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.
i. How have I chosen my songs?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 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?
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?
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.
ix. How are my humility levels??
x. What is my main focus?
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.
No, it’s okay, you don’t have to choose one of the above! Rather, these describe three excellent weekend events coming soon to a grassy area in southern England…
Firstly, next weekend (24th & 25th May) it’s the Big Church Day Out at Wiston House, West Sussex. It’s like a two-day non-stop open air Christian ‘rock concert’, with top names including The News Boys, Rend Collective, Third Day and Matt Redman.
Then from 20-22nd June, it’s the CVM Gathering – a blokes’ weekend in a field near Swindon. An awesome occasion with pleny of social interraction, activities, worship and teaching. You certainly don’t have to be a Christian to go, and there is beer involved, so bring your mates and a tent and come along!
And finally, at the beautiful WEC Centre near Gerrards Cross, it’s GoFest2014 from 27-30 June. GOfest is for anyone interested in Christian missions (and, let’s face it, that should be all Christians!) More great worship, teaching and a great atmosphere. There’s also a youth and children’s programme, and in the ‘Global Village’ you can check out lots of missionary organizations and see what grabs you.
So, what are you waiting for? Book your tickets now!
Here’s another ‘sneak preview’ for those who have not yet got hold of a copy of my book. This was when I worked with the Bassar – or Ncam – people in Western Togo (Chapter 5 in the book):
“Whilst they are busy working on their songs – and as they ‘know the ropes’ by now – I take a few minutes to climb up the hill which continues behind the hotel. It’s a pretty steep one and there’s no time to make it to the very top today. However, I get far enough to admire a truly impressive view of Bassar, way down below, and the plain beyond it: lush, green and flat, extending to the horizon, many miles away. Parts of the distant horizon are marked by the undulations of tiny mountains, which I know are actually huge. Bassar itself is a mass of rectangular buildings with rusty brown roofs and small windows, punctuated by mango trees, teak trees, even a good number of coconut palms. The streets are long, straight and pale brown, and white smoke is rising from various locations across the town. Ladies are walking to or from the small market with bowls on their heads; muscular men, pouring with sweat, are chopping wood; children are playing with old motorbike tyres and old men are sitting in the shade watching the world go by. Weary, world-worn donkeys are pulling carts through the muddy streets as motorcycles whizz by, and small clusters of wandering sheep – like tiny balls of cotton – roam aimlessly through the town. Makeshift poles made from branches – not one of them straight – carry electricity to most homes, a mass of twisted cables dangling haphazardly between each. In one place, a lorry is unloading large sacks of charcoal and in an open grassy area, young people are playing football with great energy. This strangely idyllic view is somewhat spoilt by two large antennae, one at each end of the town, both painted the usual red and white. It is only then that I notice how many homes are equipped with television aerials; one or two even have satellite dishes!”
If you have read it, please write a brief review if you can. Thanks!
Working with the Bogo People of SW Togo was a rewarding and culturally-rich experience for me (and for them). Read an extract from my book Adventures in Music and Culture below and be inspired!
“I find a sheltered mango grove a short walk away and we agree to reconvene there after lunch to record the songs. By the time I get there, the whole area is teeming with people; maybe as many as a hundred. Amazingly, the village folk have agreed that my workshop people can use the traditional barrel drums, and say it is no problem for them. This is quite rare; it can sometimes take years before local non-Christian musicians agree to such a step – or even the Christian ones! This will really enhance the music and also make it something the people of Sassanou will be pleased to hear.
A group of ladies is dancing enthusiastically and singing one of the new songs, as the drums beat out their syncopated accompaniment. It is great to see the joy on everybody’s faces – these people have never worshipped God in their mother tongue until now, and it shows! One lady shouts out: “Jésus nous prend tout!” meaning: ‘Jesus takes everything which is ours’. In other words, even their local music can be used for His glory.
This is the point at which I realize: I’m living through new and exciting events here – this is ground-breaking stuff! I must share these experiences with the world – it’s a story too great not to be told! And so from that very moment I resolved to make my ethnomusicological adventures into a book, so that others could share in my unforgettable experiences.”
Here’s part of a page from the March/April edition of Idea Magazine, where my book is reviewed. (See it at the bottom of the page there?)
