Archive for the ‘General’ Category
I’ve been playing cocktail/jazz piano since the late 90s and, although opportunities in West Africa were somewhat limited, I still had a number of gigs and performances whenever possible.
So, here’s a wee promotion video I put together of a few of my favourite pieces. I’m afraid my sustain pedal is a bit squeaky, and the sound quality is far from perfect, but it does give an idea of what I do:
Remember, I’m available for weddings/parties and the like, so drop me a line if you’re interested!
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Rob’s first book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” has appeared in a number of publications and websites over the past few months. Here are some of them…
(1) In June, the book appeared in Goodreads.com
Have a look at the page here. It currently has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 – would you be able to rate it on there too?
(2) In August 2014, it was added to “Travel Africa” magazine’s Summer Reading List
(3) Then, in September, World Magazine listed it amongst their top ten, for being the “most interesting and well-written”. Click here to see the page.
(4) Also in September, I made it into the pages of “Wanderlust Magazine”, a UK-wide publication for those interested in world travel. It can be found on page 21 (click here to view).
(5) And finally, the book can be found on the For Your Bookcase website where, amazingly, it’s on sale for two pounds less than on Amazon!
If you are able, I’d be really grateful if you could share the book with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Also, if you could review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be really helpful too!
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I’ve just come from Bamako, Mali, which gets an average of TEN hours of sunshine a day. Ten hours!! Sometimes, we’re lucky to get that much in a week back home.
2. Nice tropical fruit
Succulent pineapples, tasty bananas, juicy mangos – they never taste as good back home. When my mother visited Africa, she didn’t like the taste of the bananas. That’s because she’d eaten nothing but bland, almost tasteless British imports, so when she finally experienced the REAL banana taste, it was too much!
Oh, and the ‘large mangos’ in Tesco are not large – not by African standards at least 🙂
3. Cheap public transport
The other day I made the two mile journey into town for the equivalent of 21 pence. Sure, we were crammed into a dented, rusty minibus with no door on the side but, hey, the ventilation was good, and the journey exciting!
I know they’re not African, but there are great Lebanese chwarma restaurants throughout francophone West Africa. For those who haven’t sampled their delights, a chwarma is a bit like a doner kebab, but soooo much nicer.
5. Being able to chat to anyone, anywhere
If you try to engage in conversation with a stranger back home, you might get funny looks, or even be ignored (unless, of course, you’re asking for directions or you live in Yorkshire). In Africa, I’ll walk through the Market and warmly greet anyone, asking how their family and work are doing, and wishing a blessing upon them. In fact, so many folk say ‘hello’ to me in the market, that I have to ignore some, or I’d never get anywhere. I wish Brits would talk to each other more (it really doesn’t hurt, honest!)
6. Dramatic thunder storms
Occasionally – very occasionally – Britain has a huge thunder storm. Think of one of those, then double it. I LOVE African thunder storms: so loud, so dramatic, so exciting.
One time, in Cote d’Ivoire, lightning struck a friend’s house and the strip light fell from the ceiling and smashed on the floor below. And in Cotonou once, a palm tree spontaneously caught fire when a thunder bolt hit it. Scary, but so exciting!
7. Being able to wear brightly-coloured clothes all the time
In Britain, if you wear anything brighter than brown, black, navy or grey, it’s rather out of the ordinary. So, when I turn up at church there in my red, yellow and green shirt depicting giraffes and lions, people cannot help but make lighthearted – but nevertheless critical – comments. “Turn that down mate!” “Are you going to Hawaii?!” “Do you think you’re still in Africa?” Answer: no, because if I were in Africa, nobody would make these cutting comments. There, I’ve walked down the street in what look like pyjamas and it’s completely normal. How you dress is of minuscule importance compared with who you are (and how you treat others).
