by Vida Chenoweth
Before ethnomusicology has any relevance to missionaries, the term must not only be understood, but a particular theological point must be considered.
Before ethnomusicology has any relevance to missionaries, the term must not only be understood, but a particular theological point must be considered. Laymen often stumble over the pronunciation of "ethnomusicology" because the term is unfamiliar, but simply put, ethnomusicology is an expansion of musicology, the study of music. Because musicology has been devoted primarily to the study of music which is European in origin, a new term was needed to designate the study of music whose origin is not European, and in many cases, music that has never been written down. It was not until students of music began to examine music of non-European peoples that we became conscious of the fact that cultures of the world conceive of and structure music in ways very foreign to us. The variety is staggering, and while music types are not quite so diverse as languages, the comparison is parallel in many respects.
As for the theological point, unless we believe that individual cultures have a unique and valid contribution to make to Christian worship, the significance of ethnic music—along with all other means of expression-will escape us entirely. We must accept that the Holy Spirit can inspire and speak through vernacular music expression just as through vernacular prayer and Bible translation, or else deny the universality of God. God speaks through every language and every music system, regardless of whether the missionary has an aesthetic response to it. The Lord can bring any language or any music system into captivity. When he does, the rules of grammar will not change, but rather what is said.
We mentioned before that not all peoples structure their musical ideas in the same way. This means that across some cultural boundaries music is not intelligible. In such a case, we may be sure that we have come up against a different music system. That is, rhythm and melody are produced in ways entirely different from our metric or measured rhythm. In many cultures the rhythm of the words form a natural rhythm for the melody. In most other cultures, melodies are not composed to harmonize with certain chordal harmonies that underlie them.
Yet all these kinds of music-making can and should be vehicles of prayer and praise. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the evangelized need adopt the cultural ways of the evangelist. On the contrary, one of the prime controversies was the insistence by the Pharisees that all believers be circumcised, conforming to Jewish ways.
Indigenous worship does not need English, or singing in parts, or pipe organ, or a guitar in order to be valid worship. Observing European and American worship services often suggests to those who have been evangelized that this is the correct way to do things. This impression we must guard against.
During a recent tour through Africa, I found the enthusiastic response of missionaries and African Christians to be most heartening. In discussions that followed the lectures, several questions arose consistently. They were: (1) , Few missionaries are trained musicians, so what can they do toward fostering ethnic church music? (2) Do you give them a hymnal? (3) How do we missionaries have time to do all this? (4) Some music has strong association with what is antagonistic to Christianity, so how can we use it in church?
The reply to question 2 is the most direct. The answer is no. My students and I may compose a few Scripture songs to check our own grasp of the music system and to trigger the idea of creating vernacular songs for worship, but each culture should produce its own songs, pray its own prayers, and thus worship with true understanding.
In reply to question 1, it is true that few missionaries are trained musicians, and among them even fewer are trained ethnomusicologists, but we are making strides in that direction. Since my first efforts in 1963 in Mexico, interest has steadily increased. Musicians did not know there was a place for them on the mission field. By 1970 there was one more. Today we Christian ethnomusicologists are six, with four more in the pipeline.
Combining questions 1 and 3, it would be unthinkable to expect missionaries to leave the field and begin the many years of training necessary to be an ethnomusicologist, unless he or she is already a well-trained musician who can transcribe music easily. We have a course at Wheaton College in which ethnomusicology students transcribe and analyze field data that is sent to us. However, there are valuable contributions the missionary alone can make toward building the foundation for ethnic music in worship.
He or she can from the beginning show an interest in the local music, all music, in order not to impede the flow of creativity that the church may need at a later date. This is not to say that one should participate yet in the local music, as it takes time and careful investigation for the outsider to understand either the music or the occasion for performing it. We must neither subscribe to or reject what we do not fully understand.
To reject music at an early stage of living with another culture may drive a practice underground. Last year a student and I visited an island in the Pacific, where it had been assumed for years that there was no indigenous music still remaining. After all, they had been Christians for nearly a century. It took several days of talking through an interpreter to convince the people that we wanted to record music that was truly traditional. Our being white and Christian, they were eager to show us what they assumed we wanted to hear, anthems sung in English. We listened but did not record. Finally, they began to demonstrate their ancestral music, and it was astounding how much they had retained secretly, because early missionaries had condemned it.
There are several dangers resulting from rejection of a people’s music. First, there is the danger of interrupting the transmission of all local singing so that the baby goes out with the bath water and the entire tradition faces extinction. Second, rejection may cause some rituals to be secretly retained, thus encouraging syncretism. Third, rejection alienates composers from the church and, as we are discovering in Africa, it also can alienate the mission from the people. Remember that not everyone composes songs. It is not like speech in that everyone talks. Let us be patient with composers and make every effort to introduce them to Christ.
