Ayana and the Sacred Song

Posts in the Music and Ethics: Blog Dilemmas series

  1. Why Be Virtuous?
  2. Ayana and the Sacred Song
  3. Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

This is another in the series of posts I asked my Music and Ethics students to consider and comment on. Thought I’d toss it out to the wolves here as well:

Ayana and the Sacred Song
Ayana grew up the daughter of an international trade lawyer, and is an accomplished singer. Ayana moved around the world with her parents when she was young, and along the way learned several songs that were indigenous to the cultures she was living in. One particular song she remembered from a year spent in Australia, called YALKERI MURA MURA.

As her professional career advanced, Ayana often sang solo concerts, and used an arrangement of YALKERI MURA MURA as her encore. The melody was haunting and beautiful; people frequently approached her afterward and commented on how moving that particular song had been.

After one concert, Ayana is approached by a young Aboriginal Australian man, who confronts Ayana over her use of the song YALKERI MURA MURA. The young man informs Ayana that the song is a “naming song”, used by an artist when he creates a churinga, a sacred stone painting. The soul of the artist is imparted to the painting, and both the churinga and the song are considered sacred. The song is only to be sung while creating the churinga, and afterward only when handling it.

The young man tells Ayana that it would be considered highly offensive, even sacrilegious, among Aboriginal Australians to hear the song used to entertain listeners in a concert, instead of its intended ceremonial use. He asks Ayana to stop using YALKERI MURA MURA in her concerts.

What should Ayana do? Does the original cultural setting of the song have any moral weight in how she ought to use it?

Previous in series: Why Be Virtuous?

Next in series: Music and Ethics: With Strings Attached

53 thoughts on “Ayana and the Sacred Song

  1. June

    Hmmm…. I just don’t know. But, I must say, I’ve had the same feelings as your theoretical aborigine when I hear sacred songs sung by folks who have zero interest in the meaning of said songs but love to perform them for their musicality and/or affect. But on the other hand, sometimes I’m still glad to hear them, regardless of the source/setting, but more often than not, it rubs me the wrong way.

    So, I dunno.

  2. Gretchen

    I think that some songs can have new meaning in new settings or circumstances. Amazing Grace has become a song sung by everyone and their mother, yet, the words are still powerful and have a special meaning for most everyone listening to it. I don’t think Ayana is trying to be culturally insensitive in this scenario, but it is hard to know how to respond now that she does have the knowledge of it’s origin. Yeah, I’m not sure either. How’s that for a response?

  3. Chad

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I have $.02 to add, and it’s not really a philosophical argument, as much as a, “This is just the way the world works,” sort of a statement.

    It’s not even remotely taking into account cultural sensitivity.

    Here it is… once you make art and share it with even one person, you relinquish control in some ways. You cannot regulate how people interpret your art. Obviously there are major caveats and exceptions, but the general fact remains that for the cycle to be completed, the art is created, and then received, and then either rejected or internalized by the receiver. You cannot force someone to react a certain way. You can influence with mood, texture, theme, etc… but you cannot force it.

    I really think it would help me speculate further if I knew one thing: Is Ayana hot?

  4. aly hawkins

    If Ayana was using the song to make a point about how art (both the song and the sacred painting) should not be reserved for only those who make it, that would be one thing. That would be its own art—applying the form to another function to make a point about the original function.

    But Ayana’s not doing that. She’s using the form of the song in a function that does violence to the song’s original function—and not even on purpose!

    [quote comment="131533"]Here it is… once you make art and share it with even one person, you relinquish control in some ways.[/quote]

    I think there is some truth to this, but I don’t think it takes into account the responsibility of the one who receives the art. The receiver has a responsibility to think about the art and the artist’s intent before he or she decides to use it as a towel rack.

  5. michael lee Post author

    I think it matters whether Ayana’s disrespect is an intended or unintended consequence. If she intends to do something sacrilegious with the piece, that’s the driving motivation in her choice to perform this particular piece, then I think her actions are unethical. She is morally responsible for the offense to the culture that birthed the piece of music.

