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Emmanuel Olusola Fasipe on Yoruba Baptist Indigenous Choruses

The most recent Yoruba Baptist Hymnal includes Orin Idaraya, the indigenous choruses relevant to one of Nigeria's largest people groups. Learning how a Nigerian music scholar analyzed these short songs can help your congregation evaluate whether it offers a balanced musical diet in worship.

Emmanuel Olusola Fasipe has served as music minister in several Nigerian Baptist churches and earned his master's degree in church music from Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary (NBTS) in Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Nigeria. He was the acting dean in the NBTS faculty of music before moving to Louisville, Kentucky, to earn a PhD in Christian worship from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this edited conversation, Fasipe presents a model for evaluating indigenous choruses in a denominational hymnal.

Can you give some background on the term "Yoruba"?

Yoruba [accent on first syllable] is the name of a language, culture, people, and region (Yorubaland). Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, and Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa are its three major indigenous languages. Because we have more than 500 languages, English is Nigeria's only official language. It is the means of communication in schools and businesses.

The Yoruba culture is very religious, and religious principles govern every part of social, religious, economic, and political life. The Yoruba culture is a singing culture. This culture is passed on by an oral tradition that includes song, dance, proverbs, talking drums, ceremonies, and merrymaking. The Yoruba people are an ethnic group, many of whom live in Yorubaland, an area that includes southwest Nigeria, nearby Benin and Togo, and other West African countries. The Nigerian part of Yorubaland includes the city of Lagos, the nation's largest city.

How did Christianity come to Yorubaland?

The Yoruba were the first tribe in Nigeria to have fruitful contact with European missionaries, officials, and traders. In 1807, Britain declared the slave trade illegal, and Britain sent its navy to West Africa waters to enforce the ban. Because Nigeria had been a major area for slave trade, Britain had to intervene by sending its troops to Nigeria. Missionaries came soon after. The British captured slave ships at sea and returned people to Freetown, Sierra Leone, which is also where many enslaved people returned after gaining their freedom in the United States and the West Indies. Most of these returned people were Yoruba. Many learned (or already knew) English, converted to Christianity, and worked alongside American and European Christian missionaries in Nigeria.

Southern Baptist missionaries arrived in 1850. Like missionaries from other denominations, they opened schools and clinics. Those who learned to read and write gained elite status. Many Yoruba were traders, and they spread the Good News to other parts of Nigeria. The Yoruba Baptist Association started in 1914. People from other languages began joining, so the name changed to Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC). The NBC now has Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa hymnals.

What kinds of music did Yoruba Baptists use in church worship?

American and British missionaries translated their own hymns, and they published hymnals in the Yoruba language, including a Baptist hymnal in 1907. Hymns help Christians pass on biblical and theological truth from generation to generation. However, Yoruba is a tonal language, and meaning changes depending on how you pitch the word, so the tunes of translated hymns sometimes distort the meaning of the text. Using the ADESTE FIDELIS tune to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" suggests the meaning "Dig Olooto's Palm Nut." Using the EVENTIDE tune to sing "Abide with Me" suggests the meaning "Come and Join Me to Decompose."

Early missionaries discouraged and banned using indigenous drums and shakers in worship in favor of organ, piano, and harmonium. Music, dance, and drumming go together in Yoruba culture, but not many hymns move people to participate emotionally and physically in worship by clapping, swaying, or dancing.

Meanwhile, Yoruba musicians received Western training or were influenced by Pentecostal, praise and worship, and African independent church music. They indigenized Christian hymnody and composed simple choruses that people sing at revivals, weddings, educational meetings, burials, and house dedications. This genre of choruses is called Orin Idaraya, which means "songs that make the body lively." These lively choruses are easy to learn, don't require literacy, and have been popular for five decades.

What was special about the Yoruba Baptist Hymnal (YBH) published in 2000?

It was the first edition to include Orin Idaraya choruses along with hymns and choral music and was the first YBH printed in Nigeria rather than the United Kingdom. It has the texts for 660 hymns and ninety indigenous choruses, all arranged by theme. The Orin Idaraya headings are songs of praise, thanksgiving, victory, faith, and the Spirit. Each text has tonic sol-fa notation but no staff notation.

