The Rhythm of Community: Enliven your worship with music from the African church

This is the second of Hawn’s three-part series on global music.


[The] community dimension is perhaps the essential aspect of African music. . . . [Africans] do not want to distinguish the audience from the musicians at a musical event. (1)
—John Miller Chernoff

The validity of this quote was affirmed again and again during my six months in Nigeria and Kenya during the fall of 1989. During weekly lessons with my drum instructor, seminary student Michael Olanjiwaru, our conversations often spilled over from technique to the philosophy of music-making. (I was studying West African “Talking Drum.”)

In one conversation, I noted that there were always several drummers for the daily chapel services. Each group consisted of four or five drummers using various sizes of instruments and other percussion. My question seemed so logical to me: “Michael, who do you think is the best drummer in the seminary?” Michael was silent for some time. At first I thought that he was being modest, because he could easily have been the best drummer. It turned out that I had not asked the right question. After some further exchange, Michael helped me understand that the question was not, Who is the best drummer? but Which is the best drum ensemble? As Michael patiently explained to me, an individual drummer cannot be evaluated in isolation, but only in the context of an ensemble—a community of drummers. This was an entirely different philosophy than the one in which I had been trained. I was judged by my ability as an individual performer, not as an ensemble musician.

In another conversation some weeks later, Michael asked me, “What do choirs do when they sing in church in the United States?” I answered his question quite literally. “In my church, the choir arrives about one-half hour before the service. We warm up our voices, sing through the morning anthem and hymns, robe, pray, and find our place in the choir loft. We sing along on the hymns and then stand to sing the anthem when it is our turn. Then we are seated.”

Michael was again quiet. Not wanting to offend me, he finally had to say exactly what was on his mind. “Is that all there is?” he asked. “If you are not going to play drums and dance, then why do you even bother to sing?” This is a question that has haunted and delighted me since Michael asked it.

—C. Michael Hawn

While the music of Africa is as varied as the thousands of tribes and language groups that make up the continent, many of the songs and tunes share some general characteristics. Learning about these characteristics, listening to and feeling the rhythm of these sung African prayers, can enrich our worship and give us some understanding of Christians in Africa, the fastest-growing Christian continent in the world. (2)

Oral and Written Traditions

I am pleased to find some African songs in recently published hymnals. However, when I hear them used in worship in the United States, they often fall flat. We have a tendency, when that happens, to think that the song is not effective. But the issue may well be that we were not successful in understanding a basic quality of African music—its inherent orality. In contrast to Western music, which is passed along through a written musical score, these songs come from oral tradition. (3) Rather than being accompanied by a skilled organist, these songs are better led by a song leader supported by a choir, who together model sound and movement. This leader, whom I will call an “enlivener,” draws the people together into community. She or he is not a soloist per se, but the enlivener of the primary singing ensemble—the congregation. The congregation does not sit and watch the soloist perform. They join in the ensemble. Everyone is in the choir.

In Africa, participation in worship is enhanced to the degree that the established choir and the congregation become a single community. As the quote that begins the sidebar indicates, the established choir helps the enlivener “infect” the congregation with the spirit of the occasion until all assembled are one.

It is best, then, for many of these songs to be taught without turning to the hymnal. For example, the South African prayer, “Send Me, Lord” (see p. 34) can easily be taught to the congregation by ear if the choir is prepared to lead the harmony. After one or two stanzas, the congregation can easily join the choir. A capable enlivener provides the petitionary imperative verb before each stanza—send me, lead me, fill me—cueing the choir and congregation on what comes next. Once a congregation has developed the experience of being led in this manner, the enlivener might add other petitions, such as heal me, use me, mold me. Furthermore, the enlivener can change the song from a singular focus to the plural—send us, lead us, fill us—and in doing so assist those gathered to be transformed from individual worshipers into the ecclesia, the body of Christ.

