Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zion Lutheran mission to Tanzania

This week, instead of visiting a choir elsewhere, The Itinerant Chorister was at my own church, Zion Lutheran Church, 1501 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor for presentation of the experiences of the group who went on a mission trip to Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania last August. This group included me--see my earlier reports here and here. Tanzanian and African music was really not featured in this service, although I actually got to use my somewhat meager abilities on the piano to re-create one of the things that happened in Tanzania--my friend Kent Peterson played the trumpet along with me, performing "Healer of Our Every Ill." While in Tanzania, part of the purpose of playing this was to encourage the son of our hosts to continue learning to play the trumpet, and also to fulfill the expectation of the church that we were attending that we provide some musical entertainment for them.

The centerpiece of this service was witnesses from each of the nine people who were on the trip and present today. In my own, I talked about how connections with my own job, researching the effects of intensified farming on the climate of East Africa, had led me to participate in this group starting six years ago. I also highlighted the vulnerability of African people to local climate and weather because of the expense of transporting food. In doing all this, I highlighted my own status as a left-brained person. The witnesses from my fellow team members would melt a stone heart, though, especially those of Kent and his daughter Marcie.

There were also some videos shown from church services that we attended there, and one of the things that caught my attention was this: Following the service at Kanisa Kantate (Church of Singing) in Mto wa Mbu, they had some items of food that had been given as offerings to the church, and they converted this into cash by auctioning off the items. The video showed part of this process, and right at the end, they have a bid of 600 Tanzanian shillings (shilingi mia sita), or about 50 cents, are asking for a bid of 650 shillings (shilingi mia sita hamsini), and all of a sudden our host Bethany Friberg jumps in and increases the bid to 1000 shillings (shilingi elfu moja), or about 85 cents. This small amount of money drew actual applause from the group assembled.

One of the things that struck me this morning, though, was that a number of paradoxes arose out of our actual experiences and what was said this morning. I think that some of these can be accounted for by looking at Tanzania through American eyes. One of these was that Mto wa Mbu was referred to as a remote village. In the larger scheme of Tanzania and Africa, it is difficult to really back up that description. A number that was thrown out in one bit of the talk today is that its population is 15,000 people, while Wikipedia quotes the 2002 census at 16,068, and I have no doubt that it has grown considerably since then. One major reason for growth is that since then it has acquired an asphalt road that is still in good condition. This is the main route between Arusha, a major portal for tourists coming on safari, and the safari sites of the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Also, Lake Manyara National Park is directly adjacent to Mto wa Mbu. There is an electrical grid there, although most people are living in houses without electrical service, and there is also abundant water for irrigation that comes from a stream flowing off the escarpment there--namesake of the town, which translates as "River of Mosquitos." But a lot of things make it look to us like a remote village. One that was highlighted today is the lack of even the most basic level of dental services. Other things they don't have include banking (there was one ATM which apparently didn't work), 24-hour shopping, city parks, news and entertainment media, Internet and medical services above a quite primitive level, etc. However, this did not reach the level of two previous trips that I took to Gilai Lumbwa, where there was no electricity and not even a place to drop snail mail. It was stated by the dentist in our group, Dr. Barbara Wehr of Dexter, that she trained several of the doctors from the area to back to their more remote locations and be able to perform tooth extractions with local anesthesia, and indeed these are more remote locations than Mto wa Mbu.

Sometimes we who visit from the west engage in a sort of game of one-upmanship about how deprived we are while on a trip like this. One bit of advice, though: Never try to compare this deprivation with the daily lives of ordinary people from the developing world. If you as an American try to play that game of one-upmanship, you are going to lose decisively.

Another sort of paradoxical thing: We befriended many of the people of Mto wa Mbu, but did any of us become one of them? Even though we grew some strong bonds, and they were impressed with the manual labor that was performed by these wazungu (white people), I will have to say no, because we just got on the plane and came back to Ann Arbor after two weeks. In many ways, we are better able to help the needy there by living and working in Ann Arbor. Even our hosts, Dr. Steve Friberg, his wife Bethany, and their three children, live lives that bring them in constant contact with the local people, but do not make them one with the natives. They are able to retreat to their own house, which is much more comfortable than their neighbors', take occasional vacations on the Indian Ocean coast, and biennially make months-long trips back to the USA for touching base with their family, friends, and sponsors, and expose the kids to life here. Dr. Friberg was raised as a missionary child in Tanzania, moved to the USA to complete his education, and has returned to Tanzania because of his dedication to the medical needs of people there. But he lives in a land in which Dr. King's dream of being judged not by the color of your skin has been realized to an even lesser extent than here in the United States.

