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From Hymn-Chanting to Worship Industry. A Study of the Transformation of Religious Music   in Mexican Pentecostalism

Carlos Garma-Navarro
UAM Iztapalapa, Mexico
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London


The growth and dissemination of non-catholic religious minorities in Mexico and Latin America has occurred mainly in the last decade (Martin 1990; Bastian 1994). It has become the object of assorted investigations by social scientists. A number of themes have received more of attention from specialists than others. For instance, Stoll has analyzed the impact of evangelical groups upon Latin American politics in 1990. In Mexico this issue has been studied by Scott and Fortuny (1993), as well as by Bastian. Another issue has been the impact religious change has had upon ethnic indigenous communities, as has been described by Garma (1987) and Marroquin (1995), and yet another are the new religious identities, as highlighted by Vazquez (1991). However, there are issues that have yet to receive attention.  Rather surprising is the scarce attention the role of music has received concerning religious change. This aspect is more subtle than either politics or ethnic identity, but to those who are well acquainted with religious congregations and  evangelical, Protestant and Pentecostal groups, it is doubtless very important. However, in published paper on religious change in Latin America music has not received enough attention, as Martin (1990) points out. Only a few authors who have written about Brazil have detailed the role of music in religious change (Aubree 1996; Chesnut 1997; Burity 1997). This can be partly explained by the fact that in Brazil conversion to non-catholic religions has spread widely assisted by commercial production of music. National Brazilian identity amply stresses the country¨s musical creativity as a national emblem. Religious music has been accepted as part of this cultural element. When in Rio de Janeiro in 1999, I was strongly attracted to the several stores exclusively selling evangelical CDs. Instead, in the United States, the issue of popular or commercial religious music has not received much attention from researchers. A case in point are the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion. Turning to their issues from the last ten years, I found that they have not published a single article on music. This is quite odd because the American record industry annually awards three Grammies to religious recordings. Of all relevant investigators only Harvey Cox has dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the role of music in the world expansion of Pentecostalism. On the other hand, in Mexico I do not know any social research relating the music of religious minorities. 
The study of the role of music in minority religious groups is interesting because it allows for the understanding of several aspects. On the one hand, itis a creative activity that enables communication with sectors wherein potential converts may be found. Music is a universally understood cultural element. It is possible to feel a esthetic emotion without having to be convinced neither of the composer or interpreteris truthfulness nor understanding the lyricsi deeper meaning. Quite often I enjoyed the choir singing at some congregations or the music played by above average musicians or soloists. Music has many symbolic expressions that induces feelings. Through music, reaching  diverse sectors as young people (university graduates or not), workers and their spouses, as well as Indians, is likely. There is a great diversity among non-catholic religious minorities. In Mexico there are more than 3 500 non-catholic associations legally registered before the Interior Department¨s Subsecretary of Religious Affairs  (Garma 1999). Among these groups there is a lot of competition to win over converts, not only former catholic followers but other minority evangelicals as well. There are many religious leaders seeking to bring over many followers from other congregations. I once heard certain pastor criticize this as the thieving of the sheep. A particular upshot is that some believers frequently change their religious affiliation, which makes union and cooperation among diverse groups difficult. Common spaces are indeed necessary to make mutual support and cooperation among akin minority religious groups possible. Music thereby acts as one of the major cohesion and unity elements. Hymns are heard in several temples, even those belonging to different denominations. Cassettes and CDs are promoted as Christian music which may be listened to and enjoyed by any group. Artists who record these music productions appear as Christian or evangelical, instead of highlighting their membership of any particular congregation or temple. Protestant and Pentecostal groups use both terms when they seek to underscore unity and cohesive elements. For them there are groups that clearly are not evangelical Christians. These are the Jehovah s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Spiritists, and, sure enough, the Roman Catholics (Garma 1990).

