Rebellion vs Nationalism: the different sounds of chant

Jeremy Woodruff, composer and music theorist, was in Istanbul paying keen attention to the sounds of chanting during a tumultuous period in which there was both vigorous protest and a nationalist counter movement after an attempted coup. He asked a question I have long wondered about: what can you tell about the motives and affect of a crowd from their chants? Is it possible to tell a crowd of hired goons from an authentically impassioned crowd? In this 23 minute audio report, he details his findings. One very telling difference between genuine protest chants and nationalist counter-protests was the presence of women in the former and their absence in the latter. I found it fascinating that the authentic protest movement repurposed some football chants, a creative act that is probably foreign to the nationalist crowd.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

Recent massed protests in Hong Kong have taken on an odd chant-related character. Opposition to a proposed extradition law has led to a spontaneous and immense popular arising on the streets, which, despite small outbreaks of violence on the fringes, have been characterised by restraint and sobriety. However, the little violence that has occurred has been seized on by the authorities to characterise the protest as an “organized riot.”

In reaction to that, a Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” which was being sung by some specifically Christian groups, has now been adopted as an unofficial anthem of the protests. This article in the Shanghaiist provides many examples of video posted to twitter, showing how widespread the practice is. Here is a link to a recording of a livestream in which the chant is carried on for about 2 hours.

One interesting feature of this development is the parallel it exhibits to practices that are unexceptional in a ritual or liturgical context. The use of a reserved language for solemn purposes, different from the vernacular of those taking part, and perhaps even not understood by those uttering the words, occurs again and again. This was the role of Latin in Catholic masses until Vatican 2. It describes the position of Hebrew before the founding of the state of Israel, or of Ge’ez in Ethiopia or Coptic in Egypt today. My oldest example lies in the Temple Hymn of Kesh, which was a liturgical text in use from about 2,600 to 1,600 BCE as the ambient language changed from Sumerian to Akkadian.

Joint speech and the rise of American fascism

Joint speech has been prominent in the ongoing rise of fascism in America. Trump’s rallies, both before and after his election, used chant as a means of group arousal and intimidation against those who were not minded to join in. The chants themselves have been simple and ugly. “Lock her up!” “Build the wall!” Far-right marchers have revived chants from the era of European fascism: “Blood and soil!“.

A new and troubling example has arisen from the internment camps where the American authorities are impounding asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented persons, tearing families apart and housing children separately. In a grotesque twist, children are required to chant the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, allegiance to the authorities that have treated them so cruelly.

In joint speech the anatomy of fascism is rendered clearly.

Complaints choirs

Joint speech is an excellent means for making communal concerns explicit.  And so it came about in 2005 that the residents of the “arsehole of Britain” (Birmingham, obviously) responded enthusiastically to the suggestions of a pair of visiting Finns, and the world’s first complaints choir was born. The history of this global phenomenon is told here. Choirs sprang up around the world. They were banned in Singapore (for shame!). There does not seem to be any end to the list of things people like to complain about: My dreams are boring. My neighbour organises Hungarian folk dance classes above my bedroom. I cant stop thinking about sex! My grandmother is racist. I’m sure you can add one or two yourself. Here, then, are some examples. You will find very many more at the the complaints choir website.

The Birmingham original:

Canada chimes in:

Singapore (caution, the authorities do not want you seeing this one):

Chant and commitment

Another impressive speech at the March For Our Lives was given by 9 year old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of that incomparable rhetorician, Martin Luther King. In her speech, she gets the crowd to collectively chant a series of phrases, and the way in which she encourages buy in, and hence enthusiasm, is masterful.

She first walks the crowd through the entire text, one phrase at a time. This is important. Nobody can chant with conviction if they are at odds with the message chanted. This is one reason many people (academic, for example) hesitate to join in chanting. The description of the Human Microphone in Chapter 2 of The Ground From Which We Speak discusses this important property of joint speech:  it necessarily entails commitments. While speech done alone can be modified so that the utterer is not held directly responsible for the contents, joint speech commits the utterer. This is why joint speech is the usual form of an oath of allegiance, for example.

Having walked everyone through the text once, Yolanda does it two more times. Now the crowd can join in with vigour, for they are not wary about the text.  Wonderful rhetoric from the young girl!

The power of silence

The commemorative silence typically observed after horrific tragedies may usefully be viewed as an example of joint speech, in which the verbal content has been reduced to a minimum, while the participatory enactment of a common center is greatly amplified. I describe the experience of playing recordings of such events to French audiences in 2016 in Chapter 7 of The Ground From Which We Speak.

A remarkable example was on display at this weekend’s March For Our Lives. Emma Gonzales provided a gut-wrenching performance in which she induced a very large crowd to keep the collective silence for 6 minutes and 20 seconds (The period includes her preliminary speech). I have never seen anything comparable.

Those familiar with meditation may have recognised something. When you sit alone and try to still the mind, you inevitably find intrusive voices arising, that can be distracting. Techniques such as transcendental meditation teach one to observe, but not engage with, such voices. Here, we see a collective analogue. During the silence, a chant arises, spontaneously. It is allowed to float above the joint silence, and it dies down again. This is, in many respects, a collective meditation, and the chant is, of course, the collective voice.

I defy the reader to watch the whole thing. I was in tears.

Children languaging freely

Language is often taken as the hallmark of the human species, and with the emergence of language, the conditions seem to be given for the coöperative and coöordinative activities that found all societies. But the way in which we characterise “language” greatly matters, and the study of joint speech makes it clear that a narrow view of “language” as the passing of encoded messages from speakers to listeners will omit very much that might be of relevance. Languaging is then offered by some as a term to cover a much broader array of behaviours that collectively might be considered responsible for the dramatic change in our species that led to the flourishing of human communities across the globe. Chapter 7 of the Joint Speech book (The Ground From Which We Speak) pursues this topic at length.

For now though, enjoy this example of young children languaging like crazy at the behest of a gifted story teller. He induces them to join in a raucous chorusing of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The children are displaying a propensity shared by all children in all cultures. Chorusing of various kinds is particularly prevalent in primary education and similar contexts, and children do not need to be instructed in how to join in and speak performatively as one. Looking at this, I find it a bit ridiculous to think that we adults believe that we teach children language, where in fact it simply blossoms, naturally, as fruit happens to trees.