by Del Chinchen
A pastor from the US, just last year, was invited to speak at a weeklong Christian conference in Malawi. The music that preceded his message horrified him.
A pastor from the US, just last year, was invited to speak at a weeklong Christian conference in Malawi. The music that preceded his message horrified him. He somehow managed to get through his prepared sermon that day but the next day he decided he would make it his mission to straighten out these “happy clapping people” (as he termed them). He made it very clear to them that proper, worshipful music was to sing Western hymns in a reverent fashion, not songs with clapping, shouting and dancing.
Though this may be an extreme case, it illustrates well how our habitual aesthetic orientation makes it difficult for us to attribute validity to an African Christian’s musical expression and, in the process, interferes with their meaningful worship. Roberta King, ethnomusicologist at Fuller Seminary, explains the problem in historical terms:
When missionaries first brought the gospel to the African continent, there was very little understanding of the music that they discovered in Africa. Quite often, they found that many of the songs were used in ceremonies that also included fetish or spirit worship. From that, it was assumed that there was no music available for praising God. Indeed, that became one of the questions. What songs do we use for worshipping God? The most immediate answer was to translate the hymns that missionaries had known at home. The people learned to sing the hymns, and often they sang them very well. However, it was a poor solution since in many areas the Western melodies destroyed the meaning of the song texts due to the nature of African tone languages. So, people soon got used to singing what was for them meaningless songs. They did not expect to get a message. This was contrary to how their music worked; the whole focal point of African song is to send a message. Thus, we missed out on a great opportunity to communicate on a highly recognized and respected level. We missed a powerful oral medium for communicating the gospel. (King 2001)
The Western world tends to be much more reserved in their means of expression than Africans. This aesthetic value was transferred to the churches which missionaries planted in Africa many years ago. Since that time, Christians in many parts of Africa have not felt the liberty to contribute to their church’s music ministry. The perception has been that foreigners are the ones capable of creating music for the church. Even instrumentation is expected to be foreign. Early missionaries to Malawi carted pianos on the backs of porters to the most remote corners of the country as though no African instrument was adequate. I (Palmer) was recently invited to preach in a rural Malawian church. While seated on the platform the pastor leaned over and profusely apologized to me for not using the piano that sat idle in the corner. His explanation: “The man who knew how to play it died five years ago.” We sang without instruments that day, as is the practice in most mainline churches in Malawi, because in the absence of the piano no other instrument is deemed acceptable.
Vida Chenoweth, a well-known Christian ethnomusicologist, asks a pertinent question:
Why would anyone want to capture all the birds of the forest, paint them gray and give them all the same song? God made each one, and each has its song to sing for him. (Chenoweth 1984, 35)
By God’s grace, there is now an upsurge in the use of local Christian music in churches across Africa and a growing freedom to express worship and praise to God in a more distinctively African manner. Finally, we are seeing an increase in the use of praise songs in local African languages and styles of music, even among the mainline churches. In order to support the direction Christian music is taking in Africa, we need to help missionaries understand African music and recognize the differences between Western and African music. Then we will appreciate the need for African Christians to have the freedom of musical expression, enabling them to worship with deeper meaning and relevance.
Understanding Music in Africa
It takes time for Westerners to appreciate African music. Music is like art. Art forms vary widely and time is required to develop a taste for something new and different. The fact that we struggle with appreciating African music may help us identify with Africans when they try to sing our music using our style. One African admited to me that he feels very uncomfortable trying to sing with his motionless hands at his side. It is like putting him in a straight jacket. On another occasion we took a Maasai friend, who had lived among his cattle on the open plains all his life, to an Easter musical of Handel’s Messiah which combined a massive choir with a full orchestra. Seated in the middle of the awesome All Saints Cathedral of Nairobi, trying to absorb this foreign music, was too much for our Maasai shepherd. Through most of the concert he had his head lowered covering his ears with his hands as the strange sounds reverberated off the walls and ceiling. At the end of the program he described, with a grimace on his face, what he heard by comparing it with the noise of jet engines!
MUSIC IN AFRICA IS A WAY OF LIFE
In Africa, nearly every aspect of life is the subject of a song.
