Tuning in to a Different Song: Using a Music Bridge to Cross Cultural Barriers

    -- by Joyce Scott, University of Pretoria: The Institute for Missiological and Ecumenical Research, 2000. 

Joyce Scott has been working for about 30 years in various parts of Africa, primarily east and southern Africa. She has taught courses in “Music for Inter-Cultural Ministry” at six Bible Colleges and at Daystar University in Nairobi. She most recently established a three-year curriculum at an Evangelical Bible Seminary in South Africa, where she developed and tested this volume as a textbook for courses.

It is laid out in three primary sections: inter-cultural music (when various groups worship together), cross-cultural music (using music to cross cultural boundaries), and music in theological education (establishing a relevant training program in an institution).

Scott started working in Africa without much introduction to African musics, and provides a revealing personal testimony about one’s natural arrogance “in assuming that my music was THE BEST music” and how she cried out to Jesus to “do for me what he had done for the deaf man – to put his fingers into my ears and say ‘Ephatha! Be opened!’ and heal me of my cultural deafness” (p. 28). Her new-found appreciation for African musics was not welcomed all around, however; in fact, the Acting Principle (a missionary) of the Bible College in Africa where she taught tried to fire her for “leading students back to heathenism.”

The author makes a useful distinction between assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is quite common – “the dominant culture of a local church welcomes people from other cultures, but expects them to conform to the whole style of worship already in place. ‘Learn our songs – do it our way and you are welcomed!’” (p. 20). She scathingly refers to “the sanctity of immobility” (fear of dance and movement) that some African Christians copied from their early missionary mentors, which is often still perpetuated today decades after the early missionaries left.

In contrast to that mindset, Scott sets out her well-reasoned case for accommodation in inter-cultural worship. In these churches, “groups of people from different races and cultural backgrounds, or with differing music styles, worship together in the same service in a way that enables all the groups to enjoy feeling at home at some point in the singing” (p. 11), (emphasis added by reviewer).

For example, a model seen by Roberta King in Abidjan is described thusly: “Each of the four ethnic groups sits in its own section of the church building, so dividing into four sections… Every Sunday there is opportunity for each group to stand and sing one or two hymns in their own language, rather like having four choirs [in the congregation]. In this way the rest of the congregation get to hear and enjoy the other groups’ songs, while each group has a chance to really feel at home” (p. 31). I attended a church in northern Ghana for a year that followed a similar framework. Since it was a liturgical church, there was a fixed number of “musical slots” to be filled, and the four ethnic groups took turns rotating through these slots (entrance procession, offertory, communion hymn, and so forth). This seemed to work very well, and the church body did enough things together besides sing that there was still a strong sense of unity.

The book touches briefly on many topics, here are some I found interesting: Chapter 4 is full of practical ideas for multicultural singing that have been tried in South Africa. Chapter 6 considers choir ministry in and out of the church setting, and Chapter 7 offers suggestions for using music to disciple all sorts of age groups, from pre-school kids to senior citizens. Chapter 8 gives an introduction to “dance, processions and drama.” Chapter 9 introduces “principles of music communication” which are important to follow. Chapter 14 provides a detailed 12-step process that can be used to compose new songs; the process is related to those described by James and King in their workshop reports in this issue. Chapter 15 suggests ways of integrating songs with teaching about health and agricultural development, the Jesus film, ‘Theological Education by Extension,’ and more. Chapter 17 deals with “music relating to church history in Africa;” this provided some material that was new to me, and focuses mostly on southern and eastern Africa. The chapter’s scope would have benefited from a reading of Warnock’s (unpublished) research.

One of the most important insights of the book is Scott’s analysis that much African music can fit somewhere into three categories: 1) home music (unique to each ethnic group to a certain degree); 2) town music (assembled from shared influences in a ‘trade language’ setting, and often including particular elements and/or instruments from Western music); and foreign music (including hymns and Western classical music) which has little or nothing in common with African musical concepts and practices. She then reminds us that the communication principles looked at earlier teach us that “Receptor is King,” and even though singers (including church leaders and Western visitors) tend to choose songs that they like best themselves, they would do better to consider the listening preferences of those they intend to communicate with. Think carefully about which type of music your intended audience relates to at the deepest level.

A strong point of the book is numerous stories that bring home points, such as the one from Nairobi where a musician asked members of the church group to lay hands on an instrument and pray “to dispel the spirits of its previous ungodly use.” The instrument was not a traditional drum… but a guitar.

There are also striking sentences that should be tattooed on the backs of the hands of every missionary: “There is no need to ‘just translate a few of our songs until they make their own’ as our forefathers did. The Holy Spirit is well able to inspire new converts in any culture to create their own songs.” I hear from missionaries on a regular basis who are still doing the “just translate …” bit, so it is good to read Scott’s strong statement. Now to get it into bold print in the constitution of every mission agency on earth …

Music in Theological Education is the third section of the book and contains several helpful chapters on teaching this sort of subject in a training institution such as a Bible school. In particular, Scott gives specific course objectives for two classes: ‘Music for Inter-Cultural Ministry’ and ‘Music for Cross-Cultural Discipling.’ She also gives suggestions for incorporating music into other school subjects such as homiletics (preaching).

I disagreed with a few statements, such as “mime crosses cultures effortlessly” (a fallacy I run into frequently in the training seminars I give). When giving suggestions for a songmaking fellowship, she suggests a size of 6, whereas I and others have had great results with composing groups containing up to 15 people or even more. She claims that “the type of instrument that is most widely found in Africa is a lamelophone” (lamellophone or mbira) but does not give any data for this statement which I would argue with. Nketia (pp. 69-70) states that rattles are the most common instruments on the continent.

The book has several appendices that are very helpful. The first one, “Making Cultural Accommodation a Conscious Process,” stresses the point that such a change for a church cannot just “happen naturally,” and David Venter lists nineteen aspects of a policy to which a congregation can commit itself. These principles can be modified to be applicable around the world.

One appendix gives select references to music in the Bible, and two provide texts of indigenous hymns from southern Africa. An invaluable appendix contains excerpts from Andrew Tracey’s 1994 article on “African Values in Music;” which is a fine summary that should be studied by all ethnomusicologists with an African focus.

All in all, the book is a welcome addition to the literature of applied ethnomusicology. It is available for $23 or 14 pounds sterling inclusive of surface mail postage. Contact Joyce Scott at rejoyce@netactive.co.za


    Nketia, J.H. Kwabena. 1974. The Music of Africa. New York & London: W.W. Norton
    Warnock, Paul. 1983. Trends in African Church Music: A Historical Review. MA Thesis (UCLA). (See EM News 4)

    -- reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.2 of

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