This paper focuses upon Pentecostal temples. I have been studying Pentecostalism at different levels, rural as well as urban, during the last twenty years  (Garma 1993). I have undertaken several field trips visiting Pentecostal congregations in indigenous communities at  northern sierra of Puebla in Mexico, as well as in Iztapalapa Delegation in Mexico City , a huge working class community. Among Mexico ´s major Pentecostal congregations are the Assemblies of God, The Apostolic Church of the Faith, the Interdenominational Christian Church, the Independent Pentecostal Churches, the Centers of Faith, Hope and Love, Christian Friendship, etc.  The term evangelical is used both by denominational Protestants as well as the Pentecostal themselves, when striving to stress their bonds. Often the faithful use this expression in order to define their religion to any stranger, rather than naming any particular congregation.  

Voices of Praise

When studying congregation rituality the outstanding role of music ought to be mentioned. In Pentecostal churches music has always had a major relevance. Its Afro-American roots has given it that importance from the very beginning (Cox 1994). Every Protestant religion developed among black American communities has had holy chants as an essential component (Marks 1974). These constituted the type of music known as gospel music. Many black American musicians were influenced by these spiritual songs. Cox (1994) alludes to the jazz geniuses, like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, whom composed sacred music too. Renowned Afro-American in the popular music medium, singers such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Toni Braxton and Bobby McFerrin learned their trade at their communitiesi temples, and many of them were sons and daughters of ministers and pastors. At Mexican congregations I have listened to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and other popular spirituals in Spanish translation. It is heard as Glory to Thee, Divine Jesus, still maintaining its unforgettable glory, glory, hallelujah! chorus. In Pentecostal churches, music fulfills several vital functions. First, it gives support to the socialization of the faithful. Hymns and choirs are quite easy to remember and pleasant to listen. Illiterate converts would first learn the lyrics, and may read the Writ more easily afterwards. Before learning to cite the Bible, new converts and their children learn the choirs. Furthermore, the songs, as  already stated, may illustrate in a simple downright way, some points of doctrine  Music also performs a highly didactic role. Chants also give the services quite a festive ambiance. Gaiety may be interpreted as a reward for the sober livers demanded to converts. (They ought to stay away from dances, movies, and TV programs, which are rejected due to their amoral sex-and-violence contents.) Instead, ritual music offers the faithful wholesome family entertainment, as well as a medium to withstand lifeis burden and dreariness. Therefore, in a taped interview, Evangelina Corona, who besides being an Evangelical, was elected to the Mexican Congress on a leftist ticket, remembers singing hymns at the factory where she worked as a seamstress to resist long hours of enclosure.

Conversely, music offers a path towards possession by the Holy Ghost. Like many trance religions (Glazier 1991; Laplantine 1987; Goodman 1972; Marks 1974) use of music enables arriving at extremely emotive bodily states, from which corporal dissociation is more plausible. This happens particularly when the hearer accompanies music with body gestures, such as clapping and dancing. This is certainly the case of the Pentecostal churches, although clapping is more widely accepted and widespread than dancing among Protestants in general. During religious services songs of praise clearly serve as a vehicle for the participation of the faithful in common feeling and emotions through expressions shared by the community. An obvious example of this are the hymns where miracles or holiness are pleaded in order to heal illnesses. I have listened to hymns with such titles as God is my Doctor or Jesus, Divine Physician. At a religious service dedicated to holiness, after these chants the sick face the congregation to ask God for relief.

