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If You Sing It, They Will Come

Songs from Cameroon

It was an ordinary Sunday morning for the church in Obala, a village 40 kilometers from Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé. But for me it was anything but ordinary as I witnessed the evangelical power of singing that called people to worship the triune God.

When I arrived, the children sat upright in brightly colored plastic chairs as their Sunday school teacher prepared her felt board to teach them the story of Lot. Before the lesson, she taught a song in French called “Allons, Chanter à Sion” (“Come on, sing to Zion!”). I was so wrapped up in how energetically the children were singing and dancing that I completely failed to understand the power of the song.

I thought, What a great song about the encounter with God in a holy place! Little did I know that the name of this parish was Sion (French for Zion). What the teacher/song enlivener believed was that if the children would sing to the homes in the surrounding parish, people would come to church to see what God was doing. Her belief was warranted. Within minutes, people began to appear.

I was invited to Cameroon to help create a hymnal. The United Methodist Church has begun planting churches there, and the young leaders are seeking a Christian identity informed by a Wesleyan perspective—the kind of identity that hymnals and song books have often provided.

Since it’s a new hymnal for a new church, some crucial questions need to be asked. The most crucial, given the need for identity formation, is “What must we sing in order to be the church (and the people) God is calling us to be?” Because the young leaders are wrestling with the very issue of what God is calling them to be, it was the perfect time to begin working on a hymnal.

The first phase of the work involved listening and testing assumptions. Cameroon is a musical paradise. Music comes to Cameroon from all over West Africa as well as from Europe and the Americas. Because the country is equatorial and air conditioning is uncommon, the windows and doors are open and there is music in the air everywhere. I was privileged to do a lot of auditory multi-tasking.

I knew that the worship in these new churches featured some Western hymns brought by European or American missionaries, and some free-flowing indigenous music simply called louanges (French for “praise”). I had lots of questions:

  • Did the people cherish the hymns inherited from the Western church, or did they only sing them when the mission director came?
  • Was the time of louanges any more or less intense when sung in local languages (as opposed to when it was sung in French or English)?
  • Given that two-thirds of the people speak French and one third speak English, what would be the linguistic politics of any hymnal? Was there any role for local-language songs, given that there are 270 local languages in Cameroon?
  • Since much of the popular praise, both in French and in English, is sung throughout West Africa, would the people want to learn songs from other parts of Africa as well as songs from Christians in other non-Western countries?
  • What can North American Christians learn from the Cameroonians?

As the work continued, there were some answers and many new questions. There was joy in teaching and learning together, just as there were challenges in trying to aid the process of identity formation in a cultural context vastly different from my own. But a good place to start when working together was learning each others’ songs, and so I share three songs I learned from the Cameroonians with you.

“Allons, Chanter à Sion”

The origins of “Come On, Sing to Zion” are unknown, but it is sungwidely among Francophone Pentecostals. I learned the song from ThèreseNomo, a 27-year-old Francophone who is the song enlivener of the Sion Église Methodiste Unie(Zion United Methodist Church) in Obala. She is also the spouse of thechurch’s pastor, a mother of two young boys, and a gifted seamstress.She has no formal musical training but has a gift for discerning andwriting singable melodies.

Thèrese learned this song in another community and simply substituted Sionin the appropriate place in the song. When she teaches the firstportion of the song, she claps on every beat, and there is noaccompaniment other than the clapping. The syllables, Ti-ya-ya-o-o, are there because they are fun to sing. They have no specific meaning.

To add to the fun, Thèrese asks the children to place their hands on their hips when they come to the Ti-ya-ya-o-o section and shake their hips side to side on the beat.

Since the dance is so much a part of the song, and because whiteNorth Americans are often reluctant to dance, I make the dancingvoluntary when I teach the song. I simply show people how to do the hipswing and then say, “Does anyone feel called to be a dancer thismorning? If so, please stand and join me.” I have never been alone inthe dancing.

The Americans to whom I’ve taught this song frequently sing it witha weak beat emphasis. When Thèrese heard this, she was tickled to hearthat Americans were making the song their own.

“Dans la Barque avec Jésus”

“In the Boat with Christ My Lord” was written by Thèrese, and is oneof more than fifteen songs she has written down. Her writing is mainlyin two forms; biblical paraphrase and behavior songs. In this song, sheimagines what it would have been like to be in the boat with Jesusafter the stilling of the storm (Matt. 8, Mark 4).

Thèrese sings this like a lullaby, so, as the lyric suggests, it is to be sung doucement,or gently. As in “Allons, Chanter à Sion,” the syllables in the secondpart of the song have no specific meaning, but are simply meant to helpthe voice soar into the upper register. Thèrese teaches this withoutaccompaniment, mainly because the instruments used in worship in herchurch are all too loud for the gentler nature of this song.

Motion also accompanies this song. The singer pretends to hold acanoe paddle. The stroke of the paddle is meant to last six beats, sothat on beat one of each measure, the paddle rests in front of yourtorso, and beats two through six are the stroke of the paddle. Thestrokes alternate between right and left (one stroke per measure), justas in a solo canoe.

“Je Suis Renommé”

“I’ve Got a New Name” is of unknown origin but is included here bothbecause it’s wonderfully energetic and because of the real conundrum itposes. It was taught by Thèrese to a small group of Cameroonians and tome on a morning in which we were experiencing the joy of teaching andlearning songs together. She told us that she was going to teach us asong about being renamed at baptism. When she said that it was called“Je suis renommé,” my mind went immediately to the French word nom, meaning “name,” so, I reasoned, renommé must mean “renamed.”

When she taught it, one of her fellow French-speaking colleagues pointed out to her that renommé means “renowned” or “famous,” and suggested that she substitute renouvelé, the past participle of renouveler,“to renew.” What followed was a fascinating conversation in whichThèrese appeared to be saying, “But I want to make up a new word thatmeans ‘renamed,’” and her friends around that table were saying, “Youcan’t do that.”

The suggestion I made to the group was simply that when Thèresetaught the song in the festivals we were about to lead, she shouldexplain what she meant and why. I reasoned that if she had the song inher body in one way, it was important to stay with it. Given the numberof words Shakespeare made up, it didn’t seem too strange for an artistto want to do new things with language. On the other hand, “I amfamous” is completely different from “I am renamed.” My translation isan attempt to capture what Thèrese said the song was about.

Once again, though Thèrese taught this with a strong beat emphasis,I have found that Americans are much more likely to spontaneously clapon the weak beat.

What Can We Learn?

What can North Americans learn from Cameroonians? For one thing,generosity of spirit. Cameroonian Christians received and embraced thesongs taught to them by successive waves of Western missionaries, andnow they have songs for us.

I am sobered by the typical answer of the Cameroonians to one of myfrequent questions. When I asked “Who wrote this song?” they said“God.” And if God, through the Holy Spirit, wrote the song, it castsnew light on the tendency of North Americans to judge the song of thechurch by the single question, “Do I like this?” If God wrote the song,then the task of the Christian is to ask, “What is God doing throughthis song?” In that light, to choose not to sing a song is not so muchthe right of an entitled consumer, but the snubbing of the One whobrought forth the song.

This whole adventure in music is as exciting as it is challenging.One thing is certain: in Cameroon, if you sing it, they will come.

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