Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the tag “music”

Where They Left — Roadside Memorials & Descansos

I found this video on youtube posted by user ‘bridgesoflosangeles’.  It is a series of photographs of roadside memorials in Los Angeles, California with the song “Corre, Rio, Corre” by David Lanz in the background.  I’ve come across several amateur videos featuring shrines and soothing or sorrowful music.  What interested me about this one was the written blurb beneath the video:

“The Mexican tradition of the road side memorial – or “Descanso” – has spread to Los Angeles County. It is common to see these home made alters at the spot where someone died, usually in an automobile accident but for other reasons as well. They are of course sad but they are also symbols of love. For me, they are a kind of home made folk art, something assembled with a passion and power beyond the limits of the materials used. They are on a road from sadness to healing.”

‘bridgesoflosangeles’ describes spontaneous shrines as a type of folk art, stemming from the Mexican tradition of descansos.  I like the fact that this video locates itself in a particular time and place.  The photographs featured in the video excellently portray some of the characteristics typical of California shrines.  As a native Californian, these are the types of shrines I grew up passing frequently on the roadsides.  Many of them are constructed by and for Mexican Catholics and often have devotional candles for patron saints.  Keep an eye out for these tall, glass candles as you watch the video!

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Music as Memorial in Jim Fox’s “Descansos, Past”

I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past.  The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.

Fox begins his written interview:  “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.”  I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes.  Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc…  In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation.  However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected.  Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.

Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:

“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.

Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”

One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism.  In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy.  Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols.  They are recognized as places of death.  They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”  It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities.  Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.

Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts.  It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death.  It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.

Shrines for Winehouse Said No to Rehab

Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home on July 23, 2011.  After an autopsy, it was determined that she died of accidental alcohol poisoning.  Her BAC (blood alcohol content) was 5 times the British legal limit.  She had reportedly been trying to give up alcohol and had spent most of the month sober.  However, earlier in the week she had started to binge drink again.  When she was discovered, there were 3 empty vodka bottles near her bed.

Several shrines popped up around the world in tribute to the 27 year old Grammy-winning star.  The largest was located near the London home where she died.  Placed at the shrine were teddy bears, flowers, votive candles, CDs, personal notes and…empty vodka bottles.

In my experience, it is quite common to find alcohol left at spontaneous shrines–especially cans and bottles of a person’s favorite beer.  If the person was a smoker, there are often cigarettes, ashtrays, and lighters left as well.  However, I think it is quite a different situation when these objects are left at a shrine for a pop culture figure.

While Winehouse’s propensity for alcohol was common knowledge [her award-winning song “Rehab” deals with this issue], other intimate details about her likes and dislikes that would otherwise have influenced the choice of how to decorate her shrine may not have been known.  Because the shrine was created by her fans, rather than her family or close acquaintances, I believe it was more in memory of her persona rather than her as a person.

Her death at the young age of 27 secured her spot among interesting company, as a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock and roll [and popular music] icons who all died at the same age.  This group includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones [Rolling Stones], and Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], to name a few.  When she died, her created persona–her character–Amy Winehouse the Star–died as well.  While those who were close to her might mourn the loss of their loved one, her fans mourn the loss of their beloved artist.

For example, Jim Morrison’s grave site in Paris is a popular pilgrimage site for young musicians.  Along with the usual offerings of notes, candles, and flowers, his grave is known for being covered in wine bottles, condom wrappers, needles, and other drug paraphernalia.  These appear to be offerings to more than just Jim Morrison; they are in memory of the rock and roll era for which he was a figurehead.  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll, the ethos of the 60s and 70s, Jim Morrison–all are lost and must be remembered.

Likewise, there is more being remembered than simply ‘Amy the 27-year-old’ at her shrine.  The empty vodka bottles are for the musician who would sing openly about alcoholism and drug addiction, rehab and depression.  They are for a person who is known for enjoying vodka.  They are for the person who sang: “I don’t ever want to drink again / I just need a friend.”

It is ironic that the offerings to Amy Winehouse are the same bottles of alcohol that caused her death, but they are the offerings that loyal fans associate with a musician they cannot and will not forget.  In a way, there is no harm that leaving the alcohol can possibly do.  They cannot hurt her now, and while they may be seen by some as “glorifying” a culture of alcoholism, they might also be the only way for those who knew her through her music alone to pay respectful and personal tribute to her life and work.

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Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino

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