    If, however, the disrespectful use is an unintended byproduct of a justifiable use (her desire to perform a beautiful and moving piece of music), then I don’t think she has the same moral responsibility to the originating culture.

    If you were to take the isolated action and try to build overarching principles out of it, I think that the world is a better place if people are free to do constructive and artistic things with the works of other people than it would be if ever person who created something had controlling stake in how it gets used for the life of the work. That kind of lockdown on created works strikes me as harmful to human creativity.

  6. June

    Mike—No, I didn’t spend “any time” talking about such things (in regard to visual arts) when I was in school, I spent entire semesters talking about such things!

    Still mulling it all over…

  7. Chad

    Hey Aly,

    I’m actually with you… as a person who makes stuff from time to time, I wish that the receivers of the world would spend more time contemplating the intent of the artist…

    It just doesn’t seem to actually happen that way very often.

  8. Chad

    For example, everyone things that the song, Unplug is a searing commentary on the media, but it’s really about bacon.

  9. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="131732"]How is it that bacon is always funny?[/quote]

    It’s the legacy of The Simpsons on American culture, although ironically, the staff writers for The Simpsons consider bacon references used outside of the context of the show itself to be highly offensive, even sacrilegious.

  10. Sharolyn

    This is not very thought-out, but here goes.

    [quote comment="131725"]Hey Aly,

    I’m actually with you… as a person who makes stuff from time to time, I wish that the receivers of the world would spend more time contemplating the intent of the artist…[/quote]

    Me, too.

    As with any “I’m-down-here, you’re-up-there” communication, one reason it is hard to know the intent of the artist is that you simply can’t ask them about it or express any angst about their product from the mass of receivers. (Or, it would have to be important enough to seek them out.) Some amount of TRUST has to be present for a meaningful transaction – maybe a time-earned trust on behalf of the performer/artist/pastor/whatever, or maybe God just gives the listener a grace that day to be a cheerleader for his or her intent.

    The young man in this story certainly doesn’t trust Ayana’s intent with the song. It is not part of his belief system that he hopes Ayana will continue to sing it so that people around the world will become Aboriginal Australians. In other words, evangelism is not valued by this man in the way it is embraced in our brand of religion. There’s not really anything she can do or say to convince him to give his blessing on her use of the song. So, she either has to stop singing it, or know she is breaking his heart.

    And Mike can decide which one she should do.

  11. Melody

    How does Ayana know that what the Aboriginal man says is even true? Does one believe everything said by a fan who speaks to you after a concert? From whom did she learn the song? Obviously if the story he gives IS true, some Aborigine sang it out of context himself in order for others to learn it.

    This brings to mind a young Johann S. Bach who is supposed to have heard some organ music at church which was forbidden to be heard or played outside of church. Bach memorized the music and transcribed it out of his head upon arriving home. He got in trouble for it, yet because of him this great music became heard everywhere.

    I haven’t passed by Addison Rd. for some time, but this was just too interesting.

  12. Melody

    Another thought. How does one handle a “stone painting”? It is hard to imagine an Aborigine, who wears very little in the way of clothing, carrying one around under his arm. I’m really beginning to doubt the veracity of the man. Maybe he isn’t even an Aborigine – or even Australian. Maybe the song is on the verge of becoming a hit and he is really a record producer in disguise from a rival record label.

  13. Chad

    Aborigine tunes are so hot this year. Turns out the fake aborigine was actually famed hip hop songwriter Nee-Yo, who is already penning “YALKERI MURA MURA (b***h-a**-mo**erf**ker) for Rhianna’s next CD, due to drop in the winter.

    Ya’ll been served. Melody’s back in the hizzy.

  14. michael lee Post author


    You can find out a little more about the churinga stone paintings at wikipedia. They are smaller painted ceremonial objects, like a flat stone or a piece of shaped wood, easily transported, and highly valued.

    Aside from that, I think it’s more important to try to work through the dilemma than to try to work around it. These kinds of ethical dilemmas are used to in the same way a chemist might use a lab experiment; they allow us to isolate and test our moral intuitions as they relate to very specific values. If we introduce novel solutions, or escape routes, then we aren’t really testing for those values anymore.

