Recording the Human Side of Ceremony

By Bree Gannon, ARSP Project Manager at MSU


The Imam prays. A baby cries. This is the human in ceremony, the spontaneous in orchestration.

I made this audio clip from material I recorded at the Muslim celebration of Eid-Al-Fitr, the end of fasting for the month of Ramadan. It was my first time attending an Islamic service. As I observed, I noticed the children: They climbed in their parents’ laps, exchanged small gifts, ran around, and talked with each other. Having grown up in a religious tradition where children were tucked away in nurseries and church basements, this was a novel experience for me.

After six months working on the American Religious Sounds Project, I find at times that I don’t know how I feel watching, listening to, and recording religious ceremonies as an outsider. That status feels like a giant, clunky sign that I carry with me into religious communities. The weight is uncomfortable. I worry that I make others uncomfortable, too.

At the Eid service, two little girls run up to me. They tell me that they love my blue scarf, and that it matches my eyes. Greetings, eye contact, and head nods provide evidence of my welcome. An older woman comes by and holds a basket of candy out to me. She smiles and gestures for me to take a piece. I smile and reach for one.

An elder says that many of the thousands here today are from around the world. We are in a warehouse-like structure in a small Midwestern college town. This place is not my home either, but I recognize the farther distance many had traveled to be here, in order to invoke the feeling of home together.

I am here to capture sound, but the bright colors of the women’s clothing overwhelm my other senses. The colors and noises of talking and laughter accumulate into a collective energy in the air. It feels celebratory. My black dress, which I wore to hide behind, makes me stand out.

What am I looking for in a one-minute clip? It is perhaps impossible to select a sound that captures the essence of a religion. Instead, I seek to find a sound that portrays the movement within religion, its vitality. I exercise some privilege in selecting the clip, and I don’t carry this lightly. In many ways, it is troubling to select what I would consider peripheral or central. A baby’s cry – because it is hidden in my tradition – stands out to me. Perhaps it is a sound central to the Islamic faith.

The Eid service is filled with sounds and colors, but it is also full of stories and complexities. By including ambient noise in my recordings, I am pushing against the urge simply to show the broader, more expected narrative of Islam. Although it is impossible to capture everything in a moment, the voices of the people in the background, with differing needs and agendas and hopes, might allow us to listen more attentively. It might allow for one of these stories to disrupt our narrative. A baby is here.