African Funeral Music

On a chilly morning yesterday, I went to a funeral for the father of a pastor who has been my longest standing African friend. This man was converted while the remainder of his extended family have shown no interest in the gospel or even organized religion past the basic commitment and fears inherent in African traditional culture. As is customary at parties and other social events, the “services” of a DJ were procured for him to play 20-30 second clips of songs between speakers for the funeral as well as music before and after. The style of choice was a variety of pop music with an evident—sometimes driving—beat and a general taste that could put it in the subcategory of “gospel” music.

Several of the songs featured religious words and god talk, but one in particular was a chanting narration of the fiery furnace from Daniel 3. This track included noticeable syncopation underneath the speaker’s rhythmic voice bouncing along with the cadence.

I pondered this artistic expression as I sat in the tent yesterday morning. Why did the DJ choose this song? Would anyone who did not believe in Jehovah be offended? Would offense be taken if we changed the words with a sermon by Spurgeon while the music remained the same? Was anyone listening to the words? Or the music? If we kept the words the same and changed the musical style to something in the Western classical tradition, would that song have reached the air waves?

With the same certainty that we knew it was a cold morning, we also knew what the song was meant to communicate because it was sending a clear message. Not many people in the audience could probably have been skilled enough to interpret the message of the song in words, but that doesn’t change the fact that the DJ chose the music he did because of the messages it sent. He rejected some CD’s and some tracks for that occasion because he recognized what everyone except some highly educated evangelicals knows: Musical styles communicates. They are not neutral, valueless, indiscriminate pieces of art. No, they carry values that people immediately identify like a South African black can tell if a white still harbors apartheid in his heart.

Would the DJ have been satisfied; would the crowd have been pleased; would the non-Christian family paying for these services have recommended his work; if the DJ had played the same words set to Handel’s “Water Music”? In case there are any credentialed evangelicals reading this, No to all those questions. Neither would the DJ have passed over any of his choice tracks if they still had the same bounce, but the words were now changed to something like this stanza from Watts:

My crimes, though great, can not surpass
The power and glory of thy grace:
Great God, thy nature hath no bound;
So let thy pardoning love be found.

In a word, propositions had nothing to do with the music selections at the funeral, and they don’t have much to do with any of our music selections. You can change the words, leave the words out, or write the words on a screen, but what you can’t do without a big discussion is change the style of the music. Because, after all, that’s the dominant message of the song, and we all know that.

The battle comes on two fronts then. First, we must honestly admit that the issue at hand is the message of the art form, not the message of the lyrics sometimes arbitrarily attached to the music. (Just compare the words and music for the revivalistic hymn “Coming Again.”) This should not be a difficult first step since there are so many lines of reasoning that can lead to it. The real difficulty should be the second front which is grappling with how to determine the meaning of a musical form by studying Scripture, music history and theory, relevant sections of philosophy, and culture. For some reason though, we can’t get to the second front.

Is one side afraid of looking carefully at the message of artistic forms? Probably so, because studying those fields would not produce a commodious environment for either pop culture or multiculturalism—the Balrog and Saruman of the 21st century.

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