It is therefore beneficial to keep alive the act of creating music in the local idiom. Later, after conversion, composers will spontaneously sing of the most important event of their life. We must not rush this phenomenon. Some of our number are trying to hurry this process by means of workshops during which time nationals are expected to produce Christian songs on demand.
However, a meeting with local composers and church leaders that explains and encourages the legitimacy of indigenous music for worship is beneficial. So is a course in writing down music, so long as it is in the music system of those people. Such a course can only be formulated by a trained ethnomusicologist who has an understanding by thorough analysis of just how a culture structures its music. A workshop-in the sense that a group meets in order to produce a repertoire on demand-can be superficial both spiritually and musically.
A couple of dangers inherent in the workshop method have been observed: The participant quickly adjusts some new text to a traditional melody (and is sometimes laughed down because of the lingering connotations of the melody) or, in some cases, the participant sweats with frustration and embarrassment, unable to fulfill the request.
In addition to simply appreciating the way in which people make music, the missionary goes on about his task of bringing individuals into a personal relationship with Christ. At the same time, he develops a deep interest in the people and in their ways of dealing with life and the universe. One of the most profitable ways to learn of the culture is to investigate the kinds of songs sung and the reasons for singing them. A methodical collection of the kinds of music people make is valuable information for the outsider and a valuable repository for the insiders.
If a missionary wants to explore the actual elements of the music system and how they are put together, he consults an ethnomusicologist. To make a musical analysis, the ethnomusicologist needs these materials:
A reproduction on tape of every style and kind of music in the culture and a translation of the text, if possible. This ought not to be collected haphazardly. Preceding each item there should be an explanation of what the song is about. For example, "This is a song of divination which has come down from the ancestors. It is sung only at full moon. The elders look into the fire and see visions of lost articles, impending disaster such as famine, and the like."
Once a comprehensive collection is made, the taped information may be sent for analysis to the Department of Ethnomusicology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187. Historically, the course was included in the curriculum of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, but owing to the need for students already trained in music theory, it was relocated at Wheaton.
When dealing with an oral tradition, one of the problems facing the ethnomusicologist is interference of other cultures. For example, the transistor radio and other electronic equipment, such as amplifiers and public address systems, may deprive the traditional composer of the silence he needs.
Other well-meaning teachers of Western music introduce Western instruments such as the guitar or a keyboard instrument. It is not out of personal bias that an ethnomusicologist raises objections to this. While this seems an innocuous and pleasurable act on the surface, it is inadvisable for several reasons. One, the immediate satisfaction may not be worth the ultimate consequences of thwarting the indigenous musical expression. Few realize the devastating effect that introducing the guitar can have on an oral tradition, but even the tuning of the instrument forces the newcomers into a chordal system that will influence the invention of melody along foreign, European-based harmony.
The newcomer learns the three basic chords (tonic, subdominant and dominant) and thereafter is caught in a system that is not his own. Either he must copy the West or strum these Western chords nonsensically alongside indigenous melodies. Ultimately, the player will lose the ability to think in the musical terms of his own people and, more often than not, will not be a master of the Western idiom either. The oral tradition will consequently be on the endangered list.
Any Western music introduces a mathematically contrived scale that is unnatural to oral traditions. It seems unfair to impose this on an oral system which, because it is not written down, has no defense against being swallowed up. Thus, the well-intentioned missionary may, unawares, contribute to the obliteration of a culture’s music system.
A second reason why the introduction of Western instruments and music seems unfair is that many ethnic groups that are just on the threshold of literacy do not have the historical perspective to anticipate the consequences of an immediate choice. It is not that we know their needs better than they, but that we know by case history what are the probable consequences of their choice. By and large, it is more productive to encourage local leadership in music rather than to assume the leadership in a culture not our own.
The fruit, of indigenous musical leadership in the church has resulted in a wealth of worship styles all over the world. In Papua New Guinea a student and I met a Komba tribesman who recorded for us their 368th hymn. In Irian Jaya another student and I visited a church service by Dani men who formed their own church. The singing was all from Scripture and composed by the Danis themselves in a vocal style unique to them.
In Nigeria, I was privileged to attend a women’s fellowship where each delegation was a choir. They listened to their own fiery preacher, a lady, then picked up their clay pots from the floor to serve as percussion instruments accompanying their own songs to the Lord. Their joy was contagious as they sang without cultural confusion and without apology as to who they were.
In Cameroon on Palm Sunday a choir of 60 or 70 adults stepped rhythmically, but with great dignity, into an open arena while waving their palm branches and singing mightily to the orchestral accompaniment of drums and xylophones. It was overwhelming in its complexity and fervor. It was their Christian expression.
Why would anyone want to capture all the birds of the forest, paint them grey and give them all the same song? God made each one, and each has its song to sing for him.
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