Music is used in all activities of African life: in cultivating fields, fishing, herding, performing ceremonies, praising rulers and warriors, hushing babies to sleep and so on. African music and dance.… are one of the chief treasures of the African culture and heritage. (Mbiti 1992, 142)
The Gabra of northern Kenya sing while walking with their camels (Tab-lino 1999, 142). Our security guard, a nomadic Samburu, welcomes each dawn with a song, blending in with the chorus of birds as if they are one.
Very few important things happen without music in Africa.
Ashanti children sing special songs to cure a bed wetter. In Benin there are special songs sung when a child cuts her/his first teeth. Among the Hutus, men paddling a canoe will sing a different song going upstream than going downstream. (Chernoff 1979, 94)
Music is such a powerful medium in Africa that even history and tradition were preserved in song. Historically, the musicians of western Sudan inherited the role of preservationists of tradition through music. Oral tradition was the basic means of transmitting ideas to the next generation.
The African cultural and religious heritage was passed on orally from generation to generation and the wisdom of the ancestors was conserved, not in written books, but in songs and oral traditions. (Mugambi 1989, 94)
The oral traditional background of African Christians has enabled them, even today, to store the words of many Christian songs in their memories. Interestingly enough, even modernized, educated Africans still draw upon their oral tradition when they sing in church. They don’t need to sing from a book or from words projected on a screen. The song is written on the heart and stored in the memory until the context calls for its use. Songs and music of the African Christian people have become their unwritten Bible. It is difficult to understand why new missionaries to Africa, especially linguists, receive language training but not music training. Music is such an ideal vehicle for carrying God’s word deep into the hearts of African Christians.
God knows that one of the best ways for his word to root deeply in our hearts is through music: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We are advised, in these passages above and below, to use music as a tool for teaching each other God’s truth (possibly through the call and response style of music): “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
MUSIC IN AFRICA HAS A UNIQUE STYLE
Rhythm. Western music is based on a harmony of tones. African music is centered around rhythm. In Western music, rhythm is secondary in emphasis and complexity to harmony and melody. A Western rhythm marks time at an even pace with a recurrent main beat. Africans, on the other hand, begin on the off beat. Our Western music is very ordered from one note to the next. This is what we recognize as beautiful music.
In African music, this is nearly reversed. “Rhythm is to the African what harmony is to the Europeans…” (Jones 1954, 26). Chenoweth explains:
Rhythm and melody are produced in ways entirely different from [the Western pattern of] metric or measured rhythm. In many cultures the rhythm of the words forms a natural rhythm for the melody …melodies are not composed to harmonize with certain chordal harmonies that underlie them. (Chenoweth 1984, 31)
This stress on rhythm, rather than harmony, tends to make us feel uncomfortable since we are not used to this musical style. Africans feel equally uncomfortable with our emphasis on harmony and the need to begin on the main beat rather than the off beat. When I (Del) was in a Kenyan church service recently, a hymn from America was sung. The words were translated into Swahili but the tune remained the same. We noticed an awkward pause at the beginning of each new verse. The Kenyans had the urge to begin on the off beat (some did to their embarrassment). Most managed to restrain themselves and begin on the main beat but only after careful concentration.
Rhythm and music, for the African, comes very naturally because it inundates every part of life. When women pound yams or cassava in the mortar, one of the women has the task of reaching down to the bottom of the mortar and turning the yams or cassava while her friends are rhythmically smashing them with heavy wooden poles. Her fingers could easily get smashed if someone loses the rhythm. It never happens. They are all so rhythmically in synchronization with each other, often singing while beating in their mortars, that there is not the slightest concern by anyone of smashing fingers. The Gabra women sing “while lifting water from the well. Their rhythm keeps the buckets moving quickly and smoothly” (Tablino 1999, 142). When a group of men in Liberia lift heavy trusses for the construction of a house they sing a special song to prepare themselves to manage the heavy load and to unite themselves, through the rhythm, to lift the load simultaneously.
Africans are exposed to this unique rhythm at a very early age. A crying African child is attracted to and soothed by lullabies with rhythms that cut across the rhythms of the arms which rock her/him. African children play games and sing songs using rhythmic character quite different than Western children.” (Chernoff 1979, 42)
Children grow up learning a hand clapping, dancing game in most parts of Africa. The object of the game is to read the leader (using the skill of intuition) by trying to kick the same foot at the same time as the leader. The complex hand-clapping rhythms that accompany the dancing are intended to confuse the follower. As the game progresses the rhythms become more complicated and the speed of the clapping and dancing increases. This game socializes children into the cultural value and intelligence of rhythm, dancing and intuition.
