IoS radio review: Songs of the Sacred Harp, Radio 4, Monday Our Language in Your Hands, Radio 4, Monday

Spirit of the Deep South lives on in the heart

Chris Maume
Sunday 09 December 2012 01:00
Power of sound: Cerys Matthews celebrates Sacred Harp
Power of sound: Cerys Matthews celebrates Sacred Harp

Take the line "When the poor soul is forced away to seek a last abode … a heavy chain still drags her downward from the skies to darkness, fire and pain". Now imagine it belted out by a big choir singing with joy in their hearts. It's a thrilling disconnect, a heady hybrid of the Welsh Valleys and those microtone specialists, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.

In Songs of the Sacred Harp, Cerys Matthews explored the spiritual music which began among poor white n the Bible Belt but which has spread to the Yankee states and beyond, to Ireland, Germany and Britain. On visiting a 20-strong group in north London, she was warned: "The singing may be very powerful. You may be taken aback." I certainly was.

It included the only version of "Amazing Grace" I've ever liked, taken, as one of the singers said, "at a brisk clip", no lingering over notes, no hanging about. It's stirring stuff: "sacred harp" refers to the effect of the combined voices, and it's full-throated, no vibrato, no holds barred. As an expert observed, "It breaks just about every rule in the Western tonal theory rulebook." Angus, 60, put it best: "It feels like therapy – a collective howling at the moon."

If the Sacred Harp is a tradition that looks to have life in it yet, that's emphatically not the case for a hefty chunk of the world's languages, and in the first of the three-part Our Language in Your Hands, the engaging Mark Turin documented his campaign to keep one of them alive. There are about 100 languages spoken in Nepal, and he's spent 20 years with the Thangmi people studying their tongue, which has 30,000 speakers left and is embattled by the spread of Nepali, not to mention English.

His tales of gradual acceptance by the Thangmi were fascinating, but it was shocking to hear him declare almost casually that Thangmi will be extinct in 50 years, with only his dictionary and two-volume grammar standing in its memory.

If you think the world's a better place because somewhere there's a word for, say, the leaves turning brown in autumn, or "the side of the body up to the armpit but not further", as there is in Thangmi, then this programme will leave you fearful for our globalised future.

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