Why did you focus your dissertation on Orin Idaraya choruses in the 2000 YBH?

Including ninety indigenous choruses was a response to the craving of Yoruba worshipers for songs that would allow them to express their Christian faith in culturally appropriate ways. But indiscriminately singing choruses in worship can expose worshipers to false doctrine, impoverished theology, and ungodly cultural influences. I analyzed each chorus text to ascertain its underlying meaning, theological and biblical foundation, cultural relevance, spiritual application, how it refers to God, whom it addresses, and possible liturgical uses. What worshipers learn to sing shapes their faith, so it is essential for church leaders to have a clear understanding of what these choruses teach before they promote the songs in their congregations.

Can you give examples of choruses with Yoruba cultural elements?

The Yoruba people had the concept of God, the Supreme Being, long before the arrival of Christian missionaries. They gave the Supreme Being names to describe his attributes, nature, and character. They expressed appreciation and joy to the Supreme Being and his messengers through dance, drumming, and clapping. Many Yoruba proverbs teach people to give thanks and praise to almost everything. One proverb says that when someone does not give thanks for being blessed by someone else, it is like committing armed robbery.

The majority of the ninety Orin Idaraya are songs of praise and thanksgiving, and thirty-seven choruses reference Yoruba culture. Some do this by alluding to using dance, drumming, or clapping to give thanks or praise to God. Other choruses declare victory in Jesus. I don't hear this theme much in the United States. For example, chorus #74, "Gbogbo Agbára" ("All Power Is in Your Hands, Jesus") is about the sufficiency and power of Jesus above all other powers. Traditional Yoruba people see themselves as open to the attack of the invisible powers and evil forces. But this chorus reminds believers that God's word attests that the power that witches and wizards might claim to have is nothing compared with the power of Jesus.

Did you find all the choruses worthy of being sung in worship?

Adding these short choruses to the Yoruba Baptist worship song repertoire is beneficial because most are scripturally grounded and culturally relevant. Many songs directly quote or paraphrase scriptural passages. This is an important way to learn the Bible, especially for people who do not read. The songs' rhythms are such that Yoruba indigenous drums can accompany them. They are written in the literary style of the Yoruba language, so the tunes do not distort what the words mean. The Orin Idaraya work well for processionals, bringing offerings to the altar, and recessionals because those are liturgical moments when worshipers especially want to respond through movement and dance.

I did, however, find four songs (#6, #58, #63, and #86) with poor theology that should not be sung in worship. For example, chorus #6, "Èmi Ni Jésù Fẹ́" ("I Am the One Jesus Loves") indicates a soteriology that is self-oriented rather than a biblical theology of the universal love of God. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16), not "For God so loved only me." The author of the chorus "Èmi Ni Jésù Fẹ́" ("I Am the One Jesus Loves") directs the love only to himself.

How do you hope the Nigerian Baptist Convention will act on your findings?

When the pandemic is over, I'm planning to go back to NBTS to keep teaching. My dissertation includes several suggestions for further research, such as analyzing choruses that are sung in Yoruba Baptist congregations but not included in the 2000 YBH. My dissertation makes many recommendations for improving future editions, such as adding scriptural references and musical scores. We need trained Baptist musicians to compose new choruses to fill thematic gaps. Only two choruses express God's love for us. The current edition of YBH lacks choruses on repentance, confession of sin, baptism, holiness, the imitation of Christ, reconciliation, Christ's death on the cross, his resurrection, his ascension, and his second coming.

How might Christians elsewhere use your model of evaluating what is sung in worship?

Within the Nigerian Baptist Convention, I hope that speakers of Igbo and Hausa will use or refine my critical method to analyze their hymnals. Any church’s hymns and songs should tell the whole story of God's grace from creation to consummation. You can make a list of the songs your congregation sings most often. By identifying each song's theme and underlying scriptural passages; analyzing the names, titles, and images for God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; looking at whom the song addresses [God to people, people to God, people to each other, believer to unbeliever, etc.]; and more, you can start to see where your worship music is nurturing faith in—or spiritually impoverishing or culturally corrupting—people.