Sunday, September 21, 2008

A confession

It's been said before that it's not the finding in life that matters so much as the searching. By and large, I'm inclined to agree with this. For the past several thousands of years an uncountably large amount of people have gone on quests to find God. As a disbeliever I am, of course, bound to believe that not one has succeeded – at least, not succeeded on the main quest. However, I believe that there are large amounts of people out there who have set out to find God and ended up finding themselves instead. Which makes the journey worthwhile.

In the caves of Afghanistan lie the remnants of the Taliban organisation, a school of militants who once controlled the whole country (and still control parts of it). One of the tenets of the Taliban was that all music except the melodic recitation of the Qur'an beforbidden. And it was something they took quite seriously, even to the extent of jamming radio airwaves. Certain Christian sects have also spoken about the complete abolition of non-hymnal music.

This I can never understand. Although it's worded in a rather clumsy way, Peter Buck of R.E.M. has the following to say: "I'm an atheist, but I'd probably be Christian if I was black, because the gospel music is so exciting I would never have got through that."

Stevie Wonder once sang: "Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand." I see exactly what he means. Whatever it is, there is something about (the best) music that makes it universal and makes it operate somehow on a plane higher than that of mundane day-to-day reality. Whatever the hell the 'soul' or 'spirit' might happen to be, in the best music somehow I feel that we have greater access to it. They use the word 'transportative', and I must say that I quite like the coining. Certain musics truly can take you on a journey – a quest, if you will.

Vodun practitioners frantically chant and play drums. What then happens they interpret as a spirit entering the body of one member or some members of the congregation. Black American Baptists 'lift their hearts in song' in their churches and some people report being able to 'see the light'. Dervishes point one hand to the sky and one hand to the earth and then twirl around until they enter a kind of ecstatic trance wherein, they will tell you, they approach God.

Is that really what's happening? Well, again – I can't believe it. But what others may call God may just be a special place in our own minds – or souls, if you prefer. A place we can rarely access. Music seems able to take us there. Why it can is, in my opinion, one of the rapidly-diminishing numbers of true mysteries out there. But it can.

So does it really matter whether or not the people who make the music believe that they are communicating with God? No, it doesn't. After all, when you strip away the intent, all you're left with is music of the soul, music by the soul and music for the soul. Whatever that is.

Which brings me to my great confession: I like religious music. Not all of it, or even most of it - but much of it. In the grips of heroin addiction, John Coltrane once recorded what he called a 'hymn to God'. It resulted in A Love Supreme, possibly the greatest composition ever. Do I find God when I listen to it? Of course no. Do I find my own soul? Well, maybe... Not every mystery demands explanation.

When I was in university, I used to drive my flatmates completely insane with repeated plays of the music which I present below. It's one of who knows how many performances the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recorded. I'm no expert - he recorded hundreds of albums and I've heard maybe ten maximum. It might test your patience a little, but if you have ten minutes to spare today, I'd recommend turning off the lights, sitting still, closing your eyes and just listening. Who knows when, on a stage who knows where, a Sufi ustad sat down in front of a mic surrounded by a harmonium player and a group of backup singers and... went somewhere. During that time, where did he go? What did he find when he arrived?

And, more importantly, listening to it played back to you, where do you go? And what do you find there?

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