Paradox #3: A couple of team members talked about the language barrier, while one said that most Tanzanians know some English. Again, yes to both, and it really depends on the level of schooling and ongoing use of English that people have. Some English instruction is provided at the primary school level, but the main language of instruction is Swahili. At the secondary school level, English is the language of instruction, and at one school that I visited, signs on the classroom doors said, "Speak English in this room." The level of competence in Swahili among our group was very low, and non existent in any of the other tribal languages that people regularly use there, such as the Maasai language. Dr. Friberg talks to the staff doctors at the medical clinics in English, in which they are fluent, but speaks to everyone else in Swahili.

I encourage everyone to go on a mission/service trip to the developing world. Do the service that you can and learn what you can, but just because you do, don't imagine that you have become one of the underprivileged people of the world. You have a long way to go in getting there.

Next week: The Itinerant Chorister hits the road, attending Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Spirit-Filled and Spirit-Led Singing

"All the glory, all the praise, O Lord we praise your name."

In my last post, I mentioned that a lot of choirs have a particular song that they always use to close their concert. For various choirs that I'm familiar with they include 'The Yell0w and Blue,' 'A Parting Blessing,' 'Perfidia,' 'Behold the Lamb of God,' 'Beautiful Savior,' and 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.' The One Voice Gospel Choir takes this one step further, and closes every rehearsal by standing in a circle, joining hands, and singing the song quoted above. When I was young, we used the expression 'know it by heart' to describe memorizing a song, or perhaps a poem or bit of prose. These singers know this song so much by heart that their brains are not actually able to reproduce it. During the after-rehearsal socializing, I tried to verify that I got the words correctly to put them in the blog, and was answered with, 'I can't even remember those words now,' even though they had all sung them very easily only minutes before.

OV, as they call themselves for short, performs all of their music from memory, and as a visitor for only a brief time, I had to employ a combination of already knowing a few things, memorizing some other key things, singing on instinct, and cheating by looking at a printed page. Actually, what would be called faking it in more general musical settings is rather legitimate within the gospel music genre. So, being thus led by the spirit, I made it through the longest repertoire list of any of my Itinerant Chorister visits. We sang 'This is the Day,' 'Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit,' 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,' 'Unity,' 'Siyahamba,' 'Freedom is Coming,' and others.

One thing that set this visit apart from most of my experience as the Itinerant Chorister is that this choir makes its home base at one church (St. Paul United Church of Christ in Saline), but performs in a great variety of settings and very frequently. At rehearsal, they handed out their upcoming schedule, which included six performances in the coming two months. Today, they were at the regular Sunday worship at Webster United Church of Christ at 5484 Webster Church Road, in Webster Township near Dexter.

First, I went to rehearsal on Tuesday evening. When I arrived, some members were recording a demo tape to send ahead of them to places interested in hosting them on a tour in England planned for this coming summer. The plea for everyone to turn of their cell phones before the recording started reminded me of an incident at another of my visits. When rehearsal was beginning for real, it was announced that I would sing and write the blog, to which the retort was, 'We'll tell you what to write.' At the beginning of rehearsal, much time was spent on announcements, prayer requests, and there was also a voice vote on whether to add a newly-proposed performance onto their schedule.

After announcements and prayer, we launched into practicing the music. The group is led by hyperkinetic director Jean Wilson, who has a strong instinct for gospel music and demonstrates her passion for it both to the choir and to those they sing for. Those who are used to singing in many other choirs will need to get used to certain things. For instance, the number of times that you repeat certain verses is not set in stone, but is decided on the fly, depending on how Jean feels about how it sounds, how the congregation is reacting, and how it feels. After all, it's not a science, but an art. We used some special effects that are taboo in many choirs. For instance, in 'He's Got the Whole World...,' there were two different spots in which we sang 'hands' with a fermata (i.e. held the note for as long as the director chose). In one case, we did the more traditional thing, holding on to the vowel 'a.' In the other case, we blew past the 'a' in a split second and instead held out the word by humming on an 'n,' something a classical choir wouldn't do.

