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Jean Ngoya Kidula on African Church Musics

Ethnomusicologist Jean Ngoya Kidula invites churches around the world to learn more about what she calls African church “musics” so they can glimpse how vast God is.

Jean Ngoya Kidula teaches musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She is a music performer, speaker, and author. Her research focuses most often on music types in Africa and includes her book Music in Kenyan Christianity: Loogooli Religious Song. In this edited conversation, Kidula talks about the multiplicity and complexity of Christian music in Africa.

In your books and scholarly articles, you talk about Christian musics rather than music in Africa. Why? 

When you say music, one is tempted to imagine a single conception, usually defined generically as “organized sound.” For some, the term music is an adequate code for different kinds or types of music.

On one hand, the emphasis on sound differentiates music studies from other artistic forms that emphasize a different domain. For example, language studies explore the structures of languages and break down components of texts. That makes language studies as much an artistic form as a social science. In view of the term language and the ways this communication method is usually compared to music, I could argue that my terminology acknowledges that there is more than one “music” in the world.

Within various musics, how do approaches to sound differ?

Students of linguistics typically have a template of the structures or elements that characterize language. Scholars and practitioners of music similarly have a template of elements that distinguish music, such as pitch and duration. Ethnomusicologists have stimulated awareness of how different people groups configure musical elements. While the West may emphasize “sounding,” another group, such as the Japanese, may be attuned to what makes “sound” stand out. Therefore, Japanese musics underline silence as highlighting the distinctiveness of sounding.

How that sound is generated is key to such aspects as attack or timbre—equally important properties of duration. In some African language groups, amplified vibration is given impetus by the body that marks accents or important downbeats or dialogues with the voice or other instruments. These movements may appear as if they are dance. But among these groups, these bodily gestures are a visualization of an aspect of duration. They are essential to the development of the musical structure. Such understandings inform part of my adoption of the term musics rather than the singular music in respect to Africa. The African continent has many different culture groups, some of whom share European ideals regarding the formulation of musical elements and others who may perform that term in ways unrecognizable to the mainstream European eye and ear.

Are there any other reasons why you use the term musics?

I use the term musics to signify the presence of distinct genres within a single culture group or region. I also use it to denote the multiplicity of musics, each with its genres. Given the diversity of language groups in Africa, even within individual countries, both situations exist. Some culture groups have a primary music with many genres, and other groups have many musics, each with various genres. Some of my colleagues on the continent employ the term musical arts. In my opinion, that term does not capture the ideas of the many musics that exist on the continent, their diverse fashioning, and the ways they intersect with other arts to create a genre type. The problematics of the Western term music to singularly define a complex of performing arts are not unique to Africa. Scholars on other continents have other ways of dealing with these catalogs.

What do you wish more people knew about church musics in Africa?

There are many church musics in Africa. They are vibrant, diverse, from within and without, and have actually been in the West for longer than many people know. They have influenced trends in the West too, but that is another big discussion.

I also wish Westerners and non-Africans thought of it as regular music the way Western music is seen as regular music. If you play an African piece, people often ask, “What is it used for?” The idea that African music has a functional purpose was a way for Westerners to try to understand it initially. The notion persists in a way that suggests that truly African music has a social function and truly Western music has no function. The product of the West, rather, has artistic and aesthetic value. In truth, every music, regardless of its origination, has functional as well as artistic and aesthetic value.

A good number of churches in Africa sing in more than one language and style. We are probably way more inclusive of the diversity of Christian musical tastes and preferences than any church I have attended in my more than 20 years living in the United States. Heaven might sound like the best of the musics in an inclusive African church!

Africa has so many languages, cultures, and Christian traditions. Yet can you identify shared characteristics of indigenous African Christian musics? 

I usually don’t like this kind of question because, although it sets out as if there is a real understanding of Africa’s diversity, it ends up as an attempt to pigeonhole the artistic riches of the continent. Also, I have quite a bit of experience of the church musics on the continent but there is so much more I have no idea about. So, I will try to answer as best as I can based on my experiences, encounters, and research.