Pentecostal missionaries acknowledge that music could well be a powerful instrument with which attract the unconverted to the Divine Word. Nicolasa Carbajal still recalls how her sister, Romana, founder of the Apostolic Church and Mexicois first Pentecostal missionary, use to walk about evangelizing from town to town, dressed in white, sporting a Bible and playing her mandolin. Gaxiola (1994) also tells how the first Pentecostal temples in Nayarit State were founded by a family of converted musicians (they were a mariachi band, he told me), whom called over many fellow musicians to write hymns and praises.  The sale of religious music cassettes may well be a useful source of revenues to temples having bookstores or shops. On assisting to church conventions or meetings, the believers can always find small vending posts where he may buy books and recorded music. Instead of buying images, candles, and stamps, Evangelicals buy bibles and, increasingly, recorded music cassettes and CDs. Nowadays, there are Christian businesses devoted to an Evangelical market including both Protestant and Pentecostal customers. In the 1997 National and International Christian Directory, Ediciones Evangelicas Nacionales published a half-page announcement of an array of recorded religious music to be distributed throughout Mexico, with such productions as Cristo Viene, Horeb, Yireh, Dios Proveerç and Cantares. The Directory also reports the phone numbers of 47 Mexico City ÊEvangelicalË singers that offer their craft to churches and religious associations. Among them there are groups, like Abba Padre, Gente Nueva, Gloria, Grupo Musical Amor y Razùn, Grupo Musical Llamamiento, Grupo Palestina, La Tierra Prometida, Los del Camino, Nuevo Horizonte, M£sica Con Sentido Eterno, Roca Eterna, Santuario. Likewise, there is also the Mariachi Betania, as well as the phone numbers of popular stars, like Marcos Witt, Ivette, and Yuri. Listening to Christian music, one discovers a wide range of musical styles. Virtually everything is used or adapted at will. Christian singers and music bands resort not only to traditional Afro-american spirituals but to bolero, local country styles, salsa, Jamaican reggae, besides rock. In Mexico, Evangelical music is dominated by a wide range of composers, musicians, and singers resorting to the mariachi tradition, including trumpets, strings, and vocals. Unlike, however, traditional songs, which extols machismo and drunkenness, they preach faith in God. Another major, most interesting variation is the use of marching bands that play martial tunes on the triumph over Satan and the armies of evil.  The only music style arousing controversy is rock. There are two opposed postures over Christian rock: 1) that itis like any other music and may be used to praise the Lord; and 2), itis, on the contrary, by its own nature, unredeemable, perverse and satanic music. This latter position has been expressed by the pastor of the Christian Churches Brotherhood in an audiocassette. A recently edited book titled La verdad acerca del rock cristiano (The Truth About Christian Rock) expresses this widely-held critical view. Certainly most rock stars brazen expressions may generate much mistrust among Evangelicals. But also a growing number of former rock singers have adopted Christian music in Mexico. Groups aiming to convert the young, like Amistad Cristiana, have discovered that Christian rock may convey a message attractive to young people. Itis quite interesting that in Brazilian Evangelical milieu controversy hasnit concerned the music style to be used, but on the nature of the musical instruments (Aubree 1996; Burity 1997; Chesnut 1997). In this case, for a long time percussion instruments were forbidden, since they were considered associated to worldly matters and sin. Percussion is obviously a major element in the Scolas da Samba so characteristic of the Brazilian Carnival and its sexual license and nudity (Eco 1989). Moreover, the use of percussion among other religions has been to invoke non-Christian deities. But among these instruments, only the tambourine is allowed. In Mexico since percussion instruments donit have the same meaning, this controversy is non-existent.

