Archive for the ‘Ethnomusicology’ Category

Filed Under (Ethnomusicology, Malian culture) by Rob on 16-02-2017

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here, but this week I had the privilege of being back in West Africa for some field recording with the Ganadougou people in southern Mali.

Before starting, we had a 50 mile motorbike journey: here I am with the microphone stands and several bottles on my back:

The workshop didn’t get underway until almost three hours later than scheduled, for various reasons, but it was worth the wait, a these folks had great voices and knew their traditional genres well.
Here I am making my usual list of all the song genres in Ganadougou culture:

They’ve got some pretty interesting instruments too, including half a gourd floating in a bowl of water (something I’ve come across several times across W Africa).

And then there was a young chap with his hand made metal scraper:

And, of course, there was a balafon too, which really added to the quality of the music:

(I’m looking pretty tired by this stage in the afternoon!)

Recording these songs helps to preserve the Ganadougou culture and their musical heritage, as well as passing on important messages via radio and mobile phones. If you’re wondering what they all sounded like, have a listen here:

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Filed Under (Beninese culture, Ethnomusicology, General) by Rob on 01-11-2014

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

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

Travel Africa Magazine2
(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.

World Mag2
(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).

Wanderlust Magazine review2
(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!

For Your Bookcase2

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!


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.


worship leader

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.

#1 Hy.hymn choice

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.

#1 Sheet Music

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.

Position of band

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!

Eyes looking

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!

focus on christ

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.


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!”

Order your copies here (UK) or here (USA) and enjoy ‘a good read’ which (apparently) ‘will transport you to Africa’.

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!

Ch.4 Bogo people dancing

“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.”

Buy your copy here (US) or here (UK).
Thanks for reading!

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?)

Book Review

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!

Don’t forget, you can buy your copy here (UK) or here (USA)

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.

Front Cover

“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!”
(Male, UK, 19th December 2012)

“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.”
(Male, UK, 20th December 2012)

“It was a really interesting and enjoyable read!”
(Male, USA, 1st January 2013)

“It’s a good read.”
(Male, UK, 1st January 2013)

“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.”
(Female, Scotland, 6th January 2013)

“I’m really enjoying the book. It’s bringing back a few interesting memories of Africa.”
(Female, Australia, 6th January 2013)

“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.”
(Male, UK, 7th January 2013)
If you’re in the USA, order your copies here or here.

In the UK, order your copies here or here.

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!

…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?”
“I’m a French teacher,” I would reply, shamefully.
“Oh, right. Where do you teach?”
And that was one of the more interesting responses. The bravest (or most foolhardy) would reply: “Ah oui! Un kilo de tomates, s’il vous plaît!” Others would merely reel out a string of random French words, presumably in an attempt to impress me: “Ooh là là! Gerard Depardieu, Arc de Triomphe, Joe le Taxi, tarte aux pommes…” However, by far the most common response inflicted upon me on such occasions was the likes of: “I was rubbish at French in school,” or “I had a terrible French teacher who wore corduroy, smelt of garlic, and gave me a ‘D’ grade even when I did my best.” How can the conversation spontaneously evolve following such a statement? And so my job was the definitive conversation stopper; I may as well have said I watched paint dry for a living (which would, in fact, probably have sparked off more interest).

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.

Filed Under (Ethnomusicology) by Rob on 07-10-2011

In September this year, Rob attended the ‘Arts in Missions’ conference in Herfordshire, UK.

It was a great week, with lots of like-minded people sharing their thoughts, experiences and ways of worshipping. It was also a consultation for developing a new ‘Arts Manual’, which will be available in the future for all those engaged in the Arts in cross-cultural missions. Anyway, don’t take my word for it – watch this cool video, which shows what happened during the week (you can briefly spot me in a green Malian costume and also in a multi-coloured rugby top!)

(NB A shorter, 3 minute version of this film is viewable here).

Hope you enjoyed that. Don’t forget, there are lots of places running courses in Arts and Missions these days, as more and more folk are realizing the importance of using culturally relevant arts in their work. Music is not a universal language and neither are any of the arts. Going into cross-cultural missions without understanding this could, in some cases, even be destructive. So, what are you waiting for? Get transcultural and find out more!

Arts Courses at GIAL, Texas

European Training Programme Arts Course (UK)

BA Degree with an Arts pathway option (All Nations, UK)

Ethno-Arts at YWAM School of Missions, Panama

List of courses on ICE website

Masters Degrees in Musicology on