Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media, and Morality

Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media, and Morality

by Vicki L. Brennan


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Singing the same song is a central part of the worship practice for members for the Cherubim and Seraphim Christian Church in Lagos, Nigeria. Vicki L. Brennan reveals that by singing together, church members create one spiritual mind and become unified around a shared set of values. She follows parishioners as they attend choir rehearsals, use musical media—hymn books and cassette tapes—and perform the music and rituals that connect them through religious experience. Brennan asserts that church members believe that singing together makes them part of a larger imagined social collective, one that allows them to achieve health, joy, happiness, wealth, and success in an ethical way. Brennan discovers how this particular Yoruba church articulates and embodies the moral attitudes necessary to be a good Christian in Nigeria today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253032096
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/12/2018
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 230
Sales rank: 1,055,052
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Vicki L. Brennan is Associate Professor of Religion and Director of African Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


Singing the Same Song

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness, come before his presence with singing.

— Psalm 100:1–2

For the word of God says, if we live in Spirit as we claim we do in the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, let us also walk in Spirit. The Church must set for the whole world the perfect pattern of spiritual worship by worshipping God, in Spirit and in truth. We should proclaim His Holiness, Might, and Dominion, day and night, ceaselessly through all eternity in our words, speeches, actions, and deeds.

— S. F. Korode, Cherubim and Seraphim Legacies

Throngs of churchgoers wearing their white prayer gowns and clutching Bibles scurry toward the main hall of the Cherubim and Seraphim Ayo ni o Church in Lagos, Nigeria early each Sunday morning in order to attend worship services. As they move toward the building they encounter the sound of voices singing, amplified through a system of loudspeakers strung throughout the compound. To the soundtrack of voices, guitars, organ, and drums, they enter the church, take their places in the pews, and join the singing. The volume of the music increases and people begin swaying back and forth and smiling in anticipation of the service. At precisely 8:45 a.m. the tempo of the music slows down and the organ sounds the chords of that day's opening hymn, a signal that the service is about to start. As the worship leaders for that day's service process into the building from the back entrance, the rest of the congregation joins voices and bodies together in song. The procession moves toward the sanctuary in the front of the church, drawing everyone's attention to the altar at the front of the church hall. Once they have arrived everyone in the church faces forward, a sea of people clad in white flowing gowns singing together. Worship has already begun.

It is this scene, repeated by churchgoers each Sunday morning, that serves as a point of departure for the arguments about music, media, and morality that I undertake here. This book is an ethnographic examination of the ways in which music — together with other elements central to church worship such as speech, dress, and movement — was a crucial tool for the making of self and community for members of a large, independent Christian church in Nigeria's largest city. As a prophet at the Ayo ni o Church explained to me, "Music can connect thousands of people at a time and create the same mind. When we are singing the same song, our minds cannot change." In other words, church members saw singing together as a means of creating unity and cohesion around a shared set of values. By "singing the same song" an individual church member became part of a larger imagined social collectivity, one that extended across time and space.

It was by singing the same song, and thereby producing the same mind — a shared ethical orientation toward the world — that one would be able to achieve a "good life." Church members sought to create a community of people oriented around the same moral and ethical values through their religious musical practice. A good life included health (àlàáfià), joy (ayo), happiness (inu didùn), wealth (olà), and success (isegun). All of these elements that make up the good life can be glossed with the Yoruba word àlàáfíà, which not only refers to physical health, but more generally describes a person at peace due to the presence of all of these elements. At the same time as participation in church worship enabled such prosperity, it also provided protection (àábò), mercy (àánú), and salvation (igbàlà). For church members, singing the same song was a means to achieve these ends, and to do so in the right way: a moral way, an ethical way, rather than through corruption, or by buying one's way to happiness or stealing and cheating in order to become wealthy. These negative behaviors were of central concern to church members, and indeed to many in Nigeria who, as Daniel Smith puts it, "see corruption at work in every aspect of social life" (Smith 2007, 5). To counteract the perceived pervasiveness of such negative behavior, church members emphasized that hard work and "correct behavior" according to agreed-on social norms and values were necessary to achieve a good life.

But there was something more behind church members' admonishments to go to church and sing each Sunday. Singing the same song was not only figurative but was also technical, in the sense that doing so involved techniques of the voice, body, and self, as well as the belief that these techniques needed to be perfected (Mauss 1973). One had to actually sing the same song as everyone else — the same lyrics, the same melody, the same rhythm. And this singing had to be done in accordance with rules and expectations that shaped how church members understood singing to be emotionally affective as well as religiously effective.