See the review here (on page 31)
Meanwhile, here’s what it says:
“This is an intriguing little gem of a book. It is part travel journal, part adventure story, part musical treatise. Baker is a ethnomusicologist and the book charts his travels and experiences in Africa. We hear about various journeys and the way local Christian expressions are using local music. Baker’s insight is that we need to use the music that means something to people. Then we can add extra meaning to the cultural patterns and resonances of the existing stuff. Too often missionaries land and try to get local folk to sing American soft-rock Christian anthems – but these lack depth in a local context. Baker’s book is really good on painting pictures and showing how music and culture are intertwined. He shows how Christianity thrives when culture is involved and this is a wake-up call to evangelicals who get all sniffy about culture. What strikes you most is just how likeable and engaging Baker is. His lovely little book makes a great travel companion. This book is like sinking into a comfy armchair. It is Billy Graham meets Michael Palin. A rare treat.”
Thanks Steve Morris for the cool review!
Or contact me and I can send you a signed copy for the RRP (+£1.40 p&p in the UK).
Thanks for reading!
“Adventures in Music and Culture” was released on 15th December 2012 and I’m pleased to say that folk are really enjoying reading it! Below are extracts from feedback I have received so far.
“Excellent travelogue. Well written with infectious energy. An absorbing read with just the right level of detail…as well as some laugh out loud moments. It also has some thought provoking points on culture. Recommended!”
“The book captures very well indeed the general experiences of Western expatriates working in not just the two countries covered but the whole west African region. Laced throughout with good humour. The book lies well alongside those written by well known travellers in the region such as Gerald Durrell.”
“It was a really interesting and enjoyable read!”
“It’s a good read.”
“A brilliant book about [Rob’s] experiences in Benin & Togo. If you have an interest in music, travel, mission or African culture then I’d suggest you add this to your reading list. It’s a really fun and interesting read.”
“I’m really enjoying the book. It’s bringing back a few interesting memories of Africa.”
“Very easy to read and I’d highly recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Africa, travel, music in different cultures and/or how God uses music to help people’s faith to grow.”
For other countries, try ordering from the above links, or contact me directly and I can post you a copy. Meanwhile, please share this blog post with friends who might be interested in reading the book. Thanks!
…and sorry for the long delay. This was partly due to a bug in WordPress, which wasn’t allowing me to upload the audio correctly. I’m glad to say this is now rectified and I have at least three more songs to share with you before the end of 2012!
So, here’s “We fix our eyes on invisible things”, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that’s what faith is all about. I just love the harmonies in the chorus!
We shall walk by faith
He works in all things
We live every day
…so make sure you ask Santa for a copy!
Yes, I’m thrilled and excited to be able to share my African travels with you all, and to open people’s hearts and minds to the fascinating world of ethnomusicology. It will be available on the Ambassador International website soon, in paper and electronic form. Meanwhile, here’s an extract from the introduction to whet your appetites:
At last – I have an interesting job! One to which people respond: “Oh, how fascinating,” or: “Tell me more about what you do!” Although there’s not much money in it, it’s a job which is exciting, enriching, pioneering and intriguing. At times it can be frustrating, exhausting – even dangerous, but is never boring, tedious or repetitive, like some jobs I’ve had.
I used to have a job which I enjoyed, but which nobody else found particularly exciting. I would almost dread the inevitable party question: “What do you do for a living?”
So, this is why I’m delighted to have a job which is not only interesting to me, but for which other people show a genuine interest. It’s a job they can scarcely pronounce, let alone define or describe: I am an ethnomusicologist. “What does one of those do?” you’re asking yourself. See, you’re doing it too already!
Without going into too much boring detail, there are two main types of ethnomusicologist. The first is the secular type, who studies world music for the same reason Sir Edmond Hilary climbed Everest: because it’s there. Of course, this kind provides much vital information about music in culture and many useful anthropological insights along the way. The second type is the missionary ethnomusicologist or ethnodoxologist, who does the same kind of research as the first, but then applies this to Christian mission. “So, I’ve found this fact out about their music, how can I use it to help encourage local Christians and their churches?” The results – as I hope you’ll see – are often stunning, as people begin using their music, rather than something pertaining to a foreign culture.
Recently I posted this article, listing dos and don’ts for churches welcoming missionaries back from the field. I’m now going to do the opposite: a set of tips for the returning missionaries themselves. Having been through the transition back to the home culture several times, much of what I write below is based upon personal experience.
(NB Most of these are applicable to any returning ex-patriate).
