Hymn Society conferences provide a crash course on singing in other languages. One hymn we sang this year was Pablo Sosa’s “Heaven Is Singing for Joy / El Cielo Canta Alegría,” which has a tongue-twisting set of elisions when done at proper upbeat tempo. We also sang in Japanese, Shona, Ikalahan (a Philippine dialect), and Cherokee, among other tongues. Some of these hymns are new to many of us; some are working their way into many denominations’ hymnals.
Our second plenary speaker this year was Dr. I-to Loh, an ethnomusicologist, hymnal editor, and a former seminary president. His talk, “Sound a Mystic Bamboo Song: Sounds & Images of Christ in Asian Hymns,” explored the contributions Asian cultures make to a global Christianity. Many of his examples were from “Sound the Bamboo,” a hymnal he edited for the Christian Conference of Asia. To prepare for this hymnal, he visited indigenous communities from Pakistan to Bali to record folk melodies. Many of these melodies were incorporated into the hymnal with Christian words, or inspired new compositions.
Dr. Loh reminded us that beauty is not universal. For example, Western 4-part harmony or “bel canto” singing would sound very strange in Indonesia or India, just as some Asian styles of singing and playing seem “out of tune” to Western ears. Similarly, he demonstrated how many aspects of music that Western Christians take for granted are not universal. While we used a piano for demonstration purposes, these hymns would often be accompanied by indigenous instruments — we heard a drum and a jaw harp. Instead of a regular meter, some hymns used additive rhythms — we sang Loh’s “Loving Spirit” in 7/8, 3+2+2. Instead of a Western tonality, hymns used scales not often used in the West, such as one based on a “gypsy mode.” And the imagery used was more meaningful to Asian cultures, such as “The Rice of Life from Heaven Came.”
One question Dr. Loh was asked — is it alright to take indigenous, non-Christian melodies and fit Christian words to them? In his response, Dr. Loh noted that this is something is something not limited to Christians, singing an altered Christian hymn he’d heard: “Buddha loves me, this I know…”
I think also of the response of Dr. Tinker, our previous plenary speaker, when addressing a similar question. He said that if people give you a song, then yes, you can (and perhaps even should) use it. But realize that it is changed — it is no longer the original piece that you heard. It takes on new meaning.