Home Worship Planning History of Hymns General Suggestions for Enlivening African, Asian, and Latin American Music in Worship

General Suggestions for Enlivening African, Asian, and Latin American Music in Worship

Adapted from C. Michael Hawn, Halle, Halle: We Sing the World Round; Teacher's Edition (Garland, TX: Choristers Guild, 1999), pages 6-7.


Songs from Africa

These are suggestions for assisting the musician and the choir in helping the congregation catch the spirit of African song south of the Sahara:

  • Steady beat. Maintain a steady rhythm (no ritardandi or tenuti). Do not drop beats between repetitions or successive stanzas.
  • Repetition. Repeat the music, adding more vocal parts, instrumental sounds, movement, volume, and intensity until the song "heats up." Nathan Corbitt says, "African singing is not beautiful in the Western sense, but hot. You don't really start singing right until you begin to sweat!"
  • Unaccompanied. Avoid using the organ, if possible. In most cases unaccompanied vocal music, except for the use of percussion, is preferable.
  • Percussion. Using percussion is not optional. The hands and the body are percussion instruments as well. Even if you do not have drums or shakers, you can divide the choir and give them several contrasting rhythms to clap, creating a polyrhythmic effect.
  • Dance. Using movement is not optional. Stomping may be part of the dance. Dancing may be nothing more than swaying or walking in place.
  • Articulation. Generally, consonants should be crisp and clear (a part of the percussion).
  • Oral Tradition. Teach as much of the music as possible to the choir orally/aurally first and then use the written notation as a reminder of sounds you already have learned. This changes the quality of their engagement with the music, creating an experience dominated by hearing and moving rather than by reading the musical score.
  • Bright Tone. Brighten the vocal sound (open throat). There are no diphthongs in African languages. Use a straighter tone.
  • Improvisation. Harmonize by ear. The written page is only one way to do it.
  • Call and Response. Be aware of leader versus ensemble effects. Call-response patterns may not be indicated in all written scores and will have to be added by the leader.
  • Everyone participates. Break down the barriers between the congregation and the choir. Encourage the congregation to participate, not just watch. Again, Nathan Corbitt says, "A common phrase used by folks in Africa is that Western music is something you listen to; African music is something you do."

Songs from Asia

The complexity of Asian music is beyond the scope of this brief introduction to fully clarify. The following are some considerations that generally apply.

  • Monophonic Music. Much traditional Asian music is monophonic, using only a single melodic line. While this may seem stark to the Western musician who is oriented to vertical harmonies, congregations can appreciate the simplicity of monophonic, unaccompanied singing and its power to unify the body of believers gathered (ecclesia) for worship. Many Asian hymns call for us to listen to the "still, small voice," a welcome alternative to the contemporary emphasis on fuller volume, more instruments, and increased technological sophistication.
  • Heterophony. When harmony is used, it is best to employ a more polyphonic texture rather than hymn-like vertical, familiar homophonic chords. Furthermore, if instruments are used, especially string and woodwinds, rather than playing traditional Western vertical harmonies, the effect is one of heterophony with each instrument embellishing the melody idiomatically according to the nature of the instrument, the scale of the melody, and the style of the music. This is usually done in a semi-improvisatory manner rather than being written down.
  • Melodic Style. Many of the melodies, especially in southeastern Asia, incorporate glides, most often sliding into a tone from below. These are part of the style and should be taught with intentionality. With the appropriate introduction and repetition, I have found that many people are moved by the quiet power and authenticity of these sounds.
  • Percussion. While Asian hymnody often employs percussion, I would avoid it unless it is indicated on the page.

Using Latin American Music In Worship

It is very difficult to indicate specific performance practice suggestions that encompass the complexity of Latin American music. To this end, I refer the reader to notes on individual songs in Halle, Halle: We Sing the World Round. Since Spanish is the second most common language in the United States, I have expanded these suggestions to include not only issues of performance practice, but also suggestions for using Latin American song in worship. Some of these suggestions may be effective when introducing music from other regions of the world as well.

  • Sing Refrain Only. Invite the congregation to sing only the estribillo (refrain) in Spanish first while the choir sings the stanzas.
  • Use Piano and Guitar. Use piano and/or guitar and, when appropriate, unpitched percussion when introducing these hymns.
  • Contextual Statement. Offer a brief (two or three sentences) introduction to the hymn and its origins in the written order of worship or in a spoken form before the service.
  • Repeat New Materials. Sing the new hymn for at least three weeks with a new variation each week before making a value judgment on its quality and appropriateness for your context.
  • Service Music as a Seasonal Leitmotif. Use shorter forms or only the estribillos as service music, for example, a prayer response or benediction, for an entire liturgical season, first with the choir and then with the congregation.
  • Sing in Spanish. During week two or three, teach the refrain in Spanish, especially on the estribillos, where there are just a few words to learn. Invite the congregation to sing the stanzas in English and the refrain in Spanish. Children and young people will be excellent teachers and models for this.
  • Hear the Word in Spanish. Accompany the singing of the hymn with the Scripture for the day read in both Spanish and English.
  • Listen to the Spanish. Read the song text aloud to the congregation. This is particularly effective if you invite someone in the congregation whose first language is Spanish to read. If you provide a literal translation of each Spanish line verbally, many people will be drawn into the rich and varied metaphors and images of the text and want to sing the hymn. Paraphrases for singing often vary considerably from the original.
  • Prepare the Choir. Make sure that the choir is secure with the hymn before you introduce it to the congregation.
  • Use Slower Songs. Include some of the slower, more legato songs in your Spanish-language repertoire. Do not stereotype Latin American music as only upbeat. From a pedagogical perspective, slower songs are much easier to learn for non-Spanish speakers.
  • Capture the Fiesta Spirit. A fiesta is not a giddy party. Pablo Sosa notes that fiesta comes "out of oppression, [when] men and women rise up to celebrate, not forgetting their struggle, [but] to be nurtured by the sweet foretaste of the great fiesta of victory and liberation. It is not ordinary fiesta, intended to have people forget about their worries, to alienate them. It is the fiesta which liberates. For this reason it is said: 'People who have no strength to celebrate, have no strength to liberate themselves.'" (Pablo Sosa)
  • Listen to Latin American Music. Listen to Latin American music on recordings. Musical style is learned through the ear first and then reinforced through the eye. Two cassette recordings of Latin American congregational song produced by Pablo Sosa that are readily available are God's Fiesta: Latin American Church Songs and Todas las Voces, both of which are distributed in the United States by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP). Ideas for piano, guitar, and percussion patterns appropriate for various Latin American styles can be found in the Lutheran (ELCA) Spanish-language hymnal Libro de Liturgía y Cántico (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998). An appendix at the conclusion of this hymnal lists rhythms and accompaniment patterns for thirty-five Latin American styles.
  • Just Do It! Always be positive when introducing a Spanish-language hymn. Do not tell the congregation that it will be difficult or "very different." Just do it!


This material was presented by C. Michael Hawn at the introductory event for Come, Let Us Worship, January 21-23, 2002, Wilshire UMC, Los Angeles, CA.

C. Michael Hawn is Associate Professor of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology.

Copyright 2002 C. Michael Hawn. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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