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Jean Ngoya Kidula on Ethnomusicology and Ethnodoxology

Scholar Jean Ngoya Kidula explains how ethnomusicology and ethnodoxology can widen churches’ musical palates. Accepting this opportunity will expand how congregations understand and praise God.

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 how ethnomusicologists can best invite churches to learn Christian music from other cultures.

What do the fields of ethnomusicology and ethnodoxology share?

Both disciplines (one with a longer history than the other) embrace ethnology, which is the study of the lifeways and characteristics of various people. On hearing these terms, popular public perceptions immediately shift the first part, “ethno,” to “ethnic,” in the sense of the “other,” usually meaning the non-Western, non-mainstream.

Ethnomusicologists and ethnodoxologists both recognize that even mainstream and dominant groups such as English-speaking Americans are a “culture/people group.” Both disciplines study people or people groups and their (path)ways.

What, specifically, is ethnomusicology?

Ethnomusicologists study how music is embedded in cultures or people groups, or how music embeds individuals in time, space, and “community.” Ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade wrote in her book Thinking Musically that it is people [people groups] who define music as “meaningful and useful in their lives.” People create, sustain, and even eradicate musical types. They also bury, resurrect, and reconstruct these musics. And it is not just the original owners who resurrect and reinvent them. Once a music is out there, it is out there.

Beyond classic understanding of cultures as types of linguistic and ethnic enclaves, you could talk about music in old people’s culture, church culture, 1960s culture, office culture, political culture, and so on. Culture is a shared agreement on what is normal, expected, or appropriate for people in particular spaces (and/or time). There are negative and positive parameters in the way of life of an age group, office, family, region, country, or language group. Music has been powerful in initiating, demarcating, or commenting on those parameters. Ethnomusicologists study these musics everywhere at all times, on the merit of the people who engage them and sometimes by comparing them with people in other times and spaces.

And how does ethnodoxology differ from ethnomusicology?

Ethnodoxology as a discipline is just beginning to define itself. It starts by speaking about any and all people of all kinds, times, and places. That is the ethno part. Doxology means giving glory to, praising, or glorifying the divine—as a theological construct. So for this interview I would say that ethnodoxology speaks to people praising or giving glory to God as Christians define or understand God. In many parts of the world, praising a deity includes music, stylized speeches, dances, and other art forms. I believe that is why ethnodoxology has become part of the academic conversation about the arts.

While ethnomusicology focuses mostly on music or centralizes it, ethnodoxologists expand the focus to other arts—including dance, theater, fine arts, verbal arts such as poetry, storytelling, oratory, and preaching, and any other arts that emanate from the wildly creative minds of human beings everywhere.

For an ethnodoxologist, what’s the link between Christianity and the cultures to which converts belong?

The prevailing idea is that modern conversion to Christianity was to be indexed by adopting Western music and other artistic practices and forms. But ethnodoxologists who work in other cultures encourage those who have been Christianized to worship using the arts that best and most profoundly express the converts’ faith. It is not just art types that are called out, but also forms and structures within those types.

One does not need to abandon indigenous cultural arts to praise the divine. Apparently, God may understand or appreciate a hymn that is structured differently than the couplet or the four-line verse/verse-refrain form that emanates from Middle Eastern, Western European, and North American musical styles. These other formulas honor God too. Ethnodoxologists believe that the same God who created Europeans created all these other people who musick in other formats. The basic premise extends worship using the arts beyond all musics of the world to all kinds of arts in all the world.

Do ethnomusicologists consider ethnodoxology an academic discipline?

Ethnodoxology has had an interesting and ambivalent relationship with ethnomusicology. Christians propagated the concept in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, many ethnomusicologist and other scholars were describing how, in and outside the West, Christianity was used to justify colonialism, slavery, as well as economic and artistic subjugation of the other (non-Western or non/other-religious West). Therefore, some ethnomusicologists viewed ethnodoxology as a new wave of Christian cultural genocide of non-Western cultures.

Additionally, some secular ethnomusicologists conveniently forget or are not sufficiently informed that their own discipline also aided colonial projects and divested music ownership from those people researched. Some ethnomusicology scholars have relocated other peoples’ musics into Western academic, economic, and political places with impunity. So, while caution is useful, ethnodoxology scholars and researchers deserve a careful reading. Some of their aims, practices, and findings have enriched ethnomusicological theory and, more significantly, preserved and invigorated cultural arts.

