Mr. Guy’s Introduction to Kenya’s Gospel Music
Here’s what happens when a fellow casually mentions that he likes music, that music is (sort of) the driving force of his life, and that he is specially taken to learn that music is a key element in the religious life of Kenya.
OK. So I didn’t happen to mention the most of my musical focus is classical, and especially opera. And I didn’t happen to mention that in New York I don’t particularly listen to the religious radio stations, or the ones that emphasize gospel singing. I knew gospel singing was big in Kenya, simply because all the guide books write about how important religion is to the Kenyan, and about how in the Christian churches (the more fundamental, that is, not the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Churches) gospel singing is an important part of the religious liturgy.
Indeed, gospel music has become so popular since the mid-1990s that there are now large choirs, competitions, and all sorts of variations on a theme, with many of the choirs using African rhythms and melodies and weaving in European and other Western influences into their gospel singing. So it had crossed my mind that it might be good to hear some gospel music.
It is also, I was given to understand, a major attraction for visitors, which for this New Yorker shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, every Sunday morning tour buses take crowds of tourists – mostly Western Europeans, Australians, and Japanese – to Harlem to attend services and enjoy the spectacle. Why shouldn’t visitors to Nairobi do the same?
So I casually mentioned to some friends that I would like to hear some religious music (not sure I actually used the word “gospel”) and the next thing you know it’s Sunday, 10.00 am, and brought by friends, I’m joining slightly more than 1,000 worshipers at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church – Valley Road for the second service of the day.
Yes, the services are so popular that three must be held every Sunday, and I can see why. My friends have got us to church just in time, and as luck would have it we are able to slide into super seats in the pews just to the side and with perfect sightlines (as we would say at the opera house) of the altar, the pulpit, and several people standing about on a huge sort of stage as the band tunes up. No choir robes – not this particular choir, although many other churches are famous for the beauty and variety of their robes – and not a lot of what you might call musical preparation, but it is obvious that these singers are getting themselves ready. Out in the congregation the enthusiasm and anticipation are almost palpable, and just after the lead guitarist strikes a chord and says a few words of welcome, we’re off.
Everyone is on their feet, the beat is strong (very strong!), and I hear – and sing – “Joy to the World” like it’s never been heard or sung before. The words are flashed on a huge screen that’s come done above the altar, the singers (I find out later the choir has a name, “The Silver Voices” and it’s a perfect name for them) – each with a handheld mike – are moving all over the place, and before we get to the first “And heaven and nature sing” the place is jumping. And so are we.
And it doesn’t stop. The lead singer – a striking woman in a gorgeous floor-length African dress – is all over the place, and with a voice that would put some of the Met’s stars to shame, she comes in with a different obbligato each time we thousand voices sing one of the stanzas. We’re all singing in unison (OK – I try a little harmony on my own once in a while), and it makes a perfect line for her to sing above. Wow!
Of course I find I’m now moving a little, too, and clapping my hands along with the others (but don’t worry, I didn’t end up dancing in the aisles like some of the worshippers). And it just keeps going. We segue from one hymn to another – not all of them carols – and every once in a while a beautiful hymn in Swahili comes up. For all the hymns, the words can be read either from the hymnbook or from high on the projected screen. The format is almost always the same, with the melody sung through by the choir (and all the people who know it already – which seems to be everybody in the church but Mr. Guy!), and then we sing it over and over, sometimes to different lyrics, sometimes going back to some we’ve sung before. The lead singers change about, and with each one I am just amazed (which I realize as I write this is a very condescending thing to say, and I apologize) at the beauty of these voices. And their ability to be heard out over the band and the thousand or more people singing in the congregation is equally amazing.
[By this time incidentally, the church is overflowing, extra chairs have been put out, the “overflow hall” is so full it’s closed, and people are being turned away, invited to wait outside for the next service, coming up at 12.30 pm.]
The music goes on for a full 45 minutes, never stopping, just moving from one hymn to another, and of course I’m the only person in the place wiping my face with my handkerchief, because I’m boiling hot, working off so much energy. But the congregation – cool as a cucumber and dressed to the nines every one (especially the women) – are singing and swaying and jumping and making the most beautiful, joyful noise to the Lord I’ve ever heard.
What an experience!
Not over yet, though. Before the sermon, we have the dedication of the babies, and what a dear, sweet little ceremony this is, some twenty or so newborns brought to the altar by their parents and presented to the pastors and the elders of the church, prayed over, and dedicated to a life for Christ. Very moving and very touching.
Then it was time to welcome all the first-timers.
I looked at my colleagues and they all looked back, shaking their heads “yes.” There was no way to get out of it – I was expected to stand up and be recognized. I began to aver but then got over it. After all, in this congregation I could hardly be more conspicuous, could I?
So I did. I stood up, received the warm applause of the congregation (well, I wasn’t the only first-timer – there were a couple others but I fear I was the most noticeable!), and sat back down, relieved that that little ceremony was over. It didn’t hurt a bit and in fact, I suppose, it was one of the reason so many hands were offered for me to shake as we left at the end of the service.
As for the end of the service, well, I guess it was just what you would expect. We had a terrific, lively (well, more like exciting really), and altogether winning sermon, all about how we take our Christian values into the workplace. Examples ranged from the most professional to the most humble, and I have to admit that much that was said was of no small interest to me as I contemplate the variations on KM/knowledge services that I must deal with in my work, incorporating all levels and strata of workers. It was without doubt a very powerful sermon (even to my surprise incorporating old faithful PowerPoint, with projections on to that same screen where we had the lyrics of the hymns).
Not only was it powerful. That sermon was long, going on for quite a while. But it did the trick. At its conclusion, the famous “call to Jesus” went out, and I could feel myself pulling back a little (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m not very religious and in these kinds of situations, well, some of us begin to sort of close down, don’t we?). Had to be careful about this one, a small voice was saying to me. As a child I had often been taken to Protestant revival meetings back in Virginia, so I knew what this was all about. And – not to put too fine a point on it or to be condescending or patronizing (for I’m not doing that) – my partners and I often use the phrase to describe our wrap-up and conclusion when we’ve put together and presented a particularly successful workshop or Webinar. So I know a little about the “call to Jesus” and what it’s supposed to do.
But this was the real thing, and it was very touching, very serious, and very sincere. While the choir and the congregation sang “Oh come all ye faithful,” – almost sotto voce – the preacher invited people to come forward to show their desire to be saved. And I was blown away.
Where did all these people come from? By the time they had been prayed over and were about to be led into another space (I presume to be prayed over some more, but I don’t know, really), I estimate that some 75 or more people had “come forward.”
Almost overwhelming, this experience. And the church does this three times every Sunday? And several times during the week?
And all the time the choir is singing, singing, singing, capturing the exact emotion of each element of the service. Now we know: if anyone ever doubts the power of music (but no one I know does, when you get right down to it), this proves it once and for all. Music makes us one.