    In this case, the situation needs to stay bracketed to be a useful thought problem – the Aboriginal Australian is a truthful representative of his culture, Ayana is acting in good faith with her choice to perform the song, and the only options are to perform a moving and beautiful piece that will offend the creators with every performance, or to cease performing it and deprive the wider audience of that beauty.

    In this case, the experiment tests for the value of cultural propriety over indigenous works against the value of increasing creativity and performed acts of beauty in the world.

    I think you’re right to bring Bach into the discussion, but maybe in a different way. Bach was, almost exclusively, a religious writer, creating pieces to be used in worship. He was also, by all accounts, a very devout man, and we can easily imagine that he would have scruples over where his pieces were performed (can’t see him agreeing to a performance in a whorehouse to gin up customers, for example). Yet a quick scan on imdb shows a list of films that have appropriated his music, and it’s not too hard to find films on that list that he would find repulsive, offensive, even sacrilegious (Van Wilder 2, anyone?).

    Bach is in a very similar position to our hypothetical Aboriginal artist.

  15. Linda

    200 years from now when the Aboriginal ancestors are measuring their bloodlines in percentages and the Aboriginal traditions are celebrated on “cultural awareness days” and the churingo are only displayed in museums… what will happen to the music if it is not passed onto others and shared? Is it important that it survive cultural change?

    What would Bach do?

  16. michael lee Post author

    Somehow, WWBD doesn’t quite have the same ring to it …

    I hadn’t considered the issue of preservation, but I think you’re right, it matters in this situation.

  17. Scott

    Brilliant, Linda! I’m making bracelets and lanyards and bumper stickers that say “W.W.J.S.D.”

  18. Melody

    Okay, I’ll concede that the Aborigine may be for real, although you seem to indicate that the whole story is made up. I would still come back to the thought that an Aborigine who knew the song sang it out of context in order for others to learn it. Why would they have done this? Obviously the song is floating around out there quite a bit for Anya to have heard it and learn it. If I were her, I would take the whole thing with a grain of salt and ask the fan for some serious documentation of his allegations before dropping the song. This is unless I am desperate to prove to my fans that I will do anything to be considered ‘politically correct’.

  19. michael lee

    Melody, you seem to insist on missing the point. Of course the whole thing is made up, it’s a thought experiment. That’s why we’re allowed to just state that certain things are true in our story, and then see how the ethical conflict unfolds.

    I have a hard time believing that you really think the “two wrongs” argument, that someone else violated the sanctity of the song by signing it first to her, first matters in this case. That’s not an argument I would accept from my kids, and I don’t imagine you would either. To say that Ayana received the song by way of an culturally offensive performance of it doesn’t hold any weight in her culpability once she is aware of the cultural standing of the piece.

    Also, I’m also very curious about what kind of documentation you expect from an artist who has been dead for hundreds of years, who lived in an oral culture. I don’t think the guy filed copyright papers. Maybe a ghostly appearance to testify before her? We are close to Halloween, after all!

  20. Melody

    So if I understand you correctly, the scenario is irrelevant and the only question is this: If a person comes up to you whom you’ve never met before and says you’ve offended them by singing a song that they consider sacred, should you automatically, without question, stop performing that song?

  21. Chad


    It’s an ethical dilemma. Michael teaches a class called, “Music and Ethics.” Conversation is encouraged. In contrast, here’s what you’re doing:

    Mike: Should a woman be ethically allowed to have an abortion? Discuss.

    Melody: How do we know it’s really a woman?

    Mike: Well… we’re going to make an assumption for the sake of getting into the ethical issues surrounding abortion.

    Melody: I think she’s really a slice of delicious bacon.

    Everyone Else : (sigh)

  22. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="132214"]So if I understand you correctly, the scenario is irrelevant and the only question is this: If a person comes up to you whom you’ve never met before and says you’ve offended them by singing a song that they consider sacred, should you automatically, without question, stop performing that song?[/quote]

    Wow, that’s … wow. No, no you do not understand me correctly. The summary you’ve provided is so far off base that I’m not even sure how to respond to it.

