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Music

Sounds for the gods

The voice in sacred music

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Published: 22 Mar 2022


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Amid the rolling Himalayan mountains, the deep drone of throat singing resonates with the sounds of nature. In a Sikh household, the rhythmic recitations of a kirtan celebrates a new birth. In the Catholic church, the mellifluous Gregorian chant fills the cavernous sanctuary.

On the surface, these manifestations of sound are clearly disparate—in language, musical notation, performance, even spanning continents and cultures. Intrinsically however, they share a fundamental similarity as reactions to being human and reflections on humanity.

We could go into much detail but the nifty TL;DR is this: What defines these sounds as sacred and differentiates them from popular music is intent.

In sacred music, the intent behind the production of sound is substantial, and usually spiritual in nature. Any sound production becomes an intangible and emotional experience that goes beyond the conveyance of lyrics. Through codified or esoteric techniques or practices, performers produce an array of sounds to enter an altered or elevated state of mind, and it is in that state of ecstasy, exaltation or transcendence that they find space to connect with nature or the gods, or express their love for the divine.

Take the Sikh follower, who calls out “Waheguru” in song repeatedly, escalating in pitch and conviction with every mention of the Supreme Being, and as the pitch rises and the rhythm quickens, your spirit soars. Or the energetic Qawwali singer who embellishes each line of Sufi poetry with melisma, to induce a trance in both listener and performer. Or the Tuvan throat singer who manipulates his vocal chords, mimicking the sounds of mountains, animals and streams, thereby transporting you into their natural surroundings. 

The beauty of such music is that one does not need to belong to a particular religion or culture to feel the joy in performance. Being present with an open mind allows you to appreciate the artistry, devotion and the message being conveyed. And in that process, perhaps discover something about yourself too. 

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

– Rumi, Sufi mystic and Persian poet

This is especially so for the Manganiyars, a nomadic community of professional singers who practise Islam but perform a song repertoire that transcends religious boundaries. Amid the arid rolling dunes of western Rajasthan, the Manganiyars sing about everything, from stories of great rulers and romantic epics to songs dedicated to Hindu deities and melodies inspired by Sufi and Bhakti poetry. Their music is spontaneous, free-flowing and upbeat—an unabashed expression of love for the divine and their ancient bond with music.

Said to be the descendents of Mughal court musicians, the Manganiyars—as their name suggests, Manganiyar means “those who ask for alms”—have survived for centuries on jajmani, a patronage system common in villages in rural India. Their repertoire is all-embracing partly because it caters to the whims and preferences of their jajman, who are wealthy merchants or landlords. While celebrated doyens of Rajasthani folk music, such as Anwar Khan Manganiyar, have elevated the Manganiyars on the world stage, the next generation of Manganiyars back home still struggles with making their art worth a living and living for. 

Watch & listen:

Discover the voice and its importance in five other sacred practices. With an open mind, experience some of their transcendental qualities at Esplanade’s annual festival, A Tapestry of Sacred Music. 

The Sikh kirtan

One of the youngest religions in the world today, Sikhism was founded by 16th century poet and composer Guru Nanak. His revelations and teachings were recorded in the form of poems, which were sung to ragas (a musical framework for improvisation in the classical Indian music tradition), accompanied by the melodic twanging of the rabab (plucked string instrument).

The musical tradition of singing hymns to ragas developed as a means of spiritual elevation and Guru Nanak’s poems and those of his successors were compiled into the Guru Granth Sahib. In this sacred scripture, the Gurus’ hymns are grouped under 31 ragas and each has a name, a time of the day or year to be performed and an emotion it is meant to elicit.

The singing and contemplation of these hymns is known as kirtan. The gentle ebb and flow of call-and-response chanting and devotional lyrics accompanied by music helps Sikhs to clear their minds, centre their thoughts and connect with their god. Kirtan can be heard every morning and evening at Sikh temples and at every important occasion, such as birth, death or marriage. 

Watch & listen:

Throat singing

Traditionally used by hunters, shamans and everyday folk, throat singing is a guttural style of vocalisation that originated among the indigenous tribes of the Altai mountains, a remote expanse of beautiful snow-capped mountains and undulating steppes where China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan converge. It is recognised as one of the oldest forms of music in the world, and while it has been most extensively developed by the Tuvans, it is by no means exclusive to the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Throat singing is also used by other cultures—Buddhist monks of Tibet, the Xhosa women in South Africa and the Inuit women of northern Canada—albeit for different purposes. For the Tuvans, mimicry of the rich sounds of nature and animals is symbolic of their ancient and deep connection with the land.

The term itself was derived from the Tuvan/Altaian word xhöömi or khoomei, which means guttural, and comprises different styles, for example sygyt (pronounced "si-git"), which produces a whistle-like melody above a drone, and kargyraa, which is a sort of low melodic growl. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the sonorous droning of the Tuvans was almost unheard of, but today, it is considered a subgenre of world music.

Tibetan Buddhist chanting is similarly deep and textured but the intent of sound production is entirely different. For most Buddhists, chanting has traditionally been a means for committing sutras and mantras to memory and as preparation for meditation; some also believe that chanting promotes healing. 

In Tibetan Buddhism (also referred to as Vajrayana), tantric chanting is practised with the objective of invoking and uniting with a particular deity, such that the monks embody the gods or goddesses to whom they are praying. Because Tibetan Buddhism evolved from Mahāyāna Buddhism practised in India, it preserves many Indian Buddhist tantric practices infused with native Tibetan developments. Esoteric and ritualistic, Tibetan Buddhist chanting is conveyed or handed down within the lineage of a monastery. Conversely, in modern times, the chanting of sutras or mantras has become a contemplative or therapeutic activity that can be undertaken by anyone. 

