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Sep 19, 2005


Girls with harpsNo matter what instrument you play,
it just takes practice. (Uganda)
Ethnomusicology is a subfield of cultural anthropology, the prefix "ethno-" coming from the Greek ethnos (people). This mouthful of a word simply means the study of music and creative arts from different cultures.


Song in Cultures

Every culture in Africa makes music in ways that are uniquely theirs, resulting in song styles that are as natural to their users as their own mother tongue. Community singing is highly valued, and many songs interchange between a solo singer and a larger group, referred to as "call and response". Other songs are in the form of a solo sung narration, particularly suited for story telling. Special instruments characterise different people groups, from lyres, drums and flutes to ornate seed shakers. And everywhere in Africa, people dance – singing is done with the entire body!

The Problem with Hymns

The early missionary movement in Africa encouraged people to worship God using western hymnody, inadvertently creating problems that now require the help of ethnomusicologists. In East Africa, the majority of hymns were either taught in English or crudely translated into trade languages by choosing words that had the same number of syllables. Distortions of stress, tone and vowel lengths led to incorrect meanings, and although these hymns are still sung today, many Africans feel alienated by a church that uses strange languages and sounds.

Mbeya composingPart of music workshops involve choosing
scripture texts with which to compose the songs.
(Mbeya, Tanzania)

'Natural' Songs Change Lives

Yet for every people group, there are still special songs that touch hearts, impacting in the same way as people's own language. Reading God's Word and then responding worshipfully is the result of meaningful communication, but if obstructions are put in the way, people's understanding is incomplete. This in turn creates confusion and perhaps even rejection, which is why many of the older people refuse to use any language apart from their own mother tongue, let alone enter a church. Yet when the opportunity arises to sing in a more natural way, people's understanding and worship of God is transformed, making the work of an ethnomusicologist deeply rewarding!

When people make songs that reflect their cultural musical style their lives are enriched. The following are comments people have made after attending an ethnomusicology workshop:

  • "Now we don't borrow foreign music; we make our own songs to praise God! Now we know that God wants to hear the music that is most meaningful to us."
  • "Even the unbelievers will like these songs and learn the words because they use our culture’s music."
  • "I didn't know church could be like this!"

Sandawe drumTraditional Sandawe Drum. (Tanzania)

Ethnomusicologists are also concerned with research and documentation of music. This is particularly relevant for continents with a tradition of orality where most music has not been written down. In the West the prevailing styles of artistic expression can be changed knowing everything is safely recorded for future generations, but this is not so in Africa.

A Cultural Melting Pot

Ways of life are now changing as Africa forges ahead with new developments. Education is highly valued, with the consequence that many children are sent to boarding schools to access education, rather than live at home. This means they no longer listen to their grandparents singing and story-telling in the evenings. Other values are also changing; ceremonies that incorporate cultural music are being phased out, and an increasing variety of other musical styles are listened to and enjoyed by many Africans. The result is a diverse melting pot of cultural aspects, particularly amongst the youth of Africa. It also means the concept of "heart music" is broadening to include any music which people understand and strongly identify with, whether based on their own unique musical idioms or music from outside their own traditions.

The Aim in Ethnomusicology

Recording in KenyaAn improvised sound-proof room works just as well.

An ethnomusicologist's task is to help every language group explore which song genres are the most appropriate vehicle for the life-changing impact of God's Word. Whether in a workshop setting or working alongside individual musicians, our aim is to encourage the use of translated Scripture in song styles that speak to people's hearts and meet contemporary needs within the society. This includes songs for community health education and literacy. As people begin to create and record songs using cultural elements that are already part of their lives, others are drawn to listen to the message.

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