Introducing African Hymnody
I recently asked a colleague what she knew about African hymnody, and she hesitantly replied, “Drums? Lots of drumming?” While African hymnody can invigorate worship with its vitality and soulfulness, many of us may know little about this rich musical tradition.
Africa’s worship music is inextricably linked to the continent’s long and tumultuous past. British and German missionaries flooded the land in the mid 1800s, bringing with them slow, isometric chorales in simple 4-part harmony. By the turn of the century, African music was gradually turning back to its roots, with more rhythmic interest and nods to the oral tradition of call-and-response. Modern African hymnody bears this heritage, and as the second largest continent, we encounter much variety and variation between different geographical regions.
What do we expect to find in African congregational song?
- African song hails from an oral tradition. We can expect repetition and refrains, which permit quick memorization. Oftentimes, a leader will sing a solo melodic line (call) and the congregation will respond in homophony (response).
- Rhythm is of utmost importance, and African musicians suggest that it is related to speech and dance, organically spiraling out of naturally occurring beats and patterns.
- Harmonies are simple, and modulations/tonicizations to other keys are not typical.
- Melodies are often derived from folk songs. They generally begin on higher pitches and descend, and oftentimes African music is hexatonic, utilizing 6 pitches of the implied scale.
How do we go about playing/singing African congregational song?
- In English hymnals, African texts are usually included and can be pronounced phonetically with relative ease. Due to the repetition inherent in these songs, congregations can pick up African texts quickly. Have a leader sing the call unaccompanied, and coach the choir to respond with the congregation.
- Instruments are requisite! You may have only a few drums at your disposal, but remember that our hands are also percussive instruments. Implementing several clapping patterns can be just as effective as a drum section. Melodic instruments such as strings and winds aren’t often used in African churches, so focus on instruments like bells, shakers, gourd rattles, xylophones, and drums.
- African hymnody is generally only accompanied by percussion. Teach a choir to lead and support congregational singing, and utilize percussion to keep the music moving. If you must use keyboard, utilize the piano and support with percussive chords. Always allow the leader to sing the call unaccompanied.
- African music thrives with rhythmic layering; you need at least two percussion instruments to create these vital layers. An easy way to think about percussion is to divide the beat into smaller divisions—rather than thinking about a dotted quarter note as part of a larger meter (e.g. 1 + 2 in 3/4 time), think about it simply as three eighth notes. Percussion highlights these smaller divisions. So, in 3/4 time, you have 6 eighth notes to fill. Perhaps the bell could simply play two equal dotted eighths per bar (effectively dividing the measure in 2), and the drums could create another layer with a simple pattern of eighth notes emphasizing beats 1, 2, and 3.
African music demands participation, encouraging congregational singing, dancing, and clapping. While many western parishioners may not break out into spirit-led dancing during African hymns, we can nonetheless encourage natural movement and use of the body through clapping and singing. Layering percussion instruments in simple patterns can encourage and enliven the congregation’s song.
While this article offers general suggestions on introducing African hymnody, there are many wonderful resources to consult. Tom Colvin’s hymnbook Come, Let Us Walk this Road Together (Hope, 1997) contains 43 African hymns with English translations; GIA’s two volumes of Songs of the World Church (ed. John Bell) contain many African songs as well. Additionally, the World Council of Churches (Geneva) has published many helpful resources for singing global music, including African Songs of Worship (ed. I-to Loh, 1986). Finally, Leading the Church’s Song (Augsburg, 1998) includes an invaluable chapter on faithfully performing African hymnody.
African congregational song is inspiring in its simple messages, straightforward theology, and rhythmic vitality. It can undoubtedly enhance our worship and link our churches with the rich legacy of African Christianity. As a global church, in all that we do let us march boldly in the light of God and sing a new song—Siyahamba!