Music in Kenyan Christianity: Book Review

Kidula, Jean Ngoya.  2013.  Music in Kenyan Christianity: Logooli Religious Song.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

By: Katrien Pype (Leuven University, University of Birmingham)

Christian music makes up one of the most flourishing music scenes on the African continent, populated by its own celebrities, aesthetics and marketing styles. A whole industry has now emerged around “the Christian musician”, whose presence not only enlivens the public and sacred spaces in various African cities, but also occupies a central role within the African diaspora. Scholars in African popular culture have only recently begun to study the musical forms that African Christians draw on to express their beliefs, instruct others and grow spiritually (Brennan 2010, 2012, Nadeau-Bernatchez 2012, Parsitau 2008, Pype 2006). And, recently, two monographs (Burdick 2013, Guadeloupe 2009) have been published on Christian music in South America and the Caribbean, thus suggesting the rapid emergence of Christian music outside of the African continent as well. With Music in Kenyan Christianity, Jean Ngoya Kidula provides us a historical overview of the various genres that Logooli Christians have sung since 1902 and still sing today. The beginnings of this Christian music reach back to the arrival of the Friends African Mission, a US based Quakers group, which missionized the Logooli population.

The focus of the book is on the song genres, and not so much on the religious groups as such or on their ideologies. Kidula sets out to study “contemporary African music through one ethnic group’s engagement of Christianity as a unifying ideology in the historical tide of modernity, nationalism, and globalization” (2). The main argument is that with all political, social, economic and cultural changes Logooli society has experienced in the last 100 years, Christianity is the most important integrative factor in Logooli villages, and it has come to constitute a part of national Kenyan identity (10). Here, Christian music is identified as the binding factor because, as Kidula writes, “perhaps the most stable Christian artifact is the music with its range of genres and styles, its possibilities for mutation and use, and also its accessibility and lack of particular ownership.” (10). Christian music is thus the cultural marker that is most important to the articulation of distinctive character, whether it is on the local or national level. The book is organized as follows: six chapters deal with abstract themes like assembly, encounter, consolidation, accommodation, syncretism, and invocation. These capture the main phases of indigenization of (various types of) Christianity among the Logooli. While the analysis is very technical and detailed, there is surprisingly no discussion of the grand concepts of nationalism, globalization and modernity, nor of aesthetic strategies such as syncretism, appropriation and adaptation. Kidula skillfully uses Small’s concept of musicking, though without defining it. Since Small’s monograph, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998), the term is used to refer to the activities surrounding music: composing, singing, discussing, listening, marketing, etc.

Kidula is a musicologist, which makes the book from time to time a tough read for someone not familiar with jargon such as the median, the dominant, fermata, hemiola, etc. For non-musicologists, the detailed descriptions of repetitions in the chorus, or in the various stanzas seem meaningless, and even hamper the reading. Yet, this book is published in the Program Ethnomusicology Multimedia from the Indiana University Press (with a link to song extracts to consult online), and thus primarily addresses readers with at least a basic background in musicology. As a social scientist, I felt that the author could have explained the social or cultural meaning of generic structures, rhythmical modifications, and instruments better and more thoroughly. That said, Kidula’s technical explanation of how substitutions in instruments (e.g. using the guitar instead of drums) and arrangements (e.g. altering the tempo of a song) distance overtly secular popular or more indigenous styles (179), is fascinating. Kidula thus suggests that timbral shifts contribute to the sacralization of music. What is compelling here is the indication that Christian musicians render a form or genre sacred not only by using Christian lyrics or referring to Christian figures or events, but also through technical changes, which contribute to the distancing of other, non-Christian worlds. Kidula’s minute descriptions of how songs were initiated or stopped and how Christians were at various points supposed to (or not supposed to) move to the rhythms also call for more social analysis, for example with regard to the construction of charisma through the generic features (e.g. the call and response structure), or the influence of this particular generic feature on church hierarchy and the dialectics between genres and intra-church power distribution. Time and again, Kidula offers the interested reader a wealth of primary material, which begs to be analyzed from performative, sociological and phenomenological angles. At those points where Kidula does provide explanations about technical adaptations and choices, I became more and more convinced of the necessity for an interdisciplinary approach towards the study of Christian popular culture.

