African Hymnody and the Yoruba

African hymnody is a relatively new development in the musical world, and its distant relationship to western music means that it attracts relatively little scholarship. The scholarship that does exist is recent, and in the scope of the total scholarship primary sources make up a large percentage. I have been particularly impressed by the work of Bode Omojola an ethnomusicologist who spent several years researching Yoruba (a tribal cultural group) music in Nigeria, produced several field recordings, and published his work in 2012. He visited several churches of varying traditions, both describing and analyzing their musical practices.
Omojola’s work one example of recent scholarship, and it is exciting because of the detail and accuracy that modern ethnomusicology brings to research, and the possibilities that it allows for the topic of African hymnody. African Christian music has a heavy western influence and thus it is difficult to find an objective account of the actual practices within sources that are even 10-15 years old. Choosing a topic was also difficult, because the scholarship was not only limited, but there are many cultural groups reflected within the scope of African hymnody that is seen in western hymnals. I knew I wanted to look at a hymn in a modern American hymnal, and analyze it within its original cultural context so my topic was necessarily chosen by looking at the hymns available and comparing it to the cultural group with the best scholarship available.
My necessarily narrow topic proves to be exciting because of its small body of thorough and extensive research. Many of the articles and books I found on Yoruba music took several approaches to analyzing the cultural influences on Christian music within their communities, and they sought to explain African rationale to a western audience. The modernity of the topic also allows for access to recordings, and translations of texts to help convey the musical ideas and textures that explanation cannot fully encompass. The ability to hear the music has been able to inform my comparisons to our western conceptions of African hymnody in a way that is not filtered through a third party who is describing the music.

Leave a Reply