At Evangelical gatherings Iive received certain booklets about music schools wherein organ, guitar, battery, and singing lessons are given for the use of the ministry. The aforementioned directory also reports the phone numbers of twelve music schools for the Mexico City faithfull. A full-page announcement says: Montebelo Musical Center offers every type of musical instruments for praising God. Baffles, mixers, amplifiers, guitars, batteries, tambourines, flutes, and cymbals. Special attention to Godis folk from brother CÄsar Castillo.Ë Mexicois foremost Christian singer, Marcos Witt, has written a book, titled Adoremos (Let Us Praise), on the correct usage of music in which he also recalls his own experiences on the musical ministry (Scott 1997). A young Pentecostal girl explained to me that for the love of religious music she registered at the National Arts Institute Conservatory, yet she found out that teachers as well as fellow classmates sneered at her religious beliefs. The success of the Evangelical music schools can be partly explained also by the experience of other musically inclined believers wanting to attain a more solid schooling but has faced worldly misunderstanding. Of course, in order to sustain itself economically, a Christian music school canit display its religious persuasion, for it must register Pentecostals as well as God s folk. The theme of Christian music leads us to the issue of the Pentecostal congregations relationship to the mass media. The new Public Cult and Religious Associationsi Act, chapter III, article 16, expressly forbids churches from owning mass media. For religious leaders, such prohibition is rather unfortunate, because they deem mass media broadcasts worldly sinful messages. Yet, it should be remembered that the use of mass media led to the scandals of those American TV evangelists who amassed huge illegal fortunes and had to be punished by their own congregations (Poloma 1989). In Brazil, a similar controversy surrounded broadcasts by Godis Universal Church (Mariz 1995). Nonetheless, churches may advertise themselves as well as sponsor programs on the mass media. In Mexico City a radio station currently broadcasts Christian music (besides rock) and an Evangelical newscasts. A Pentecostal minister, Apostle Gabriel Sanchez, from Godis Christian Church, is Mexico Cityis foremost Evangelical radio celebrity. His program, Buenas Noticias (Good News), goes on the air daily. On Sundays, he furthermore goes on live in Hogares mas que vencedores (Homes That Are Victors). Protestant and Pentecostal leaders argue that every access to TV stations has been denied to them, since they overtly favor de Roman Catholic Church. The rapport between TV media corporation owners and ultraconservative members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is well known.

Yet the relationship between Pentecostal congregations and Mexican mass media does not end here. In the last years, a growing number of so-called artists, former TV stars -who use to be treated like mere commercial brands- began converting to Protestantism. Their presence within religious services have even appeared in the newspapers. Every congregation having a media celebrity convert enjoys a powerful boost. Thus was the case with a singer and TV actress named Yuriria, whose artistic pseudonym is Yuri. She shed her erstwhile erotic image when she became a Christian and began promoting Christian values, such as family and stable marriage (La Jornada January 14, 1997). She even is regarded as an innovator within Mexican Pentecostalism, when she presented a testimonial on video, in which she tells her life story and her conversion into Pentecostalism. I found this videotape on sale at Pentecostal and Protestant bookstores, despite provoking divided opinions. Some preachers told me they liked this material very much, yet others doubt Yuri s conversion. Her case isnit unique. Among the best-known converted celebrities are María del Sol, Juan Luis Guerra, Sergio Ramos el Comanche, and Johnny Laboriel. However, converts coming from mass media are innovating churches in other ways too. Many of my students have witnessed elaborated choir choreographies clearly inspired on what is seen on television variety shows. These is not body language that can be attributed to people possessed by the Holy Ghost but organized dancing.  This cannot be explained as fellow brothers copying body and dance movements from television, something quite difficult to an untrained person. Rather, these are people with prior training, now converted to Pentecostalism and divulging the Word.  In Black communities, relationship between worldly commercial shows and congregations has often shared this nature. Jacobs and Kaslow (1991) have discovered how New Orleansi Pentecostal churches and Spiritualist coveted the conversion of organists, pianists, and drummers (who used to play jazz), because they help create a good atmosphere during services. The conversion of people coming the mass media milieu is understandable. Showbusiness is quite competitive and the collapse of stars can be very sudden. All this creates deep uncertainty. Readaptation is hard to erstwhile celebrities, who now find themselves cast aside from fame and fortune, especially if he or she lacks a college degree. As Yuri candidly said: I do not have an education; I only know how to sing. Moreover, alcohol and drugs are around, inducing to gross instability notwithstanding the glamorous image sold to the consumer public. Many Pentecostal churches have addiction-prevention programs. Some of them have joined to sustain rehabilitation centers, which are registered in the aforementioned Directory. They offer radical change, besides a space within diverse congregations where the new converts may share their talents to a divine purpose. Pentecostal congregations also offer the transformative experience of religious conversion, something lacking in institutional Roman Catholicism. This orientation, based on experience and feelings, makes sense to people whose lifeis work has always been conveying emotions. On the other hand, it should be remembered that for certain popular and juvenile sectors, music is an important communication medium which stands for many experiences. The recuperation of the people´s musical sense enables Pentecostal and Protestant congregations to get close to people in a pleasant and less threatening way than more disconcerting ones, such as, for instance, the gift of tongues. Music enables whomever raises his or her voices to daily experience God s divinity.