Ethnic identity

The set up of the book is very classic: we are presented with a historical-cultural and musicological analysis of the Christian repertoires of one particular ethnic group, the Loogoli. Kidula herself is a member of this ethnic group, and thus performs the role of a native scholar, though without actually reflecting on her position as an insider-outsider. In an interview (Kidula 2014), the author states that her choice to take Christian music as her object of study instead of one of the ethnic sounds of Kenya both de-centers the discipline of ethnomusicology, and provides a rich catalogue of songs, idioms, rhythms, and innovations extremely relevant for the daily life of many Kenyans. I can only applaud her courage to scrutinize Christian songs and rhythms through a musicological lens. However, from an anthropological perspective the focus on ethnic “ownership” is outdated, and one constantly expects to obtain more insight in the dynamics of Loogoli society at large. That is not to say that we are getting a homogenous view on Loogoli society; on the contrary, it is shown time and again how different Christian strands play out in the same cultural space. But, there is no reference to wealthy or powerful Loogoli in Nairobi or Mombasa; nor we do not get a humanized view of the musical genres. The 6th chapter, dealing with the music industry, is different in this regard as biographies of contemporary leading musicians are presented. But overall, the Loogoli are described as a group of anonymous individuals, interchangeable along gender, age and Christian lines.

Major themes for the anthropological study of Christianity

My perusal of this book prompted me to reflect on four issues, which suggest routes in which the study of popular culture can further our understanding of how Christianity is experienced and expands:

1.         GENRE: Kidula studies a large cultural field such as “Christian music”, and divides them along five emic categories: “book songs” (missionary music); songs of/from the spirit (indigenous hymns); chorus (music of local and of missionary origin); choir (music sung by at least a set of 12 people); and gospel (music intended for mass distribution, which draws on contemporary trends and popular styles, and which is invoked in the Kenyan media as the expression of Christian music). The genealogies of these genres are traced back to different strands of Loogoli’s Christian history; yet, this does not mean that the boundaries of the genres identify with the borders between the various Christian groups. The various genres can be shared by different Christian traditions. Most telling in this regard is the description in the epilogue where a group of elder women singing “book” music later moved into older “spirit songs” and more contemporary music (230-1). This fusion of songs and genres suggests a familiarity with Christian music originating from other Christian strands. It is interesting to couple the observation of the weak identification of genres with Christian strands with the fundamental question of “Who is a Christian?” (Garriott and O’Neill 2008). The identification of “a Christian” is important for the believers (for matters of boundary production) and for scholars as well (for analytical reasons); yet the music material shows that songs and rhythms can be shared across the borders that splinter “the Christian community”. To what extent is Christian music a marker of religious difference? I have observed a similar homogenizing work of Christian Congolese music in Kinshasa, where charismatic Catholics also avidly consume songs performed by musicians who identify themselves as born-again and vice versa. Maskens (2008: 51), working on Congolese Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches in Brussels, also identified music as the unifying factor within the diverse landscape of Congolese Pentecostal migrant churches. These observations remind us that as scholars we should not limit ourselves to the politics of difference (e.g. among Christians) but try and examine how Christians along the large spectrum of Christian denominations find one another and imagine belonging to one and the same community. “Singing the same song” (Brennan 2007) is only one of the various moments in which Christians find similarity with and proximity to their self-identified “Others,” thus asking us to relativize the intra-group boundaries of the “Christian community.”

2.         The second main theme that was brought to my attention when reading this book is LITERACY. Christianity is commonly known as “a religion of the book”, and a few scholars have pointed to the role of the Bible in literacy programs as well as the role of reading and writing in the establishment of this religion.  Among the Loogoli, the distinction between “Book songs” (hymns written in the earliest books, related to Quaker missionization) and “Songs of the Spirit” (Pentecostal) is significant. The latter are the outcome of inspirited believers, who can thus create their own song. These songs take longer, are known for a strong emotional appeal, and are “not from the book.” What Kidula does not analyze further is the different forms of ambiance in church that these genres enable or even the different kinds of power configurations that allow for these genres to be sung and which these genres also reinforce. The question of literacy draws our attention to authority and leadership. Scholars working on Charismatic Christianity in Africa (Probst 1989 on the Aladura church in Nigeria; Kirsch 2008 on a Spirit Apostolic Church in Zambia) have pointed at the continuing importance of improvisation, orality and the embodied experiences of the Otherworldly aside the centrality of the Book. Kirsch (2008: 146), for example, uses the concepts of “aurality” (first coined by Coleman 1996) and auralization to understand that “depicting the physical presence of the written source as merely increasing awareness of the authority of the book tells only half of the story.” Public scriptural readings are far more important in the Zambian churches that Kirsch studied than individual readings of the text. These practices ground the authority of the public leader in the written authority of the Bible and also constitute the authority of the Bible by auralizing an authoritative actualization” (ibid.). Kidula’s book offers interesting material to validate such claims. The call and response structure is the preferred structure and performance practice for the Songs in/from the Spirit (165). As she shows, for a long time this was the most important structure to learn about the Bible and to memorize Biblical events and protagonists. It suggests that for the Loogoli biblical knowledge was first and foremost mediated through songs.  However, we need detailed descriptions of actual performances to obtain a far more nuanced analysis of how the Book is actually read (and even sung).