Voice. The use of vibrato, a Western technique, is much different from the African’s ululation. The vibrato is an indoor sound for the voice. The African ululation is a shrill, piercing sound of joy and jubilation designed to be heard for long distances outdoors. Other vocal distinctives in Africa are the heavy, nasal quality of some ethnic groups and the high pitched, falsetto voice of the male vocalist in parts of Central Africa.
Tone and Scale. Hymns are based on a Western style containing not only foreign words and rhythms but also notes and scales. Kenyan ethnomusic-ologists Wamuyu Wamunyu and Jennifer Githaiga explain that one reason Western hymns have been so difficult for Africans to sing is because Western music uses a seven-part diatonic scale while African music is built on a five-part panatonic scale. Africans do not hear fa or ti. Western hymns often sound strange, even funny, when sung by Africans because they do not hit these two parts of the scale. For example, there is a strain for Africans to get to the note for “me” in the hymn: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me …” Consequently the note is sung as a flat. Africans do not hear music in the same manner as Westerners and certainly do not sing music in the same way. Our music cultures are vastly different.
MUSIC IN AFRICA KNITS THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER
It is difficult for Africans to conceive of music apart from its community setting. Music helps to determine people’s relationship to each other within the community. A community’s integrity and vitality is measured by its music. Music paints a picture of the community.
It is a mistake to try to just listen to African music like we would listen to an orchestra in a symphony hall. The community needs to be integrated with the music. Hand clapping and dancing are means of musical expression that allow the community to be involved in the experience.
In European culture a sharp distinction is made between melody, song, instrumentation and dance. In African culture such differentiation is not as sharp because words may be part of the music and the message is part of the whole musical event. The distinction between performer and audience is also blurred because the audience is an integral part of the performance. (Mugambi 1989, 134)
During a musical event I (Del) attended recently at Daystar University in Nairobi, performed by a choral group for visitors from the US, one of the African faculty in the audience spontaneously jumped up from her seat, in the middle of the performance, ululating all the way to the front. Our visitors’ initial expressions of shock gradually turned to smiles as they began to realize this was not an interruption but a part of the community event. Soon other African faculty began to join the celebration up front. They ended up singing, ululating and dancing with the performing group throughout the rest of the song and then ululated back to their seats at the conclusion. Participation, rather than passive listening, allows the audience to enter into the worship experience with more intensity, providing a more meaningful worship experience.
Everyone is encouraged to participate in the worship experience in churches in Africa. Seldom are there soloists in an African choir. In fact, individual performers and composers are rarely recognized because it is the community that creates the song together and new words are added to it over time. Africans do not like to exclude anyone from an event or activity because it breaks down community spirit. In the West, emphasis in music is placed on the performer and being entertained. In Africa, everyone is encouraged to participate in the music. The Dinka say: “A melody sung by one person is not music” (Campbell 2001).
African Christian music strengthens the church community, acting like a glue that binds and holds them together as one. In Liberia it is not unusual, at the conclusion of the service, for the members to shuffle, single-file, out of the church building, singing and beating drums, to the home of a sick member nearby. Late into the night the people sing, dance, beat the drums and pray, encouraging their sick member to recover. For baptism of new members, the entire church, again in single-file, shuffles down to the river, singing along the way. The shuffling and singing accompany the return to the church at the end of the baptismal service.
The determining factor of a healthy church in Africa is its unified participation in the worship experience. If the music is dead, the church is dead.
Missionaries of the past tried to separate music from its social function. When this type of music is performed in the church it is dead music to the Africans because it has no meaning. A Dinka proverb says: “If there is no music at a wedding, the wedding is invalid.” (Campbell 2001)
When the pastor of the Oromo Community Church in Nairobi invited me (Del) to preach he used one phrase that summed up what was, for him, the best way to describe his church: “You will really enjoy our worship!” And did I ever! The words, instruments and music were all indigenous and the people sang, ululated, clapped, waved their hands and moved with big smiles on their faces because it was coming from deep within their hearts. While worship music in the West, particularly among mainline churches, is often a cognitive reiteration of church doctrine and theology worship in Africa involves the whole person—mind, body and emotions.
