While this was my fourth time to take a group to Kenya, I’m still processing the ways in which music impacts people in Kenya, and I’m challenged to find ways to translate the best practices back to those with whom I work and minister. (To see some amazing photos and read some of the group blog posts, go to https://bumckenya2013.wordpress.com/). Following are some of the distinctives that characterize the power of music in Kenya:
Music is not about performance but about participation. To ask if you are a singer to a Kenyan would be like asking an American if you are an eater. We all eat as a part of our self-care and our enjoyment, and in Kenya, all people sing for the same reasons. To be alive and functioning is to sing with whatever voice you have. In my observance, there seems to be no acceptance for excluding the less gifted singers from the group. While every group seems to defer to the “best singers” for the “call” part of “call and response,” everyone participates. Likewise, in Kenya, it doesn’t occur to people to act as if they don’t want to sing and have to be begged to offer a song. The gift of singing and the joy that it brings is fully recognized, and people are eager and ready to jump into the process.
Music involves the whole self, not just the voice. As the Baylor Men’s Choir prepared for our Kenya trip, I continually reminded the guys that people in Kenya don’t stand still when they sing, and to do so would seem odd and out-of-place. In spite of my cajoling and modeling, I was not able to get some of the students to move their bodies in anticipation and response to the music. However, when we arrived in Kenya and exchanged songs a couple of times with our new friends, my challenge was to tone down their movement. Once they felt the freedom and joy that comes with movement and learned that involving your voice, mind, and body in a unified whole can be transformative, they were hooked.
Music captures the soul and transforms the spirit. Music for Kenyans provided joy and happiness at a level that truly affects how they live. Frequently, my Kenyan friends have remarked how much our music affected them. While music makes a difference to Westerners, I have learned that music’s ability to change not just my attitude and spirit but actually to change me and my circumstances is possible. I long to discover more of the transforming power of music in my life.
Music is mobile and vocally dependent. When traveling to Kenya, all of our music is sung without instrumental accompaniment or dependence on sound reinforcement, and as a result our songs are mobile and able to be sung at any time or any place – anyone can start a song and the rest of the group can join in. Depending on the voice, the most intimate and available of instruments is something that many of us have lost. Our dependence on instruments, equipment, and technology has usurped our ability to trust the voice inside our own body, and it offers others reasons not to sing rather than reasons to participate.
Music is fully integrated into daily activities. Much like my grandmother and my father, Kenyans’ singing is integrated into the mundane activities of life. Frequently, I have observed a person cutting grass with a hand-held sling singing to accompany his work or a woman preparing a meal singing as she worked. Rather than listening to music while they work, Kenyans are inclined to make music. It seems logical that involving one’s own body and spirit in singing has the potential to impact us in a way that passive listening on a personal electronic device can’t approximate.
While many of the qualities of music in Kenya are not readily present in our cultural context, there is much that we can do to transplant these characteristics into the lives of those with whom we work and minister.
• Unplug in worship and in life. Intentionally sing songs in worship that are acoustic and not dependent on sound reinforcement and technology. People will thrill to the sounds of their voices and to those around them.
• Become vulnerable in your own music and be willing to sing and participate even when your skill is lacking. Be willing to trust your own voice – just your voice – in leading others. Be willing to expose your own singing, as raw as it may be, to others in order to give them permission to offer theirs.
• Incorporate singing into the mundane activities of your life and share your experiences with others. Experiment with enjoying your own voice rather than (or along with) the voice of others as you ride in the car, prepare meals, and in your times of reflection and contemplation.
• Get back in touch with the spirit of music that characterized you as a preschooler and nurture it. As young children, we are not self-conscious about our voices; however, in time we learn that our voices are private, and we come to believe that they should be treated as if they are private and should be covered. Intentionally, rediscover the joy of singing and moving with abandonment.
One of the quotes that sits on my desk is the following: “Sing like no one’s listening. Dance like nobody’s watching.”