Let's briefly consider this praise industry from a more sociological standpoint. As such, building a new cultural industry involves recruiting social actors with a useful and precise symbolic capital to a social movement. (I am using concepts on the sociology of culture set forth by Bourdieu 1988.) The conversion of musicians, singers, and choreographers is rather interesting from this viewpoint. Those persons bring certain high sophisticated knowledge and skills into the congregation. Once converted, they are greatly cherished, besides they attain huge mobility within the congregationis authority structure. They easily become chorus directors and music ministers, I have known those promoted to deacons and preachers (male as well as female) who came from a past as worldly artists. In this situation, musically trained believers discover they can easily take advantage of their manifold artistic skills and resources as a symbolic capital. It nevertheless should be stressed that this maximization of symbolic resources is rather attractive especially to those who find their advancement in the mass media business either blocked or frustrated. Ferocious competition among artists treated as merchandise by big media businesses may cast them aside. Conversely, they may be victims of their own personal problems, such as drug addiction. In a situation in which religious conversion offers an attractive alternative in which everybody wins, or, in sociological terms, could maximize symbolic capital resources. Converts find a space wherein their talents are appreciated and valued as an integral part of their own spiritual salvation. Churches themselves find these new members bringing valuable knowledge and skills useful to them, and that enhance the congregationis prestige, serving as a strong allure for further new converts. Cooperation between historical Protestants and Pentecostals towards building a so-called Evangelical community has materialized in a common market wherein sellers and buyers belong to those congregations. The best example of this may be seen in the already alluded National and International Christian Directory. It should also be stressed that this efforts to attain cohesion can also be seen throughout the ever growing Christian artists market. Any congregation could have made this market in its own. Furthermore, in order to make it successful, a possible consumer community constituted by the faithful is required. Facing a market based upon simple principles of maximum gain, only united believers could build upon this alternative market. Yet predominant ethics mustnit be merely profits but attention to the needs of the faithful, whom arenit just customers but brothers and sisters deserving special treatment. Churches organize themselves to face a stronger outer institution. Yet strategy cannot be made of simply building a common opposition to it, but in seeking a substitute organization, a concept not quite foreign to that of other utopian minority religious groups (Laplantine 1987). We ought to, finally, take the worship industry into consideration, from the standpoint of the relationship between society and the media. García Canclini (1998) has pointed out that if the media produces symbolic merchandise to be sold in the market, what should be deemed unique is differentiated consumption of these goods according to distinct types of consumers. It is not the same a movie, a TV program, or a video when itis seen within a middle-class household or that of an laid-off worker. Messages are interpreted differently within different social contexts. Yet, the example of Evangelical music allow us to go even farther in our analysis. Here the consumption phase is not only independent, nor just the reappropriation of musical style in the temple. Itis more an effort to create a whole alternative circuit encompassing symbolic goodsi production, as well as, surely, ultimate consumption itself. The worship industry therefore implies the construction of a sector comprising every economic phase, from production to consumption. We may ask ourselves: Is this social process negative in itself? I believe it is not. Instead of emphasizing cultural media massification as alienation, why not better understand the making of symbolic goods as a component of the existence of a plural and differentiated society. The case of Evangelical music shows how a social sector is capable of reappropriating elements from the mass media industry for its own ends, creating an alternative symbolic goods market. It is unnecessary to go on focusing mass media as a unilateral element promoting standardization and uniformity through the making of products destined to mass consumption. The creation of alternative symbolic goods circuits is part of a plural and healthy differentiation, in which the consumer not only is able to choose but to be an active participant in self-governing symbolic production. Why not comprehend Evangelical music and worship from this new standpoint?


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