“Sinner’s Crossroads” is my favorite show on WFMU, a listener-sponsored radio station that broadcasts out of one of the Oranges in New Jersey. To all who are unfamiliar with the show, I highly recommend tuning in (you can even stream it live online). In addition, Sinner’s Crossroads is available on Podcasts.
It’s my favorite show because DJ Rev. Kevin Nutt plays old gospel music from as early as 1910 to as late as the 1980s. – the sort of music that gets recorded on off-labels and is found later in attics and out-of-the-way record collections. Some of the music has been rereleased on CD, but not most. There’s a lot of vinyl in his library.
Unlike modern gospel music that sounds to me more and more like R&B, with glitz and gloss and fancy productions, the music played on Sinner’s Crossroads is down-home, deeply moving, soulful, pain-filled, joy-filled and heart-grabbing. To hear these groups and soloists sing of their belief in Jesus, their desire to be forgiven, their wish for comfort, their wish for acceptance… I cannot help but move me to dance about with joy or weep with empathy and identification, and I always sing along (either the lead or the chorus). It doesn’t matter that I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior. In those moments, I do.
Music plays an important role in most religions. Listening to Gregorian Chant, I feel the direct connection to God. Listening to some of Bach’s liturgical music, I am moved to tears. As a nonreligious person until fairly recently, I always knew there was a power greater than myself whenever I listened to religious music of any faith.
It was music and dance that led me to my current faith — the Yoruba tradition. We, like many believers, dance and sing to the Orisas (the divinities we worship). We use music and dance to call them down to us. We use music and dance to open ourselves to messages for us individually and for our community.
I know there are lots of scientific studies about how music and dance affect us physiologically and biochemically. I don’t doubt that there are changes in our bodies and brains that occur when we sing and dance. But this information only goes to support what I and many of you already have experienced and know on a visceral and spiritual level.
This is not to minimize the power of prayer that is also effective in connecting with God and spirit. Either individually or as part of a group, the words are a powerful link. But singing and dancing, to me, is on a way more powerful level.
Before I became part of the Yoruba religion, I rarely sang (although I did dance). It was at a Bembe (singing and dancing ritual for Orisa) that I first really opened my mouth in song. I was standing next to one of my Godbrothers and just kind of humming along. He turned to me and said in a very loud voice, “Sing!” Even though I didn’t know most of the words, I sang.
I’ve been singing ever since.
I was told by a Babalawo (a high priest in the Yoruba religion) that if I ever feel depressed I should sing to the ancestors and Orisa. It was one of the most immediately effective pieces of advice I’ve ever received.
These days I sing when I feel sad and I sing when I feel happy and sometimes I just sing because it feels right. It helps me open my heart, not only on a spiritual level, but also to my fellow travelers in this life.
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