Singing the same song together correctly was more difficult than it might initially seem, given the nature of music itself. A song is composed of discrete musical parts (such as harmonic layering or interlocking rhythms) that when brought together produce a cohesive and recognizable whole. These discrete parts of a song, in performance, produce a trajectory over time, whether it is from one rhythmic or melodic motif to another or a cyclical repetition. Such aspects of musical performance are often performative and context-dependent. In other words, choices made about whether to lengthen or shorten a musical phrase, or to repeat a section of a song, are often made in the moment of performance for particular needs or desires. Thus, the potential for each performance of a song to be unique is constrained by "tradition" — by rules that govern how to sing, who sings, and what and when to sing — but a given performance is not limited by these rules. Any performance of a song is both a repetition and an innovation at the same time.

How, then, did the congregation sing the same song? This is the question I set out to answer in this book through an examination of the technologies, media forms, disciplinary practices, and cultural theories about what constitutes the right kind of singing, through which church members saw themselves as singing the same song. I argue that it is the gap between the rule-bound nature of music that allows it to be repeatable and recognizable as a repetition, and the transformations, large and small, that happen in any given performance of a song, that allows song to not just be expressive of shared values and practices but also to be productive of ethically informed ways of being in the world.

My analysis of the sounded aspects of Cherubim and Seraphim worship speaks to larger anthropological concerns with the tensions between conventionality and spontaneity in ritualized action (Drewal 1992; Mahmood 2001), and between normative and innovative aspects of affective states (Bloch 1974; Tambiah 1985; Turner 1967). To accomplish this, I examine musical and ritual performance in the context of Cherubim and Seraphim worship. Through this analysis I demonstrate how church members articulated and embodied the moral and ethical prescriptions and attitudes necessary to be "a good Christian" via musical participation. Music served as a highly stylized and aesthetic participatory form, one that allowed church members to create "the right kind of worship." Church members understood music to be capable of enhancing the spiritual power of the singer, of producing a unified body of worshippers, and of effecting material changes in the world. The efficacy of musical participation was usually evidenced by the visible or audible presence of the Holy Spirit during musical portions of church worship. It was this capacity of correct musical performance as part of worship that made church members emphasize singing in order to create a social context in which they were able to achieve prosperity and success.

Church members saw singing in church as an efficacious and ethical mode of acting in the world. I focus on two aspects of church music: first, how music helped church members to reproduce themselves as Christian subjects, and second, how musical performance in the church extended outwards to shape a Yoruba social world. Members of Cherubim and Seraphim churches did not just sing with their voices, but also used musical media such as hymnbooks and cassette tapes to reproduce themselves as Christian subjects. They danced and moved their bodies in coordination with songs. They attended choir rehearsals, Bible study classes, and lectures on religious topics regularly. They prepared themselves outside of church to do all of these things correctly and properly. These musical forms and practices mediated religious experiences for church members, connecting people to God, to church history, and to each other. At the same time, music provided a means through which church members developed an ethical self, one that enabled them to interpret and apply the lessons learned by singing in church to issues and situations that they faced in their own lives. It was the work of attempting to sing the same song that provided church members with their ability to achieve success in the midst of economic and political transformations and uncertainty that characterized Nigeria since 1999.

The Right Kind of Worship

For church members "singing the same song" was central to navigating the transformations of Nigeria's political economy in the early twenty-first century, especially between 2001 and 2004, a time when the majority of the ethnographic research for this book was conducted. Nigeria's transition to democracy in 1999 was seen by many Nigerians as holding the best promise for undoing many of the social and economic problems that had plagued the country during the years of General Sani Abacha's military dictatorship (1993–1998). Under Abacha, a small fraction of Nigerians, particularly those with connections to the military regime, had been able to amass vast wealth from oil revenues, while the majority of the population continued to live in extreme poverty. According to United Nations, in 1996 more than 60 percent of Nigerians survived on less than $1 per day. By the time of Abacha's death in 1998, the middle class had been nearly squeezed out of existence.

The shift to democracy — marked by the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president in 1999, as well as his successful reelection in 2003 — represented a moment of possibility for what remained of Nigeria's middle-class, who looked forward to the "democracy dividends" that were owed to them in return for years of suffering and deprivation under military rule. For many Nigerians "democracy meant better paid jobs, education, health care, modern amenities such as affordable homes, motor transportation, pipe borne water and electricity, and above all, a better future for children" (Ojo 2004, 77). Some of these improvements seemed to materialize quickly, in particular the introduction of digital cellular telephone technology and infrastructure that brought access to wireless telephone service to a significant portion of Nigeria's population. However, other services lagged behind. Electricity remained inconsistent and generators were prevalent across urban Nigeria, especially in middle-class residential and commercial districts. Roads and highways were in a prolonged state of disrepair, making travel difficult as cars, busses, and trucks navigated around massive potholes and obstructions.

