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Jazz Plaza 2020: Speaking in Tongues



Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao in Havana. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Chapter three of our series: 35th Jazz Plaza International Festival in Havana

Featured photo: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao in Havana, by Danilo Navas

In 1972, former University of Toronto professor of Anthropology and Linguistics Michael J. Samarin, after decades of study of the resurging Pentecostal Movement worldwide, published a seminal work entitled Tongues of Men and Angels. The book sought an answer to the question: “Why do people speak in tongues?” Prof Samarin’s book delved deep into the well of religious language. Like Freud’s study of the human psyche, it starts with aberrant behavior. It deals with glossolalia in the Christian religion. Linguists define the word glossolalia to describe the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily grasped meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which it is believed to be a divine language unknown to the speaker.

“the nonsense of be-bop jazz is surely for fun; it is for playing with the sounds of language”

Linguists (and spiritualists alike) often, although not universally, make a distinction between glossolalia and xenolalia or xenoglossy, which specifically designates when that language being spoken is a natural language previously unknown to the speaker. The New Testament of the Bible mentions the phenomenon in at least one passage in reference to speaking in languages known to others but not to the speakers themselves.

Interestingly, Professor Samarin also examined glossolalia in the context of scat singing, particularly the kind that rose to eminence in the stylistic era that is commercially known as Bebop. Prof Samarin suggested that there is a “strong difference between communicative and non-communicative anomalous speech only when the intent is consciously different.” He goes on to add: “But the lines between believing, pretending, and not intending at all to say something can be very thin indeed.” Prof Samarin also suggested that “the nonsense of be-bop jazz is surely for fun; it is for playing with the sounds of language.”

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at El Tablao. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

But this “playing around with” language may be just one of the aspects of both “sounds” and “language”, especially when it comes to religious practice and, more specifically, when religious practice and spirituality are the source of the “language” of music. And this may be true not only of Afro-Cuban, but Jazz as well – the source and spread of which has a very special sound in and around the Caribbean and the Americas. And this may also be significant because the sound of glossolalia seems to have made a prodigious leap; a crossover that has blurred the lines between religion and art.

Glossolalia comes from the Greek, itself a compound of the words glossa, meaning “tongue” or “language” and laleo, which is to say “to speak, talk, chat, prattle, or to make a sound”. This transliteration comes from Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott in A Greek-English Lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary names Frederic Farrar as being the being the first to use the word glossolalia to describe the “speaking in tongues” which, in turn, is what St. Paul [using the Greek] referred to when he wrote to and referred to the people of Corinth, writing [in I Corinthians 13:1] “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…”

Again, in the New Testament of the Bible, and in Acts 2 – to be precise – a reference is made to the followers of Christ [who] receive[d] the Holy Spirit and [spoke] in the languages of at least fifteen countries or ethnic groups. Who’s to know, of course, if all of this “speaking in tongues”, which refers to a time in the first century A.D. and therefore goes as far back to the time of the Greek and Roman eras, doesn’t, in fact, date back to a time much more ancient? We know, for instance, that the earliest civilisations are much older than that and these civilisations are almost certainly African. It is safe to say that the art of song is also, therefore as old as those [African] civilisations. Perhaps Jazz itself arrived in our time as if excavated from a past as distant as those civilisations. So why not glossa as well? Moreover, the black Gullah-Geechee people of South Carolina, for instance also use a kind of glossa in their children’s songs, which perhaps pre-date even jazz. Were Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and – especially Charlie Parker – also excavating a language from such a past, and putting it in a radically modern context?

Significantly some experts believe that the Gullah-Geechee people originally came from Angola. In fact all Black people came to the Americas and the surrounding Caribbean from somewhere or other in Africa. So we find others like the Gulla-Geechee people as well… Others, for instance, like the Arará, who now live in Havana and Matanzas, and who, in turn, descend from Fon, Ewe, Popo, Mahi, and other ethnic groups in Dahomey. Now, anyone who has heard – as we did during our sojourn to Cuba for Jazz Plaza 2020 – the magnificent ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas would no longer be fantasizing about what glossolalia sounds like. Would, then, “speaking in tongues” and the “language of men and angels” a real “thing” in music – a “thing” so beautiful and ancient to the future? You’d better believe it…

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Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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