    Melody, I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but do you seriously not get the point of the talking about ethical dilemmas? Did you not have to take a philosophy class during your time at APU? I find that hard to believe.

    If you’re looking for a fight over some perceived politically correct agenda to my post (which, I’m sure, the other writers here would find deliciously ironic, given my conservative bent), we can certainly have it, but that’s not the point of post. The point is, if you want to say that Ayana should be free to perform the piece, you have to give some moral reason that outweighs the rights of the original creator.

  23. Linda

    Let’s go back to Bach…
    JS’s music is understood with greater meaning and depth because it is tethered to an understanding of its spiritual origins, the culture of its time and the intent of the creator.

    In Ayana’s case, it is a greater wrong if the story dies with the music. It is a greater good if both survive and more so if they outlive the culture in which they were created.

    Upon gaining a clearer understanding of the purpose and intent of this music Ayana may choose to incorporate understanding when performing this spiritual music. Bringing an understanding of the whole art (music, churinga, Aboriginal spirituality) and tethering it to the music through storytelling or visual art.

    Of course if she really wanted an “A” in Michael’s class she would donate the profits to the Historical Aboriginal Arts & Music in Schools Program.

  24. Scott

    Linda, I’m not sure if I see this quite the same way. In Michael’s scenario, the intended use of this music is very specific, and anything else is a violation of the essence of the music itself. Ayana’s use of the tune is inherently offensive and inappropriate to the culture.

    While Ayana’s intentions may not be to hurt or offend, it does not change the perspective of the Aboriginal people. Should she drop the song and apologize? Should she thumb her nose at them and continue to gather the almighty buck unto herself?

    I think that this is similar to performing the Koran in public or taking a picture of a “native” who believes you have just stolen his soul. Should you do it if you know that it offends someone? I would say no. In Ayana’s case, it’s difficult because she’s already made it big with the song, but I suppose that just hearkens back to how essential it is that you research before plagiarizing, no matter how harmless it seems.

  25. Chad

    I don’t know if this is a wild goose chase, but one of the things that would sway my opinion is the tone of the request. Is he indignant? Is he pleading? Understanding? Judgmental? Is his heart gracious and forgiving, or is he trapped in his own viewpoint such that he is incapable of extending the benefit of the doubt to Ayana?

    Regardless of that question, if I were Ayana, I would stop singing the song. It would make it very difficult to sing it again if I knew it’s intended purpose, and the offensive nature of my performances to a certain group of people. The fact that I was an outsider to this culture would greatly affect my take on it. I would be ashamed of myself for not understanding the origins of the piece. It would be tainted, for me, as an artist.

    FYI, my little politically correct monitors, I have zero problems singing (or speaking) offensive material within the context of a culture that I understand, when I am being offensive on purpose, for the sake of something I believe. I have no problem telling a person trapped in sin that I think they need to repent and change their lives, and no problem telling a crowd of white-washed tombs that I think they are a brood of snakes, and I’ve personally done both. This is not, for me, a question of timidity and political correctness.

  26. michael lee Post author

    Chad, the tone of the representative doesn’t seem to be morally relevant to the question (emotionally relevant, sure, but not morally). Whether he’s indignant or apologetic, he’s a messenger delivering a piece of cultural data that she didn’t previously know. I think Ayana is obligated to act on that data, not taking into account her inclination toward or against the messenger.

  27. corey

    1. The best things in life are made of bacon.

    2. Ayana is merely borrowing the song to carry along with her for a short while (until the crowds no longer choose to listen to her or until she realizes that it’s tough to make money as a performing musician and falls back on her “plan B”). Regardless of her fate, I think the comparison to performing versions of foreign holy literature was right on. Regardless of the intentions, it’s offensive to those who gave birth to them or at least hold them dear. I believe that Ayana would be putting her own concerns and comforts above those of the people from whom she received the song and this seems shady. Metaphorically, if you accidentally offend me, I can make you aware and ask that you don’t repeat the offense. If you continue to offend me, this changes to a clumsy maliciousness (since the only excuse or explanation is going to be that you don’t mean to offend me, even though I assured you that what you were/are doing mathematically adds up to me being offended).