Ethnomusicologists made visible the diverse ways different people groups understand and practice music, from entirely sonic definitions to thinking about music as a constellation of sound, movement, theaters, and visuals. Ethnodoxologists upped the ante by recognizing that the arts are holistically interrelated, even in the West. I suspect that the fallout between disciplines often has more to do with ethnodoxology’s theological and missiological root than its subject matter and research aims.

Ethnodoxology as a discipline literally enabled greater visibility, recognition, and legitimacy of trends in more forms than those initiated by Western music and religious scholars. For now, it’s rooted in studies related to Christianity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if ethnodoxology is taken up by other religions, faiths, and philosophies.

How can ethnomusicologists best help churches?

We can suggest that people approach different Christian musics as they would a cheese or wine tasting. Most humans are curious, and every group has developed ways to accommodate, domesticate, or embrace what’s different. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad or impossible. We ethnomusicologists would like to expand people’s musical palates. People often respond by trying to adapt the pieces into a Western ethos. That approach has its values. But retaining the original expression’s integrity may give me more pleasure and expand a worldview.

Most Western musics are embedded in sound, and people tend to isolate music from life as if it’s a product to sell. Music in other cultures may be part of communal participation that better humanizes and socializes today’s global citizen. Music from elsewhere may also expand notions of beauty that are either suppressed or ignored in the West. For example, in some Japanese musics, silence and how sound fades make sound stand out even more profoundly. Studying Japanese music has made Westerners more aware of the role of silence in their music and its value in everyday life.

Each personal or cultural group’s experience of God’s weight and worth is but one aspect of a facet of God’s magnificence in time and space. Therefore, when I accept and learn from another’s expression of praise to God, I embark on a journey towards another dimension of  God’s glory. Studying other peoples’ and nations’ musics and arts can deepen our knowing in this glorious relationship with God.

What first steps might churches take to start singing Christian musics from Africa? 

Just start doing it. The music is available in many places and formats. Some musicians are comfortable beginning with transcriptions, and these exist. But today, the internet has opened up experiences of other worlds to the extent that we can even collaborate with performers in other locations virtually in real time.

Do your research and choose boldly. Never apologize about techniques, texts, or pronunciation when you introduce a song in another language, culture, or style, because followers feed on the leader’s hesitation. Learn how to perform to the highest standard possible so that you can introduce repertoire with confidence. Don’t let a mistake or congregational reticence discourage future attempts. Give the choir or congregation another opportunity to anticipate learning something exciting.

What other strategies can help people sing or perform well?

I attend a multicultural Pentecostal church where, every New Year’s Eve, speakers of various African languages lead an all-night vigil. Most are recent immigrants to the United States. I am usually asked to curate the service song set. I try to think about roadblocks I may encounter in teaching a song in a language other than English. Sometimes I first teach them to pronounce the words right. That is often easier to do orally than by reading the words. Other times I just begin to sing and ask people to join in when they can, and usually they do. Or I ask people to spell out how they think the words sound. The way you’d spell the sound in English may be different than the actual spelling in another language.

It often works to introduce songs from another language, culture, or style in a setting people think of as fun, like a potluck lunch or a singalong. We have hosted “African” meals and asked our non-African guests to memorize the names of each dish. Some of our most insightful and hilarious reactions have emerged when our guests  associate sight and smell with songs from the countries or cultures where those meals are staples. By the time we sing in different African languages, our guests can see and taste the songs.

Sometimes having a target performance date helps people commit to learning an African song. Most people do not like to be embarrassed on stage, so they [might] turn up for rehearsal. Others are just excited that they get to sing to other people, and this pleasure of giving may also honor God.

Can you offer any cautions or caveats about introducing new music?

It’s good that more churches are adopting other Christian music cultures in their communal worship life. However, I often encounter the spirit of tokenism. Many churches sing songs from different parts of the world only during the designated mission week. They take an offering for missions and it seems appropriate to “sound the missions battle cry.” However, how often beyond that week does the congregation get reminded to give or pray for missionaries at home or in the rest of the world? Instead, consider having year-round conversations on why it’s necessary and valuable to (more effectively) embed African (or other) songs and arts in a church’s worship and daily life.

People are often not schooled on the deeper meaning of a song in another language or from another space. So they think of the song as a curiosity, as a show-and-tell item, or as children’s entertainment. I have learned to find good translations that speak to American audiences so the song truly is appropriate in the life of the church, congregation, or individual. I don’t think entertainment is undesirable, but you need cultural sensitivity, especially in congregations with diverse groups.


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. She says that churches around the world have started singing “Imela” by Nathaniel Bassey and “Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe.” Her Afropop Worldwide interview describes the rise of Kenya’s religious music industry.