Questions around ethnomusicology in worship

There’s an upcoming course on ethnomusicology at my old college. It provokes quite mixed feelings. And it has done so for a while.

Broadly I agree with the aims that are behind ethnomusicology in evangelical worship. The premises are relatively simple.

  1. People should be able to worship in their own language, music and culture.
  2. There are those who hold that for some reason western hymnody is somehow the standard for global Christian worship.
  3. There is a valid fear that the colonial notions around western cultural superiority are being propogated and assumed by vast number of churches.

To help the first point and  to mitigate the others there are some whole hearted and genuine efforts to make art forms that represent various cultural heritages and peoples.

I would like to say that this overall a good thing. But I feel that there are some problems that aren’t being addressed within this ‘movement.’ Or maybe they are and I’m just too obtuse to hear it . 🙂

1. It seems to be driven by the West.

A lot of the conversations about indigenisation in worship seem to be coming out of the West. Possibly this is because of a certain ‘feel’ for the post colonial conversations that have been going on since the 60s. It could also be the increased multi-cultural composition of many western cities that has forced the conversation.

The truth is that for many Christians they’ve grown up with a set of cultural norms that are with their church wherever it is in the world. Now a bunch of Westerners seem to be coming around and saying, ‘don’t sing our songs.’

Aradhna is a great band that makes great music. They sing Christian bhajans and travel the world leading worship. They are great people. But why is there no Indian band singing Christian bhajans and travelling the world?

2. The West don’t seem to be doing it.

This is a puzzle. There are so many beautiful folk songs in Western Europe that don’t seem to be sung in churches even through they are already Christian songs. This is my experience in the English churches. I hear the occasional folk instrument but I rarely hear many songs from the indigenous traditions of England.

3. There is a danger of essentialism

Growing up as an English speaking Indian is complex. This isn’t just an issue for Christians but for many generations of urban Indians. It is a question that the band Thermal and a Quarter (whom I was privileged to be part of) have struggled and grappled with. They are true blooded, lovers of India but the music they play is English and the genre is loosely Western rock. We all grew up with this feeling, that we were somehow not Indian enough. But the truth is we were Indian and this is who we were. And this if their consistent message, that their music and their manner doesn’t make them any less Indian.

When I reached London to study, there was an oft repeated question, ‘do you play the sitar?’ I managed to touch an old broken one, once. The truth is, I don’t really like Indian classical music. I have tried. Listened to hours of the stuff. It just doesn’t get me. But I somehow felt that it should.

This is a classic essentialist problem. Because I was Indian I had to like and possibly do music that was perceived to be Indian.

4. People can’t be defined by their community

Amartya Sen places this argument brilliantly in his must read book, ‘Identity and Violence‘. He posits that most human beings can’t be defined by their religious or communal identity. He goes on to say that it is actually dangerous to do so, citing his own experiences in pre-partition India and numerous other examples.

Identity is a fluid thing. More so today than a few centuries ago, but that is the reality. It is possible to find deep meaning in one form of experience and never have it again from that same form. As we grow and change within the changing world, our identity flexes and moves; it never remains static. So to tie identity to a so called culture, language or music is just that. Tying down. My fear is that ethnomusicology in worship is trying to find a ‘sweet spot’ that doesn’t exist.

These are my queries. Of course they are biased upon my own experiences and likes and dislikes. But I think they are valid. I think there needs to be a much deeper theological inquiry into what exactly is happening in the drive towards indigenity. The incarnation proves that the indigenous and the local is the manner in which Christ presents himself, but how do we achieve true indigenity in being the bearers of the good news of Christ?


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