Archives for category: Protest

The wisdom of crowds may be an over-used phrase, and the stupidity of the lynch mob springs to mind as testament to the simplistic expression of intention that typically accompanies joint speaking. However we might note that both religious prayer and protest demonstrations frequently make use of a call-and-response scaffolding that allows somewhat more elaborate and articulate expression of collective sentiment. In protest, call-and-response is usually limited to one or two eliciting questions (“What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!”), but in religion, the call and response is typically integrated into liturgical ritual, supported by printed texts, allowing sequences of call and response that extend over many turns, and that include complex expression of finely tuned theological beliefs. Read the rest of this entry »


“¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!”  This chant was a prominent feature of support in Salvador Allende’s Chilean election campaign leading to his democratic election in 1970.  In 1973, of course, the elected government was overthrown in a CIA backed coup, installing the dictator Pinochet.   In the same year, the chant became a popular song that has been employed in many popular struggles up to the present.  It recurs in many languages.

However I want to point to the rhythmic structure of the chant.  In its basic form, this has a two beat structure with accents on beats 1 and 3 of the first bar, and 1, 2 and 3 of the second.  This pattern is almost certainly much older than the popular Chilean chant, and seems to be globally prevalent.  Examples after the fold, and please add your examples in the comments!

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And now back to our regular programming . . .

Ibrahim Quashoush (or Kashoush) (w) was a fireman in the Syrian city of Homs.  He was also an influential musician, and in 2010/2011 he became widely known for leading a lively chant against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad.  A video of this chant is available here, filmed in Hama on 27 June, 2011.  It is a vibrant performance that features short verses and a collective chorus.

Read on for more, but be warned, this is not a happy story.

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The term “chant” is delightfully ambiguous in English.  It can be employed for the robust shouts of protesters, and for the austere beauty of plainsong in a monastery.  Let us start with the avowedly musical forms of chant.  Most forms of song termed “chant” are not metered: that is, they do not have a regular n-beats-in-a bar structure.  Rather, the length of musical phrases tends to be dictated by the text being sung.  Similarly, melodies are sparse, harmonies often absent, and instrumental accompaniment is kept to a minimum, if present at all.  (Sung) chant is thus speech with a minimal musical ornamentation.

Listening to chanting at the other end of the extreme, we can see musical elements too.  In sports stadia and in street protest, many chants become regular successions of strongly accented syllables.  Think “U.S.A.”.  A contrasting chant among European football supporters is the Olé, Olé chant seen here (outside the football context):

Music again has insinuated itself.  There is some evidences that the simple repetition of a spoken phrase can cause the perception of that phrase to switch from speech to song.  Diana Deutsch has called this the “speech to song illusion”, and it is illustrated at this page.  Repetition of a short phrase is a feature of both protest and prayer, so it is unsurprising that we find this leaky blending of speech and song in both domains.

If you want to read more, here is a short paper on the topic by myself.

The people’s microphone is a no-tech solution to the problem of public speaking where amplification is not allowed or possible.  It came to widespread attention during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, but has probably been used in earlier protests.  It involves a leader reading a text one short phrase at a time;  each phrase is then echoed by a  group of surrounding people.  In large crowds, there may be several concentric circles of repeaters, leading to widespread dispersion of the message.  Here is a good example:

This no-tech technology taps into an ancient ability that we take for granted: the ability to speak in unison.  A later post will illustrate another, and much older, use of chant-as-technology.  It employs a variant of the call-and-response format that is a frequent property of both prayer and protest chants.  In this case, call and response are identical.

In the above example, the joint speech is augmented by the use of hand signals that have formalized meanings related to the agreement or disagreement of the individual with respect to the message content.  This is a nuanced variant in which the collective and individual intention appear to find parallel expression.