Melvin Butler: Crossing boundaries with music
The body of Christ is an extraordinarily diverse place, and music has great potential to reach people in the midst of their differences, says the ethnomusicologist and jazz saxophonist.
February 23, 2012 | Music is a powerful means by which people construct their religious and cultural identities. And in the midst of tremendous ethnic and cultural differences in the church today, music can play a critical role in reaching all people, said Melvin Butler, an assistant professor of music at the University of Chicago.
“I’m not a theologian, but I think certainly one of the lessons is that the body of Christ is an extraordinarily diverse place,” said Butler. “We have to keep that diversity and the challenges it presents at the forefront of our minds and recognize the great potential that music has to reach people, wherever they come from.”
An ethnomusicologist, Butler studies music and religion in the African diaspora, focusing on Haitian Pentecostalism and Jamaican gospel music and their connections to African-American gospel music.
Even beneath what many consider a monolithic “black church,” great diversity exists, he said. How Pentecostals in Haiti and even African Americans from different parts of the country negotiate their differences and the tensions between sacred and secular music has lessons for the broader church, he said.
In addition to his scholarly work, Butler is a jazz saxophonist and has played with numerous jazz artists, including Betty Carter, Joey DeFrancesco, Christian McBride and Jimmy McGriff. He now performs mostly with Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band.
He lectured at Duke Divinity School recently and spoke to Faith & Leadership about music, identity formation, jazz improvisation and the tensions of being a Pentecostal in the academy. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Tell us about your work as an ethnomusicologist.
I look at music and religion in the African diaspora. More narrowly, I study and write about Haitian Pentecostalism, Jamaican gospel music and the connection to African-American gospel music.
Issues of boundary crossing, identity formation and social positioning -- how identities are constructed and negotiated in religious spaces through music -- are the common threads that run through all my work.
Q: What are you finding?
Maybe it’s obvious, but I’m finding that music is a critical means through which people express who they are religiously and spiritually, and also racially or culturally. It works on a number of levels.
Even something like African-American gospel music, for many people, it’s as much a black thing as it is a Christian thing. You need both. You need it to be religious, or biblical, but you also need it to sound black in order for people to feel as though that they have had church.
When I decided to go to the Caribbean, I wanted to look at how people work out their religious and cultural identities through the music that they worship with. I thought Haiti would be a fascinating place to look at this, and it was.
Haiti was attractive because it’s stereotyped as being the land of Vodou, or Voodoo as we say in the United States. People have a very one-sided image of Haitian religion and what it means to be Haitian. But in fact, there is an enormous variety of not just Catholic but also Pentecostal, Baptist and other Christian churches.
No one had talked about this from a music-centered perspective. So I was the first ethnomusicologist to do research on music in Pentecostal churches in Haiti. What has been so fascinating is the way in which people say, “I’m both proud to be Haitian culturally but also proud to be a Christian, a Pentecostal Christian.”
In Haiti, any invitation to transcendence or evocation of spirit often strikes people as dangerously close to serving the spirits of Voodoo as opposed to something that’s Christian. There’s a tension for Pentecostals who want on the one hand to distance themselves from Voodoo but on the other want to embrace a very charismatic and demonstrative form of worship, where the body is very involved, people are spirit-filled but not possessed.
That distinction about the precise kind of transcendence that takes place in these heated, musically charged environments was fascinating to me. How do you be a proud Haitian but nevertheless reject a part of Haitian culture that’s often described as being inseparable from Haitian identity? If you’re Haitian, you have to serve the spirit. There’s no way around it. It’s deep inside your blood.
Q: What role does music play in that?
In Haiti, Vodoo music is one of the major means through which spirits -- the loa -- are invoked. Many Haitians are sensitive to the power of music to invite spiritual forces to be active in their midst. That creates anxiety for some Haitian pastors about the role of music and the kinds of influence that it might have on parishioners.
Is it okay, for example, to play a kompa rhythm, the Haitian dance music rhythm, in worship? Is that appropriate, or might it invite the wrong kind of spirit into this Christian atmosphere that we’re trying to maintain?
They’re dealing with this whole other set of tensions apart from just whether it’s worldly or holy. They’re dealing with, “Is it the right kind of holy? Is it the right kind of spiritual, right kind of religion?”
Q: In some ways, aren’t those same tensions at play in this culture about the role of music in worship and the influence of secular music in the church?
I think so. The tensions that play out in Haiti are more layered and more multidimensional. But African-American Pentecostal churches often talk about sacred/secular and how can we be in the world but not of the world.
There’s a nervousness about drawing too heavily on secular music, R & B and soul and rock and pop, because the emphasis should be, it’s often said, on playing music that glorifies God -- not the music of the dance club but the music of the church. So we deal with that tension, and they deal with it in Haiti, too.
Q: You wrote a paper in 2000 about a Pentecostal church you attended in Brooklyn that was half African American and half West Indian and experienced similar tensions.
Yeah, that experience living in New York, going to that church, set the stage for all of the research that I’ve done.
After I moved to New York in ’94, I started attending this church with several black ethnicities. It was not simply a “black church.” It had a large West Indian component, with people from St. Lucia, Jamaica and Barbados. It had both this West Indian Anglophone Caribbean influence and an African-American influence.
It became a source of tension when my wife and I became the music ministers. I played keyboard and organ, and she directed the choir. We were faced with these different expectations that people had about what church music should sound like.
Q: With the issues of diversity today, what lessons does that church offer to the broader church in the way it went about negotiating those differences?
Even within the black church tradition, people come from different parts of the country. They grow up singing songs in different ways and feel strongly about how a song should go. It doesn’t speak to them if the rhythm or the lyrics are changed.
So we have enough complexity even within African-American churches, and when you bring into play people from different parts of the African diaspora, you’re faced with another layer of complexities.
And that doesn’t even deal with the black/white dichotomy, the so-called worship war that has long existed between the guitar-driven, praise-and-worship style of predominantly white charismatic churches and the Hammond B-3 organ-driven gospel services of most black congregations.
I’m not a theologian, but I think certainly one of the lessons is that the body of Christ is an extraordinarily diverse place. We have to keep that diversity and the challenges it presents at the forefront of our minds and recognize the great potential that music has to reach people, wherever they come from.