The most shared characteristics would be music brought by European and other Western missionaries, such as four-line hymns sung in four-part harmony. Generic praise and worship music and other contemporary popular Christian songs are also shared. The internet and other media have also facilitated shared repertoire from across African nations disseminated by mega-popular Christian singers or groups.

From these examples, it may well appear that there was no Christian music on the continent before the modern Christian missions era that supposedly opened Africa to Christianity for the first time.

When did Christian music in Africa actually begin?

Indigenous African Christianity includes traditions that began long before the faith reached most of Europe. There is a long tradition of rich, non-Euro musics in the Coptic Orthodox Churches in Egypt,  Ethiopia, and Sudan. There is also a thread of  Zionist churches in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa that emerged after modern European contact. They developed particular music styles out of their indigenous musical ethos that was different from other musics in their cultures that did not service Christianity.

James R. Krabill, who edited Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, has written about the music of the Harrist church in Ivory Coast. They developed unique Christian songs after they became Christians and continued in the faith when the Liberian evangelist William Harris was expelled. These songs were unique cultural compositions. Therefore, there is a rich and diverse Christian musical heritage in Africa that is being shared more immediately today because of technology and the internet.

Also, indigenous African music is so much more than a static musical moment from, say, 1823 in one language group. There are histories of the musics of the continent—musics that have developed across time and space. Descriptions and recordings of these orally transmitted forms help us capture the sounds of particular people in a specific time.

Within Africa, do Christians often learn and use each other’s indigenous African musics?

In many African countries, we are used to hearing, speaking, and singing in several languages and dialects. That is in part because colonialism forced us to cohabit and become citizens of a nation out of many different languages and political systems. We literally communicated with each other using European languages, among other things. I grew up in Kenya. My parents’ village was composed of various culture groups, languages, and dialects. I went to school in other parts of Kenya and learned even more foreign languages apart from English and Kiswahili.

In the years after independence from British colonial rule, Kenya hosted refugees from neighboring and other countries—immigrants who were displaced due to political and economic warfare. They brought the languages and musics of their countries into Kenya. Over the years, these and other musics have spread through Africa and the world by radio, cassette, CD, the internet, and more travelers. We made these new musics our own, adapting and blending tunes, instrumentation, styles, words, and languages to fit our contexts. We even exported some of these new forms as if they were our own. Imagine that every country that had refugees in Kenya did the same with the musics from their countries and with the musics they encountered from Kenya and from other immigrants into Kenya. I guess that is how we began to have more musics in common.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I recently heard a pastor state that sometimes our view or understanding of God is skewed because we never see nor hear God in forms or languages that cause us to believe that we are created in God’s image. On the other hand, I am most comfortable with what I know, so I try to portray that image as being the most acceptable to God. I think many times we imagine a God who is created in our image, and not us created in God’s image—all of us. Think about it. . . . How diverse is that?

God is too vast to be contained within any one race, gender, language, environment, culture, or ethnicity, or even within and by our individual or communal musical or artistic preferences. Just imagine all the musics and artistic forms that exist in the world and imagine that God has enabled all of it. Then think of how much of it you have heard. I have only experienced a minute slice of it. . . . So I ask myself, using a phrase from a hymn I learned as a child: “How big is God, how big and wide his vast domain? To try to tell, these lips can only start” (text/music by Stuart Hamblin).

It makes me also wonder about what music gives God the most pleasure and brings the most glory to God’s name. How can one begin to sing that song? What is the song in heaven that I can capture that down here would align me with God’s heaven? I think that song happens in many places around the world. And then at other times I feel a bit jealous of people who have died and are in heaven, like my dad and grandpa. I think, “Oh, you are with God now, doing stuff musically and singing songs that we can’t ever dream of or explain, or begin to imagine down here.” It then makes me wonder what God sings.


Listen to many African songs in Jean Kidula’s 2018 Calvin Symposium of Worship presentation on jubilation, awe, penitence, and petition in corporate worship in Kenya. Read Music in the Life of the African Church by Roberta King, Jean Ngoya Kidula, James R. Krabill, and Thomas A. Oduro.