Since this choir develops a repertoire, memorizes it, and then uses it for many performances, sometimes over quite a few years, the rehearsal mainly consisted of running through the music that they already knew, and there were only a very small number of rough spots to straighten out. That meant that I needed to catch on fast, and I tried my best.

Webster Church was founded in 1834 with funding from Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, later to become U.S. Secretary of State. The church was named after him, and later the road and the township got that name, too. This church claims to be the church building in longest continual use in Washtenaw County. Along with my visit to Old St. Patrick Church two weeks ago, I have covered two of the oldest churches in the area north of Ann Arbor and Dexter.

On Sunday morning, the plan was to have a time of performance at 9:30 am, in advance of the service at 10. However, announcements to the congregation had failed to get people into the church that early. We started singing at about 9:40 and had to convince people peeking in from the narthex that we were no longer practicing, but performing, and that they should come in and sit down.

The service featured a time spotlighting the country of Ghana, in which children helped to lead. This covered the food of Ghana, including foufou, made by grinding cassava root, the symbolism associated with the colors of the Ghanaian flag, and facts such as the gold deposits in Ghana and that it is the world's largest exporter of cocoa.

The sermon was delivered by guest preacher and seminary student Elizabeth Hoban. She explained early in the sermon that this was one of the few sermons that uses a chart (I learned after the service that she is moving into the ministry after being a mechanical engineer). She held up a chart with a pyramid on it to show the concept, sometimes used in business planning, of DIKW--data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, with wisdom being the narrowest piece at the top of the pyramid. (The back side showed an inverted pyramid with no data, misinformation, ignorance, and folly.) As further illustration of the chasm between data and wisdom, she quoted from T. S. Eliot's 'The Rock,' which includes 'The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.' She emphasized that wisdom from Earth can ruthless and counter to our best actions, while wisdom from above serves all people.

At the end of the service, there was a call for an encore from OV, and I had to fake (or rather, be spirit-led) through a medley that included 'This Train is Bound for Glory' and 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' Refreshments after the service included some Ghanaian food.

I realize that there are likely to be some divergent thoughts about a gospel choir whose members are all white. On this, I have two comments. First, I support their message and their music because of the enthusiasm and spirit that they bring to it; they know their music by heart. Second, I also hope to sing in the choir of an African-American church. I have had difficulty in making contact with a particular church that I wanted to sing in, and encourage anyone to get in touch with me to help me do this. Also, let me know about gospel choirs that are more racially integrated.

Next week: Service benefiting and celebrating Tanzania at Zion Lutheran, Ann Arbor

Monday, February 8, 2010

Superbowl Sing at Old St. Patrick

La mort n'est plus. Death is no more.

This week brought The Itinerant Chorister to Old St. Patrick Church at 5671 Whitmore Lake Road, north of Ann Arbor. The church was founded by Father Patrick O'Kelly in 1831 and I was told that it was the first Roman Catholic church in Michigan to use the English language; prior churches used French. The musical experience was quite unusual, as this church has a boychoir that gets together to rehearse and perform only on an occasional basis. They perform three times per year at the church, and also try to find some other performance venues at other times. When they sing at the church, they are augmented by several adult male voices, dubbed the "men singers." Furthermore, several of these are guys who started out singing as boys with this group, even back to its inception ten years ago.

This group sang several things at the 10:30 am Mass. The centerpiece was Cesar Frank's 'Alleluia,' quoted in part at the top of this post. However, this is arranged for soprano, mezzo, and contralto; as a bass, I sat this one out, but the tenors sang the contralto part. This song was sung in abbreviated form from the balcony during the mass, and then in full following the mass from the chancel, by memory. Also featured during mass was 'O Bone Jesu' by Palestrina. The mini-concert following mass consisted of 'Alleluia' along with this choir's traditional closer, 'Behold the Lamb of God' by Bob Burroughs. They even invited alumni of the group forward for the closer, as is done by the U. Michigan Men's Glee Club, Measure for Measure, and many other groups.