Here we go…
1. Expect to feel like an alien for the first few weeks back home. Feeling disorientated, lethargic, confused, detached exhausted and frustrated is quite the norm at this time. The only completely effective cure is time: the longer you are back, the easier it will get, but expecting the negative feelings – and preparing for them as best you can – will help ease the way.
2. You are likely to be shocked by the ignorance of many folk regarding the country you’ve been working in, the work you’ve been doing or even how mission organizations work. Expect this (you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t happen) and try to be patient and realize that everyone has busy lives here and that most have not been absorbed by your comings and goings as much as you might like to think. In fact, most people will probably stop asking you about where you’ve been after a week or so. I’m really not sure why this is the case – maybe it’s a desire to see you ‘fit back in’ and become like everyone else again. This is not what you want, and you know it will never completely happen!
3. Driving, even if it is technically easier, will be harder to start with as you relearn a whole new set of road rules. Also, if you drive on the opposite side of the road, don’t expect to readapt instantly. For the first week home, I like to always have a passenger on board, who says “LEFT!” at every junction (and particularly at roundabouts). Once, I actually drove 50 yards on the right before realizing! You will probably also get into the wrong side of the car, maybe for months after returning!
4. Plan your ‘escape’ soon after your arrival. The initial days back home are both exciting and stressful at the same time. You’re pleased to see friends and family again, but the constant attention is likely to wear you out. You will also be asked the same questions by almost everyone – here are the usuals:
5. There will be some conversations you will struggle to follow, even though they are in your mother tongue. Again, this is due to cultural references and ways of speaking to which you are unaccustomed. With time, you will tune back into these.
6. If you are returning long term, there are likely to be hidden set-up costs. Our oven needed a costly repair, our dishwasher was no longer working and our garden fence needed replacing. We had no DVD player, no microwave and all the spices in our spice rack had gone off! Even the very act of filling your larder/freezer will cost you a lot. Prepare for this extra cost if you can.
7. People will openly express their shock at something you don’t know about the home culture, even though they know you’ve been away for years. This is another strange one – I can only assume it’s part of the culture! Things like: “Do you mean to say you don’t know what a tom-tom is?!” “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of Will.i.am?!” or “How can you not know what league Chelsea are in?!” All you can do is reiterate that you’ve been out of the country or (better still) make a joke of it “I know – I’m so out of touch, eh?”
8. Beware of weight gain: you are likely to put on several pounds in your first weeks back home, unless you are very careful. This is partly due to being fed by supporters and partly due to the vast range of processed and/or fattening foods available compared with the country you’ve been working in. Also (if you’re like me) some people eat more when under stress, and transitioning back into the home culture is very stressful indeed!
9. Some things you say – which seem perfectly normal to you – may shock or even offend others. This is purely due to the differing set of cultural norms you have been used to. Example: saying “You’re old” to an old person – this would be a respectful thing to point out in much of Africa; in the West it can be taken almost as an insult!
10. You’re likely to be shocked by: (i) materialistic attitudes and practices (“Come and look at my new kitchen – it cost £12,000”), (ii) moral standards and norms (ie how young women dress, advertisements, television programmes, bad language) and (iii) the cold response of non-Christians when you say you are a missionary. The cost of just about everything is likely to shock you, too.
11. If someone says “Isn’t it hot?” it’s best just to agree with their assessment of the weather, even if it’s ‘barely warm enough’ to you. This is certainly true in Britain where, culturally, you almost never disagree with these semi-rhetorical weather questions!
12. Be proactive in making church visits happen; merely putting a note in your prayer letter saying you’re available to take services is unlikely to jam your inbox overnight! Sending personal e-mails, making phone calls or (best of all) face-to-face contact are all more likely to yield results.
13. Try and do something to help you sleep well at night – insomnia or disturbed sleep are terribly common during those first weeks. Why not plan a half hour evening walk in the country, or listen to music which will relax you? You could even try herbal teas, or other natural products known to calm and aid sleep. Oh, and no computer work for a couple of hours before hitting the hay!
14. Some friends who have barely kept in touch whilst you were away will welcome you back warmly and you will pick up from where you left off, in spite of the lack of contact. Other people who you were good friends with before going overseas, you may no longer “click” with – you have changed, they have changed, your histories are now different and your values may overlap less. Don’t be surprised when this happens.
15. And finally, remember that you will generally feel more at ease with other people who have lived overseas, probably for the rest of your life.