Calls to prayer in Johnson City

Setting:

The religious sounds of Johnson City are everywhere. Sounds originating from a Protestant Christian background dominates this soundscape. Sunday morning church bells and local radio stations reinforce the most prevalent religious experience of East Tennessee, both in the lives of area Christians and those that do not exercise faith. But in one location in the tri-cities, from a mosque on Antioch road near Baptist churches and cow fields, another sacred soundscape is audible. A local muezzin recites an azzan signaling the faithful in East Tennessee to pray just as they do in Medina, Mecca, and Jakarta.

The mosque is situated beside the sounds of dairy cows, a slow but steady rush of traffic from Antioch road and children playing at nearby Willow Springs Park. After entering the mosque, a hallway leads to a small room where one is required to remove one’s shoes before entering the masjid. This room can be quite busy with the shuffle of preparing for prayer. It opens to both the men’s and women’s space for prayer and serves as a kind of social space, for either before or after prayer, as conversations spill out from the masjid toward the exit. The masjid itself is a long, carpeted, rectangular space. The only seats are a row of chairs at the back of the room. Congregants, during the prayer, either stand, kneel, prostrate, or sit on the floor. An azzan is recited before every prayer. The azzan and prayers must be recited in Arabic.

(The text of the Azzan as translated by Imam Suleman Abdul Latif):

Allah is great. I testify there is none worthy of worship except Allah. I testify that Mohammed is his messenger. Come to the prayer. Come to the success.

Issues:

Practical issues of accessibility have been addressed. The mosque is accessible to visitors and the leadership of the community is available to shed light on the research topic. To establish variability in performances I analyzed recordings through a transcription software. This was the most convenient way to study the performances. Of course, I’m left with transcriptions in standard notation. I am aware of the dissidence of what works pragmatically for me and the nonmusical definition of the recitations supplied by the performers. As in any project there are ethical issues to consider. The local Imam, Suleman Abdul Latif, has given his permission for azzans as well as prayers to be recorded. A promise of anonymity for the muezzin is guaranteed. There was also an issue of definitions. Most non-Muslim listeners would readily identify the recitations categorically as music. Azzans are certainly heightened speech and have pitch and variation. But out of respect for those that informed my research I didn’t refer to azzans as music and I don’t mean to identify muezzins as musical performers. Lastly, I’m aware of the access that I have, as a male, to the larger portion of the masjid and the mihrah (where the azzan is delivered). The leadership of the mosque was very welcoming and helpful in assisting me in this process, but a female colleague of mine would have a more difficult time accessing this same data.

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Findings:

Richard Hood, in his article “Works in Progress” discusses the distinctions between a musical “piece,” one that is codified in writing, and the improvisational nature of traditional bluegrass music. Hood uses the term “pure tune” to describe the state of a tune not being composed or intended for exact replication. The azzan fits interesting in between these categories of “pure tune” and composed piece. The text is static and unalterable but the variations of performers make this recitation a dynamic part of the Islamic soundscape. These variations qualify as something of a “pure tune.” Though Hood had in mind a process where a musician intentionally improvises a variation on a tune (or delivers a planned performance composed of prior improvisations), the concept applies to a performance that is intending to be delivered in exactly the same way every time. A listener knows mostly what they will hear when the call to prayer is recited but depending on the muezzin it could be slow or fast, simple or ornate. Just as a bluegrass listener knows mostly what to expect from a given tune but will not be surprised when a banjo kicks off “Salt Creek” instead of a fiddle. The azzan is the process of this interaction between tradition and natural variation.

The encyclopedia of Appalachia and Tunager point out the “otherness” of Muslims in Appalachia. This otherness is obviously based on their minority status in a region where Christianity is the most common religion. Reynolds outlines the perception contemporary Appalachians might have of Islam in Media Representation of Islam and Muslims in Southern Appalachia. Although, this representation often has more to do with Fox News than with Islam itself. The striking difference between Islamic and Christian sound experience is part of their “otherness” as well. The use of a foreign language sets the azzan apart from more familiar religious sounds in East Tennessee. With this distinctive difference in mind, it is easy to wonder what the role of the azzan is in the soundscape of Johnson City. Is there something distinctively Appalachian about the calls to prayer in Johnson City? Muezzins do not consciously change their style or improvise on an agreed upon score so the idea of an Appalachian-influenced azzan would be outside the intentions of a muezzin. However, the contribution of our Muslim neighbors in Appalachia and their sacred soundscapes are changing Johnson City more than Johnson City is changing the experience of Muslim sound. Felton speaks of similar experiences in countries where the concept of church bells is unknown. The foreign sounding bells become a part of life where missionaries take them. So, with enough time, the plurality of religious experience in Johnson City as well a generation of American born Muslims will validate the sounds of Muslim prayers in Johnson City.

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Equipment:

-Tascam DR-05 recorder

The handheld recorder was placed discretely at the back of the masjid to record both the azzan and the prayers. The local Imam’s permission was acquired prior to recording.

Works Cited

Abramson R., Haskell J., (2006). Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Knoxville, Tennessee:  University of Tennessee Press.

Felton, A. R. (1958). Church Bells in Many Tongues. Lebanon, Pennslysvania: Sowers Printing Company.

Hood, Richard A. “Works in Progress: Improvisation and Tradition in Mountain Music.” Popular Music and Society 17 (1993): 63-75. Print.                          

Reynolds, S. K. (2015). Media Representation of Islam and Muslims in Southern Appalachia  (Order No. 1601385). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ East Tennessee State University; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1720612440). Retrieved from https://login.iris.etsu.edu:3443/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.iris.etsu.edu:2048/do cview/1720612440?accountid=10771

Tunagur, U. (2007). Business as usual: Exploring the other from Arabia to Appalachia. Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present, 6(2) Retrieved from    https://login.iris.etsu.edu:3443/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.iris.etsu.edu:2048/do cvie w/1519969414?accountid=10771

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