Singing a New Song

Ethnomusicology within the context of missions-How does this help bring God’s love to people? What is this work about anyway? Do ethnomusicologists write songs for people? Do they contextualize their own songs into local forms? Do they translate hymns?

I have been working for six years doing ethnomusicology work in South Asia and at times I still find it difficult to explain what I do. People still ask me the questions above. Perhaps I can help you step back a bit so that you may gain a fresh picture of some of the main things involved in this work.

1. 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 the foreigners who were working with these people thought that local songs lacked variety. Sometimes they assumed that all people should love the Western hymns and choruses they love. As a result of this, they often proceeded to translate their own choruses or favorite hymns into the language of the local people. Sometimes they bring their guitars and keyboards as well. This, of course, often leads to a shallow and superficial worship of God. It also can communicate that Christianity is something foreign, or that local music is not good enough for the worship of God.

I work with believers, often through workshops, to help them explore what is already theirs – a rich heritage of songs and cultural expressions, to help them build a biblical foundation for new Christian songs, and then help spark creativity so that they may make new songs, dramas, dances, poems, or stories that are relevant to church and community needs.

Several months ago I led a workshop in India with four language groups. A young man from one of the language groups said their group had always used songs from a related language group but had no Christian songs in their own language and in their own song styles. He said that unbelievers derided the believers for singing the songs of “outsiders” or of the related language group. During the workshop a few of the believers from this group made about 8 to 10 new songs. They were very encouraged at these first new Christian songs. A few months later I received an e-mail saying that people in this group had now written around 100 new Christian songs and were ready for their own first Christian song book.

2. Ethnomusicology is also about valuing people at a deeper level. It is about building relationships. Learning a local language is the best ways to communicate value to the local people, but learning their songs, their instruments, and helping them record or develop these, can communicate love and concern for them at an even deeper level. Doing this also brings openness in the community to the gospel. As you probably know, many people may be unwilling to listen to the gospel if it is spoken to them, but they may be willing to listen to the same message if it is sung in a local song style.

3. Ethnomusicology is about meeting community needs through local artistic expressions. I lead workshops in different communities for the creation of songs and dramas which deal with physical and spiritual concerns in the community. In one workshop, people from Muslim, Christian, and Hindu villages came together to discuss significant problems or issues they faced in their communities. They then began to work on songs or dramas that would help deal with these needs.

4. Ethnomusicology is about communicating God’s word in relevant local forms. There are still many in my area who cannot read or cannot read very well. Believers need more than written forms to learn scripture truth, and unbelievers need these forms in order to hear the truth. Though nowadays many are involved in getting the scripture into stories in local languages, ethnomusicology enables an outsider to research local song or story forms at a deeper, more rigorous level. This can help an outsider give better insight and thoughtful encouragement to local people as they create songs, stories, or dramas which are in relevant local forms.

Some of you may still ask me if I write songs for people. Let me stress that I do not write these 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 contextualizing foreign forms, but helping people explore and use the forms which are already theirs. Its 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 would flow out of this.