Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Listening to Music with Rev. John

My friend, John Thornburg, is currently in town. Our official line is that he’s here to “listen to people sing, and give thanks to God for their singing.” But the truth is that we’ve begun talking about the possibility of publishing a bilingual hymnal, just for the United Methodist Church of Cameroon.

We’d originally planned to be on the road in the Southwest Province this week, but our visa/registration problems have put a hold on that until we get things worked out. He’s here until the end of next week, so perhaps we’ll still get to do some traveling together.

The goal was simply to get him into as many churches and congregations as possible, so that he might hear a wide variety of music across the country. We’ve had to scale back our plans, but he’s still heard a great variety of songs.

He’s been in several choir practice sessions, with Methodists and Presbyterians. He’s been in a Sunday morning Pentecostal worship service. And he’s interviewed many musicians and singers, one-on-one. Today, he sat and tape recorded our friends, Alexis and Prisca, as they ran through 22 different choruses and praise songs, some in French, some in maternal languages.

But the best experience so far took place on Saturday night. We were invited to attend a concert with several local gospel singers and Agatha Moses, the top Christian artist in Nigera.
We had been told that the show was supposed to start at 8 pm, so we showed up a few minutes early, leaving enough time to purchase tickets. I’ve been in West Africa for almost a year now, so I should have known better …

We strolled into the concert hall, and sat in the front row – because the place was empty! A few guys were standing around onstage, looking at various instruments, wires, cords and assorted light fixtures. They weren’t even close to getting around to a sound check!

So we sat and waited … and waited. The stage took shape over the next two and a half hours, until finally the hall looked ready for a concert event. A few back-up singers came out to check the microphones, and the band led them through a strange version of “Shout to the Lord.” I thought to myself, “Oh, please don’t tell me that we’ve waited this long just to hear popular American praise and worship songs from the late nineties!” I looked over at John, hoping that he wasn’t about ready to throw something at me.

But my fears were unfounded, because once it started, the show rocked with the sounds of West Africa! For the next two hours, we simply had church in a rundown cinema hall in downtown Yaounde. I would have waited all night for the experience we had.

It’s impossible to describe, because it’s a purely visceral experience, all sight, sound and motion. Every song is a dance number, and every song is an invitation to participate. People from the audience would one-by-one make their way onto the stage next to the singer and dance, all the while rubbing 500 franc notes on the artist’s head and stuffing the bills in their pockets.

There was a whole lot of traditional Cameroon dancing, which involves impossibly-rapid shaking of the shoulders while knees are bent. And there was even more joy. You couldn’t watch or listen without smiling and laughing.

I think this is what a concert is supposed to be like; I’ve been to plenty of Gen X concerts featuring guitar bands who specialize in doing nothing but staring at their shoes and plucking their instruments, while fans are supposed to stand about a vacant dance floor holding bottles of beer in their hands. Smiles are out of place in such a venue, because everything is ironic and you can’t be caught having a moment of joy.

And yet, here in Yaounde, Cameroon, one of those places conveniently labeled “Third World,” “depressed,” and “tragic,” was a room bursting with more hope and happiness than I’ve seen in years in concert halls or comfortably carpeted chapels in America.