From simple chants and melodies to intricately arranged vocal and instrumental compositions, each of the world’s religious traditions contains some kind of musical expression. In some cases, that music is tied to ecstatic experiences or trances. I’ve addressed this topic in previous editions of this column, as in my interpretation of the complex rhythmic patterns (polyrhythm) in Afro-Caribbean religious experiences of trance and my discussion of the medicine songs (icaros) shamans sing during ayahuasca ceremonies. In this edition of Sounding Sacred, I consider some connections between music and trance in the musical ensemble called a “band.”
Historically, and in the present day, bands fulfill the function of occasioning ecstasies, trances, frenzies, enthusiasms, and other altered states of consciousness. Since the 1960s, there has been an explosive proliferation of bands, with new songs, new genres, and new venues, providing new means for experimenting with consciousness alteration and spiritual transformation. Those bands are indicative of what the visionary thinker Terence McKenna referred to as an “archaic revival,” a revival of ancient and prehistoric experiences of a connected and meaningful world. The archaic revival has been intensifying throughout the twentieth century as people have sought alternatives to the modern disenchantment of the world. Tattoos, surrealism, psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation are some characteristic trends of this revival.
The bands that have been multiplying since the 1960s are not like marching bands or concert bands. They do not have conductors or drum majors, and they don’t use sheet music. They hark back to archaic music, less like formal ensembles and more like bands of Paleolithic nomads, whose existence was not shaped by the social hierarchies and literacy that emerged with agrarian (Neolithic) societies. Without the influence of a conductor or written media, a band’s performance has a more intimate impact on the listeners, such that the listener feels more like an active participant and not a passive audience member. Today, popular music ensembles are reviving this archaic type of band. Dancing at an orchestral performance would be frowned upon, and you can expect to be escorted out if you persist, yet that same behavior would be completely acceptable if a band were performing. Indeed, movement is effectively mandatory at a rock, punk, or pop concert. The intimate connection sweeps up the listeners.
An intimate connection can happen with an individual performance and with group performances. For instance, while a Mesoamerican curandera (healer) might be the sole performer during a ceremony, a ritual performance in West African Vodun involves multiple singers and drummers. The healer is an individual, and the Vodun performers are a group. Some religious practices focus on solo performances, and some focus more on group dynamics, i.e., bands. Devotional music like qawwali in Sufism is performed in groups, but the lead singer is still able to explore soloist flourishes. In Judaism, the power of trance is associated more with bands, like roaming bands of prophets. For example, when Samuel anoints Saul as the king of Israel, he tells Saul about three signs that will confirm “that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage” (1 Samuel 10:1).
The last of these signs will occur when Saul meets “a band of prophets” who are playing the harp, a tambourine, a flute, and a lyre in front of a shrine while they are in “a prophetic frenzy” (10:5). Samuel goes on to tell Saul what to expect when he encounters the band: “the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person” (10:6). On the face of it, it sounds like Saul is going to party with a folk rock band. He is not told to resist or to join the collective ecstasy. Rather, he is simply told that it will happen. He will be in a prophetic frenzy. He will be swept up by the band and transformed. Moreover, this is considered to be a good thing for Saul and not some immoral act. It even excuses Saul from whatever transgressions might occur while in a frenzied state. It’s not altogether different from people at music festivals granting themselves some permissive behaviors while immersed in a psychedelic frenzy.
Is the band that Saul encounters very different from a band like the Grateful Dead? I suggest that the entrancing bands wandering through the history of religions have also wandered into popular culture. While the experience of the average deadhead was not the same as Saul’s encounter, the function of the band is similar in both contexts: to provide an intimate acoustic atmosphere for inducing ecstasy. Spirit possession facilitated in a Vodun ritual is surely different from the ecstatic frenzy of someone listening to The Rolling Stones, but both musical performances use driving rhythms to energize and entrance the listeners.
Not all pop and rock bands are explicitly oriented toward the task of inducing ecstasy, but many are. The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones are two examples of bands that were familiar with trance experiences (to put it mildly) and were attempting to integrate trance into their music. The example of the Grateful Dead also includes the practice of band camping – staying in one site for multiple days of musical performance and/or traveling to different places to follow bands on tour. Camping provides a longer-term context for consciousness alteration than a regular concert. That practice and its spiritual-but-not-religious subculture can be found in the “collective effervescence” of camping music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, which is not to say that the participants are explicitly aware of anything “spiritual” or “religious” about what they are doing.
Since this year is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is timely to observe how the proliferation of bands alongside late-1960s cultural transformations included many bands explicitly oriented toward spirituality and ecstatic states. The Summer of Love marks something like a paradigm shift or “tipping point” in the history of popular music. After that point, the number of bands oriented toward life-changing experiences and social experimentation increases dramatically. The psychedelic philosopher Timothy Leary calls them “high priest bands” (“high,” get it?).
Leary gives a list of such trance-inducing bands in the book published a year after the Summer of Love, High Priest, which is his homage to the various companions and guides whom he meets during his psychedelic journeys. The high priest bands listed in the 1968 edition of the book include the two examples mentioned above (the Dead and the Stones) along with The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, The Doors, and fourteen others, ending with an open-ended mention: “and many other ecstatic combinations.” Indeed, many other ecstatic combinations keep emerging. The new release of the book in 1995 came with an additional, expanded list of high priest bands, spanning the 1960s through the mid-90s with a diverse group of bands, including classic rock, hip hop, alternative, industrial, dance, and electronic genres, with a total of fifty-six bands listed.
Those high priest bands and countless others challenge the status quo in one way or another, inviting the listener into consciousness-altering experiences that can facilitate personal and social change. The point here is not to glorify these bands, as if they are all role models or all perfectly authentic and effective in what they do. In some cases, these bands and their audiences are trafficking in little more than cliché and spiritual narcissism, and in the worst cases their fondness for extreme and experimental states leads to problems like addiction, depression, or untimely death. The Summer of Love helped popularize trance, making ecstatic states a mainstay in popular music, for better and for worse. High priest bands provide new possibilities for transformation, but the promise of transformation comes with potential problems. It can be delightful and disastrous.
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, while celebrating the popularization of the ecstatic power of music, it is appropriate to partake in some somber reflection about whether and how you are using that power to change your life and your world. The stakes of the archaic revival are higher than ever. As environmental and social crises put intensifying pressures on planetary coexistence, the bands of the archaic revival can energize efforts to reconstruct more peaceful, beautiful, and sustainable ways of living together. It’s easy to imagine, if you try. One near me is the band Bicicletas Por La Paz, a Latin circus funk band powered by bicycles (no fossil fuels!). There are local examples everywhere. Find them.