8. The ex-pat sub-culture
For some reason, you make friends more quickly ‘on the field’. You also become good friends more often than not, and remain in contact even after you’ve left. I think it’s partly due to the ‘all in the same boat’ syndrome, as everyone’s away from their home culture. Also, some embassy staff only do two years in one place, so you can hardly wait six months before inviting them round! Whatever the reason, some – nay most – of my best friends have lived overseas at some point. It gives you a different outlook on life and, I think, a more balanced world view.
9. Being able to speak African languages
Because they’re fun! Lots of interesting sounds like ‘gb’ and ‘kp’, fascinating greetings and interesting vocabulary. In one language, the word for ‘bike’ means ‘metal horse’. Another has 15 words for ‘banana’ and only one for all vehicles. Such fun!
10. Hand shakes
Apart from the very first time you meet someone, we don’t tend to shake hands in Britain much. In Africa, you shake hands every day when you meet – I like that. And there are some funky variations too including the ‘finger click handshake’ on the W African coast.
Rob’s Book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” is available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. Find out more here.
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Now, before I start this list, a disclaimer: firsly, I LOVE Africa, even though there are things about it that I don’t like. Secondly, some of the things listed below are also reasons why I love Africa, because they are what makes Africa Africa. Finally, I leave this beautiful continent tomorrow and know I will miss it, so this is my own personal therapy to soften the blow somewhat. Here goes…
1. Being constantly conspicuous because of the colour of my skin
I walk out of my front door and, within seconds am greeted with “Toubabou!” (which means “White person”). I walk down the street, and at least every five minutes, a small child shouts at me: “Toubabou! Give me 100 francs!”
On the edge of the market, a mobile phone card salesman spots me, and calls out: “Orange!” Because I’m white, I must want to buy phone credit, and might not notice him if he doesn’t call out. He is wearing a fluorescent orange vest, mind you, and is standing beneath an orange-coloured parasol in front of a big orange booth (which so has the word “ORANGE” emblazoned across the front). Still, he has to thrust the cards in my face calling out: “Orange! Orange! Orange!” just to be sure I don’t miss him.
At the market, every stall holder is vying for my attention. ” Toubabou, what are you looking for?” “Toubabou, step inside.” “Toubabou, come and look at my jewellery…”
The other day (and by no means for the first time) I was walking towards a T-junction. A taxi passing on the road ahead spied me out the corner of his eye, stopped, then reversed back until he was level with me. “Taxi?!” You see, because I was white, and walking, I must want to get in a car! Sometimes it kind of makes you feel special, but other days I just want to be invisible.
It’s that sound you dread: the traffic policeman had blown his whistle to stop you. “Your papers please!” You know there’s nothing wrong with your papers – or your vehicle for that matter – but experience tells you that he’s likely to give you a hard time in the hope of getting a bribe.
“Your windscreen is cracked, I will have to confiscate your papers.”
The tiny dint in the glass is no more than half an inch across and definitely not grounds for this.
“Or we can try and settle it here and now,” he adds. Sigh! Half an hour of patient pleading later, and the papers are returned. You only have three choices here: have your papers confiscated, wait patiently, or continue to fuel corruption in Africa. Please choose wisely.
They get everywhere, through the tiniest hole in your screening or net. They can buzz annoyingly, give itchy bites and – of course – pass on the biggest killer in sub-Saharan Africa: malaria. And even the non-malarial kind can give you dengue fever. Nasty wee beasties, with no redeeming features I can think of.
4. Dangerous driving conditions
You’re driving through the city, swerving round huge potholes when a taxi overtaking a lorry heads straight towards you. You break and swerve to the side, narrowly avoiding the ditch. Back on the road, and a man is pushing his two-wheeled cart in front of you. You want to overtake, but motorbikes are hurtling past you on both sides. When it’s finally clear, you pass, but have to brake almost immediately: a donkey, its front legs tethered together with string, has strayed into the middle if the road. You break and skid to a halt, inches from its terrified eyes. As you do so, an inattentive motorcyclist collides with your wing mirror, breaking it into pieces. And that’s just a one minute extract of driving in urban Africa!
5. The continent’s continued over-reliance on the West
New tarmacked road in Benin – who build it? The Belgians.