For African Christians, there is an appropriate form of dancing and gesturing, not at all provocative, that allows them to express, with their whole body, their joy to God. We have much to learn from the African Christian’s style of music.
MUSIC IN AFRICA TEACHES VALUES
Music in African churches not only brings praise to God but also, at the same time, teaches Christian values and edifies the collective body. Since music interacts with the social situation, music provides an effective way of addressing moral and ethical issues, attacking unsociable qualities and praising appropriate ones. Songs serve as vehicles for the mobilization of the community’s values.
A herdboy who carelessly allows cattle to stray into another man’s field may be punished by having to clean the field while singing a designated song repeatedly. (Kebede 1982, 38)
Among the Dinka:
If a man treats his wife badly she may compose a song of derision against him which is sung to the entire clan. Song is used as an active agent to hold society in place and to see justice done. (Campbell 2001)
The call-and-response method of singing, a common music style used in African churches, is an effective form for the experiential teaching and learning of values because their repetitive nature reinforces the values as well as aids in their retention and recall. People are educated in social values, using the reinforcement technique of repeating the words over and over again until the truth is clear and unforgettable. Another purpose of the call and response method is to express the subject with the fewest possible words carefully chosen as the most evocative. The important thing is the suggestive power of those few words. A third purpose is to knit the community together through the reciprocal nature of the music.
In Africa, music is as much ethical as it is aesthetic. Music’s explicit purpose in Africa is for socialization. Fundamental biblical values are effectively transferred through the medium of music in African churches. Bible studies and prayer meetings in Africa always begin, and sometimes end, with a time of singing. Many churches in Africa now dedicate nearly half of the service to worship through music led by worship teams.
CHRISTIAN MUSIC IN AFRICA TODAY
The Hausa of Nigeria say: “When the beat of the drum changes, the dance step must change as well.” As African Christians begin to experience more freedom of expression in their worship, dramatic changes are occurring in the churches.
Praise songs are becoming the predominant style of music. Many of the mainline churches in Kenya seem to have a split personality these days. The main service on Sunday, made up of mostly older people, contains the singing of hymns and the reciting of liturgies. In stark contrast to the main service, however, is the youth service. It is very lively with the singing of praise songs, clapping and dancing. At least the churches in Africa, in most cases, are not dividing over music styles. The strong community value prevents this from happening. But many of the youth are either transforming one of the church services or are abandoning the mainline churches altogether in search of a more dynamic worship experience elsewhere.
Extreme styles of music are emerging. The pendulum (or, more appropriately, the metronome) of music styles is swinging in Africa from formal hymns to praise songs and beyond. Many Christians are out on the fringes of the extreme as they experiment with their freedom of expression in worship. The story of Githaiga is a good illustration of the swinging of the metronome found in churches in Kenya. She was baptized and grew up in a mainline church, with all of its rituals, hymns and liturgies, but left it while in university for a more charismatic worship experience. After a few years in that church, because the worship experience became more and more bizarre—developing into a near uncontrolled, chaotic state at the crescendo of the worship service—she decided to find a better balance. Now she is attending a church where praise songs are sung in the local language, a worship team (including a band) leads the singing accompanied by plenty of congregational clapping and dancing. During this time of musical experimentation, Christian leaders can help be the guards against various forms of syncretism and guides for good doctrinal teaching in the music.
Supporting Christian Music in Africa. Once we have grown to understand African Christian music and realize its validity then we will recognize its value for meaningful worship and be in a position to encourage its promotion.
Encouraging freedom of expression. A new creative freedom needs to spread through the church in Africa. Missionaries and church leaders need to champion the value of music composition by Africans, in a style, rhythm, language and with instruments that allow the people of Africa to best express their praise and adoration to God. People need to be found who can reinterpret their oral culture creatively. Talent has to be recognized and developed by the church. Africans are the ideal music composers. The role of the missionary is to recognize, encourage and support them in their gifts.