Oral tradition has an additional advantage. Because the hands are free, the song might be used as a corporate benediction response with the people singing hand in hand. Those who prefer could sing with eyes closed and still fully participate. Guided by the established choir, the congregation might even sway gently on the first beat of each measure, providing both a visual and kinesthetic sense of ecclesia. Finally, because there is no written score to be followed, the song can be lengthened or shortened to fit the context.4

Such is the “aesthetic” of oral tradition. It is not a substitute for the sequential thoughts embodied in successive stanzas typical of the literate tradition of Western hymnody. It is an additional way of praying. Music-making in the African oral tradition is not judged on the quality of the written text as it appears on the page of the hymnal, but on the degree to which the enlivener has facilitated community among those gathered. While the aesthetic “stuff” of the Western written hymn tradition is often found in symmetry of text, completeness of linear thought, and richness of metaphor, the aesthetic “stuff” of African oral tradition singing may be found in spontaneity (improvisation), portability (movement), ease of learning (repetition), and adaptability to the situation of the congregation at that moment. In short, an African aesthetic is achieved when all gathered participate fully (vocally and kinesthetically) as one.

Both written and oral traditions, however, share the need for texts that are biblically and theologically grounded and for sensitive liturgical placement. Let us look more closely at two additional selections that help us enter into the African experience.

“Praise, Praise, Praise the Lord” (Cameroon)

African worship usually begins with a choir processional. The choir members act as enliveners for the entire congregation. By the time the choir members have reached their places, the congregation usually catches their spirit and joins them in singing.

That’s the context of this song from the West African country of Cameroon. The song is effective when the melody is sung (alto part) first and additional parts are added, one at a time, in successive repetitions. The choir should step with the beat in an energetic style.5 If they clap on beats 2 and 4 as they march, the congregation will often join them after a few repetitions. Drums, rather than a keyboard instrument, should provide support. A West African feel can be achieved with just a few instruments:

These parts, combined with clapping on beats 2 and 4, will give a semblance of the West African percussion ensemble.

“That Boy-Child of Mary”

“That Boy-Child of Mary” [PsH 352, PH 55, SFL 130] is a hybrid song with a melody adapted from Malawi and a text by Scottish Presbyterian missionary Tom Colvin. Colvin recognized the importance of naming infants in most African cultures. Unlike the United States, where names are often chosen because of sound or family attribution, all African names have meanings. Christian families will often include a biblical name among those chosen for the child.

A special naming ceremony takes place, usually eight days after the child is born. Members gather from both sides of the family along with friends. All who congregate anticipate this festive celebration with joy and plentiful food. After everyone has assembled, the father announces the names for this child that have been collected from both sides of the family and explains the meaning of each name. Some names come from the day of the week on which the child was born, or the child’s placement in the family (first or last child, or the child born after twins, etc.); others are biblical names, personal attributes, and other names that express the family’s hopes and aspirations for the infant. A child may have more than fifteen or twenty names bestowed upon him or her on this occasion, all of which help to define the identity of the newborn and his or her relationship with the community.

Colvin recognized the power of this African tradition and wrote a baby-naming song for the infant Jesus to a Malawian tune. The refrain identifies the place of the baby’s birth, because places have a special significance for Africans, just as they did at the time of Jesus. Stanza 1 asks a question of all who would gather for this celebration: “What shall we call him?” Stanza 2 answers that question: “His name is Jesus,” which means “God ever with us” and “God given for us.” Stanza 3 elaborates on the hopes and aspirations that the community has for this child: “He came to save us, he came to help us.” Stanza 4 further establishes the identity of this child in relation to his Father and to humanity. Stanza 5 voices our response to the celebration of this child’s birth.

I recommend that you prepare the congregation to sing this song by reminding them of the naming of Jesus in Luke 2 and by sharing the significance of African baby-naming ceremonies. You might have the children assume the role of enliveners by singing the stanzas while the congregation joins them on the refrain.

A Summary of Suggestions for Presenting African Music in Worship

The enlivener and the choir can use some of the following suggestions to help the congregation catch the spirit of African song south of the Sahara: (6)

