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Can Songs Bring Reconciliation? A Conversation I-to Loh, Patrick Matsikenyiri, Mary Oyer, and Pablo Sosa, with C. Michael Hawn, Moderator

The following conversation was recorded at Symposium 2003, the conference on worship and the arts held at Calvin College each January. Participating in the conversation were several giants in the field of global song for Christian worship who have much to offer Western Christians from their years of ministry throughout the world:

I-to Loh, a composer and specialist in ethnomusicology and Asian church music and president of Tainan Theological College and Seminary, Taiwan, where he also leads the church music department. (See RW 65, p. 30.)

Patrick Matsikenyiri, professor of music at the Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, who for many years took his choir on annual tours to the United States, among other countries. He is the composer of “Jesu, Tawa Pano/Jesus, We Are Here” (Sing! A New Creation 5).

Mary Oyer, visiting professor of church music at Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan; she has also taught in Kenya. Earlier she was professor of music at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, and at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkart, Indiana.

Pablo Sosa, a minister and composer who teaches liturgy and hymnology at the Protestant Institute for Higher Theological Studies (ISEDET) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His song “Gloria” was included in RW 65 (p. 34) and in Sing! A New Creation (116).

Michael Hawn was moderator for the discussion; he is professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, with extensive international study in global music. His book Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally was released at the conference (see p. 46) and includes chapters on each of the people in this discussion.

Hawn: In working on the book Gather into One, I was impressed how important and significant issues of justice were in the formation of these songs. At what point in your life did you realize that music from your own culture was an important part of your own identity and needed to be claimed and cultivated? Can you tell us a story?

Sosa: I like to tell a story about Dieter Trautwein, a leading figure in the renewal of Protestant Church music in Germany after World War II, very active in ecumenical circles, and a very clear and strong spokesperson for what we now call “global song.” Dieter was a teen during the war, and after, when the Russians came to [East] Germany, he feared them. But he tells the story that during the summer through his open window he could hear the Russian soldiers singing and thought, “These people can’t be that bad if they can sing like that.” There is a power in music to speak.

Oyer: I first went to Africa in 1969 to collect music. I learned that in order to understand a song, you have to get to know the people.

I’d like to tell a story about a Cheyenne woman at a Mennonite World Conference in Wichita, Kansas, in 1978. I was asked to lead the songs for worship. The conference songbook had a Cheyenne hymn that was hard for me to sing. Its range was too wide for most congregational voices, and its rhythm was unconventional. So I looked for a Cheyenne person to help. I found Bertha Little Coyote and told her that I hoped we could sing it in a worship gathering. I was discouraged by her response: “It won’t work. You won’t be able to do it.” The next day I invited her to help us all try the song. I suggested that she sing and we imitate, line by line. We managed to get through, even though my plan of breaking the song into fragments was a Western mode of learning and not hers.

Hawn: I want to identify with what Mary said. In working with people of other cultures we have to be learners and take risks. Sometimes we try something that doesn’t work, but the effort can be so helpful. Opportunities to learn are too valuable to pass by, and “their version” is right, even if it’s different from what you know.

Oyer: Yes; it was not how correctly we sang a high note or low note that mattered. Rather, it was important that we attempted to enter into their song.

Matsikenyiri: In Zimbabwe, we had all Western hymns that the missionaries brought. The Africans accepted them on Sundays. But they stuck with their own instruments during the week. Later, after the liberation from colonialism, people realized that there’s no reason not to change the way we do things in church. The women started dancing and singing in the church. Missionaries noticed and realized they missed something; they sent an ethnomusicologist to study African culture. Bob Kauffman traveled and studied the cultures in different regions. Eventually he settled in Zimbabwe and asked people from the church, “What songs did you used to sing when you used to hunt, fish, be at home?” And they shared some with him. He told them, great, use that sound, put Scripture to it. It inspired me to realize that Africans have roots to go to and grow from; it inspired me to begin writing songs for worship. When we introduced African songs in dwindling churches, some of them started growing. People said, now there is real music; it was meaningful, related to the life of the people. When I saw this response, I felt, this is what I can contribute to my people.

Hawn: Bob Kauffman had a huge influence in the history of African church music. He was the first music missionary sent by the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church in the United States to Africa. He is one of the growing number of ethnomusicologists who live beyond their own cultures.

Loh: In Taiwan also, we were taught everything in terms of the West—in theology, liturgy, and music, and to look down on our own culture, including music. My father was a minister and hymn composer and dedicated himself to work with the indigenous people in Taiwan. Growing up, I was discouraged from listening to popular music, but I traveled with him to the villages and learned their songs and played with them. So there were two conflicting views around this; we appreciated indigenous music in the villages, but not back home or when we went to church.

My change came when I went to the seminary. One of my professors, a Canadian, asked me to translate a passion play from Harlem, New York, that included all African-American spirituals. In translating, I realized that it was natural to use African-American music in Harlem, but in order to convey the meaning of these songs, I would have to use Taiwanese songs that show a similar mood. So I chose a wailing song motif from Taiwan that the women would sing for comfort and to resist oppression. I sang the song to my professor and she was surprised, but said it was right and I should do all the songs that way. Some students refused to sing it; some tried to imitate the way women cry and sob, because it was so close to our culture. Finally the prof talked them into singing it. After the performance, there was a profound and divided response—some were furious; others had never felt the gospel so close. From then on I knew I had to compose in my own style, not imitate Western songs.

