A few weeks back, Matt and I went to gospel brunch at the Chicago branch of the House of Blues. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, gospel brunch is exactly that: you go to a brunch event at which a gospel group performs. I don’t remember how we alighted on this as an option when we were trying to think of a performing arts event to go to, but alight upon it we did, both because we like gospel and because we thought it would be sociologically interesting.
As we made our way up to the near north side, we tried to guess what it would be like, who would be there and how they might react to or interpret gospel. At first, with no prior knowledge of how gospel brunches work, we thought that the audience might be predominantly black; when we got there, we were surprised to see that not only was the audience predominantly white, but that the audience seemed primarily composed of white tourist types who looked very much like the soccer moms and Lutheran casserole brigade of my hometown, Wauwatosa, WI. (Not that I’m knocking Tosans–I say this in a loving way! But, you know, some of my friends like to refer to it as “Comatosa.”)
We waited in the lobby for a long time before we were allowed to go in and sit (which I thought odd); the food was served buffet-style, and was in my opinion pretty darn good although lacking in vegetarian options (unnecessary bacon in things, always so frustrating); and then we all sat down for the show. The bandleader, of the group William Smith Jr. and the Renewed Voices for Christ, opened by introducing the group and welcoming everyone to the “ecumenical church of…” and listed just about every religion under the sun. The music was fantastic, in my opinion: they had a mixed choir, a drummer, and an organist; all the musicians were truly excellent at what they did; the arrangements were tight and energetic; the repertoire selection was good, etc. I bought their CD and have listened to it a couple times.
What I was really interested in was the interaction between the musicians and the audience. The bandleader was really good about trying to have the audience participate, exhorting us to clap, sway, dance, sing responsorial phrases, and at one point had a couple people come up on stage and mock-conduct. Here’s where things got awkward.
In my past experience (having a preschool teacher who was an excellent singer and did gospel with us, and doing fieldwork in a Jamaican Pentecostalist church, as well as going to various friends’ churches here and there), gospel is a participatory musical form: although there are designated “musicians” or “performers” in the church setting, everyone joins in one way or another, by clapping, singing along, pulling out a tambourine, dancing, or just active, engaged listening. Those who raised their hand when the band asked who had been to gospel events before seemed to know this. Matt and I, the family next to us, and various other small groups scattered throughout the crowd had no problem clapping, waving our hands, dancing or singing as we felt moved.
However, the casserole brigade folks were painfully reticent, to the confusion of the bandleader. At first I chalked it up to the combination of intercultural awkwardness, perceived lack of musical knowledge on the part of the audience, or the desire to eat rather than participate in the goings-on.
A few days earlier, I had begun to read Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, by ethnomusicologist Tom Turino. In this book, he introduces a four-part classification scheme for all musical types that I think is really useful: 1) participatory traditions, musics in which there is no distinction between performer and audience, such as, for example, the traditional Andean music that he studies, or Irish session music, and many more; 2) presentational traditions, such as European classical music; 3) high-fidelity recording, or recording that tries its best to capture an audio event accurately; and 4) studio audio art, or recorded music that does not pretend to have any fidelity to acoustically produced sound, such as computer-generated music.
What I realized about the gospel brunch after reading this book is that the very notion of the gospel brunch seeks to use a participation-based tradition in a presentational setting. In my experience, gospel tends to run along a spectrum of participation: at one end is the model where the entire church participates in singing gospel hymns, a completely participatory experience; in the middle is the setup I mentioned earlier, where there are designated musicians but the churchgoers actively participate in “secondary” ways; and at the more presentational end of the spectrum, commercial gospel concerts where the audience nonetheless is often actively and physically engaged. This expectation of a participatory experience is what conditioned me and those few others who did clap and sing along at the brunch.
However, Turino also makes the point that, in contemporary American culture, especially urban and suburban culture, the majority of the music we know is presentational or falls into one of the two recorded categories. The average American musical experience includes attending concerts at which audience participation is somewhat limited (perhaps restricted to cheering or clapping) and purchasing recorded music. The only participatory moments that many of us have might be at our preferred place of worship or if we happen to be musicians ourselves, which is not terribly common.
