Monday, October 12, 2009

A brief return to world music

I am a fan of global music. I enjoy hearing sounds of other cultures mixed with western music, but I would far rather hear the unadulterated music of another culture - even if that requires a bit of a stretch for my ears and taste.

In the western church, we have generally been the exporters of our music or the exploiters of non-western music. As exporters, as recently as 50 years ago we were still packaging the gospel in the hymn tunes and accompaniments of the 19th century. More recently, as exploiters, we have teaken the most easily accessible elements of another culture's music and used it as a veneer on our own. This is the essence of "pop" or "mass" culture - we see it, for example, in the difference between jazz and swing; between the rural blues and white rock & roll. Skim off the easy (accessible) bits and overuse them. (And generally don't credit your sources.) I'm not saying I don't enjoy swing ... but it isn't jazz. It's good to keep in mind the difference.

In the realm of global music, one reality is that the world is getting pretty small, and there are very few cultures that have not been influenced to some degree by western music, especially pop music. Where missionaries are now much more likely to respect the musical tradition of another culture, the radio and recorded media reach everywhere with very little effort. And indigenous musics are affected. Well, I guess that can't be helped.

Still, to the extent that it is possible to hear music of another culture, unalloyed, I like to hear it. Even when it is difficult to grasp, or only holds my academic interest and not my ears or heart, I like to hear the window into that culture. Naturally it is easier if there are some aural connections or intersections to western tonalities, structures, and instruments.

This Sunday College Church had Izibongo, the world music band from Wycliffe Bible Translators, in our services. Comprised of ethnomusicologists and other musicians, this group of 8 all played multiple instruments and sang. Through the course of the day they brought us the indigenous praise of the church in cultures as disparate as South American jungles, urban South Africa, India, and China. As familiar as Latin-tinged horns, and as foreign as parallel tone clusters from remote Brazil.

Sure, they did some cross-over, too. Going from a beautiful devotional song in Hindi, seamlessly into Andre Crouch's "Bless the Lord, O My Soul" was masterful, richly devotional, and satisfying. And when they led us in a cappella western hymns, we also did what we do well! What a great partnership, and a fine day for the church.