Bamako gets a New Bridge – who paid for it? The Chinese.
Now, these are positive developments, but I wish Africa could take control of its own development, and manage, somehow, to build its own infrastructures. If this doesn’t eventually happen, the whole continent will continue to rely upon the West like it does now, and this fosters a ‘nanny state’ attitude amongst many locals: ‘Not to worry, the West will come and bail us out again soon’. I don’t deny the continent’s poverty, or need for aid, but I wish Africa were able to control and manage its own development more.
6. Not being told the truth
“How long will my meal take?” “Only ten minutes, sir.” An hour later, it arrives.
“When does this bus leave?” “Right away, sir!” Three hours later…
“Here’s some money for a new bike.” “Okay, I will buy one tonight.” Next day, he has no bike, and had given the money to his family.
Africa has a ‘shame and honour’ culture. This means that appearing shameful is the worst thing ever, whilst appearing honourable – even if it means lying – is the desired outcome. This is very frustrating for Westerners and, of course, leads to a greater dishonour in the long run.
7. Political instability
You see it time and again: election season comes and most ex-pats decide it’s a good time to take an extended vacation, just in case. All too often, democracy has failed in Africa; introduced by the West, it is a good system of government in principle. However, it doesn’t tend to fit naturally with African history, culture or the African psyche. And so, elections are held and – often – folk know already who’s going to win. If the ‘correct’ outcome is not achieved, then there is unrest. I’m told that Senegal is the only country in West Africa never to have had a coup d’état.
8. Inverted racism, which puts whites on a pedestal
I ask directions to the nearest electrical store. The chap offers to take me, adding: “We’ll go this way, past my friends’ house. They will be impressed when they see me with a white man.”
Why? What’s the difference? The only difference is that, on average, we’ve had more opportunities. For education, healthcare, transport etc. But why do many Africans still look upon us as ‘better’. Culturally, Africa is much richer than the West, I’d say. And the importance of relationships, family and spending time together is much more accentuated in Africa. We’ve thrown much of that away, in favour of long working hours, making money and materialism. So, Africa, please don’t think that we’re superior; we just have a different history and different priorities.
9. People always asking me for things
This was touched upon in #1, but to many Africans, a white face is like a walking cash point. “They’re white, therefore they have money, therefore I can ask them for some.” After money, the second most common request is for medicines, and in third place is requests for ‘an invitation to your country’. But during my time in Africa, I’ve also been asked for the following:
a drum kit
Sooner or later, you have to learn to say ‘no’.
10. No change in the shops
I don’t even know why this is the case. You go to buy a loaf of bread for 300 francs. You give them a 1,000 franc note. They look at you (almost disgusted) and say: “Have you got 200 francs?”
“No, I haven’t.” There’s a long pause, then the reply:
“We have no change.” Some shops will say they’ll give you it next time, others will – eventually – go next door and try to find change. One supermarket used to give sweets out instead of change! Crazy, but there you have it.
Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.
1. Mobile phone scratch cards to top up your credit
Yes, rather than set up a direct debit (many phone owners don’t even have a bank account), you buy small cards, scratch off the silver covering and type in the number. It’s often something like *123*[number]#. You can also transfer credit (or even money!!) to others via your mobile phone.
2. Four people on a motorbike
Or 50 chickens, or four goats, or an eight foot mirror, or a giant lorry tyre, or 200 baguettes. Or, how about this:
3. Cream to make your skin lighter
It always seems ironic that the West strives to get ‘a nice tan’ and look darker whilst Africans (and Indians) tend to find lighter skin more attractive.
4. Restaurants where you can eat a big main course for 50p
Admittedly, you probably have to eat it with your (right) hand from a communal bowl, but it’s still tasty and decidedly filling. Hardly worth ever cooking for yourself at that rate!
5. Taxis (and lorries) with slogans emblazoned across their rear bumpers
Many of them say things like “God is Love” or “God bless you”. This one says: “Jesus Protects Me”:
And don’t forget that many of the lorries have impressive artwork on their rear mudflaps – click here to see a previous blog post on this.
