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Accepted Paper:

Sound, blood and electric power. The substantiality of religious music in Malawi.  


Piotr Cichocki (University of Warsaw)

Paper short abstract:

Music in Malawian electrified Christian churches and temples of local cults has a substantial character, identified as power. The sound affects the believers waking in them non-human beings. The density of timbre sticks the socio-spiritual world similarly as blood in a model proposed by R. Thornton.

Paper long abstract:

In this presentation, I discuss the substantial character of sound in religious practices of northern Malawi. The sound of urban electrified churches, as well as drumming in rural possession cults produces a space in which the relationship between the spiritual and human world is established. In both Christian presbyterian churches and vimbuza temples, the sound has a dense, massive and vibrating texture of timbre. It profoundly affects believers in an embodied way. The sound is supposed to wake up (Tumbuka language - wauka) spirits in the body. The spirits are understood in the categories of power (nkhongono), like in many African religious practices (Ellis, Ter Haar).

To explain this embodiment, I refer to the model of the socio-spiritual world in which relationships among people and non-human beings are produced through the exchange of blood (Robert Thornton). I argue that religious music works similarly, providing a sticky transmittable substance that binds social actors of different ontological statuses. This practice is pre-linguistic, concerning one's subjectivity and his or her relationship to the social environment.

Moreover, this characteristic of sound is equally related to the local world as it is to infrastructures and global networks of power. In the case of timbre, local drumming imitate the noise of electric amplifiers. Subsequently, the electrical network, scarce in Malawi, produces a social space felt like a world of shared blood and the sound of music. This space is likewise identified with the spiritual power: of the Holy Spirit assembled with economic development.

Panel P169
Affection of Sounds and Politics in South-Eastern Europe: Challenges and Perspectives