Filed Under (Ethnomusicology, General) by Rob on 12-08-2014

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:

Road resized

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:

Bounoua Workshop

As soon as we got there, we checked into our accommodation:

Bounoua Workshop2

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.

Bounoua Workshop1

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:

Day Two
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

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2. The House on the Rock by the Nglwa people

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3. The Lost Sheep by the Avikam people

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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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