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  • Island Gospel: Pentecostal Music and Identity in Jamaica and the United States by Melvin Butler
  • David Aarons
Island Gospel: Pentecostal Music and Identity in Jamaica and the United States. By Melvin Butler. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-0-2520-5176-0. E-book. Pp. 224. $9.99.

Hymns such as "One God Apostolic," choruses such as "Goodbye World," African American gospel songs such as Kurt Carr's "I Almost Let Go," and dancehall hits such as Beenie Man's "Gospel Time" do not often occupy the same spaces, yet they form part of a body of repertoire that Melvin Butler critically examines in his book Island Gospel: Pentecostal Music and Identity in Jamaica and the United States. Butler, an ethnomusicologist and associate professor at the University of Miami, argues that Jamaican Pentecostal Christians construct, maintain, and collapse various boundaries that regulate the flow of people, sounds, and the Holy Spirit through musical style and repertoire. His main aim is to show how music as a form of social and ritual boundary crossing uncovers the "shifting foundations of Jamaican Pentecostal identity" (1). While many books have been written about the connections between music and identity, Butler demonstrates that there is still much more to be discussed on the matter, particularly in religious contexts in postcolonial societies. The book's title includes the United States, but, with the exception of chapter 1, the research is mostly situated in Jamaica. He emphasizes the importance of gospel music and Pentecostalism in the United States to the Jamaican scene by stating early on that he views "African American churches, along with the North Atlantic academy, as the epistemological home from which [his] discussions of Jamaican Pentecostal practice proceed" (13). In some ways the book is therefore also about US American influences in/on Jamaican Pentecostal churches.

Although Island Gospel mostly focuses on the Jamaican Pentecostal scene, Butler engages and builds on theoretical frameworks related to identity formation that will be useful to readers interested in the study of music and identity, as well as gospel music, worship experiences, and Pentecostalism broadly. Drawing on Marc Gidal's ideas on musical boundary-work, Butler examines Jamaican Pentecostals' attitudes toward North American gospel songs that may align with Pentecostal spirituality but not culturally connect with Jamaicans.1 He also examines how Pentecostals engage in musical boundary-work at the local level by using music to create distinctions between Pentecostalism and [End Page 129] other religious groups such as Revivalism and Rastafari while shutting out worldly pleasures expressed through genres such as dancehall. This framework further allows him to show how boundaries are sometimes blurred and crossed, thereby highlighting the fluidity of Pentecostal identities and musical practices. The discussion of fluidity is further developed in the ways he teases out processes of flow that manifest in domains of culture, spirituality, and migration.

Butler's research methods largely comprised being a "participant observer" and an "observant participant" (11) in church services and concerts. He also conducted interviews with pastors and other "saints" (Pentecostals/believers). His research began in 1994 in New York, where he attended churches that comprised African Americans and Jamaican immigrants. He engaged in ten months of ethnographic research in Jamaica in 2002, with three additional short visits from 2006 to 2008. This book, therefore, does not contain recent examples of events, conversations, or controversies, but many of the issues he presents are still useful for understanding music and identity in Jamaican Pentecostal contexts. He notes the importance of positioning himself in relation to his research and provides a thoughtful reflection on what it means to be an African American Pentecostal who is also a jazz musician and a scholar. Writing as a "researching Pentecostal" (13) who negotiates various identities, Butler is able to show on different levels how music reveals and mobilizes Pentecostal identities that are constantly being contested and re-formed. His intimate understanding of Pentecostal spirituality shines through the text and guides the reader into a deeper understanding of how Pentecostals view spirituality and the world. This is one of the strengths of the book that sets it apart from other studies on religious music in the English-speaking Caribbean...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-2349
Print ISSN
0734-4392
Pages
pp. 129-132
Launched on MUSE
2021-06-05
Open Access
No
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