In addition to these anthems, the choir also led much of the liturgy of the Mass. As pointed out by Paul Schultz of St. Thomas the Apostle church in Ann Arbor in a comment to my teaser paragraph in, Old St. Patrick is one place that does some pieces of the Latin Mass. This time, we did a Gregorian chant in Latin of 'Glory to God'--'Laudamus te, benedicimus te,' etc. We also chanted the Kyrie, the part of the Latin Mass that actually is in Greek. Some bits of the liturgy and hymns were themed on the scripture readings for the day--Isaiah 6:1-8, featuring the angels singing, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!', and Luke 5:1-11, in which Jesus promises to make fishermen into fishers of people.

The homily delivered by Father Gerald Gawronski was an exposition on the blessings, responsibilities, and challenges of the Roman Catholic priesthood, and the challenges in the path of maintaining the corpus of priests. He started off by saying something that I found a little startling--the 'common priesthood' that all Catholics share. It sure sounded a lot like the 'priesthood of all believers' of Protestant faiths, although a quick look at Wikipedia helped me to understand the difference. He contrasted this to ministerial priesthood of ordained priests. He highlighted three factors that stand in the way of recruitment of more priests--materialism, hedonism, and excessive individualism. All reduce the capacity for sacrificial love that is required.

This choir has one person, Jim Kaderabek, as its sparkplug. He puts a lot of work into such things as recruiting and communication with the singers and their parents, as most of them are not actually members of the church. He also directs most of the singing. I knew that his formal training in music is limited, but he knows and teaches such things as singing with 'tall' vowels, in order to avoid the kind of sounds that indicate tension in the mouth and throat and, even though they might sound right when talking, sound bad when singing. He maintains an attitude of all business and keeps a bunch of young boys in line. At the same time, Jim has some help on the musical end. Mike Sauter stood in to direct the Franck 'Alleluia,' as well as singing with the basses. And the church's Director of Music, Mara Terwilliger (her blog), did all of the accompaniment on the organ and helped in keeping singers' pitches in line. One particular thing that she did, actually somewhat surreptitiously, was during 'O Bone Jesu' when she gave a big nod of the head when the altos had a tricky entrance on an offbeat.

This event was billed as the 11th Annual Superbowl Sing, but nothing was themed on the Super Bowl. In fact, the only mention that was made of the Super Bowl during the mass included the word 'vulgarity.' Even for a non-football fan like me, I'm not sure that everyone was on board with that.

The physical setup for singing reminded me somewhat of what I described from my December visit to St. Patrick Church (same name) in San Francisco, singing from a rather small balcony. However, in San Francisco, only five men clustered around the organ console in that balcony. This Sunday, six boys sang soprano and seven alto, plus three adult or high school men sang tenor and four sang bass, all within an area the size of a mini-van between the pillars. Through nearly all of the Mass, we stood on plywood risers, with most of the boys using plastic stepstools placed on top of this. During the short times that we could sit, the boys spread out toward the sides of the balcony and the basses sat on the bench in the back row that was only about four inches deep. Contrast the problems with sitting on the front edge of the chair in last week's entry with this week, when the entire seat was the front edge.

A central activity in this choir is recognition of its members. The Saturday evening rehearsal was the only one that I was expected to attend as a bass; there were four rehearsals for sopranos and altos and two for tenors. Following that rehearsal was pizza and pop in the parish hall, and Jim got up and said that this was his favorite time of the sing, when he recognized the members. He had each person stand in turn and first introduce himself, then Jim actually gave a short speech about each person. This included me (I've known Jim for a long time). What kind of youth activity have you been in that gives this level of recognition at each event? There is also a system of items presented for participating several times: a tie for five times, tie clip for ten times, and cufflinks for fifteen times. Also, each participant is given a bottle of water at the Mass, bearing a sticker with his name on it and stars corresponding to the number of times each one has participated. Again, this included me. For those with a greater number of times participating, the stars were color-coded in a system that I didn't entirely get, but gold stars perhaps indicated five times. The bottle that said 'Brent' alas had only one pink star on it.

The group photo is also a big deal. I'm in the right rear.