The Gregorian chant

While Buddhist chanting made its way East, the Gregorian chant was charting its course in the West. Long regarded as the first of Western art music, the Gregorian chant is a monophonic style of music with one melodic line – all singers perform one melody in unison without interruption. What one hears in the hallowed nave of a Catholic church is thus haunting and slow, fluid and dulcet. There are no short staccato notes and chants are rarely sung in falsetto. Performers also alternate breathing to keep the melody uninterrupted.

Traditionally performed with just the voice, the Gregorian chant can be accompanied by instruments such as the organ, violin or harpsichord. It is the “official” music of the Christian liturgy/Roman Rite and performed in Mass. 

Christian lore credits the invention of the Gregorian chant to one Pope Saint Gregory I, who is depicted as receiving the plainchant from a dove (the Holy Spirit). But rather than divine inspiration, the Gregorian chant is most likely a German import and an amalgamation of the Old Roman and Gallican chants. Before the Gregorian chant appeared, Western plainchant traditions proliferated in different villages and churches across the Catholic lands. Around the 9th century, when Pope Saint Gregory I took it upon himself to revise the Schola Cantorum (the choir or choir school of a cathedral) and establish uniformity in church services, he gathered chants from regional traditions, discarding some while assigning others to various services. And thus it was, that Pope Saint Gregory I invented the Gregorian chant.

Because of the cult of Pope Saint Gregory, the Gregorian chant is often assumed to be the authentic Roman chant when it actually earned its place in the Roman Rite only because of the kings and Popes who made it happen after Gregory’s death. For instance, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), the first Holy Roman Emperor, required the clergy to use the Gregorian chant throughout his empire in an aggressive consolidation of religious power. In a rather short time, by the 12th and 13th centuries, the Gregorian chant supplanted all other plainchant traditions and spread North (Scandinavia, Iceland, Finland) and East (Poland, Moravia, Slovakia). 

Sufi singing

The Sufis practise a mystical aspect of Islam that focuses on the inward aspects of the faith and the purification of one’s inner self. Sufis typically pledge allegiance to a spiritual leader or sheikh, which symbolises a spiritual connection with Muhammad. Central to Sufism is dhikr (means “remembrance”), which differs among Sufi orders. Ritualised dhikr ceremonies are called Sama or Sema, and could involve singing, recitation, dancing or other art forms. 

The most well-known forms of this worship are the emotionally charged Qawwali and the hypnotic whirling of Turkish dervishes of the Mevlevi Order. Sama ceremonies are meant to be transcendental, where the performance of singing or dancing—through repetition of movement, of divine names, phrases in Sufi poetry or praises of Muhammad—send the devotee into an altered state of awareness to enable a spiritual connection with god. Through which, the devotee is said to be able to experience divine love and compassion.

Watch & listen:

Pakistan and India: Qawwali

The term comes from the Arabic word “qaul”, which means “utterance”. A Qawwali performance is usually spontaneous and upbeat, and the band of musicians (called a party!) performs a wide repertoire of sung poetry in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. A party includes a lead singer, secondary singers, and performers who play the harmoniums and percussion, on the tabla or dholak.


Turkey: Whirling dervishes

Performed by members of the Mevlevi order, this visually enthralling Sama is usually accompanied by the lilting sounds of the ney flute. Clad in white, the dervish spins, sometimes for hours on end, right palm raised upwards to the sky to receive God’s blessings; left palm faced down to the earth representing his readiness to convey these blessings to those present at the Sama.


Morocco: Gnawa culture

The term originates from indigenous North Africa. The Gnawas play deep trance music typically using a sintir or guembri (a three-stringed skin-covered lute) and clappers (held in each hand) to accompany call-and-response singing and hand-clapping. These rituals are intended to evoke their ancestral saints who eliminate evil spirits and remedy scorpion stings. 


Korean shamanistic folk singing

Shamanism is Korea’s oldest folk religion, which draws influences from Buddhism, Taoism and Confuciansim, and is still one of Korea’s main religions today. As intermediaries between gods and their believers, shamans perform rituals called “gut”, which comprise rhythmic movements, songs, oracles and prayers. Donning colourful costumes, shamans—majority are women, called mudang or manshin, while the men are called baksu—offer their bodies for possession by the gods whom they invoke, and communicate with gods and spirits for various needs of the community. 

There are three main categories of gut that vary depending on the region one is in: The naerim-gut is an initiation rite which inducts a new shaman; the dodang-gut is a communal rite that’s commonly performed over the new year for prosperity and well-being; the ssitgim-gut is a rite of death, which cleanses the spirit of the deceased. 

Korean folk singing in the shamanistic tradition is polyphonic and accompanied by sinawi, a musical improvisational form that is not limited to rituals, but also used in folk performances and other music concerts. Music is played on instruments such as the janggu (an hour-glass drum), daegum (flute) and the ajaeng (zither) – the latter is often used in concert settings. The music calls on the gods to possess the mudang and accompanies the god while he or she is in the shaman’s body, before it placates and sends the god back.

Today, shamanistic folk singing is seen as part of the fabric of Korean culture and it is often performed in concert, where performers need not be shamans or shamanists. Kim Bora is one such performer, a virtuoso of Korean traditional vocal music, who specialises in folk songs of the Gyeonggi region that surrounds the capital of Seoul as well as jeongga, a genre of poetic song enjoyed and written by the literati and aristocracy.

Watch & listen:

Contributed by:

Miranda Chan

A writer and worker bee at Esplanade.


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