Pathways in Christian Music Communication: The Case of the Senufo of Côte d’Ivoire

by Roberta R. King

One of the most exciting aspects of the increasing appreciation for oral communication strategies in Christian missions is the emergence of ethnomusicology.

American Society of Missiology Monograph Series 3. Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401, 288 pages, $34.00.

Reviewed by Dan Petersen, former missionary to a Senufo people in Burkina Faso and currently a mission pastor.

One of the most exciting aspects of the increasing appreciation for oral communication strategies in Christian missions is the emergence of ethnomusicology. Roberta King has been closely involved in early efforts to apply lessons learned from ethnomusicology to strengthen indigenous churches. Missionaries have come to appreciate the importance of communicating in a people’s “mother tongue”—but few have recognized the equally important communication potential of a people’s “mother music.” This book is an account of the enormous impact of the first Christian songs in the “mother music” of a group of Ivorian Senufo churches.

Many of us have experienced the contrast in an African worship service when the selection of songs changes from sleep-inducing missionary hymns (often played on an imported keyboard) to motion-inducing local Christian songs played on local instruments. But much more can happen when local music is incorporated into the church’s life. As believers gladly continue to sing this local music at home and in the workplace, these songs contribute to the theological formation of the church,  comfort and strengthen the faith of individuals, and attract people outside the church to the message conveyed in the songs. This book documents the kind of church growth that resulted from use of culturally appropriate songs in the Cebaara Senufo church.

An added bonus in this study is King’s documentation of the role of various features typical of African music. Many missionaries have been ill-prepared to encounter melodic structures based upon lexical and syntactic tone, complex rhythmic clapping, multiple kinds of rhythm instruments, “call and response” singing, and intricately choreographed group dancing. But all of these features (and more) are part of truly indigenous African music, not least of all among the Senufo people.

The story of indigenous Christian music among the Cebaara Senufo of Ivory Coast needed to be told. Similar stories are emerging around the world, and King’s fascinating account will hopefully soon be joined by many others demonstrating the importance of culturally appropriate music to the growth and health of churches. Although the details of King’s story may be somewhat unique to the West African context (particular song styles, instruments, tone language constraints), the overall message is clear: the effectiveness of communication through indigenous Christian music is equal to—and in some ways greater than—that of the spoken or written word. Missionaries should be encouraging and assisting the use of “mother music”—culturally appropriate indigenous music—for the sake of healthy church growth.

Check these titles:
King, Roberta R. 1999. A Time to Sing: A Manual for the African Church. Nairobi: Evangel Publishing House.

____________. 2008. Music in the Life of the African Church. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press.

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Copyright  © 2009 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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