upset and asking "Why?" why would she deliberately put a stumbling block in front of me?

So I song that I liked, that brought be closer to God, became a little "tainted" because it was supposedly a song that encouraged something I wouldn't want to believe. But I used it in the right way until my friend decided to "help" me.

I still like the song, and I believe it is good, Catholic music. Now as for songs that are explicitly unChristian, I think part of it does matter that you endorse content you don't believe in. But on the other hand, it is music that lifts your spirit, and you transpose your beliefs and intentions onto music that fits emotionally those beliefs and intentions. In willful ignorance, music remains innocent.

I'd give you about 80% moral correctness.

Erica said...

Also, when I first saw the title of this post, I thought you were being all hoity toity. Like "I like music, but you wouldn't understand."


baldman76 said...

Well, I meant to get back to this earlier, but things are a LITTLE busy these days so it took me longer than anticipated.

So here are my thoughts. The impetus of this post was Pandora. I listen to a lot of African music on Pandora, and as that site is wont to do, it slowly starts to branch out its selections. This one song kept coming on and I really liked it. Eventually, I looked up the artist and found out he's not African at all but Haitian. He's a Voodoo priest and his music is intended to show the beauty and joy of his religion. And that got me thinking- the song I like was not just from another faith but made to actively promote the religion. I admit that it gave me pause.

But I view music as the gateway to a culture. My upbringing focused so much on listening to music, it's just natural that I gravitate toward the musical (and other artistic) expressions of a culture as the entree' into educating myself. I approach stuff anthropologically. When I first started getting interested in Africa, one of the first things I did other than study the map was start listening to music from across the continent. India then interested me- I got a bunch of CDs and started watching Bollywood movies. Then I ended up with a bunch of Arabian music. And so on. Knowing a song is likely a praise song for a faith of which I am not a part doesn't make me worship something other than MY God, but it DOES lead me to an understanding that helps me relate to my fellow man in a deeper way. And sometimes, whether I understand it at all, sometimes the song is just fun, or beautiful, and emotionally engaging. Regardless of the beliefs behind it,it connects with me on a elemental human level. That works for me, too.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and opinions. Feel free to keep it up if anyone feels inclined.