“Vegan Music? What’s That?”
As a former member of the Seattle Composers Alliance, I recently had another SCA member ask me "What is vegan music?" after I announced that I was composing a vegan musical and looking for vegan performers for the demo. I welcome questions like this because it gives me an opportunity to share something very important about veganism: Vegan is not a diet. "Plant-based" is a way of eating in which both vegans and pre-vegans (or what some people call “non-vegans”) engage. Veganism, however, is the rejection of a paradigm in which the normalisation of violence against and exploitation of animals in any manner is practiced as a life style. This means (minimally) that, as a vegan, you abstain from purchasing or otherwise financially supporting any animal exploitation or violence against animals. My international vegan music collaboration “Vox Vegana” is comprised of such people, and we take it one step further by giving explicit (albeit poetic) musical and lyrical expression to the opposition of normalised violence toward animals.
Of course, upholding the ideals of non-selective compassion can be challenging for anyone in a world where violence toward animals is the norm, and musicians are of no exception to this dilemma. "Animal products" are used in all kinds of musical instruments: horse hair for the bows of stringed instruments; glue, ivory, and wool in pianos and other instruments; actual animal skins on drums, etc. I personally own a spirit flute hand-made in the pacific northwest that formerly had a leather strap holding the block in place over the flue...and I still have the deer skin case that came with it. And many years ago, upon the recommendation of my guitar shop, I had the plastic nut and bridge on my Larrivée replaced with bone. I also have a leather guitar pick case on my keychain.
These are remnants of my life before veganism, and because I believe that violence has an energy that stays with dismembered animal body parts, I sometimes consider laying these items to rest. However, they are also useful as reminders for me, as a vegan activist, to stay humble in my recognition that I was not always this aware. And I will be purchasing a used piano at some point in the near future, which will undoubtedly not be vegan. Custom ordering a vegan Steinway C (and having a house big enough to hold it) will have to wait until after I achieve international recognition (and the attendant financial compensation) for the aforementioned musical.
The normalisation of animal violence finds its way into song lyrics as well. As a long-time performer for seniors in retirement communities, I have ended many sets with the classic theme song from the vintage television show Rawhide, which includes lyrics such as: "Don't try to understand 'em / Just round 'em up and brand 'em." One would be hard-put to more succinctly describe the inhumanity, ignorance, and speciesism in animal agribusiness. I even omitted Jingle Bells from my holiday set for a while because, while riding in a one horse open sleigh may be great fun for humans, it's not what any horse would be doing given their freedom: Having their tails "bobbed" and bodies repeatedly whipped while they endure an ice-cold metal "bit" in their mouths.
Nevertheless, the popularity of both of these tunes – and the fact that they are both rock-solid compositions – means that I often find myself performing them just the same, speciesist lyrics and all. I also sang along to “Old Macdonald” at the panto on Sunday, even though we all know what Old Macdonald is going to do to those animals once we’ve stopped imitating their sounds. I couldn’t help but reflect on the sounds that pigs actually make as they are burned from the inside out in gas chambers. Spoiler alert: It ain’t “oink oink.” I’ve watched those videos. I’ve heard those screams.
I have, in fact, written an alternate version of Rawhide, and when I sing The Christmas Song it’s “Everybody knows Tofurky and some mistletoe” or, alternately, “Everybody knows Tchaikovsky and some mistletoe,” depending on my mood. It’s totally okay for lyrics to evolve as humanity’s morality evolves. Just listen to the Idina Menzel/Michael Bublé version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” which is decidedly less date-rapey than the original. And if you want a real shock: visit Wiki for the original lyrics of “Oh! Susanna.”
So, yes: Vegan music may seem like a strange concept if vegan is thought of simply as a diet. “Playing a courgette in pea minor” would indeed be appropriate, but only if those courgettes and peas were grown without animal product fertiliser (see: veganic farming). And that post-performance Vegetable Orchestra soup would be vegan providing it were in vegetable broth and contained a conspicuous lack of slaughtered animals or their excretions. Regarding the King Curtis reference of “Memphis Soul Stew” at the beginning of the podcast, it’s worth noting that traditional “soul food” is a manifestation of American slavery and also that the traditional West African diet was largely vegan. Please watch “The Invisible Vegan” for more on that subject.
Here is the very first song I wrote for Vox Vegana. And stay tuned for news on the musical: It's going to make history. Enjoy!