by Paul Neeley
The spoken verse hung in the air like the dust raised by a passing truck. The men and women in the church in Ghana waited expectantly following the reading from the Vagla New Testament.
The spoken verse hung in the air like the dust raised by a passing truck. The men and women in the church in Ghana waited expectantly following the reading from the Vagla New Testament. Hesitantly at first, but with growing confidence, one old woman began to sing aloud the song in her heart: “He who is carrying a heavy load and is getting tired, bring it to Jesus. He will save you. You who labor hard, come to Jesus because he has peace.”
The 2,000-year-old words tumbled out of her mouth, carried by a new melody composed in a traditional Vagla song type. Immediately the other women responded with the chorus line. One of them grasped a rattle to provide the accompaniment. Suddenly our dream of seeing Vaglas free to worship the true God through their own music became reality.
As the singer moved deeper into worshiping her Lord she fell to her knees: “Let’s give him glory because he is my Father.”
As she finished, another woman took up the theme in a different song style. Then it was the men’s turn, and soon everyone was up on their feet, dancing in a circle or improvising an accompaniment on any rattles or drums available. They were so eager to sing and dance as people who were uniquely both Christians and Vaglas.
Until that day in 1997, their cultural identity as Vaglas had always been left in the shadow of their identity as Christians. Their worship music had been borrowed from other ethnic groups and was not rooted in Vagla culture, emphasizing the foreignness of their religious expression. We were so privileged to be “midwives” at the birth of a culturally appropriate “heart music” to be used in worship.
Pastor Phillip, a Vagla blind man skilled in music of all kinds, testified to the power of these new songs. “You can’t see my eyes because of these dark glasses, but when I started hearing these new songs, tears came to my eyes. For many years, we could have used our music to worship God and reach our people. Instead, the music has been used by the devil.”
Now the Vagla musical types of Maara, Zungo, Dugu, and others are communicating the gospel in a form that all Vagla people recognize as their own. And it certainly sounds unique to our ears! John 3:16 was accompanied by an ensemble of seven antelope horns played in intricate, interlocking patterns. To the uninitiated, it sounds remarkably like a traffic jam; but to the Vagla people, it’s one of the sweetest sounds on earth—especially when coupled with that life-changing verse.
The 7,000 Vagla people of Ghana have had the New Testament in their language for 20 years, yet the church has been slow to grow. “But now,” said Pastor Phillip, “I really hear God’s words in these songs.” So will many other Vaglas through the two cassettes of Scripture songs and readings recorded that week in an improvised studio at the church.
Late that evening, we gathered outside to eat pounded yam by the light of stars and lanterns. After supper, more songs started pouring out. The two old women who were lead singers composed song after song as the night went on, extemporizing lyrics as their thoughts took them from the foundation of the initial Bible verse to other truths they knew.
The excitement spilled over in dancing and eagerness to be the next to sing. That night felt like a prelude to the joy of heaven. And all the angels joined in singing: “God loved the world so much that he gave his Son Jesus, so let us believe in him and bow down before him and worship him. The Lord Jesus has called me and I have come.”
What an incredible experience, to see people set free to worship God with their unique cultural resources, to worship him with full understanding because they used the language and music of their hearts.
John Piper says that worship is the ultimate goal of the church. Missions exists to bring the nations into the presence of God as worshipers, as made-holy people rejoicing in the glory and goodness of God. “When this age is over,” Piper says, “and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God,missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.”
THE GOAL OF ETHNOMUSICOLOGY
The goal of missionary ethnomu-sicology is to help all peoples worship God using the music that they can identify with most deeply—and similarly, to help them use their music to create new Scripture songs for evangelism, church planting, and discipleship: “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
We all know the power of Scripture songs in our lives. If I buy a sermon tape, I may listen to it occasionally. But if I buy a cassette with the same biblical theme set to song lyrics—and if I like the musical style—I’m likely to listen to it a hundred times through the years.
The same is true around the world. Some years ago, missionary Herbert Klem was working with the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He worked with local churches and composers to arrange the entire book of Hebrews to Yoruba styles of music. The songs were then recorded and distributed. The results were nothing less than fantastic. People were memorizing entire chapters, just by listening to the cassette over and over. The songs couldn’t be contained within the church walls and were used by people walking to their farms, going to market, and simply going about their daily life. The cassettes were even played in the beer halls. The songs permeated the society . . . enabling many Yoruba to be true worshipers of God.
We have seen identical results in Ghana. Children learn the new Scripture songs and spread them around the village like wildfire. Muslims and animist priests buy the cassettes because they like the form of the message so much—the music of their culture. But guess what? The content of the message—the gospel—gets implanted in their memory every time they hear it. And eventually, some of them come to believe in their hearts what is ringing in their ears.