  • Steady beat. Maintain a steady rhythm (no ritardandi or tenuti). Do not drop beats between repetitions or successive stanzas.
  • • Repetition. Repeat the music, adding more vocal parts, instrumental sounds, movement, volume, and intensity until the song “heats up.” Nathan Corbitt says, “Singing is not beautiful in the Western sense, but hot—you don’t really start singing right until you begin to sweat!”
  • Unaccompanied. Avoid using the organ, if possible. In most cases unaccompanied vocal music, except for the use of percussion, is preferable.
  • Percussion. Use of percussion is not optional. The hands and the body are percussion instruments as well. Even if you do not have drums or shakers, you can divide the choir and give them several rhythms to clap, creating a polyrhythmic effect.
  • Dance. Use of movement is not optional. Stomping is a part of the dance. Dancing may be nothing more than swaying or walking in place.
  • Articulation. Consonants should be crisp and clear (a part of the percussion).
  • Oral Tradition. Learn the music orally/aurally first and then use the written notation as a reminder of sounds you already have learned.
  • Bright tone. Brighten the vocal sound (open throat). There are no diphthongs in African languages. Use a straight tone.
  • Improvisation. Harmonize by ear. The written page is only one way to do it.
  • Enlivener needed. Be aware of leader versus ensemble effects. Call and response patterns may not be indicated in the written score and will have to be added by the enlivener.
  • Everyone participates. Break down the barrier between the congregation and the choir. Encourage the congregation to participate, not just watch. Again, Nathan Corbitt says, “A common phrase used by folks in Africa is that Western music is something you listen to; African music is something you do.”

The goal of these suggestions is not to imitate African Christians. The purpose is to move toward an African way of praying and being in community. By doing this we learn to pray more effectively for the world and encourage a sense of ecclesia that reaches beyond our individual congregation.


1 John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1979), 33.

2 For those who wish to explore more fully the nature of African church music and how to approach a study of it, I highly recommend Mark K. Oyer, “Hymnody in the Context of World Missions,” Hymnology Annual, Vol. 1, Ed. Vernon Wicker (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Vande Vere Publishing Ltd., 1991), 52-75.

3 I draw generally on some of the ideas presented by Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (New York: Routledge, 1982, 1988), especially 31-77, “Some psychodynamics of orality.”

4 In the preface of his collection African Songs for Worship (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986), I-to Loh notes that his transcriptions are “skeletons of the songs,” because it is often impossible to notate the vocal nuances and rhythmic complexity of African music using the Western staff, and because of the high level of improvisation.

5 See Ralph Johnson, Arr., “Praise, Praise, Praise the Lord (A Processional Song)” by earthsongs, 220 NE 29th Street, Corvallis, OR 97330 (541-758-5760), for specific dance steps for the choir processional.

6 I am grateful to J. Nathan Corbitt, professor of Communications and Music at Eastern Baptist College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and former music missionary/ethnomusicologist in Kenya and Zimbabwe, for helping me sharpen up the ideas presented in this list. His book, The Sound of the Harvest . . . and the Beat of the Street: Music in the Kingdom, has just been published by Baker Books.



Global Collections

Bell, John, Ed. Many and Great: Songs of the World Church, Vol. I. (Chicago: G.I.A. Pub., Inc., North American Ed., 1990, Iona Community, recording also available).

_____. Sent By the Lord: Songs of the World Church, Vol. II. (Chicago: G.I.A. Pub., Inc., North American Ed., 1992, Iona Community, recording also available).

Hesla, Bret, Mary Preus and Tom Witt, Eds. Global Songs—Local Voices: Songs of Faith and Liberation from Around the World (Minneapolis: Bread for the Journey, 1995; 612-649-4435). Available from Augsburg Fortress.

Kimbrough, S. T. and Carlton Young, Eds. Global Praise 1 (New York: GBGMusik, General Board of Global Ministries, 1996; rev. 1997).

Stoldt, Frank and Lani Willis, Global Songs 2: Songs of Faith, Hope, and Liberation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997).

African Collections

Colvin, Tom, Ed. Come, Let Us Walk This Road Together: 43 Songs from Africa (Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publishing Co. 1997). Code: 1094

_____. Fill Us with Your Love and Other Hymns from Africa (Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publishing Co. 1983). No. 431, Agape

Hamilton, Maggie, Comp. Sing Freedom! Songs of South African Life (London: Novello and Christian Aid, 1992).

Loh, I-to, Ed. African Songs of Worship (Geneva: World Council of Churches,1986; (with audiocassette).

Mutsoli, Manaseh G. and Nathan Corbitt. Four African Hymns (Garland, Texas: Choristers Guild, 1994). CGA-686

Nyberg, Anders, Ed. Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa ( Ft. Lauderdale: Walton Music Corporation, 1984) ISBN 91-86788-00-0

Olson, Howard, Ed. Lead Us Lord: A Collection of African Hymns (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977).

_____. Set Free: A Collection of African Hymns (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993).

C. Michael Hawn is associate professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.


Reformed Worship 51 © March 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.