6.People at traffic lights either begging, selling things, or washing windscreens
Top items on sale include: Watches (always watches, always dodgy), boxes of tissues, maps of Africa, games of Scrabble, inflatable Santas and electric mosquito rackets. But I’ve also seen puppy dogs, clocks, stereo systems and green parrots, to name but a few. If the lights change and you’ve agreed a sale, you will often see them running frantically after you, until you get chance to stop further on.
7. Market stalls selling meat with added flies (free of charge!)
Oh yes! Plenty of flies! I always hold my breath when passing that bit of the market, because of the smell as well as the insects. Mind you, once cooked, the meat tastes good!
8. Colourful costumes portraying hair driers, lampshades, chickens, pound signs or knives and forks.
Oh yes – bright colours and large, bold designs are the order of the day here, and nobody makes negative comments like “turn that shirt down!” It’s just part of the culture. See some examples here.
9. Random heaps of rubbish on street corners.
Everywhere, anywhere. Particularly in West Africa (over East) in my experience. Look at this one – the sign even reads “No dumping”!!
10. People who congratulate you for putting on weight. “Well done, you’re fat!”
You see, if you’re fat then it’s a sign of wealth. In other words, you can afford enough food to get fat, so you’re rich. I often ponder the immense contrast between this and the West, where most people frequently over-eat, end then have to pay to join a gym to get thinner.
Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.
Last week, I had the privilege of working with musicians from three different ethnic groups in southern Cote d’Ivoire: The Bakwe, the Avikam, and the rather unpronounceable Nglwa.
Although the journey there was significantly shorter than last week’s trip to Daloa, the last few miles were nethertheless quite challenging:
After half an hour of bumps, turns and strange angles of driving, we finally arrived at the Catholic retreat centre where the workshop was to be held. A beautiful oasis of calm on the banks of the lagoon, just north of the coast itself:
As soon as we got there, we checked into our accommodation:
Nice rooms, and mine even had an extra special guest waiting for me:
After dinner and introductions, it was time for bed. We have almost 25 participants this week, though the Avikam are low in number for now.
Next day, and teaching began. I started off as I do with most courses of this kind I have taught, by asking two questions:
(i) What is culture?
(ii) Is music a universal language?
The answer to (ii) is almost always given as ‘yes’, until I explain more clearly, giving examples from across the globe. After this, participants realize that, whilst music is a universal phenomenon, it is not a universal language, as every culture of the world defines, composes and makes music in a different way.
We then make the logical step on to the importance of one’s own culture and how, when artforms from the local culture are used, it speaks to members of that culture in a powerful way, and communication is improved too.
After this, we list all the song genres present in each culture. A song genre is just a style of song linked – in Africa – to a specific event. Songs for weddings, funerals, harvest, initiation, hunting, war, and dancing in the moonlight. Once listed, we see how many of these have already been adapted for church use and which ones could be used. Sometimes they are almost all already used in church, sometimes almost none have been used. But the idea is the same as that of Charles Wesley: to use the music closest to the heart of those we are trying to reach. We call this contextualization. Or, as William Booth said: “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”
In the afternoon, each ethnic group chooses from a list of parables in Luke’s Gospel, being sure to pick ones which speak to the needs of their culture. For example, one participant said to me: “We don’t have mustard seeds here”, and so this was clearly not the best choice of parable for his people group!
Mealtimes were fun and the food was varied: meat or fish with rice, yam chips, spaghetti, or foutou banane:
And we begin with teaching on how to improve a song. This includes a number of questions such as “Is the song easy to learn?” “Is the message of the refrain clear and catchy?” “What other instruments could the song include?” Groups then have chance to work on yesterday’s songs. There is further teaching and then, in the afternoon, a second composing session.
