Sampling The Sacred: The Adhan Controversy
In recent months the project has moved away from the specific goals surrounding gospel influences and religious rhetoric in house music, to wider considerations about house music generally. However, that focus has not entirely shifted, so when interesting discoveries or current news stories pop out of the quagmire of dance music they’re going to be worthy of discussion.
On Monday (9th July 2018) one such story bubbled up to the surface. Solomon, while DJing at Kappa Futur Festival held in Turin, Italy, stirred up some controversy. During his set Solomun dropped a new demo by an, as yet, unnamed producer that sampled the Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer). Upon realising his “big mistake”, Solomun mixed out of the track. However, it seems that this has kicked up rather a fuss amongst some parties. Here is the apology posted by Solomun on facebook:
At the risk of courting controversy myself, the story is particularly pertinent to the FoH project as it parallels many of the ideas found in house music. Skip through some of the posts and interviews on this site and you’ll find innumerable references to Christian religious iconography and materials throughout house music. In the majority of cases these religious references exist due to the very fact that house music is a product of gospel churches' approach to musical tuition in Chicago, and from there have flourished throughout the genre.
I believe the ‘controversy’ courted by Solomun here poses interesting questions. Goa trance and psy-trance draw on Hindu and South East Asian religious symbols to articulate themselves. A Tribe Called Red have forged an interesting, empowering path representing First Nation spiritual beliefs. Even the recent influx of Afro-house references many different African religions (Yoruba being the most common). The questions I’d like to understand are whether the offence caused comes from the fact that the religion being “sampled” (for lack of a better phrase) is Islam? And whether the response would have been different had Solomun been Muslim? I place absolutely no value judgements on the answer to either question, but they are worthy of exploration.
Regarding the “sampling” of Islam, the wealth of evidence appears to suggest that some other religions are infinitely less concerned with sampling. House music is often perceived as a positive force for Christianity and gospel music; a marriage of values and musical content that manifests as something egalitarian. Afro-house’s invocation of Yoruba is, if anything, positive in terms of it’s ‘authenticity’ and representation of the culture to a wider world. However, it appears that the act of sampling Islam is less accepted. Beyond the outcry against Solomun, the recent cases of Dax J playing the Adhan in part of a DJ set and receiving a 1-year jail sentence from the Tunisian government*, and Acid Pauli’s sampling of the Quran in Beirut resulting in the closure of a club resonate here. Comparatively, I’m aware of no instances where the sampling of a Christian preacher or Hindu scripture has resulted in jail time or club closure.
Concerning the second point, clearly Solomun’s conscience has caused him pain (and I personally feel the tone of his apology is suitably contrite), but the response would have been no different in my view had someone of the Muslim faith created and/or played the track. However, I’d suggest it’s very unlikely a practicing Muslim would have been so callous to consider sampling the prayer. Although, this is all clearly conjecture.
The point of the commenter in orange above is interesting: the idea that sampling Islam could be considered offensive to the faithful. But again, I've got to point to house music as a comparable. No preachers were worried about the offence caused by re-writing biblical verses or sampling sermons. Aretha Franklin's father did not complain when he was sampled on Green Velvet's Preacher Man. Of course, we need to be respectful and tolerant of religious beliefs (providing they aren't morally reprehensible or founded on hate), and we certainly shouldn't go out to cause offence purposefully. But at the same time that respect can be taken too far, to the point where religions are beyond criticism or beyond exploration. A blend of sacred singing and drum machines can be beautiful. Should that door be closed to popular music? Should all sacred musical features be declared "haram"? Is it all forbidden to those beyond the hallowed ground? Magnetic wrote an interesting Op-Ed piece asking similar questions.
Yet, I find myself stuck on one point, and it’s a point that goes beyond the specifics of religion. In the view of most producers, materials like the Amen Break, the Reese bass, and Dr King’s “I Have A Dream” speech are fair game. They’re anyone’s to sample (even though copyright does exist but is rarely enforced). These sonic artefacts have become part of our aural environment. In the same way that the “Vehicle Reversing!” warning, or sound of the a London tube car are all now ours, they’re things we own publicly simply because of our constant, unyielding exposure to them. The Adhan is now part of our collective sonic present and landscape (because of the movement of people and the wonderful intermingling of cultures) and, for non-believers, it is just a sonic artefact we encounter as we traverse the world. The tube has been sampled in numerous tracks, as has that annoying 3 beat click you get from a mobile phone signal when you’re too close to a speaker. Why not the Adhan? If you don’t believe, it’s simply a sound in your environment. If you do believe, then I’d suggest that sampling of such materials should be viewed as a positive; it is acceptance and cultural norms being expressed (obviously this is only my opinion).
Before you spit your coffee at your screen I should mention 2 caveats to my argument here. Firstly, this only applies to the Adhan i.e. the call to prayer. I can imagine sampling fragments of the Quran would get much sticker as that is not “public property” in the same way that the Adhan is as part of our sonic environment. Secondly, before you cry “cultural appropriation!”, just look at rock & roll and the blues. Music couldn’t be more full of cultural appropriation: where does one draw the line between influence, homage, pastiche, sampling, plunderphonics, ancestor worship, cannibalism, recontextualisation and the infinite shades of grey in-between? I don’t think that crying cultural appropriation here is actually a useful argument or one that’s particularly helpful to this discourse. I'd go as far as to suggest that global music, such as dance music, is beyond such cultural appropriation concerns. David Hesmondhalgh's 2006 publication deals with this particular issue with reference to African Americans' musical history. However, I'd argue that half the point of dance music is to be inclusive. Globally inclusive. Raving Iran! Prime example.
Dance music is a global culture, with no cultural boundaries.
I doubt this will be the last time this will occur, and I imagine there’ll be many addenda to this post as time progresses. If you want to read a similar argument from the perspective of house music and Christianity please check out this article.
*N.B Officially Tunisia has a secular legal system.