  28. Eric

    Melody said …

    This brings to mind a young Johann S. Bach who is supposed to have heard some organ music at church which was forbidden to be heard or played outside of church. Bach memorized the music and transcribed it out of his head upon arriving home. He got in trouble for it, yet because of him this great music became heard everywhere.

    I think it was actually Mozart, transcribing music sung by the choir of the Papal chapel…

    I’m pretty dense, so I had to have it spelled out to me:

    Michael Lee said:
    The point is, if you want to say that Ayana should be free to perform the piece, you have to give some moral reason that outweighs the rights of the original creator.

    Tolerance means respecting other people’s opinions and beliefs, not accepting them as equally valid to your own. So is the question really, “How do I show that I respect another person’s beliefs without compromising my own?” I don’t have an answer, but I’m willing to ponder the question.


  29. Scott


    Trust me, I have no intention of being politically correct- merely considerate of my neighbors. I’m not afraid of speaking controversial truth, either.

    To confront someone living in sin has a very specific, God-honoring motivation. I’m referring to flippant use of something another finds sacred for your own selfish benefit. This is about the worst way to win people over, unless you want to breed militance.

    In Ayana’s case, she wandered blindly into her “offensive” situation and thus should be given a break (though she’s foolish to not track down the source before taking it as her own). What she does now really is an interesting situation, and obviously the choice is hers to honor the request or not… but the consumer also has the choice not to support her if they think she’s in the wrong. Responsibility doesn’t just stop with the artist, but it also doesn’t let them off the hook.

    If I were Ayana, I’d probably try to contact the people and learn more about the music in question. If I don’t believe that my song’s musical and artistic integrity is still the riff-in-question, then I’d leave the riff in Australia and find something else.

    Do the notes themselves carry the specific meanings claimed by the Aboriginal people? I don’t think so. However, out of respect for my neighbor (not necessarily their beliefs), I think she should award the tune to the plaintiff and find another less-contested jingle.

    Just my $.02.

  30. Melody


    You are absolutely correct about the papal music thief being Mozart and I give you a good source for it: “Young Mozart attended a performance of the celebrated Miserere of Allegri which could be heard only in Roma during Holy Week performed by the papal choir. By papal decree it was forbidden to sing the work elsewhere, and its only existing copy was guarded slavishly by the papal choir. Any attempt to copy the song or reproduce it in any form was punishable by excommunication. Mozart, however, had heard the work only once when, returning home, he reproduced it in its entirety upon paper. (I have heard the piece; it is long and extremely complex, with double-orchestra, organ, and conflicting choral parts.) No one has ever been able to even dream of duplicating this feat, even on a much smaller scale. This incomparable feat soon became the subject for awed whispers in Roma; it was not long before the Pope himself heard of this amazing achievement. The Pope summoned Mozart, but instead of punishing the young genius with excommunication, he showered praise upon him and gave him handsome gifts. A few months later, the Pope bestowed upon Mozart the Cross of the Order of the Golden Spur.” (source: Jiskha Homework Help – online)

    (Michael Lee said:
    The point is, if you want to say that Ayana should be free to perform the piece, you have to give some moral reason that outweighs the rights of the original creator.)

    Bach just had this minor moral infraction: “There is a story told that when his brother refused to let him begin to practise some new music he thought was too advanced for the boy, Bach took the music from its hiding place and spent months copying it out a night, by moonlight.” (Source: An Illustrated History of Music for Young Musicians – Comeau/Covert)

    Would these stories in any way be on the same moral wavelength as Anaya’s? Just curious; and I did note Michael’s chastisement of me and have totally changed my attitude because I really want him to like me.

  31. Chad


    Melody, the most important step to being liked around these parts is to just make that desire known. :)

    And bring a beer.

  32. Melody

    The only kind of beer in my fridge is that hefevise german stuff and I’m not the one who drinks it. Do Australian Aboriginies drink beer?