3.         DIS-/CONTINUITY AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: Throughout the text, Kidula makes reference to the instruments that were used or rejected by the Loogoli or their Christian leaders. In the indigenization of Bible songs and the glorification of the Christian God the drum was very quickly inserted to give a more local tone to the music. The Anglican strand stands out however, as in this denomination the drum (and later on the piano and the guitar) were rejected because of their “pagan” character. Other “traditional” instruments such as the one-fiddle instrument kiriri (226), or the kayamba, a raft tray-shaped box idiophone (93), were allowed. In Gospel music, a commercial genre that is both influenced by the Songs of the Spirit and American gospel music, and which can be said to have started from the late 1970s, musicians use the guitar. Kidula does not dwell on these different inclinations and thus leaves the reader puzzled with the selection criteria regarding “traditional” music instruments. In the case of the insertion of the guitar in gospel music, Kidula is clear: the guitar was associated with secular music, and gospel musicians tended to look for larger audiences.  The usage of a very popular instrument in the music world to conquer is an interesting strategy.

4.         POLITICS: Logooli Christian identity becomes an important source of position within the national sphere, thus providing an alternative entry into the discussion of religion and politics. The book shows how Christianity and its cultural expressions become mobilized. Interestingly here, Christian music becomes an example of the national positioning for the ethnic group. Kidula therefore suggests that Christianity mediates between ethnic and national identities and makes available new possibilities and opportunities, which the Loogoli did not have otherwise. This contraction and expansion of scales is an underexploited analytical line throughout the text. Kidula mentions the role of the media and even the state therein, but more social and political analysis is needed.

To conclude, although not intended for social scientists or theologians, this book offers a wealth of detail in the sphere of Christian music regarding inspiration, literacy, repertoire, and innovation. Kidula thus draws our attention to the inter-Christian musical dialogues and their contributions to the construction of a Christian community. These songs and rhythms receive new meanings each time they are performed and broadcast in new spaces (the church, wedding and funeral ceremonies, schools, the national radio, state institutions, and the music industry). The book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on African religious popular culture, and should convince us that interdisciplinary research on popular expressions of Christianity can bring us novel insights and new arguments to the study of social and cultural dynamics of African Christianity.

Works Cited

Burdick, John. 2013. The Colour of Sound: Race, Religion, and Music in Brazil. New York: NYU Press.

Brennan, Vicki Laine. 2007. Singing the Same Song: Music, Morality and Movement in Yoruba Churches. Dissertation. University of Chicago.

____. 2010, ‘Mediating “The Voice of the Spirit”: Musical and Religious Transformations in Nigeria’s Oil Boom. American Ethnologist 37 (2): 354-370.

____. 2012. ‘Truly we have a good heritage: musical mediations in a Yoruba Christian Diaspora’. Journal of Popular Music Studies 24 (4): 411-429.

Garriott, William and Kevin O’Neill. 2008. ‘Who is a Christian?: Toward a dialogic approach in the anthropology of Christianity’. Anthropological Theory 8 (4): 381-398.

Guadeloupe, Francisco. 2009. Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity and Capitalism in the Carribean. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kidula, Jean Ngoya. 2014. Internet-Interview, undated but retrieved on March 7 2014. http://www.afropop.org/wp/9621/jean-kidula-on-the-rise-of-the-religious-music-industry-in-kenya-gospel-from-roots-to-rap-interview/

Kirsch, Thomas. 2008. Spirits and Letters: Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity. New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Maskens, Maïté. 2008. Migration et pentecotisme a Bruxelles: Experiences croisees.  Archives de sciences sociales des religion, ‘Christianismes du Sud a l’epreuve de l’Europe’, 143: 49-68.

Nadeau-Bernatchez, David. 2012. La musique comme rapports au temps: Chroniques et diachroniques des musiques urbaines congolaises. PhD Thesis, EHESS, Paris and Universite Laval, Quebec City.

Parsitau, D.S. 2008. Sounds of Change and Reform: the Appropriation of Gospel Music and Dance in Political Discourses in Kenya.’ Studies in World Christianity 14: 55-72.

Probst, Peter. 1989. The Letter and the Spirit. Literacy and Religious Authority in the History of the Aladura Movement in Western Nigeria. Africa 59(4): 478-495.

Pype, Katrien. 2006. Dancing for God or the Devil: Pentecostal Discourse on Popular Dance in Kinshasa. Journal of Religion in Africa 36(3-4): 296-318.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

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