by Morgan W. Jones, Jr.
If you had been there, you would have seen three missionary families gathered together around a campfire singing joyously the hymns that they’d sung so often before. Listening in, you would have heard the mellow whining of a harmonica and the accompaniment of an accordion.
If you had been there, you would have seen three missionary families gathered together around a campfire singing joyously the hymns that they’d sung so often before. Listening in, you would have heard the mellow whining of a harmonica and the accompaniment of an accordion. But then, looking to the outskirts of the firelight, you would have seen bronze shadows which, when you strained to see, would finally, but barely, be recognized as Trio Indians standing off, observing this unusual sight. If you could have seen through the eyes o£ the Trio and read his thoughts, you would have come up with the following: "Why do the white people sing so happily? Why do they sing together? Even their children join them. I’ve always sung acapella, and usually only when I want a girl to visit my hammock. And what is that big box that has teeth and makes noise? Are these people singing to an evil spirit? No, they couldn’t be; they are too happy. "
This hymn-sing, unknown to the missionaries, was the seed that later grew into an indigenous hymnody for the Trio Indians of Surinam, South America. This development took place in three stages: the planting of the seed, the death of the seed, and the growth of new life.
Within a year after the incident recorded above, the Trio witch doctor, Tamenta, was miraculously saved. The people expected Tamenta to be killed by evil spirits within three days, yet on the third day he visited every home in the village declaring that Jesus’ power was stronger than that of the evil spirits. During the following month about 80 percent of the Trios came to Christ. As their custom is, they came by kinship groups to believe in Jesus.
One of the first questions regarding worship was, "Will you teach us to sing for Jesus?" The missionaries, having had no background in ethnomusicology or even in formal musical training, nevertheless agreed and set to work. Simple Western tunes were fitted with lyrics composed by the missionaries. Tunes such as the following were used: "All Through the Night," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and the chorus to "Jesus Loves Me." The complexity of the tunes and lyrics gradually increased.
The use of the tape-loop was extremely successful in this endeavor.
Stage one had positive results. The missionaries found that the Trios loved this new idea of singing together. Even better yet, the Trios took these songs into their own life style. Not a night would pass by but that one walking through the village could hear solo voices in different homes singing these songs of Jesus. Their solos would penetrate the still quietness of the night. This was the Trio’s way of singing.
However, stage one had its problems, too. First, these songs were the missionaries’ songs. Mainly because of their lack of training, but party because of their ethnocentric ideas about the type of music employed in worship, the missionaries imposed a foreign hymnody on this ethnic group. Second, every song in this stage was altered musically by the Trios. Most Western songs are written in major keys according to the ‘diatonic scales. Trio music, on the other hand, is all minor and is based on the pentatonic scales. I am very happy to say that, although the changes were painful to their ears, the missionaries made no effort to force the Trios into singing the music as the Western composers had written it. Let me also point out a third problem. Part of the reason for the missionaries’ use of Western music was because most of their contact with indigenous Trio music was when they observed tribal dances that were filled with drunkenness, adultery, etc. They did not want to inadvertently make use of a style of music that had such connotations. These problems led to the beginning of stage two.
The missionaries had planted the seed in the first stage, but that seed had to die before new life could occur. This death began in the second stage. One day, a young Trio man named Sanupi excitedly entered the home of one of the missionaries with a special piece of paper in his hand. On this paper he had written his own additional verse to one of the tunes introduced by the missionaries. To Sanupi’s delight the missionary, after checking the words, asked him to teach it to the people during the next service. The people were very excited and received the new verse joyfully. The words and the tunes introduced into a foreign culture by the missionary must die if any indigenous hymnody is to be developed.
This incident was very important because of the following concept. Music is a language. Words are a language. Both of these languages are means of communication and both, if intertwined, must communicate a complementary message to the receiver. In song these are intertwined. The receiver separates and decodes them, and receives two messages. These two messages must be clear and must complement each other for the hearers to receive, understand, and enjoy the song. And now the problem: What happens when Trio words are sung to a foreign hymn melody that is not understood by the Trio? He then receives only one half of the message. The foreign music system is a barrier to complete communication; it must also die if indigenous hymn growth is to occur.
As more Trios began to write lyrics, the missionaries’ eyes were opened to the great opportunity that lay before them. They urged the Indians to compose their own tunes. Without a background in ethnomusicology these missionaries could not analyze the Trio’s music and tell them what kinds of music to use. Instead, they let the Trios be their own guides, praying that their choices would be well made. (Obviously, melodies with strong sexual connotations among the Trios would not be suitable for hymnody.)
One by one the indigenous songs by indigenous composers began to be written and introduced. These were words by the Trio; this was minor, pentatonic music by the Trio, and the enthusiastic response by the people was enough to encourage the composers to continue. What type of music did they use? The missionaries later found out that the music forms were those used for hunting songs and songs about wild animals – perfectly acceptable for Christian use. New life had begun! This is the end for which every missionary should strive.
God’s grace was with those missionaries in Surinam because of their openness to the fact that native music is not inferior to Western music. Despite their lack of professional training, an indigenous hymnody has been established. However, this is quite unusual. Most missionaries equate Western hymnody with "the proper music for a Christian to sink. " They supplant the native music with their own because of wrong value judgments-because of unsound ethnocentric prejudice. Native music is seen as inferior to their own music.
Do you realize the significance of this? Music, unlike verbal language, is not carried on by everyone. Therefore, when it is supplanted it dies out very quickly. The result is the tragic loss of an important part of the native culture. As we saw among the Trios, Western hymnody is never an adequate functional substitute. My cry is that we need more professional ethnomusicologists on the mission field. Trained musicologists can analyze the music of each ethnic group, aiding the missionaries in rapidly and correctly developing an indigenous hymnody. This is certainly an essential need in the growth of the worldwide church.
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