I realized that the people who seemed awkward probably came in with the expectation of having a presentational musical experience: the gospel group performs during brunch, and they expect to sit and appreciate it rather than participate directly, as they had probably been trained to do in other musical settings. The difference between the varied sets of expectations was probably a major cause of the stiffness and tension.
After all, I grew up in the same kind of environment that I am assuming many of these folks came from–so why did I feel comfortable clapping and singing where others might not have? It seems to me that the answer lies in my particular set of musical experiences, arrived at somewhat randomly: if I had had a different preschool teacher, or chosen not to take the course “Field Methods in Ethnomusicology” during the semester in which it had been decided that we would all do fieldwork in a particular type of church, I would not have known what to do or felt comfortable doing it, given that the majority of my musical training as both performer and audience member has been within the context of the highly presentational tradition of European classical music.
To me, this insight gives some hope. Rather than attributing the reluctance to participate on the part of the white folks in the casserole brigade to racial issues, or to some inherent rhythmic deficiencies that people joke about white people having,
it’s about our exposure to diverse musical traditions and the communities in which they are embedded that helps us develop ease and comfort with each other and with each other’s music. Granted, this doesn’t take away the complexity with which these encounters are often fraught, but it does speak to the power of relationship-building, of sustained engagement with the unfamiliar, and of not being afraid to mess up.
I haven’t really addressed here the complex issues of putting historically black musical traditions on display for paying white audiences, a topic that’s highly fraught. I admit that the situation made me uncomfortable at first, especially because it brought up the specter of gospel tourism, something I’ve previously discussed: the increasing trend of white people going on tours of black gospel churches, gawking at what they seem to consider a primitive spectacle put on for their benefit. In my previous post, I expressed my belief that learning about new kinds of music is a good thing, and building respectful relationships with members of the communities that make that music is also a good thing, but that objectifying and exploiting people is obviously not.
I would rather have a bunch of white suburban folks pay to go to a gospel event that is designated as a commercial performance–thus ensuring the consent and fair compensation of the performers, and not turning an overtly participatory event into an overtly presentational one–than go to a gospel church as a tourist. The gospel brunch setup seems more fair. The House of Blues setup is a space designated for controlled, consensual spectacle, as it were. In this context, I felt that it was okay.
The final point that Matt and I pondered was, what is the motivation for tourists to come to a gospel brunch? We went out of curiosity as to how such an event works, and a love of gospel, but we’re not tourists; it was something to do on a Sunday morning in the city in which we live. We came up with a couple hypotheses:
- If you’re a tourist, you have to eat on Sunday morning, and why not go to a brunch that also has some music?
- White Americans have long been both fascinated with and scared of African-American culture, especially music. Chicago is well-known for its excellence in several musical styles rooted in the African-American musical tradition: blues and jazz, among others. Rather than going to a jazz or blues club on a weekend evening in a predominantly black neighborhood, which might not be considered “safe,” or a predominantly black church, which offers a very different worship model than your average white Lutheran church, the House of Blues, a corporate chain barely out of the Loop, presents a way of engaging with gospel that feels safer, easier and more comfortable–it’s perceived as just like going to any other concert.
So, in conclusion: stepping out of our comfortable molds is difficult. People may not know the behavior that is expected of them, or the setting may conflate conflicting sets of behavioral expectations (which I think was part of the difficulty at the House of Blues). Unfortunately, our society prescribes such rigid racial/ethnic/cultural boundaries that we often have few if any tools at our disposal when we want to try something new, much less build relationships with those who are not like us in one way or another. On the one hand, an experience like this gospel brunch can reify some of these boundaries; on the other, it’s a better alternative for allowing people to begin to engage with new cultural experiences than gospel tourism. This is compounded by the fact that American culture does not teach us how to behave in participatory musical settings, such that many people feel awkward and ashamed about their perceived lack of musical ability despite their desire to try to participate.
What could some solutions be? Nothing simple, I’m afraid. A true solution would have to encompass a vast and concerted effort to combat the racism that still lingers in our culture, and a similarly large-scale effort to build participatory music-making, and music education, into daily life. In the meantime, conscious attempts at self-education and relationship-building, in both areas, would go a long way.