The most visible sign of the failure of democracy to ensure prosperity for Nigeria was the scarcity of fuel. People spent hours waiting in long lines outside of service stations so that they could fill their gas tanks in order to travel from home to work, or to purchase a jerry can of diesel in order to run a home generator when the electric utility failed. Adding to the frustrations of the Nigerian middle class, who sought to create a comfortable life for their families in the midst of the chaos of Nigeria, the Obasanjo administration introduced new regulations on the import of consumer goods. The intent of the government was to increase the consumption of consumer goods produced within Nigeria rather than imports and to encourage local businesses to expand their offerings. However, these restrictions were understood by the middle class as a deprivation because they restricted their ability to purchase items such as used cars, refrigerators, and air conditioners (generally referred to as tokunbo [lit.: from overseas]) as well as imported textiles, poultry, and manufactured items from Europe and China. The price of such goods increased in response to the limited supply available making it more difficult for those on middle-class salaries to afford such amenities. Universities were underfunded, and between 2002 and 2004 were frequently closed due to strikes by lecturers and other university staff who sought to improve both their wages as well as learning and living conditions for their students.

The Ayo ni o Church attempted to step in to fill this gap in public services that the state failed to provide. This often took the form of providing free meals, clothing, and medical assistance to impoverished church members, or serving as an informal employment network, but it also promised to deliver to church members a morally sound form of social organization through their participation in church services. Cherubim and Seraphim worship practices worked to produce a social imaginary fashioned according to what they deemed to be Yoruba and Christian values. Indeed, church leaders stressed that theirs was a particularly Yoruba form of Christianity, one that joined together Yoruba and Christian values and practices. By attempting to sing the same song, and learning how to do so, church members were able to create a particular vision of an ideal society that brought together traditional Yoruba social orders with Christian moral codes. In particular, church leaders emphasized the importance of hierarchical directions of respect organized according to seniority, as well as wealth redistribution from senior patrons to junior clients, as crucial to ensuring moral order and ethical behavior.

Singing made this social imaginary tangible, accessible, and applicable. Church members sang the same song in new contexts, affecting both the meaning of the song as well as their interpretation of current events. It was in this way that the moral ideals of Cherubim and Seraphim Christianity were brought to bear on church members' understandings of their everyday lives in the context of political and economic transition. Furthermore, music and musical performances enabled particular modes of mediation and circulation so that Cherubim and Seraphim social values and imaginaries contributed to cultural politics and public culture in Nigeria more generally.

The Ayo ni o Church choir played a crucial role in creating and circulating musical forms that linked religious values to everyday life. In addition to opening up communication between heaven and earth in order to bring down God's power, the Ayo ni o Church choir's musical performance was used to create a relationship between divine power and the congregation. As a prophetess explained to me: "The choir sets an example for the church. If the choir makes noise, the church will make noise. The choir is a service department in the church, a ministry which is necessary in order to carry the congregation and to produce unison so that the congregation recognizes before whom they are coming." Church members understood music to be required by God in order to draw down his power, as well as to produce unity in the congregation. This was further seen as a practice of angelic mimicry. In his history of the church, Omoyajowo quotes a member of a Cherubim and Seraphim Church in the 1970s who described practices of angelic mimesis: "using the Bible as authority, members believe that 'Cherubim and Seraphim are the names given to the angels around the throne of God in heaven singing praises unto Him continually day and night'" (Omoyajowo 1982, 114). Singing was thus not just about the music itself but also a bodily practice; worshippers did what they could to sound like, look like, and move like angels, which created a link between church members and the divine. This link was crucial to transforming individuals into recognizable worshippers of God who, through their religious efforts, were able to be successful in the world.

For participants in church worship, musical performance was an engagement with and taking on of divinely inspired and thus morally correct subjectivities and social relations. As a church prophet explained to me, "Music is a mode of happiness by which the order was founded. Music and dance are required by God, because they make him happy." Indeed, church members believed that good musical performance, especially when combined potently with other ritual modes such as dance, dress, and oratory, ensured that their prayers would be heard by God, that the Holy Spirit would descend into the space of the church, and that the church prophets would experience visions, all of which promised to change material circumstances for believing members. The transformations of self, community, and materiality effected via singing were usually evidenced by the visible or audible presence of the Holy Spirit in the church during musical portions of worship as members of the congregation fell into a spiritual trance or began to speak in tongues.


Excerpted from "Singing Yoruba Christianity"
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Copyright © 2018 Vicki L. Brennan.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on Language and Translation
1. Singing the Same Song
2. Onward Christian Soldiers
3. The Voice of the Spirit
4. Take Control
5. Straight to Heaven
6. In His Steps
7. Living in the Spirit
8. Show the Glory of God
Glossary of Yoruba Terms

What People are Saying About This

"By looking at song and sound as critically important aspects of worship, Vicki L. Brennan provides an excellent and detailed analysis of Yoruba Christianity, its practice, and its impact on church members."

Elisha P. Renne]]>

By looking at song and sound as critically important aspects of worship, Vicki L. Brennan provides an excellent and detailed analysis of Yoruba Christianity, its practice, and its impact on church members.

Elisha P. Renne

By looking at song and sound as critically important aspects of worship, Vicki L. Brennan provides an excellent and detailed analysis of Yoruba Christianity, its practice, and its impact on church members.

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