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The Resonance of Heart Music

'Every culture in the world has its own musical language as it has its spoken language - and when the Gospel is linked to an ethnic group’s heart music it will be understood and even accepted'. Ethnomusicologist Rob Baker chats to Shaun Lambert


Rob Baker is someone who likes to record songs sitting beneath a mango tree. He is an ethnomusicologist who has been working in Africa for Wycliffe Bible Translators for a number of years and has recently returned from war-torn Mali. The first thing people ask him is, ‘What is an ethnomusicologist?’

There are two types. The first is the secular type who studies world music in particular cultures because it is there; the second is the missionary ethnomusicologist, or ethnodoxologist who does the same kind of research as the first, but applies it to Christian mission.

So how did Rob get into this pioneering work? ‘I studied music and French at university and then taught for a few years. It was during some time spent on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean that I met some missionaries who challenged my assumptions. My experience of missionaries before that had been mostly of old ladies working in remote places for decades on end, who seemed super-spiritual to me...The missionaries I met on Reunion Island didn’t fit the stereotype I had; they were having fun.’

An interest in mission as it really is was sown at that point. Rob followed up this initial interest when he spent a year working in the Ivory Coast. There he met missionaries who worked for Wycliffe. Then his interest in mission took a backseat temporarily when he got married. After doing a normal job for nine years someone said to him out of the blue, ‘Rob you should be an ethnomusicologist.’

‘It was a perfect fit,’ said Rob. ‘So I spent four years in Benin learning the craft of ethnomusicology. What I learnt is that all music is ethnic. What missionaries have realised in the last few decades is that we can use ethnic music for the gospel. In fact we can use any local art form which is part of the heart culture of any ethnic group.’

I point out that this is a radically different approach to that of the first missionaries. ‘Yes! In ignorance we used to go out and say ‘sing like us, behave like us!’ The truth is every culture has good and bad in it. We need to take the good parts and use them for the gospel. Many churches around the world have grown really rapidly through receiving the gospel in their own heart music.’

I ask Rob how important a shift this is? `If we only teach Africans to sing “the white man’s hymns” Christianity will remain a white man’s religion. Music is not a universal language. Every culture in the world has its own musical language as it has its spoken language. When the Gospel is linked to an ethnic group’s heart music it will be understood. More than that, it will be accepted because it is a part of their culture. It also is something that is sustainable: by writing their own songs and using their own instruments there’s no dependency created.’

Rob’s main way of working is through workshops with the aim of producing local worship songs written by local people in a local style. ‘The workshop might take place under a mango tree and it might last for up to a week. Ideally I like to do a few days’ research first to understand the music, the instruments. I need to work out any local connotations.

'Can this instrument or song genre be used in church by the local people? Is it associated with idol worship or certain traditional African practices?’

In Africa, apparently, there are song genres for every event, from weddings, funerals and circumcisions to hunting, fishing, going to battle, building a house, sowing seeds and so on. Each song will have its own rhythm and a dance. ‘So, for example, if I am teaching the parable of the sower and the ethnic group I am working with have a song about sowing, I will use that. Through the workshops we have preserved important local musical heritage, much of which is being lost.’

Rob begins his workshops by teaching from the Bible. He may have up to 30 people working with him and he breaks them into smaller groups who then begin to write songs which they will later perform and Rob will record. One of the important things to do is do a back translation of the words to make sure they are doctrinally correct. Rob tells me this is another reason for not merely translating Western songs into an African language. There are some amusing examples of hymns translated into Swahili where the rhythm and pitch of the Western tunes entirely alters the meaning. A notable example is a hymn including the phrase: ‘Woga wa kufa’, meaning: ‘those who fear death’. The Western melody changes the meaning to ‘those who fear being good.’

What is clear talking to Rob is his enthusiasm for the rich and dynamic musical culture of Africa, which is loved the world over. It has enlarged his heart. The work he is doing has implications for multi-ethnic churches in the UK as well.

‘Even in a Western setting, we need to reach people with music that’s closest to their hearts. If you have a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church you need to represent their different heart music in some way in the services. It’s going to be a fusion, a compromise in some way, just like world fusion music. There’s no sin in using reggae, rap or bhangra styles in worship.’ One of the major changes in ethnomusicology is in how the recorded music is made available to the local people. Rob never had to use wind-up record players, but he did start out making cassette tapes. Then solar panel and windup digital recorders came onto the market, but even that has been superseded.

‘The number one way to play the music now is through mobile phones, which are now used extensively across the African continent.’ Rob has written a book full of these surprising emergences. Called Adventures in Music and Culture – travels of an Ethnomusicologist in West Africa, it is published by Ambassador International. ‘So many books written about ethnomusicology are technical and academic. I’m not sure how many people would read them. What I’ve written is a travelogue that even a non-believing, non-musical person could read and understand.’

Alongside Rob’s role as the ethnomusicologist are those people involved in Bible translation. Rob has been working with Wycliffe Bible Translators for a number of years. Wycliffe was founded by Cameron Townsend who first went to Guatemala as a missionary in 1917. He hoped to preach in Spanish and sell Spanish Bibles, but the people did not respond. A few days later, an old man speaking broken Spanish said to him, ‘Mister, if your God is so great, why doesn’t he speak my language?’ This inspired Cameron in his life-long task of bringing the Bible to people groups who did not yet have it in their own language.

’Wycliffe has started an amazing project with partners worldwide to see a Bible translation project begun in every language currently without some Scripture by 2025.’ At the current rate of progress it would take another 150 years to do this. Rob believes God calls enough people to do his work overseas, but there a lots of people who are disobedient, who are like Jonah and run away.

Rob admits to having always been a bit of an adrenaline junky, but says he has a much broader understanding of cultures and a much deeper faith since working in Africa. ‘I trust in God a lot more. In the West things are so comfortable we have lost that trust in the Lord. It is clear that working in a different culture changes you at a much deeper level. I’ve learnt to be a lot more patient! Your car breaks down so you can’t get across the border to get to a seminar...people turn up late, the recording equipment doesn’t work.  Also, it is very British to queue politely, but in parts of Africa queue-jumping is normal.’

Rob defines culture as ‘the way we do things round here.’ He has been shocked by the way things are done in the UK, both within the church and beyond .

‘When I first came back I was shocked by how cold and distant people seemed compared to the warm hospitality I had experienced in Mali. And there is so much materialism here. ‘Look at my new £10,000 kitchen!’ some folk say. I think Western culture tends to worship material things.  All too easily, Western Christians can end up praying for 10 minutes a day, yet watching 3-4 hours of TV – much of which is not particularly edifying.  Just think how much more effective we would be if we prayed as much as we watched TV!’
The Resonance of heart music R
Part of Rob’s mission back here in the UK is to bounce the UK church out of its comfort zone. He is working with WEC’s Resonance band, which is bringing multicultural music into the UK. He is teaching ethnomusicology as well as carrying out church visits on behalf of Wycliffe.

As I talk to him I can see it is not the crocodile steak cooked in ginger, nor the flame trees or upside-down baobab trees that have captured his heart, wonderful those these things are. It is the people of Africa and their music. Especially when it has become the heartbeat of the Gospel.


For more on Rob’s book, Adventures in Music and Culture – Travels of an Ethnomusicologist in West Africa, visit www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Music-Culture-Rob-Baker/dp/1620200376/
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