Day Three is mostly given over to practising the songs composed, and perfecting them, ready for recording. However, we also do some teaching on organology, and each group lists (and draws) it’s idiophones, cordophones, membranophones and aerophones! Here are some of them:
Day Four is recording day! We have a total of ten songs, all based upon parables. As well as using and celebrating local music styles, these songs will also promote scripture usage and encourage literacy, as well as communicating Bible stories in a clear and culturally-relevant way. Even though each people group had a free choice from over 20 parables, they all stuck to the same few, but these should be the ones which speak best to their world. Here’s what they chose:
Avikam: The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Good Samaritan and The Lost Sheep
Bakwe: The Good Samaritan, The House on the Rock, The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Nglwa: The House on the Rock, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep
Once again, there was a nice square gazebo (or apatam) under which to record the songs:
I only had one microphone stand available for the workshop, and so the chorus mic was suspended from the rafters. Then, the end of the string was attached to a chair, so that the height of the microphone could be altered simply by moving the chair forward or backwards! The remaining two microphones (for drums & other percussion) were taped to chairs.
Now, have a listen to extracts from three of the parable songs I recorded:
1. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by the Bakwe people
2. The House on the Rock by the Nglwa people
3. The Lost Sheep by the Avikam people
Click here to read Chapter One of Rob’s Book “Adventures in Music and Culture” free of charge. The book recounts Rob’s travels to eight similar workshops in Togo and Benin, and has received seven 5-star review so far.
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I’m so pleased to be back in Africa, where there’s always something to blog about! And last week was no exception…
The workshop, held in Daloa, begun on Wednesday with some teaching on the importance of indigenous song genres, particularly in worship:
(Click to enlarge photos)
After this, our 30 participants split into groups and begun composing new songs, based upon different Psalms. I encouraged them to (i) use local song styles for their songs (ii) choose a genre which would match their song thematically (if possible) and musically and (iii) to use local instruments where available.
There were three different ethnic groups present: The Wobe, the Djimini and the Nyaboa, and each of these groups was divided into two smaller groups, giving us six new songs by the end of the afternoon.
Day two began with more teaching, then a second composing session, and the songs were even better this time round! On Friday, some final teaching on instruments and research, then the afternoon was set aside for practising all the songs composed.
Saturday was recording day, and I set the equipment up at 7:00am, ready to begin recording around 8:00. I sat there until 12:30pm, bringing in each ethnic group to perform and record their songs, using four microphones and a mixing desk. All based upon the Psalms, each song was different and fascinating. I was surprised to hear a lot of indigenous two-part harmonies, and lots of polyphony, not just in the percussion section.
But don’t take my word for it, have a listen yourself!
Here’s the Djimini’s rendition of Psalm 8:
And here’s one of the Wobe’s songs, based on Psalm 51:9-11:
Finally (my favourite of all), here’s Psalm 137 by the Nyaboa. Wow – listen to that counterpoint!
Interested in finding out more about how an ethnomusicologist runs a song-writing workshop? Read Rob’s book Adventures in Music and Culture.
Another ‘top ten’ for you today, based upon my day’s experience, and another 9 years living in this continent:
1. Smoke from a log fire – it’s just not the same as a bonfire or barbecue smell, but I love it! It also probably means that something tasty is being cooked!
2. Diesel – particulary from lorries, although a Peugeot pickup passed us today and was belching out an amazing quantity of smelly smoke.
3. Baygon bug spray – it does what it says on the tin, but it doesn’t half stink!
4. Sandy dust after a vehicle passes – close your mouths folks!
5. ‘Jungle Formula’ insect repellent – I’m wearing it now, and it’s a kind of a lemongrass-type smell I’ve grown to quite like over the years.
6. Open sewers – not pleasant.
7. Perspiration – it happens! But most of the time it’s fairly bearable 😉
8. Strong ladies’ perfume – that’s the perfume’s aroma, not the ladies who are strong (though many are).
9. African rain – before you write in to complain, I know that rain itself doesn’t smell of much. But the smell of the streets, lawns, plants and trees after a rainfall is heavenly indeed.
10. Roast chicken – fresh in my mind as I just had some. On many street corners in a big African city, you can find folk roasting or grilling chicken, often on a rotisserie. Very tasty, and tonight’s dinner was not exception (even if it did take 90 minutes to arrive!
