Why you should care

Because for some, music is about as spiritual as you can get. 

A for Ali Farka Touré, the late, great bluesman of Africa.

B for Baul Purna Das, who took Bengal’s spiritually charged baul music to Woodstock and the world.

Fast-forward to Z. That would be Zakir Hussain, the celebrated tabla player who believes rhythm originated in the drum of the Hindu god Shiva.

For each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, there is an immensely popular, world-class performer of world music who’s anchored in a spiritual tradition. All of them are united in the idea that music could lead the way to transnational religious experience. And not quite in the way Lennon imagined.

That’s the power of music. It motivates us; it changes us; it makes us ready for change.

— Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists

Might that process be ecstatically underway? Is that A to Z of greats, with their big fan followings and bumper ticket sales, a sign the world is engaged in a collective karmic sway? Is music evolving into the language of a global shared experience of the sacred? Could music be the next world religion?

It seems to depend on whom you ask.

“I applaud the concept,” says Alain de Botton, the fervently nonbelieving British-Swiss philosopher whose book Religion for Atheists caused a stir in both secular and spiritual worlds two years ago.

“As an atheist, I certainly hope not,” adds Charles Capwell, University of Illinois professor of music, who studies spirituality in song.

“I’d say a partial yes to the question,” muses William Dalrymple, a British historian who lives in India. For decades, Dalrymple’s books have explored the spiritual joists and spaghetti junctions of divinity, development and decay in disparate cultures.

Dalrymple points out that religion has always recognized and used the power of music. In 1908, Theosophical Society president Annie Besant was saying almost exactly the same thing. In Madras, she said music was one of religion’s “strongest helpers” and offered as examples Christian Plainchant, Greek church cadences, and compositions from China and Hindu India. American examples abound, not least black gospel music and Shape note singing.

There will come a day when music and its philosophy will become the religion of humanity.

— Inayat Khan, Indian musician + founder of the first Sufi order in the West

But today, it’s spreading on a global, mega-moneymaking scale. Which is why English entrepreneur Robert Browning, who started bringing world music to New York from the mid-’70s, can now look back on 1,800 successful concerts. And it’s why in the last few weeks, Browning’s newest offerings included Amir Nojan’s mystical Persian music and a Turkish Sufi concert by Omar Faruk and Murat Tekbilek.

It’s thanks, in part, to the well-being industry — globally worth billions, according to London-based market-intelligence firm Euromonitor International, from the spiritual tunes in spas and healing clinics and yoga studios alike. The songs draw from a number of global roots, ranging from Bach to Buddhist chanting to beach waves, and from Tahuantinsuyo music via the Andes to the Tibetan flute.

“There will come a day when music and its philosophy will become the religion of humanity,” predicted Inayat Khan, an Indian musician who founded the first Sufi order in the West in 1914, in a series of lectures and essays.

We may not be there yet. But it is at least now possible for a gaggle of nonbelievers in London to spiritedly sing Jerusalem, a poem of profoundly Christian importance for England. And for the devoutly faithless Alain de Botton to celebrate the moment. “After that,” he told them, “we can go anywhere, do anything. That’s the power of music. It motivates us; it changes us; it makes us ready for change.”

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