Let us tell you another story from our time in Ghana in 1997: The temperature is soaring toward 100, the sheep and goats are roaming for food scraps, the savanna dust is blowing across the small village, and a storm is rumbling to the south. But the groups of Dagomba musicians at this song-making workshop are intent on their task—to compose new songs with words from their translated New Testament in traditional music styles. Each group reads a verse, and, hesitantly at first, begins to develop it into a song lyric. Others add their voices, the musicians bring their percussion and flute into the music, and a Bamaaya song is given birth. “This is the time when the kingdom of God is near,” sings the leader. The rest of the group picks up the refrain: “Repent and believe the good news.”
A large crowd of Muslim observers from the village quickly gathers, women swaying to the music and children scrambling up trees for a better view. What is this new thing? A Bamaaya song that speaks of the kingdom of God and our need to repent and believe? The whole community is hearing God’s word clearly, not only in their own language but in music which reaches into their hearts as no other can. The message of God’s kingdom is being proclaimed through this indigenous Scripture song, one of almost three dozen new songs composed and recorded at the workshop.
After the first few songs were composed, Pastor David Akonsi was excited. A second-generation Christian, he said, “When Christianity first came to our area of Ghana, we thought that using our own music was not appropriate to praise God. But now we see that if our church had started with this kind of indigenous music that our people like, by now we would be making headway in reaching the Dagomba communities.”
The Dagomba people number between 600,000 and 700,000 and live in over 1,000 villages and a few larger towns. A majority claim some allegiance to Islam, and most are illiterate. The percentage of Christians is less than 3 percent. The churches now see the great value in using Scripture songs composed in local music styles to reach the more than half-million Dagomba. Everyone likes Bamaaya songs, old andyoung, educated and illiterate; even the Muslims pay attention to the content of the message because they thoroughly enjoy its form.
For this four-day workshop, three experienced local composers led 50 participants. Each composer chose some Bible verses, then sat under a tree with a composing group. First they decided which part of the verse would be the choral response line; then the lead singer worked on fitting the rest of the verse between the response lines.
After some experience, the groups could rough out a song in a few minutes. Then the song was revised and polished for half an hour or so, and recorded the next day.
Moses Yahaya Sheini, a Baptist pastor, led people in making new songs in the Simpa style. To the accompaniment of frame drums and cow bell they sang, “Through Christ God created everything, and God put all things into his hands” (Col. 1:16).
Michael Baba led a composing group in the musical genre of Bamaaya, a very popular Dagomba dance used at various social occasions. To the interlocking percussion patterns of the lunga and gungon drums, his group sang, “Jesus Christ was existing when nothing was there, and everything joined together in him” (Col. 1:17).
The third composer was Peter Denaba, an accomplished musician on the gonje fiddle—a single-stringed bowed lute. The resonator is a half-calabash covered with the skin of a monitor lizard; the string and bowstring are made of horsehair. To accompany that unique sound of horsehair being bowed atop lizard skin came a song made from these words, “God reconciled everything to himself through Christ. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of his blood shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20).
Can you imagine the power of these words sung over and over to a Dagomba melody if you were a Dagomba person? The heart of the gospel just got communicated in a form that every Dagomba person is happy to hear. One man said, “I really admire the music. It’s integrating Scripture into our Dagomba culture. It will bring many people to hear the Word of God. The songs will cut across their unwillingness to listen to the gospel. If all churches would adopt this method, we would certainly get more people for Christ.”
A WAY TO HEAR SCRIPTURE
As the composing groups worked under three different trees, the townspeople came out to see what was happening. At least 200 people roamed between the musicians, waiting to see what would happen next. This is an incredible way to get the Scriptures heard: Pick a Bible verse, sit under a tree with your instrument and some friends, and 200 people show up to listen to God’s Word in song! Our workshop coincided with a local feast-day in this village, so we had an indigenous Christian music festival!
After each group had composed its first five songs, we gathered in the meeting room. Every window and open door was crowded to overflowing with faces of adults and children standing outside. The townspeople heard more Bible verses in this one day than in a month of Sunday services!
People were dancing in the aisles to show their joy. Excitement was in the air as thick as the dust being kicked up. As the gonje group sang about how “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ” (Col. 1:19), a large smock of midnight blue swirled around a dancer’s knees above his intricate footwork. And God was pleased with that heartfelt Dagomba expression of worship as well.
The gonje fiddle and Bamaaya drums are frequently used to praise Dagomba chiefs. Now they were being used to exalt the King of kings. One woman said, “It’s not only the chiefs of this world that are praised with our Dagomba drums and gonje; now we can also use our instruments to praise Naawuni [God, literally ‘Chief of all gods’].”
It touched our hearts deeply to see the songs’ impact on the believers, now freed to worship God with their unique cultural heritage. And it amazed us to see the attractiveness of these songs to those outside the Christian community. These songs will help the Christians fulfill theirdual calling, not only to be worshipers, but to be witnesses.
Music has a unique ability to get to the depth of the human heart, and to express those depths in outward form. Every culture has a unique music system, just as it has a unique language and set of customs. Redeeming part of a culture’s music for God can be an important part of redeeming people for God. Let us encourage the nations to “be glad and sing for joy” (Psa. 67:4).
Paul Neeley did ethnomusiciology work in Ghana with Wycliffe Bible Translators.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.