February 9, 2005
The Sound of Music
I think that the thing that I will miss the most about Malawi when we leave is the music. My favorite time of the day is the late afternoon. Sometimes I stroll around the Synod’s grounds then. There is always a choir practicing somewhere. Often the students at HHI (Henry Henderson Institute – a Mission Secondary School) are practicing. The other day they were singing one of my favorite hymns, “As A Deer.” I stood spellbound, listening to their perfect harmonies.
On Tuesday afternoons the Mvano choir practices at St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. My friend Grace is in that choir. Sometimes I peek in the church and watch the motions to their songs, which are almost dances. On other days it is the children’s choirs that are practicing. Their sweet voices waft over the Synod grounds.
You may have heard recordings of African music. Several artists have popularized them in recent years, but when you hear a congregation singing praises to God in a CCAP church, well, it is hard to describe. You know the expression, “the roof was lifted off?” Yesterday at St. James CCAP Church, I actually glanced at the roof to make sure it was OK during our final hymn.
In churches in Malawi, there are always several choirs. Usually there are four choirs during an ordinary Celebration of Worship, each of them sings at least two anthems, and then another selection later in the Worship. But at special Celebrations of Worship, such as installations, church dedications, and the opening of Presbyteries, choirs come in from all over the Synod. At one such Celebration of Worship, I gave up counting after I got to 11 choirs. At some Celebrations of Worship the music alone can take over two hours.
We have seen choirs that sing in English, Chichewa and even Yao. Some sing traditional hymns, others sing praise songs. For special occasions, anthems are composed to honor the person or event. Some choirs are large, others have just a few members. Some choirs are all adult, some just children or youth. There are also combination choirs. The Mvano choirs are all women, we have also heard men’s quartets.
Most choirs have uniforms. We have seen traditional robes (although these can be very hot), in every color from hunter green to sky blue. Some outfits are simple, a dark skirt or pants and a shirt. (Sometimes a tie is added too!) Other choirs choose to dress in traditional fabrics. Some choir members even wear stylish berets. The dress, as the music, differs greatly.
One thing that all choirs have is enthusiasm. They sing with gusto. Even the smaller choirs produce great volumes of sound. As I mentioned before, the harmonies are just amazing to listen to. I don’t know a lot about music, but the way these choirs perform is incredible. The best part is that you can tell they mean what they are singing. Last Sunday, one of the choirs was singing an anthem that entreated Jesus to come back. They all raised their arms and looked towards Heaven.
There are no half hearted performances. For each song, the choirs are in motion. They may just be standing in place, moving from side to side, they may be doing intricate hand motions, or they may be dancing down the isles of the sanctuary, but they do it wholeheartedly. It is a joy to watch.
I would be lying if I told you that I have not heard a few mistakes here and there. After an off key duet at Mulanje CCAP Church, the pastor quipped, “They need some more practice.” Usually, however, the music is cerebral.
I am putting together the Synod’s Annual Report for 2004 right now, and the Music Department report states, “…we are glad to acknowledge and affirm that the Christian Church relies on music and singing as a lasting, meaningful communication of the Christian Gospel.”
I know it is something that I will never forget.