8th November 2014
Several weeks ago I wrote about my first week at church. Since then, I’ve had many more weeks to figure out a few things about the way things work in the church. Of particular interest to me has been the music. (Watch out: I’m about to get nerdy about music. If that’s not your thing, you might skip this post.)
Choral music is a major component of church in Rwanda. I’ve visited a number of churches around the eastern part of Rwanda with Martin, and every single one— even the tiny one that meets under a tattered tarp hanging from tree poles on a grassy hillside— has not one, but two choirs: one for the adults and “youth” (people ages 18-35) and one for the kids. The size of the choir depends on the size of the church, and also on the time time of the year. (For example, our choir in Rukira swelled in size a week ago, when several youth returned home after National Exams in their final year of secondary school, the Rwandan equivalent of an ACT or SAT test.) The Rukira Lutheran Choir, known as “New Life Choir,” has about twenty or thirty members. Most choirs have only a couple of men, but New Life has five or six on a good day.
Each choir sings an average of two songs during the church service, each of which have approximately twenty-eight verses. Or, at least it seems like twenty-eight, because they all have the exact same simple melody around four chords. It gets a little tedious to listen to, especially when I haven’t mastered Kinyarwanda well enough to catch the lyrics. As they sing, they step together in simple patterns, and use a handful of different hand gestures with the lyrics: raising their open palms as if pleading to God, waving their pointer fingers so as to say “no,” and waving in praise.
What’s truly remarkable is that nearly every number has original lyrics. Yes, that means that the choir members somehow memorize two-dozen verses of lyrics which were written by their peers. (I’ve been trying to fathom how they do it, but I don’t have the slightest clue just yet.) Sometimes they forget and awkwardly pause to re-group mid-“performance,” but it works out.
I think I subconsciously expected that there would be rich four-part harmonies and elaborate drum beats in African choirs— probably from my experiences singing choral arrangements of African songs in high school and college choir. But in my church, the choir is accompanied by an Yamaha electric keyboard, played by a hip twenty-year-old dude called Umunezero (“Happiness”); and with the keyboard behind, the singers seem to prefer not to harmonize (a huge pity, I think!) Umunezero is an expert at navigating the settings of his instrument, laying down bombastic synthetic drumbeats and heinous synthesized instrumental voices, and rapidly firing through the successive inversions of I, IV, and V chords with the occasional vi and surprise I7 leading to IV, all in complicated rhythms. But most of the time, his chord changes and rhythms are completely out of sync with the choir, making for a confusing (sometimes painful) aural experience. What is most agonizing for me is the process of selecting the settings at the beginning of each song: as a soloist leads off a song (without having pre-determined a starting pitch), the keyboardist shamelessly bangs on one key as he transposes the keyboard into a key he can easily play (i.e. Middle C sounds an E-flat), and then messes around with drumbeats as the singer continues. Almost every time, the singers suddenly stop after one or two verses as their leader strolls over to the keyboardist, explaining that the rhythm or key he chose aren’t what they were looking for. (I’d like to suggest they just plan out their settings before starting.)
Having been deeply embedded in American choirs, where we read music and plan out our starting pitch and definitely do not dance and use cheesy synthesizers, my understanding of music is not the same as that of the New Life Choir. But I’ve realized that the singing isn’t really the point of the choir here. You’ve probably already guessed: it’s the community. Which is lucky for me, because I have no better opportunity to make friends with the church youth. I attend choir rehearsals on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, not because I can actually sing along with their twenty-eight verses (although I do get a kick out of standing in the group to do the dance moves and make the kids laugh). I do it for friendship.