Ethnomusicology within the context of missions! How does this help bring God’s love to people? Do ethnomusicologists write songs for people? Do they contextualise their own songs into local forms? Do they translate hymns?
I have been working for more than six years doing ethnomusicology work in South Asia. Let me explain what I do.
Ethnomusicology, in the context of missions, is first about the worship of God.
We want people of any language and culture to be free to worship God deeply and meaningfully. I often work in places where there are few believers and few Christian songs and worship materials available. Sometimes foreigner workers translate their own choruses or favourite hymns into the local language, and use their own instruments as well. This can communicate that Christianity is something foreign, or that local music is not good enough, and may lead to shallow and superficial worship.
I work with believers, often through workshops, to help them explore their rich heritage of songs and cultural expressions, to help them build a Biblical foundation for new Christian songs and develop new and relevant songs, dramas, dances, poems, or stories.
When I led a workshop in India with four language groups, a young man said his language group had always used songs from a related group but had no Christian songs in their own language and song styles. Unbelievers derided the believers for this. During the workshop a few of his fellow believers wrote eight to 10 new songs. They were very encouraged and within a few months had written around 100 new Christian songs and were ready for their first Christian song book.
Ethnomusicology is about valuing people at a deeper level.
It is about building relationships. The best way to communicate value to the local people is to learn their language, but learning their songs and instruments and helping them develop these, can also communicate love and concern for them. Many people may be willing to listen to the gospel message if it is sung in a local song style.
Ethnomusicology is about meeting community needs through local artistic expressions.
I lead workshops for the creation of songs and dramas which deal with physical and spiritual concerns in the local community. In one workshop, people from Muslim, Christian and Hindu villages came together to discuss significant community issues, and then worked on songs or dramas that would help deal with these needs.
Ethnomusicology is about communicating God’s Word in relevant local forms.
There are still many in my area who cannot read very well, or at all. Believers need more than written materials to learn Scripture truth, and alternative communication methods help unbelievers to hear the truth. While many Scripture stories are translated into local languages, ethnomusicology enables an outsider to research local song or story forms at a deeper, more rigorous level. This can help a worker give better insight and thoughtful encouragement to local people as they create their own songs, stories, or dramas.
Let me stress that I do not write songs myself. Good poets and song writers, people who have a deep grasp of the nuances of their own language, poetic forms and melodies, are hard to come by. It would be much harder still for an outsider to attempt to do such a thing.
In the end it’s not so much about music but about cultural artistic expression. It’s not about contextualising foreign forms, but helping people explore and use their own forms. It’s not about focusing on music or the art, but encouraging believers to focus on God and the knowledge of Christ so that, as it says in Colossians 3:16, their songs and local expressions flow out of this.
The author is a former Interserve Partner who served in South Asia