Hawn: Songs all come out of a context, a situation. Working in this area has made me also want to go back and study our Western hymnody to understand that better, so we have a better sense of the context out of which Western songs come too.

After the performance, there was a profound and divided response—some were furious; others had never felt the gospel so close.

Sosa: I tried to write songs because I needed to find my own voice. I was already a musician. I knew my hymnals, but I wasn’t able to find my voice there. I only found my voice when I realized that it was the oppressed in Argentina who were keeping the treasure of who we are alive. Those who were first there and have resisted and survived—I had to listen to them. If only we had had a Kauffman to come to Argentina, then so many of our problems would have been solved. For example, missionaries told us that the one-string violin was pagan; that broke the hearts of the people. The missionaries did it out of ignorance. It was only ten years ago that a musicologist went to the jungle to find someone who knew how to make it, then went back to teach the people they could play the one-string violin and still be a Christian. It brought an inner reconciliation, to be one again inside, whole, because they were broken without it. It showed us that through those people we are able to find our own voices. It’s a revolution, it works inside of you, it’s a conversion, but it has to do with people. It’s this meeting the others as they are, learning from them, and then bringing them to a new understanding of the gospel—within the context of finding their own voice.

Oyer: I was in Taiwan for much of the last four years. As I listened to CNN news from America, I kept hearing about the United States claiming to be “number one,” and usually power and money were mentioned soon. From that perspective of living abroad I realized how often we in this country isolate ourselves from recognizing other “number ones” in the world—cultures who graciously practice human values such as hospitality and tolerance.

As I move through churches in this country, I realize the possibilities of reconciliation through song. I would like us to sing a Pakistani “Kyrie” in the Urdu language; it can move us to understanding and trusting a people whom we do not know well. It’s very powerful. [We sang “Khudaayaa, raeham kar” from Sound the Bamboo, Christian Conference of Asia, 2000.] Today I can’t listen to news about Pakistan without thinking of this particular “Lord, Have Mercy.” I hope that many congregations in North America learn it.

Sosa: Let me add, in Argentina, we know and sing this Pakistani song. And you can too. Can we sing another song, from Korea? We have many Asian immigrants in Argentina who aren’t liked very well. They come with lots of money and they are so different. Can we trust them? Are they trying to cheat us? So our seminary invited a choir from the Korean church to sing their music. We sang to them “Ososo” (SNC 209) which surprised and was dear to them. The song is a prayer for unity; that prayer is close to their hearts because they are a divided country. We created reconciliation there; they cried and we were able to pray for each other and for each of our nations.

Loh: The composer, by the way, was educated in Germany. In “Ososo” the lines cross each other; there’s meaning there. And it ends with an open fifth; the sense of perfect harmony. That says something theologically.

Sosa: It’s very easy to sing, all the stanzas are the same except one word, so we can sing it in Korean and understand it, even people from Argentina who don’t understand Korean and don’t want to understand it.

Hawn: On World Communion Sunday in 2001, during a church service in Albuquerque that I was leading, someone told me that we had just started bombing Afghanistan: “Do something!” So I called for a moment of silence, and then had them sing the “Khudaayaa, raeham kar,” the Pakistani song. And around that time twenty-six Christians had been killed in a church in Pakistan. We also organized a service of carols; when we sang “Ososo,” the international students from Korea wept.

Sosa: You can’t know your name till you hear it from someone else’s mouth.

Loh: Many Philippine people have come to Taiwan, taking over jobs of indigenous people, so there is real tension. We wanted to create something for reconciliation. Taiwanese and Philippine languages both use vocable or non-lexical syllables (sounds that do not form words). So I wrote a song using Philipino sounds and style in the first two lines, and the last two from Taiwanese tribal style. Two cultures together in one song. This is the way music can really create the kind of reconciliation between two cultures.

Matsikenyiri: One of my compositions (on the CD Africa Praise I) was written during our struggle for liberation: “Uyai mweya wakachena/Come, O Holy Spirit.” And so we resist powers that take our focus from our goals. I composed it at a workshop and took the participants to the place where the first martyr was killed, an area within political circles with much fighting and calling each other names; division was rampant. I taught the new song to my choir and invited everyone from all sides to sing it. It created reconciliation in that way. That was 1989.

Life for many has been so unbearable; people hate each other along tribal and aboriginal lines. There’s a lot of demeaning each other and fighting and disease, the cost of living is skyrocketing, prohibiting people from living comfortably. You can’t say the words of these songs to the government, but you can sing them. They were picked up by the people who do radio broadcast early in the morning before anything else is on, and I get requests from everywhere for the texts. It meets people where they are and talks the language of the people. Music can reconcile, can make people begin to talk to each other from opposite sides. Music can reconcile and help blend people into unity.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.