Thanks for reading.
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1. How ‘outdoors’ everything is – people chatting on the streets, preparing food in their courtyards, selling all kinds of things, all outside. Streets are busy, active places. Few people own a car, and so the outdoors is where people meet each other. I guess it was like that in the West years ago too (though perhaps less in winter!)
2. How everyone is part of everyone else’s world. Unless you live in Yorkshire, you’re pretty unlikely to randomly address strangers in the street back home. Here, it’s completely normal. You can talk to anyone at any time, and you’ll never get that surprises – almost put out – look for ‘invading’ their personal space or peace and quiet. Community is still real here. I guess it was like that in the West once, too.
3. How nothing has a price (until you name it!) Visit a market in the UK, and you’ll see signs reading “Potatos £1.20 a kilo” or “Tomatoe’s £1” (and, yes, usually spelt like that!!) On an African market, there are not prices – YOU name the price you want and they will tell you if it’s high enough. If not, you discuss the price until you’ve reached an agreed amount.
4. Palm trees! Now, I’ve seen enough of these to know that they are not the ‘symbol of paradise’ many Westerners perceive them as. That said, there’s something wonderfully beautiful about these plants, and vastly different from any flora which grows in British climes.
5. How much dodgy wiring there is everywhere. In Britain, health and safety has gone mad! However, it does mean that you can put a plug into a socket without worrying that you’ll get zapped by 220 volts every time! I NEVER touch a plug with bare feet in Africa (once was enough!)
6. The absence of carpets. Why would you want them in a hot climate anyway? Rather, a nice mosaic-tiled floor, or even just polished concrete, does the job!
7. Flat roofs and white concrete walls. Now, where I live, it’s pitched roofs and red brick walls in most places. Not in Africa. Of course, there are mud huts and all kinds of other permutations, but the white walled, flat roofed building is number 1 in Urban Africa.
8. The sounds of an African night. Where I live is pretty rural. However, the nights are still silent, as far as animal life is concerned. In Africa, you can hear crickets, cicadas, frogs, fruit bats and all kinds of other wee beasties, all singing a delightful cacophony from dusk till dawn.
9. How clapped out most taxis are! Of course, there are some nice ones, but in many cases a cracked windscreen, poorly-fitting doors, missing seatbelts or non-existent suspension are the order of the day. This is what makes public transport in Africa interesting, after all!
10. How many warm smiles you see, in spite of adversity. British people smile sometimes. But usually when you’ve told them a joke or when they’re really happy. Africans are either happier in general, or just smile more. I passed a beggar in the street today, with little more than a few coppers in his small plastic bowl. He gave me the best smile I’d seen in a long time. Maybe it was like that in the West once, too.
If you like reading what Rob writes, try his book here.
i. How have I chosen my songs?
Are your songs all lively, all calm, or a mixture of both? (Note the deliberate avoidance of the somewhat erroneous terms ‘praise’ and ‘worship’ here). And is there a progression in the songs throughout the service?
When you meet up with a friend, you first greet them enthusiastically and tell them how pleased you are to see them. Then you might sit down, have a cup of tea and begin a deeper, more intimate conversation. Finally, you will end with a positive farewell, saying: ‘It was good to see you’ or ‘I hope we meet again soon’. A church service often follows the same pattern: (i) Lively start (ii) Intimate middle (iii) Triumphant end. That’s why this format works well, but this doesn’t have to be overly prescriptive – be prepared to deviate from this depending on the type of service/congregation etc.
Are all your songs from the past five years? If so, aim for a more balanced set. Are they all from two or three decades ago? Are they all over 100 years old? Try and choose the best songs from all eras, depending on the theme of the service; this will enable more of your church to feel part of what’s going on.
Beware of including too many brand new songs in one service. My rule of thumb is this: no more than one brand new song in any service. With this, I might also include a ‘semi-new’ song: one which has only been used once or twice so far. If there’s an opportunity to actually teach the new song just before the service starts, then do it.
