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City of Banjul
Sunday, October 25, 2020

To sing is like praying twice

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With Aicha

One big difference between Christian and Muslim worship is the music.
Those of you who have been Muslims all your lives might not have experienced the difference, but I have. In the Christian churches here in Sweden we even have special musicians trained to take care of all the musical parts of each church service. As a young girl, I think I was about eight-years-old, when I began to sing in the children’s choir in our local church.

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Our musician, Mona, was a beautiful, kind young lady, and all of us kids loved her. The choir trained once a week and we sang sometimes at the sermons in our church. There are special songs for the children and all of us kids in the choir had our favourites. When I became a teenager Mona had started a choir for us, older kids, so I continued there and finally ended up in the choir for the adults.

I began to play the piano at the age of 9 and I was 14 when I began to take church organ lessons from Mona.
I don’t know if you have ever seen a church organ but it is a marvelous instrument. In a way it looks like a piano, you play with your hands on a keyboard (or up to three keyboards!) but you also play with your feet.
It’s so cool! At the beginning it was so hard to disconnect the feet from my eyes but with good practice I didn’t have to look more than where to begin. Play with one’s feet!? Yep! That is possible because a church organ has something called pedals and they are placed on the floor.

The musician sits on a special bench, plays with the hands on the keyboards and with the feet on the pedals – at the same time! The pedals look almost as large keys, not the one you open doors with, but like a key on a keyboard. For you computer freaks, I am not speaking about a computer keyboard, the piano came far before the computer so it is actually your world that has borrowed a word from mine.

So, the pedals are not as many as on a keyboard because they need to be larger, longer and wider, so it is possible to place ones feet on them. The feet wander up and down on the pedals, using both toes and heels. It’s a cool feeling to play with both hands and feet and sing at the same time. Sometimes it could happen that if I played and sang a well-known hymn my thoughts wandered away from what I did and I could be thinking of something that didn’t have anything with the sermon to do at all. I could be thinking about what to buy at the grocery store afterwards, what to have for dinner and so on.

Suddenly, I realised that I didn’t know where I was in the hymn if it had several verses. I had switched on the autopilot so I had to stop singing for some seconds and listen to the parish. Most of the people didn’t sing loud but there is one letter in the words that I could hear easily. You see; the church musician doesn’t normally sit close to the parish. The church organ is often a very large instrument so it needs to be placed by its own on a large balcony. The balcony is placed at the beginning of the church and most people sit at the end of the church, near the altar. This is why it can be tricky for the musician to hear others singing.
The letter I’m speaking about is the letter S. If you think for a while; when people whisper and you can’t hear what they say, you can still hear the letter S.

Ok, so when I had lost my way in the hymn I stopped for some seconds to listen to the others and if they sang the letter S at the same place as I did then I was on the right verse. As the church musician I had the ”power” to play and sing as long as I wanted but it could be a bit embarrassing if I got lost completely.
That happened to me sometimes, I was terribly embarrassed but I just continued until one more verse was over and pretended as if I wanted to enjoy the music a little more.

The music has always taken a large place in the Christian churches, it has always given people a sense of fellowship, but people have in all times been singing and playing, to enjoy themselves or to please the gods.
To sing is like praying twice, yes, that is true. There are so many beautiful hymns that are shaped as sung prayers. Many times it can be easier to remember the words in a longer prayer if you sing them. It is the same technique you use when you are reciting from the Holy Qur’an, and as it is written in Arabic it can be even harder to remember the words.

The difference between the Christian worship and the Muslim is that in the churches everyone is singing, or reciting, but in the mosque it is usually the imam who recites.
If we would go back in time, to after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) got his revelations both Christians and Muslims praised God the same way – by reciting from the Holy Scriptures.
I don’t know why we have this difference nowadays, but people have in all times praised their God or their gods in different ways.

