The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 604-605
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The Value of Indigenous Music in the Life and Ministry of the Church: The United Church in the Duke of York Islands
This small book is timely and will be appreciated by those who champion the worth of vernacular music, particularly when it is facing extinction. Only in rare cases do we hear from one within such a culture who has the insight to realize that the deepest expression of a people is also in jeopardy. Andrew Midian who, while a student at Rarongo Theological College, began to weigh the value of indigenous music in the church at the time he was writing on the Duke of York Islands in order to meet the requirements of the Bachelor of Divinity degree, soon recognized that the subject was a vast one, not limited to the Duke of York Islands. Now an ordained minister, skilled in languages and music composition and performance, he continues to contemplate the implementation of indigenous music for Christian worship in an area whose inhabitants were evangelized over a century ago and were taught western hymns and harmonization. Midian is well aware of the problems in indigenizing church music.
For all the years that the church has been in existence in the Duke of York Islands, a large repertoire of traditional secular music has also been in existence, although "underground" for fear of disapproval. Some of this repertoire is nonreligious expression of human emotion that would not be incompatible with Christian practice; but through the centuries it has been very difficult for well-meaning teachers of the west to know what is compatible with Christianity when they have not learned the language and customs of the people, and when very few have investigated local music, presuming it antithetic to Christianity. Only a westerner who knows the language and the intent of what is performed musically is equipped to make any assessment, although it seems far more in order that enlightened local men or women decide whether a musical item is congruent with Christianity. But what music will satisfy everyone? Some will want to remain with the western hymns and anthems they were taught; others will copy another style of worship--even though it too may be imported; and others will try to fuse the foreign and the vernacular, but, as Midian points out, the western elements will be dominant. Syncretism is another problem in that it promotes a dualism like the present one, which allocates western music for Christian purposes and indigenous music for secular and pre-Christian beliefs.
As in many parts of Papua New Guinea, a generation has been schooled away from home and, as a consequence, has missed out on the oral transmission of their own music; instead, they have adopted (once more) music from the west, only this time it is the style of pop stars and so they are again caught within a music system not their own.
However, all is not lost so long as there are thinkers and educators like Andrew Midian, who is challenged by [End Page 604] the huge responsibility of implementing indigenous music for Christian worship in order to reach and relay an understanding at the deepest level. Willingness on the part of worshippers to listen with vicarious pleasure to one another's music is well within the practice of Christianity, one must believe.
As the author points out, attempting to make foreign music comprehensible by merely translating the words does not make it indigenous; the music is still foreign, in concept and in meaning. Even if new words are applied to existing...