Christian Songs from around the World, pt. 2

Psalm 117

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
    and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord.

I really love the idea of calling all the nations of the world to prayer and worship of God in other languages. As a Christian, I believe in the unity of All Peoples that Jesus came to fulfill, referred to in the Bible as the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. In God’s eyes, we are all equal: no language, nation, color, personal or cultural accomplishment makes anyone or any group better or more worthy before God. But before I can rejoice in that, we must take a moment to acknowledge the violence in Christian history and how we have not lived up to that ideal. In supposed service to claims such as the one made in this psalm, “praise God, all you nations,” missionaries and conquerors have gone out to different continents and countries in a spirit of “I’m better than they are, and I’m going to fix these people.” Christians have historically (and sometimes still do) seek to force conversion and worship of God. They do this by withholding help (like food, water, shelter, which is coercion), or by violence, threatening people with harm if they don’t say they believe in Jesus and God. This is a sin, and we must acknowledge that there have been many wrongs committed against groups of people, especially in former colonies. This history is recent. Although many lands now have systems for self-determination, we are all human and sometimes our histories make it harder to get to where we need to be as a community.

Da n’ase, the song I sing for you this week, is in the Twi language, a dialect of Akans spoken mainly in Ghana but also in the Ivory Coast. I’m playing a Djembe, but I can tell you that’s not likely the most authentic instrument for this particular song. From my research, Djembes are widespread in West Africa, but that doesn’t mean they’re used in these religious contexts, nor played in the groups where we transcribed this song from. I presented this piece this way because it was the best I could do with the resources I have. I don’t have any of these instruments and presenting this piece on piano or organ was…. waaaaaay too far from the original feel and power of this piece. This is a joyful hymn, and using a drum accompaniment gives it more energy than other instruments I might have chosen. Still, I approach this with humility and have been learning a lot (not all presented here) about religion, music, and culture in Ghana and West Africa. If we in the White, Western Christian tradition want to be better neighbors, I think accepting we don’t really know much is a good place to start. Hopefully my attempt here furthers these efforts.

I’m not an ethnomusicologist1, but I don’t need to be one (and neither do you!) to keep in mind a few things as we travel around the world. First, we in the West are the inheritors of people who colonized and changed the indigenous areas they went to. History was erased, civilizations fell to bullets, spiritual manipulation, and disease. We didn’t do this, but we need to understand that our understanding of countries like Ghana (where this melody is from) is necessarily formed by our background, and it doesn’t always serve us well, and it doesn’t always respect the history and perspectives of people from former colonies. There is a definite economic and historical impact on both cultures linking us together.

The second thing to keep in mind as we travel around the world: I could be getting it completely wrong! I am not an expert in Ghanian music, nor do I have much of a background in instruments from around the world at all. What I have learned on worship music from around the world has enriched my personal worship and devotion to God, as well as increased my appreciation and understanding of other people. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and with knowing them better, I empathize and respect them better. I do my best to stay in the loop on what kind of music-making is happening all over the world: learning new music, listening to recordings, finding and following artists from a variety of cultures and countries. But there’s not nearly as much scholarship on religious music

A third thing to keep in mind is related: don’t just stop here. If you’re a busy parent (like myself!) I don’t mean you need to immediately dive into tons of indigenous music from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. I do mean though that I am only giving you an incomplete and imperfect taste of music that I find spiritually powerful and have presented to groups of kids (those were the days! sigh!) and in worship because I do believe in the words of Psalm 117: Praise God, all you nations! The Christianity in which I was raised (White, American, Protestant), is not the worldwide “default”: how Christians worship in other parts of the world is valid and beautiful… But sometimes our stereotypes about worship prevents us from authentically engaging. I would not assume a congregation in Ghana to worship exactly as I have presented it to you today. I am sharing this music because it helps us connect further to a God who is above every human division and whose desire for us is connection, mutual care, love, and respect.

There’s a lot more I could go into about this song and the intersection of Christian theology, colonialism, and neo-colonialism… But I am not an expert and it’s ultimately beyond the scope of what I can do here. If you’d like to go farther, here are some kid-friendly things to do:

  • I found this YouTube video of worship songs in Twi. One of the comments was about how great it was to worship in one’s own language, which, I think, speaks volumes to why I’m doing this project.
  • Buy a drum! Rhythm instruments are great for a child’s musical (and brain!) development. Here you can buy authentic, African-made drums. Be a partner with the makers, buy from them!
  • Explore more about drums in African cultures, here.

1 An ethnomusicologist is someone who studies music and music history of music that is not Western/European in origin.

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