Indian classical music has two main sub-genres: Carnatic and Hindustani. These come from the South and North, respectively. Carnatic music is focused on vocals, but can also feature violin (for melody), mridangam (for rhythm) and tambura (for drone). Carnatic music is believed to have divine origins in the Hindu tradition.
In this photo, Indian Hindu devotees play musical instruments during a procession in Allahabad, India. Allahabad, in Southern India, is one of the main gathering sites for the annual Magh Mela festival (and the massive Maha Kumba Mela, which occurs once every 144 years and hosted some 60 million people in 2001, making it the largest gathering in recorded history) on the banks of the Ganges river. The festival is part of one of Hinduism's holiest pilgrimages. Devotional music is a large part of the gathering.
In the next slide is video of a modern take on Carnatic music.
Indian classical music began as Vedic chants several thousand years ago and developed into a sophisticated musical system by the 3rd century.
The music is based on a single melody line, which is played over a fixed drone and can be quite meditative. The music has been passed down orally. Improvisation is an integral component of Indian devotional music.
In this video from the 2009 Darbar International South Asian Music Festival, rising UK musicians from the south Indian carnatic traditions sing beautifully crafted vocal melodies, backed by violin, flute and dynamic percussion from the north and south of the sub-continent.
Hindustani music also developed from Vedic chants, diverging from Carnatic music in the 12th century. It is the main form of Indian classical music practiced in the north and surrounding countries, such as Pakistan. Both Hindus and Muslims are accomplished Hindustani musicians, as this form of music is spiritual, yet religiously neutral.
In this photo, artists from India, South Korea and Canada of the Rythm Riders Music Productions rehearse "Tabla" ahead of World Music Day in Ahmedabad on June 19, 2010. A versatile percussion instrument of north Indian music, tabla is now used in everything from Indian classical music to techno and jazz.
The next slide is a video of Pandit Ravi Shankar, the undisputed king of Hindustani music, performing at the 1967 Monteray Pop Festival.
Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Ustad Alla Rakha (tabla) performing "Dhun (Dadra And Fast Teental)" in an excerpt from the four-hour performance at Monterey County Fairgrounds in California on June 18, 1967. Shankar's performance here and at other similar festivals in the 60s helped introduce the West to this highly evolved musical tradition. The first seven minutes of this clip consist of shots of the festival-goers, Jimi Hendrix among them, in various states of attention. As the song picks up, the audience becomes visibly enlivened.
Watch part two of this song.
Qawwali is the devotional music of Muslim Sufis, practiced predominately in Pakistan and having Persian and Indian roots. It developed at the same time as Hindustani music and features incredible vocal acrobatics, repetitive and emotive harmonium, as well as infectious tabla-charged rhythms.
Sufi poetry, used in Qawwali music, is devotional in nature and speaks explicitly in a language of love and longing. A group of Qawwali singers is called a party. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) certainly threw the most illustrious parties. In the next slide is a video Nusrat and his crew.
This clip is long and, as such, is a great example of drawn-out Qawwali devotion. Nusrat's songs, like those of his peers, generally go on for 10 to 30 minutes (or much, much longer), starting out slow and building to a frantic pace in order to induce a state of hypnosis in both musicians and audience. This music is God: good to the last drop.
In this photo, Tibeten monks chant and play instruments at the College of Idaho campus in Caldwell, Idaho on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008. The monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery later created a sand mandala.
Buddhist chanting, in general, is a method for preparing the mind for meditation. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition, specifically, is a complex system of rhythmless chanted sacred texts, accompanied by sometimes-dissonant, sometimes-resonant drum. The chanting itself often has the deep, earthy quality of throat singing.
The next slide is a video of Tibetan monks performing various chants with some percussive accompaniment.
Tibeten monks chant, play instruments and dance, while performing various rituals.
Gospel is, in the broadest sense, a loose collection of Christian devotional music: Southern gospel, urban contemporary gospel, soul music, gospel blues, bluegrass gospel, Christian country music, hip-hop gospel and even Celtic gospel are just some of the many sub-genres. What they share is deep desire to express what it's like to be in a relationship with God amid a community of like-minded believers. Who composes a given Christian musical community is another question.
In this photo, Donnie McClurkin and Cece Winans perform with the NFL Players Choir during the 2011 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration at Music Hall at Fair Park on Feb. 4 in Dallas, Texas.