Finally, remember to choose all songs carefully and prayerfully. A worship leader also has a prophetic role, and the songs you pick need to be inspired by the Lord, as well as based upon logic and understanding.
ii. Have I thought about the lyrics?
Do the words make sense? They don’t in all worship songs! If you are going for older songs, beware of archaic or plain ridiculous, language. For example, ‘Thy couch was the sod, oh thou son of God’ or ‘We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice; the trump of God shall sound, rejoice!’
In modern songs, the danger is more to do with lack of meaning, or superficiality. Be prepared to exclude a song on this basis, even if the tune and beat are catchy. A chorus like ‘Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes Lord’ is rousing, but is there enough substance to it? You decide. Some of the older generation in my church object to songs which include ‘yeah’ or ‘wanna’ – this leaves me with something of a trilemma: I can sing them anyway, I can not sing them at all, or I can modify the lyrics to please everyone.
iii. Have I considered the flow of the songs?
It’s very common to run several songs together in a medley these days. If you are doing this, do the songs link well together in terms of tempo/beat/key? If not, plan how to make smooth transitions between songs – sudden stops, or changes to an unrelated key can break the flow, and hinder the sense of worship. (Here’s a good article, explaining how to transition between songs). And what about the message/theme of the songs? Is there a link, or could there be?
Finally, is there a logical progression to the songs, so that the congregation makes a journey towards Christ. For example: ‘In Christ Alone’ (Eb) to ‘Once Again’(Eb) to ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’ (Bb). These three go from recognizing who Jesus is, to meditating on his crucifixion and then to praising him for who he is. ‘Third person’ to ‘first person’ and then ‘second person’ is a good guide here (ie ‘He’ then ‘I’ then ‘You’).
iv. How am I playing the songs?
Firstly, are they in a suitable key for the congregation to sing? If not, be prepared to transpose! 10,000 Reasons is a great song, but in G major the highest note for the ladies is F# (top line of the stave), and this is too high for most singers. I always do it in E major; much more manageable. My rule of thumb for range is ‘A to E’. That is, ‘A’ below middle C as your lowest pitch, and ‘E’ on the top space as your highest (and an octave below that for the blokes, of course). Even a top ‘E’ is something of a chore, and I would prefer Eb, and only for a short burst.
Is the tempo too slow or too fast? Listen to a few YouTube examples if you are unsure. Does the feel/tempo match the mood of the words? One worship leader I knew used to do a bouncy stop on the word ‘holy’. Catchy, and jolly, but not reminiscent of holiness!
Is every verse the same, or have you thought about varying the instrumentation/dynamics in each (and noted this down, so everyone remembers)? What about cutting the instruments for one chorus, and singing three-part harmonies? This mustn’t be overdone (tempting as it is), but once or twice in a service can be very effective, and the same goes for instrumental interludes.
v. Am I prepared?
How much preparation have you put into the music? Has the band rehearsed together? If so, when, and how long for? If you are winging it, it will show at some point. Also, what proportion of your rehearsal time was devoted to prayer? None at all? One minute at the start? The first half hour of the rehearsal? You know which I’m going to recommend!
What is being done to allow the worship band to really gel together? As well as regular rehearsals and prayer, why not organize a social day, form a Bible study group, hold some informal jam sessions, or have a meal out together. The more comfortable you are with each other, the better you will perform together, and being spiritually in tune (no pun intended) with each other and with God will make a world of difference.
vi. What about intros and outros?
How are you starting the song? Strumming the opening chord and beginning immediately is neither helpful nor conducive to worship; if you do so, you’ll leave the congregation behind, and they won’t be able join in until half way through the first line. Our aim is to lead the congregation in worship, so anything which makes them feel uncomfortable, confused or alienated will hinder worship. So, there needs to be a cue of some kind, which says ‘the song is going to begin now’. This can be a musical, vocal or visual clue (or, ideally, all three at once). A musical cue would be a chord sequence which signifies a lead in (ie IV-V); a vocal cue means saying, ‘Let’s sing’, or reciting the first few words of the first line. A visual cue means you’re looking at the congregation with that anticipatory look: head up, taking a breath, eye contact with them.