Music has always been included though, one way or another. If I should dare to speculate about the differences the reason might be that the Holy Qur’an has never changed but the Bible has got new translations several times and with that also transformed. The Christian hymns we still sing in the churches here in Sweden are rather modern, only about 150 years or so.

There is a difference between what we call hymns and others that are called songs. The hymns are composed in a form that is easy for everyone to sing and when the hymnbook, where these are collected, gets modernised there is a special jury of musicians and priests who together discuss the contents. Some of the old hymns are deeply loved, so they will stay in the book, but others are considered too old-fashioned. The old ones are taken away and are replaced with some new hymns. It takes a long time to discuss and decide what kind of changes there will be. Everyone has their favourites and they fight for those to remain.
It’s good that it takes a long time to make these changes because it will take a long time until there will be a new hymnbook.

People need to get used to the new hymns and learn how to sing them. Nowadays it is easily done, we can search for the new hymns on Internet and listen to them as many times as we wish.
In the old times it took a bit longer to learn some new hymns. If we go back to the beginning of 1800 not many people could still read and write here. People learned the hymns by heart and in the church the musician sang a small part of each verse first and the congregation imitated each part. Some of the old hymns had 8 or even 10 verses, so imagine how long it took before one hymn was sung! I’m happy I didn’t have to be a church musician back then.

A very old way of singing praises is called ”call-and-response” where two groups take turns and divide a song of praise between them. This technique was used 1,500 years ago but it is not unique to European music. The style of the songs is different but the technique is used in, for example, gospel music. Slaves used it when they sang on the fields to make the work a little easier, or at least to forget the pain for a while, and prisoners sang like that when they were forced to heavy labour.

To sing is like praying twice, you sing and ask God for comfort when you are sad or to praise him when you are happy. A song can ease your pain, you focus on something else for a while so the pain doesn’t make you crazy. A song can make you feel that you are not alone because others have shared the same pain you share.

The slaves in America sang on the fields. They were not allowed to speak to one another while they were working but they were allowed to sing. The songs made them work more efficiently so the slave owners encouraged that.
The slaves were forced to become Christians and to participate at the Christian sermons.
They learned the hymns and with time the slaves created own hymns but with their own style. This is how the slave spirituals became popular. The style was at the beginning using the N-word, instead of the word slave, but it is more correct to call it slave spirituals. The lyrics in the slave spirituals were based on stories from the first part of the Bible, the Old Testament. The songs sounded sad, they spoke about slavery and a longing to be free.

The slave masters were always afraid that the slaves would try to revenge or flee from the plantations. That is why the slaves were forbidden to speak with each other on the working fields. This fear made the owners to also forbid the music the slaves had brought with them from Africa. Playing some kind of drums was a big NO NO because who knew what kind of message the slaves would have hidden in the rhythms? Speaking about hidden messages; that is exactly what the slaves did in the Negro spirituals without the masters knowing.

The Bible is speaking about freedom from slavery so the slaves used the stories in the songs and by that gave tips to their fellow slaves how to run away and where to go. There is a famous song called Wade in the Water, which is based on a Biblical story. What the song really is telling is that the slaves should try to get to the Mississippi River and wade in the water to get away. Those who were searching for runaway slaves had dogs sniffing and searching for smell traces but that smell got lost in the water.

It was a smart method to hide messages in the songs but it was not easy to flee from slavery. If the slaves got caught they were severely punished. Kunta Kinteh, the great Gambian slave, got his heels cut off so he couldn’t run away anymore. The hard and cruel punishments made most of the slaves too afraid to flee, but nothing can chain your soul.

Singing together is releasing the pain for a while and the lyrics are giving you hope of a better future – our ancestors knew that and gave us a treasure of many beautiful songs.
To sing is like praying twice, praying for comfort and for praise. God doesn’t mind how your voice sounds, it is your effort that counts. We have a saying: “The forest would be quiet if only the best birds sang”, so raise your voice, dear friend, and sing.

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