Music in the Life of the African Church

by Roberta King, Jean Kidula, James Krabill, and Thom

We European and American missionaries brought the Word to Africa, and we relegated music to its pagan past. This book, very positive in tone, provides a sobering look at what we missed.

Baylor University Press, 1920 S. 4th St., Waco, TX 76706, 2008. 181 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Judith E. Lingenfelter, professor emerita of intercultural studies, Biola University, La Mirada, California.

We European and American missionaries brought the Word to Africa, and we relegated music to its pagan past. This book, very positive in tone, provides a sobering look at what we missed. The importance of understanding music in the life of African Christians can best be captured in the Zambian example given by James Krabill: to announce their desire to take on the Christian faith Zambians say “I want to sing!” The above quote recognizes the importance of music in the deepest aspects of an African Christian’s life, and this book brings that recognition to life in its chapters. While a search of books on African music turns up many titles, very few address the issues in this volume because they ignore music and the central role music plays in African churches.

The book holds together very well, moving from the music that the European missionaries brought with them in the nineteenth century to the role of music in traditional and contemporary African life. It then traces the encounters between Western and African music and the tensions caused by two vastly different traditions. Following this, two chapters by Thomas Oduro and Jean Kidula examine the venues of church music, and how they are enculturated into the lives of African Christians as they have taken ownership of Christian music.

In the concluding chapters, Roberta King returns to the theme that predominates in this book: for the African Christian it is not lex orandi, lex credendi (how one prays is how one believes), but rather lex canendi, lex credendi (how one sings is how one believes). This is a critical difference for those steeped in the tradition of the Word rather than the Song as the instrument for salvation.

At the personal level, I appreciate the complexity of this book. It is not as simple as just doing music in the African way, because Africans are also influenced by the worldwide Church just as we are. My one reservation is not one the authors can address: it is a marketing/publishing one. A book that addresses the vitality of a music tradition is limited to words and often poorly reproduced black and white pictures. At the very least it should have a CD in the back of it and colored photos! That said, it’s a valuable book to remind us that God is not limited to the ways we think the gospel should be shared.

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Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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