How are you ending the song? There usually needs to be some way of signifying the ending – slowing down, repeating the last line two or three times, or an instrumental ending. In the same way that the congregation needs preparing for the start of the song, they also need to know the ending is coming, rather than being surprised that it’s all over so suddenly. Will you resolve a dominant chord, or just leave it hanging? Back in the 80s and 90s, the latter would never have been acceptable; these days, it is more and more common (and I quite like it!)
vii. What about amplification?
Now, I don’t want to teach granny to suck eggs, but have you thought about how many instruments need lines, and how many vocalists need microphones? Do you need fold-back monitors? Do you have a sound man who can balance these effectively? In a very small gathering, you might go for an unplugged set. In some medium-sized churches, the sound system isn’t always up to mixing an eight-piece worship band with a drummer. Personally, in such a case, I’d rather use a smaller band or three or four and have them well-amplified, than a large band where nobody can hear each other.
And, in terms of microphones, don’t try and use a ‘Britney mic’, unless you’re performing at a Britney’s standard! It may look ‘cool’, but unless you can go through every song without having to communicate verbally with your band, then a head mic is not for you. And even then, you may still feel led to do an a capella verse or repeat a chorus, and you’ll need to turn away from my mic to tell the band this. One worship leader made a mistake when singing through one of these mics, and promptly groaned loudly. This was, of course, heard by the entire church. With a mic on a stand, he’d have turned away instinctively and the congregation would hardly have noticed!
viii. Where am I looking?
You basically have three choices of where to look: (a) At the congregation, (b) At each other, (c) Into your sheets of music. The amount of time given to each of the above should be in that order: ie congregation first, each other second and your printed music third. As it is, many churches settle for (c) (a) (b), or worse still (c) (b) (a). In fact, I’ve seen groups which exclude (b) altogether! In order to achieve this, you also need to position your band in a way that everyone can have eye-contact with everyone else, whilst still facing roughly towards the congregation. A ‘V-shaped’ formation works well for this.
To do this you’ll need to learn your chords/words/tune well enough. Once you do, you’ll free yourself of the restraints of sheet music, and be able to truly worship God, and lead the congregation before His throne.
Remember: you have to have eye contact with individuals in the congregation as you sing – there will always be some people looking at you – look back at them as you sing, just as a good preacher, teacher or public speaker does. This is especially important at the start/finish of every song.
ix. How are my humility levels??
Lead by example, and in love and unity. Although the buck stops with you as the ‘leader’,
this should not be a hierarchical position, where you laud it over the rest of the band.
Avoid saying things like: ‘Well, I’m in charge, so we’re doing it this way whether you like it or not’; this is only likely to offend or hinder your musicians. Rather, say something like: ‘Can we try it this way, and see what we think?’ Then, once you have, ask the whole band whether they’re happy with the new way of playing it. If some aren’t, either be prepared to withdraw it, or say something like: ‘Can you humour me this time, please, and if it falls flat in the service, we’ll never do it like that again.’ It’s all about relationships, people skills and building bridges. You can do it!
x. What is my main focus?
Is it musical excellence, entertainment, or performance? We should always strive for a high musical standard, but Christ is the reason for this, not our praise or merit. So, our music should be so good that people don’t notice it. Does that make sense? In other words, if everything flows musically and is free of wrong notes, awkward changes and uncomfortable faces, then the entire church will be able to focus on Christ through the music, and everything will be leading towards Him. So, remove anything which could distract from the Lord – this includes how you dress, comments you make between songs, and solos which focus merely on your talent. Always remember: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’
Rob Baker is a musicologist and worship leader, who has been involved in church music for the past 30 years. His book, Adventures in Music and Culture, describes his discoveries about African music and worship, and his thesis, about Vodún music in Beninese churches, can be read here.
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