Sunday, 12 February 2012

Singers are Shamans

(Draft text, to go in the pagan geordie yearbook, out at eastertime)

Apparently Whitney Houston died today. What is it that she offered to the world that made her significant? Not human perfection. Not a nice personality (I have no knowledge or interest in what her personality was like - corrupted by celebrity, I should imagine). And not quite as a producer of 'things of beauty' that we admire: not in my opinion anyway. I think she and every other singer, famous and (more importantly) not-famous, was a shaman: they serve as shamans, are looked to as shamans, have the good qualities of the shaman and are imperfect and unreliable as every shaman is.

When a human sings, it channels something that links us to a different plane. Even a 'cheesy' song strikes some connection with our heart, our innards, and takes our consciousness elsewhere (upwards, it feels to me). It affects our sense of mood, of time, of reality. Normally our active consciousness is busy filtering out these effects so that they are just felt as a dim background thing. But at particularly receptive moments - a first date, a rush of coffee, a distressed and sorry moment - the song is felt in its full power. Everyone experiences this, and I'd be interested in how you articulate it, but for me the language that describes it most accurately is the old buried-away language of magical experience, shamanic distortion, numinous escape from ego etc..

And this is what makes live gigs so powerful, when you are in the mood for paying close attention. It is why I often, despite my embarrassment, describe the experience of an amazing gig by dipping into the language of religious ritual or communion. It's also why I love drinking at gigs, and why I tend to get most affected by songs delivered during my 2nd pint - my optimum point of receptiveness. Drugs and music go together well - although it's a balancing act, as too much alcohol kills my alertness, and other drugs tend to send me off sideways into other experiences (of neurosis, daydreaming, introspection, fidgetiness etc..). Music and crowds also go well together, and effect a significant change upon what is going on in that experience - you may not agree that they are religious gatherings, but you must agree that there's something about communal sharing, of creating a shared moment, that makes the effects more powerful.

It's a very mundane image isn't it? A bloke holding a pint and watching a band he loves. But if you were to watch how his face and his stance change during the concert (maybe speed it up and add some spooky music), then you're watching someone engaged in a pagan magical seance. Change the outfit and it's a Siberian tribesman from the 5th century, with his community, focussing their combined attention and togetherness onto a performer who is not just performing to entertain, but who is acting as a channel for something bigger and weirder and beyond-human, beyond-reason: something that is making their world so much bigger, the mysteries of existence so much deeper, and their experience of life so much grander.

Never mind the details of different planes, the varying cosmologies and 'sciences' that different traditional cultures applied to this experience. Look them up if you like, but I personally find it hard to access the world they describe. I've maybe got some more study to do in that line. If I can find a parallel for the complexity of their descriptions, then it is in the lyrics that singers provide: they help guide our imagination and give meaning to the effect that the melody and tone and development and combination of sounds is doing to us. (Which is why a band like Oasis who uses utterly shit thick lyrics is so shit - they can do the same shamanic job, but they take us to a very thick and disappointing other plane.)

The most important conclusion that my thinking on this has led me to, is in the nature of what a shaman is. He or she is not a priest, who has learnt the doctrine of a church or tradition and then delivers it to us. So they are not teachers, they have no authority, they are not backed up by powers of violence and shaming, of excommunication or all that mumbo jumbo power-play that makes organised religion so evil. And they are also not angels. Their morality is no better. Their intelligence is no sharper. There is nothing that marks them out as better than us and they should NEVER be worshipped (hear that Michael Jackson fans?) Sometimes they are shit: they give shit, underwhelming performances or they get drunk and abusive or they need a good slap to put them back in their place. Traditionally, the shaman was not necessarily a well-liked figure. At times when she or he was not performing for the community, the shaman was often pretty pathetic: the weakest worker, the neediest scrounger, the manipulative git, the deformed or the socially awkward. Neither a warrior nor a chief, and not a monk or a nurse, either. But at important moments, they came into their own. They were needed and they were used and they exulted in that moment and they did their best to rise to the occasion and perform. Like a good band on a good day, who look up from their instruments and grin.

During the ritual, people did not put away their private thoughts, kneel in the mud and worship them. They'd be up to all sorts at the same time: taking intoxicants, flirting, zoning out or working through their own emotions. At every bacchanalian event there'll be some fuckers not paying attention and talking at the bar: it was doubtless the same back in Siberia. So I don't want to exaggerate or simplify what happens at gigs by confusing what the parallel means. But even at an occasion like, in my case, after a friend's wedding last night, when there is someone playing music and singing and there's barely half a room there and most of us are talking over it. Even then, there is something extra added by that live performance, and there is a trickling down of magic going around our brains, that changes how we see the world, adds colour to our drinking and our company, and makes existence glow that little bit more.

So let us raise our glasses to the singers and the people who make music in crowds. Let's abandon the churches and the washed-out brainwash ideologies of religion. And let's recognise that we can have our shamans and we can have our rituals, and when they die we can call them what they were. Gifted people who help channel something that raises the human beast above the groundlevel. Who allow us those experiences that remind us that everything is more than the description of it. That life is alive. That gods surround us, unquantifiable depths penetrate our souls, and we will NEVER truly have a fucking clue what is going on in this universe, but it's alright because we can look around the room and see our fellows with the same look on their face, in the same place, sharing the same spirit. And like the Siberian tribesfolk, we can howl and mosh and dance together in the knowledge that this is what is right, and fitting, and spiritually sincere.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, I stumbled across this post of yours - singers are shamans - accidently when I was looking up something to do with a nightmare I had. Anyway, I loved the post, it falls in line with alot of my own thought tangents about the night time realm, myth and ritual. (Instantly thought of Patti Smith as an example). Umm and also wierdly I think I traded zines with you a couple of years back. What a coincidence. If you're ever in search of more penpals, let me know. Always good to reach out to strangers. Ele,