Singing in the oral tradition illuminates humanity’s collective intelligence.
I lead community song circles every month or so. These gatherings always attract a different assortment of people from a variety of ages and musical abilities. Around the circle there are elders, babes in arms, grade school kids, teenagers, young adults, and middle-aged folks. At the beginning of each gathering, I start a simple three-part song. I teach by rote in the oral tradition. There aren’t any lyric sheets or music notes to follow. After the group learns the song, I sit down in the circle, close my eyes, and effectively shut down all of my leadership energy. I surrender the song completely to the group.
Then something remarkable happens: fifty people who have never sung with each other before decide with one mind the precise moment to stop singing. We arrive at the end together and somehow “know” it’s over. And this phenomenon has happened at every single community sing I’ve led for the past 15 years.
People in the group have strong responses to this experience. They shake their heads. Their eyes grow wide with wonder. Many laugh or weep. We are keenly aware that something nourishing and mysterious has moved among us, even though we have no idea exactly how it happened. Here’s what I believe: singing in the oral tradition illuminates the collective intelligence that is present among us all the time.
Every now and again, we witness examples of “group mind” in nature: a flock of birds whirling through the morning sun, a bee hive humming with activity, or a herd of caribou pouring over the tundra. Many species create beautiful and useful patterns without a fixed and logical plan and sometimes, without an apparent leader. Why not us?
It’s harder for us humans to access our collective intelligence. We have this strange gift of “consciousness” which brings with it an illusion of separation. It takes diligent effort to penetrate that illusion and reconstitute our innate connection to each other. Our ancestors recognized how essential those bonds are in order for the community to stay healthy; that’s why they created so many ways to restore those bonds and wove them into their daily lives.
When cultural anthropologist and author Angeles Arrien studied indigenous peoples around the world, she discovered that virtually all of them sing, dance, tell stories, and practice silence. The prevalence of these four practices across diverse cultures tells use that they access and illuminate something essential about being human.
What emotional and spiritual price do we pay for depriving ourselves of these experiences? We are awash in music every day, but most of us are consuming it as passive listeners. Plugging in our ear buds or cranking our car stereos may offer a kind of diversion, but it doesn’t feed that part of us that hungers for the connection that comes from participating in a group experience.
The video below shows one of my favorite songs to sing in community—the Navajo Prayer with words by the Indian mystic Kabir (1440-1518) and music by Jody Healy who currently lives and sings in the Bay Area. It’s a round, so the community gets a chance to experience harmony without having to know anything about music theory. Each singer gets to notice the complex and rewarding experience of being an individual within a group in the context of a larger community. Three hours of lecturing couldn’t illuminate that lesson the way three minutes of singing can.
So learn the song. Sing it in the shower. Teach it to your friends. And enjoy remembering what it means to be “us.”
By Barbara McAfee