Sometimes the universe likes to prepare you in advance for something you will need. In some cases, it’s the impulse buy that comes in handy later that month, or a song you hear that the choir director asks you to sing a week later, or in my case, it’s a conversation on Wednesday that leads to your mentor looking for a different word and stumbling upon Dictionary.com’s word of the day, “quodlibet,” then talking about how it’s probably something I learned in music theory classes when I was young but have forgotten the term for…. and now here we are, a quodlibet set before us.
“But Kimberley, it’s a short chant. How can it be a quodlibet?”
“Hate to interrupt, but what the heck is a quodlibet?”
I’m so glad you asked. You see, a quodlibet is “a composition consisting of two or more independent and harmonically complementary melodies, usually quotations of well-known tunes, played or sung together, usually to different texts, in a polyphonic arrangement.” Dictionary.com suggests it is humorous, but I don’t think it has to be – Ysaye Barnwell leads communities of singers in quodlibets of spirituals, and those are quite moving.
Anyway, the whole reason this comes up is that there’s a note at the bottom of this chant – a traditional Navajo prayer – that reads “all of the earth chants, numbers 1069-1072, may be sung at the same time.” And handily, they are all in the same key (C), with the same number of bars (8), and honestly with the same basic theme (connecting to earth, sky, and spirit).
What I love about making a quodlibet out of these songs is that it blends themes from various traditions, along with imagery and language. Not all is gendered – although I totally get why some of it is. Some is true chant in that there are only a few words (like today’s). Others in this set are chant-like but have multiple verses. But all of them are easy to learn and easy to blend.
Today’s is a simple but powerful piece invoking the feminine divine; it’s up to you to decide if it’s about the earth, or about god, or about something else entirely… but it is powerful and beautiful.
Ancient Mother, I hear you calling.
Ancient Mother, I hear your song.
Ancient Mother, I feel your laughter.
Ancient Mother, I taste your tears.
Update: In my rush to get to a meeting, I neglected to address the need for care on this piece (thanks to Kristin Grassel Schmidt for noting the oversight):
This chant is from the Navajo tradition, a people who lived in the area we now know as New Mexico. They suffered centuries of colonization and conquest from Europeans, but unlike many native American tribes, they still live for the most part on their ancestral land.
The chant we have above is more than likely part of a much larger religious event called a ‘chantway.’ According to NavajoIndian.net,
The Navajo culture is big into ceremonies and rituals. Their performances are usually four days, two days, or one day. Although some chants could be as long as nine days and require dozens of helpers. The most important ceremonies are the ones for treatment of ills, mental and physical. The Navajo are also very big into nature, so almost every act of their life is a ceremony of nature, including their building of the hogan, or the planting of the crops. All the Navajo culture ceremonies are included with songs and prayers.
In the Navajo culture and traditions there are over 24 different Chantway ceremonies performed by singers, and over twelve hundred different sandpainting designs that are available to the medicine men.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that this chant is distinctive to the Navajo, and that we must use care to not assume a ubiquitous “native American” tradition. Just as the Irish are not the Scottish are not the English, the Navajo are not the Hopi are not the Iroquois.
Painting is by Navajo artist Tony Abeyta. Learn more about his artwork here.