The Sacred Harp in Thailand

Culture is a protean thing, and music seems to be among the most adaptable, remixable, recombinable elements in this stew we call the arts. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see elements of the familiar in a New Year’s Eve church service at a Karen village in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Or maybe I should never stop being surprised. To recreate my moment of recognition, first watch this clip:

Then listen to these songs I recorded in the village where P’Wah (ECHO Asia’s seed bank manager) is from:

Do you hear the resemblance? When I took these videos I didn’t realize that this kind of singing is considered the traditional hymn style of hill-tribe Christians. And yes, Christianity has been among these people for long enough for words like “traditional” to make sense. This next year the Myanmar Baptist Convention will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

According to Rick Burnette, many of the early missionaries to Burma (now Myanmar) hailed from rural Missouri, and they brought with them a form of hymn-singing known as shape-note singing, or the Sacred Harp.  Sacred Harp is a choral tradition that used to be common across the Appalachians and the rural South in America. It was actually the first music to be composed in America.

This video, a trailer for a recent documentary on Sacred Harp, explains the history a bit more:

I fell in love with the sound of this music when I picked up the soundtrack to the above documentary, Awake, My Soul. So to hear a direct descendent of that sound in a remote part of Thailand was a shock, but a delight.

What are we to think of this kind of thing? Is it cultural imperialism? If so, on whose part? By now the Karen have so appropriated this singing into their culture that they consider it theirs–even as the tradition nearly died out in the twentieth century in America. You could read imposition on one side or expropriation on the other, if you were so inclined. But is that the most helpful way to analyze this kind of transmission?

The world of culture is full of such exchanges. For example, what are we to make of the fact that the traditional repertoire of shashmakhon, a Persian musical style, would have been lost to the world during the Soviet period if not for its appropriation by Bukharan jews? Or how about Brian Eno’s claim that Arabic singing gave birth to nearly everything, via trade routes, slave ships and Irish immigration? A claim which I heard, by the way, from Ezra Koenig’s blog, who’s been guilty of/celebrated for a good bit of cultural appropriation himself.

My conclusion: people share music. And they steal it, and force it on others, and trade it about while doing all sorts of horrible things to each other. But as a rule, something like this doesn’t stick unless it resonates. And the Sacred Harp must have resonated with the hill-tribes of Burma and Thailand because they’re still singing it, 200 years later. Maybe the mountain people of Missouri and the mountain people of Thailand connected culturally on a level a city kid like me can’t quite understand. Or maybe it’s because Sacred Harp singing was designed to be easy to teach and easy to pass on. I don’t know. But regardless, I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Someone should get an Appalachia-Southeast Asia hymn singing convention together. Call it Hill-tribes and Hill-billies Hymn Sing. You heard it here first.

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