  33. Chad

    Oh yes. All Australians drink.

    Except for Shelley, but she moved to the USA, so who knows what her deal is.

    I just realized that Shelley does not frequent the blog, but is known by many of us in the real world, so that comment will not be as funny to you.


  34. Cerise

    Wow. I read this, read all of the comments, read it again, and oof – my poor little brain’s smoking.

    Hey, remember when that guy came to Addison Rd. and kicked shit up over that rendition of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” that Aly and Ash recorded? It was the song of his cultural heritage, they mocked his ancestors’ pain, blah de blah. Is it a bit pertinent to this discussion, do you think?

    OK – if I were Ayana this dilemma would KILL me. Not only would I have to stop performing it, to feel morally impeccable I’d have to donate all future sales of the song, if I’d previously recorded it, to benefit the Aboriginals, the Earth, whatever. And possibly donate retroactive sales as well. Much easier to pooh-pooh the cultural claim and proceed as usual. However, while I do have a very sensitive spot for not giving offense (and people who pass it off as being PC really piss me off, FYI. I like to call it having a little respect.) to cultures not my own, I also have an almost slavish devotion to The Song. Art’s on a bit of a pedestal for me, and sometimes, especially when I was back in college and actually wrestling with this stuff, The Music HAD to carry on and be the best I could make of it, without regard to who wrote it, how much time we had to rehearse (and, you know, eat and sleep), how tired we were, how many feelings I hurt trying to get things right, etc. With this in mind, and with a nod to Chad re: the relinquishing of Art as soon as it leaves your mouth/pen/paintbrush, I would be tempted, were I Ayana, to let the Song matter more than The Culture, since that sort of thing (culture, tradition) is pretty fluid anyway, and feelings change and all things pass away. I would absolutely fear that the song would eventually be lost (sin of sins) and feel responsibility, especially since I went to the trouble of transcribing and arranging and rehearsing it and now (rightfully) feel a bit of ownership for what it’s become, for carrying on performing it. I think that the cultural demand would eventually win out for me – the compromise would be that I’d immediately stop singing the song, tell people why, and take the past money as a sort of sop for my own pain in losing the song. Does that make any sense? Oh, and then I’d hire Lisa Gerrard to write me an equally haunting song that doesn’t harm anybody and CASH IN. Just kidding.

    Another thing I’m thinking about is the fact that I HATE Sarah Brightman for covering “Who Wants to Live Forever?” by Queen – indeed, not only for covering it, but for covering it along with “Dust in the Wind” in a two-song medley, AND for standing on a 30-foot platform in 20 pounds of fluttering chiffon with a full orchestra and crowds of applauding 55-year-olds gazing up at her with twinkly bits in her hair WHILE SHE SINGS IT!!! In that chirpy little voice…ooohhhh. [clenches fists] To me, that’s sacrilege, especially because, to Freddie Mercury fans who still fervently mourn him, she’s selling records and tickets and totally cheapening the song. That song was a grim, romantic foreshadowing to his tragic death, and that’s about as sacred as a lot of people get. But then, if I hadn’t been YouTubing Sarah Brightman (please, if you love me, never ask me why), I wouldn’t have heard the song, sniffed at the chiffon and then gone and found the source of the song, fallen in love with Queen (my previous experience with them beginning and ending at Bohemian Rhapsody), fallen in love with Freddie and then mourned his passing 16 years after the fact, so…

    These moral dilemmas wear me the f**k out, man.

  35. Melody

    Can I ask – showing absolutely no disrespect – if Cerise is a girl or a guy? I’m suspecting a girl but I’m not sure. Please don’t be mad.

  36. Cerise

    No bassline necessary, love, but thank you. I think my gender has been firmly established and I’m ready to leave off this twittish exchange and talk Queen lyrics. I mean, musical ethics.

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  38. michael lee Post author

    I’m going to present this dilemma again tomorrow in the Music Ethics class. Thank you all for engaging so thoughtful with these little mental trips of mine. I’ll let you know if the class comes to any earth-shattering conclusions.

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