When the missionaries were forced to leave Sudan in 1964, the Sudanese Christians had the freedom to con-textualize their songs. Ethnomusic-ologists have discovered a great depth of cultural experience in their music as a result.
All missionaries, including myself (Del), had to evacuate Liberia during the civil conflict. When I returned two years later, I found a church that had previously sung only hymns on Sunday rocking on its foundation. The church was packed. People were swaying as one as they sang praise songs at full volume. New songs had been composed during the civil conflict that addressed their current needs in that context of war, death and famine.
Encouraging contextualization. Many believe the more indigenous the music is the deeper it penetrates the heart. “…If Christian worship is to mean anything to the majority of African Christians it must not be presented and practiced in a foreign garb” (Nketia 1958, 265). The most foreign Christian music in Africa is Western hymns sung in English or hymns translated into the local language. Songs that really have meaning are those that contain indigenous words, tunes, styles and rhythms. In many churches of Kenya today there are often three songbooks: a hymnal (imported from America or England), a book of Western hymns translated into Swahili and a book of praise songs in English. However, the liveliest singing is not from any of those books but when Swahili praise songs are sung—songs written on their hearts. This is when people feel free to dance and clap to the familiar rhythm of the music.
During colonial times the Presbyterian Church of Malawi banished indigenous praise songs and used, instead, European hymns. As a result, the indigenous songs went underground and Malawian Christians, themselves, became the repositories of this precious oral Christian music. When freedom of expression was recently allowed in the country, the indigenous praise songs began to resurface. The tenacity of these songs’ survival, passed on from generation to generation, is an indication that the people still highly value them and treasure them as their own.
Grace Mwamidi, of Daystar University, approached her missionary teacher with the concern that the singing of hymns in her Anglican church was dead. People were actually falling asleep during the hymns! Was it possible to compose Christian music, based on traditional music (even as Charles Wesley gave Christian words to the melodies of popular bar songs)? Using Paul Hiebert’s model of contextualization, she first interviewed the older people in her village home in Kenya about traditional music. Some responded positively but others were not as accepting of the idea. One pastor, a product of several generations of missionaries, remarked with incredulity when it was suggested that an indigenous tune could be contextualized with biblical words: “You are asking us to return to what the missionary told us to leave!”
Realizing that the words of some of the indigenous music had spiritism connections Grace decided to put Christian lyrics to the tunes of some of the harmless lullabies, warrior songs and songs praising local chiefs. Easter and Christmas themes were worked into the lullabies. Warrior songs were rewritten to depict the battle we face with Satan, our enemy. Singing the names of great chiefs and grandfathers were changed to singing about the greatness of God and the powerful name of Christ. With the advantages of being the church choir leader and her husband the vicar, Grace introduced some of her newly composed songs to the youth choir. They loved the familiar sounding tunes and the natural feel of them.
Because music evolves, the context-ualization method used above has its limitations. People add words, expressions and tunes over time depending on the context and event. In Christian circles the music develops as people grow in spiritual maturity. Rather than impose a foreign model on the church or contrive a setting for contextualiza-tion we need to step back and watch God move through the supernatural outflow of his work in and through people’s hearts. If we want people to really own their faith and music, it must be generated from them as the context and occasion calls for it.
African Christians are finally finding meaningful worship of God through their music. The 21st century is going to be a time of joy and celebration for the church in Africa. Let’s enjoy the diversity of musical styles God has blessed us with as we unite in purpose to worship the King.
Campbell, Karen. 2001. Personal Correspondence. April.
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Chemoff, John. 1979. African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1987. “Critical Contextualization.” Intemational Bulletin of Missionary Research. 11.3. (July): 104-112.
Jones, A.M. 1954. “African Rhythm.” Africa 24.1 (Jan): 26-47.
Kebede, Ashenafi. 1982. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
King, Roberta. 2001. Personal Correspondence. April.
Mbiti, John S. 1992. Introduction to African Religion 2nd Edition. Nairobi: EAEP.
Mugambi, J.N.K. 1989. African Heritage and Contemporary Christianity. Nairobi: Longman Kenya Ltd.
Nketia, J.H. Kwabena. 1958. “The Contribution of African Culture to Christian Worship.” International Review of Missions. 47: 265-278.
Tablino, Paul. 1999. The Gabra. Nairobi: Paulines.
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