“A music epiphany…”
This is a topic that has given me all sorts of epiphanies through the years.
Remember when I said that upon our arrival from Lisbon you and all the jovens welcomed us with a “Broadway” performance, and that the singing was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard?
My reflections about teaching typing included a reference to African rhythms running through your veins, providing the rest of the world jaw-dropping dance music, not to mention the ability to type via the rhythm method?
Well, I came to Angola with a smattering of piano studies and an introduction to bel canto singing by my college voice teacher Gypsy Ted Sullivan Wylie. Plus, I had taught myself to play my brother Virgil’s cheap violin.
So I bought into your immediate response to my interest in music, assuming that I had things I could teach you. Oh my!
Probably it was the same assumption that the early missionaries made that our Western hymns needed to be translated into Portuguese or Kimbundu or other African languages so you as a people could worship with the same expressions of faith that had meant so much to us in our home congregations.
What we didn’t do was encourage you to use the astounding naturally harmonic and rhythmic gifts you were born with, motivating you to find your own musical witness to what you had come to believe about the newfound faith.
Anyway, we installed a spinet piano in the massive sanctuary of the Central Church on the mission compound, and I began giving piano lessons.
I can’t remember any real stars emerging from my feeble efforts to teach, but one name definitely shone out as a musician with the most amazing tenor voice. That was Jacinto Fortunato. And he was but one of that group of singers that so inspired me.
Another of my responses to the youth community’s eagerness to learn everything they could about music led me to order dozens of plastic recorders from the Mission Board in New York. They arrived and I handed them out to an excited group of kids gathered in the Central Church sanctuary to check out this latest wild idea by me, the young idealist missionary.
There was an immediate racket of everybody blowing on the recorders at once. I gave the kids ten minutes to get the noisemaking out of their systems, and then we got to work. I had a chalkboard where I taught them to play the notes on the recorders as I pointed them out on the board. Amazing. Perhaps my exhilaration about their quick learning had more to do with my belief that I had finally found my niche as a teacher than admitting that I had a very, very gifted student body of aspiring young musicians.
Another memory is of hauling Virgil’s violin around from village to village when I accompanied Sandy Bookman, the public health nurse, on her medical mission to give DPT shots to babies and school children. My two assignments were to hand out aspirin and to lead the cheers for the mothers waiting in line with their small children, believing that this short stabbing hurt and howl of surprised anguish would protect their little ones from one or more of the many health dangers that were part of their daily lives.
More than once, I pulled out the violin and pretended I was some kind of expert, when I should have been imploring every villager with those unparalleled harmonies and rhythms to sing to me.
Many years later, after the war for independence from Portugal followed by years of civil war, some Angolans, like you, who had been evacuated to safe places during the conflicts, began to return. Others, like you, gave their lives for your beloved country.
Former missionaries also started going back, joining efforts to rebuild and restore the mission properties to functionality. In the interior missions, the huge undertaking was made perilous by the constant alert to landmines that had been planted like cottonseeds all over the countryside. Ironically, many of the landmines were manufactured in U.S. factories.
My A-3 colleague, Burl Kreps, who had made a major contribution to the life of the Luanda community while we were there by organizing sports teams and teaching games to hundreds of thrilled kids (including the future African President of the Angola Republic), headed up a group called Angola Advocates. They were devoted to raising money in the U.S. and to organizing teams to volunteer their time and efforts to reconstruct some of the horrendously damaged buildings and other facilities owned by the mission. Burl, an ordained minister, returned with one team and was welcomed with open arms by a grateful congregation at the Central Church. He was asked to preach, and set up a camera to record the whole service.
At one of our Angola missionary reunions, I watched the video as choir after choir sang their warm greeting to the visitors from the U.S. The chancel choir of older singers, dressed in Western choir robes, sang beautiful anthems. Other choirs followed with their rich and enthusiastic singing. Finally, the children’s choir sang. Their music was a Kumbundu translation of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” I listened, horrified, as I heard them singing off pitch. To myself, I muttered, “Oh, my God, what have we done?” In that moment of epiphany, I realized that not only did we not encourage the African worshippers to develop their own music for praising God, in our eagerness to teach them our ways of worship with song we had not even acknowledged that their music used a completely different tonality from ours.
So I wrestled with that revelation for a long time. To be fair, it didn’t take away from the very worthy work of some highly skilled missionary musicians like Margaret Brancel who taught and worked with the youth groups in the Quessua mission. I don’t want to disparage her and others’ very effective and devoted work in the field of music. But it was a revelation for me that worried me for a long time.
Then came your and Jacinto’s old letters, discovered in that pile of memorabilia during this past winter’s snow storms. Jacinto also wrote from Brazil, and part of his message to me, written in Portuguese, was his appreciation to me for encouraging him with his music.