The next slide is a video of the Soweto Gospel Choir, which indulges in a unique mixture of culture and Christianity that could only come out of multi-colored South Africa.
In this video, the Soweto Gospel Choir sings "Bayete." The choir combines African Gospel music with traditional spirituals, American popular music and even reggae, a mix as spine-tingling as it is eclectic. Soewto uses English and eight other South African languages to proclaim their unique brand of Godly good news. "Bayete," which is sung here in Zulu, means:
"Oh hail, Oh hail/Lion of Judah/You are the Head of the Church/Alpha and Omega/The beginning and the end./Oh Great and Mighty God/Seated on the Heavenly throne/You are the shield of truth holy city/Jerusalem, Jerusalem/Lift up your voice and sing/Hosanna in the highest/Hosanna to the King/We salute you my Lord/We salute the heavens/We salute you my Lord."
The African-American tradition of Gospel music has many manifestations today, but one is particularly notable. Sacred Steel, which was first practiced in the 1930s in Pentecostal House of God Churches, is a form of Christian Gospel and soul music based around the pedal steel guitar.
Sacred Steel first entered mainstream consciousness when Robert Randolph, a young pedal steel aficionado raised in the House of God Church, joined John Medeski's soul-infused jam outfit, The Word.
In the next slide is a video of Randolph and The Word performing.
Sacred Steel is a prominent part of The Word, a supergroup of sorts that features Robert Randolph, John Medeski and The North Mississippi Allstars. Ironically, The Word general does not feature singing, allowing the holy spirit to come through the music alone. Prepare to testify.
Music is deeply infused in the history of Judaism. King David is known to have been a prolific songwriter, a large band and choir played and sang in the ancient Temple and there are sources showing that music was a key component of the Jewish prophetic experience.
Though music was legally banned in the Jewish tradition following the destruction of the Temple, Jews couldn't avoid song for long, and today, Jewish music spans the spectrum from strictly liturgical to purely secular, touching every point of fusion in between.
One recognizable stream is the Hasidic practice of contemplatively singing wordless melodies, known as nigunim. This, along with communal, circular dancing, is known to be a core aspect of Hasidic religious service and is a mechanism for transcending this-worldly hang-ups in order to unite with the divine.
The next slide is a video of Jewish musician Matisyahu singing a nigun as preparation for some lively beat boxing.
Matisyahu's story is well known, but the fact remains that he's taken a centuries-old Jewish tradition of meditative song and made it relevant to many young Jews who otherwise feel alienated from their inherited religious tradition.
In this clip from a 2007 show at the Roseland Ballroom, Matisyahu delves into the depths of a Hasidic nigun (wordless melody) before launching into a beat box-laden jam, featuring John Popper on harmonica and Tim Reynolds on acoustic guitar.
This is the power of ancient music in action.
Any mystical tradition seeks to transcend boundaries that may otherwise seem insurmountable. Such striving for unity is certainly the goal of mystical music. The Qawwali music of Muslim Sufis, for instance, is meant to dissolve the illusion of division -- between the musician and the listener, between the believer and the divine.
Shye Ben-Tzur, an Israeli Jewish musician and poet, first discovered Qawwali music after falling in love with the Indian classical tradition. (Already we see the boundaries fade away.) After exploring the Qawwali tradition for himself, Ben-Tzur set out to combine his Hebrew devotional poetry with the Muslim mystical music.
In a track from his most recent album, Shoshan, Ben-Tzur makes the (achingly beautiful) case that the world revolves around divine unity and all eventually dissolves into oneness. The following is a translation of that song, "Sovev":
"The world is whirling round and round/On the axis of my beloved./On the circles of breath My heart orbits your heart in worship/On the circles of breath/My heart orbits your heart in prayer/The world is whirling round and round/On the axis of my beloved./All that was created Shall dissolve in time/All that is apart Shall return to be one/The world is whirling round and round/On the axis of my beloved."
In this video, Hebrew Qawwali singer Shye Ben-Tzur performs in Jaipur, India with a group of Israeli and Rajasthani musicians. This song speaks of a yearning to dance with the divine:
"How can I continue sleeping/while you are outside dancing?/I came out to dance with you/be a witness to your voice/The birds are signing every morning your name/The sun kisses the earth/And I, I dream."
Shye Ben-Tzur performed with his group on March 4 at the International Festival of Sacred Arts, which seeks to explore many of the sacred musical traditions mentioned in this slideshow.