The Worship Music of Kenya

The Worship Music of Kenya

            Kenyan worship music is nothing if not joyous.  It is always accompanied by movement and sometimes the dancing is quite vigorous.  Generally, the women are better dancers, but some of the men are quite nimble and fluid.
            The singing is full-throated and frequently “call and response” where the leader will sing a phrase (sometimes quite lengthy) and the congregation will respond.  This is not unlike many African-American spirituals.  Here is a short video clip of some of the worship I participated in a small country church.  You will notice the “call and response” between the female worship leader and the congregation.  Also notice that the keyboard and sound system are powered by a car battery!  This church was quite poor.  But notice the joy.  I was able to participate in similar worship almost every day. 
            I will never forget the intensity of one woman who was a worship leader at Christ Favour Ministries in Webuye, Kenya, near the Ugandan border.  She was a young widow (probably under 30) and mother of two whose business had just failed.  The intensity of her singing and dancing seemed to be a real reflection of her yearning faith.  Though she was not a small woman, her movements were very fluid and energetic.  I noticed also that she was very intent on hearing the Word when I was teaching.  Knowing this woman’s story and observing her faith expressed in her intense worship was quite moving for me.
            Almost everything that Kenyans sing is a “spiritual song.”  There is not depth of text as in a hymn.  And they can linger in a song for nearly ten minutes.  I do believe there’s a deep value to this expression and I wish our cognitively-oriented American congregations would learn to fully enter into the experience of a spiritual song and engage with God.
            Paul wrote to the Colossians that they should “let the word of Christ richly dwell in them, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16).  While the Kenyans seem to have a mastery of spiritual songs, they are lacking in the theological density of psalms and hymns.  They sang some gospel hymns for my benefit but they struggled to recall the words.  Their limited knowledge of gospel hymns is an echo of the East African Revival that spurred spiritual growth in this region for over fifty years in the early through mid-twentieth century.  It is good that they know some gospel hymns, but I sensed that their knowledge of the meatier classic hymns (like Holy, Holy, Holy and Be Thou My Vision, for example) is very small, if they know any at all.  I suspect that one of the reasons they do not sing hymns and psalms is that the density of the texts requires printed or projected words which the churches generally do not have.  (Of course, the New Testament church did not have those luxuries either and they sang hymns and psalms.)  Lacking those resources, I suggested that they incorporate a reading of a psalm in their services. 
            I have also discovered something quite curious about Kenyan and African worship music.  All the churches use keyboards with pre-set rhythm patches.  The musicians are very adept at finding the right rhythmic groove and key to match a song that the worship leader starts.  I was disappointed to not see any traditional African drums like the djembe.  I was told that they are “old-school” and are rejected by the young people as too traditional.  I found that ironic because the djembe is quite popular in American acoustic praise and worship.  Too bad.  It seems there is a “worship war” of sorts in Africa, though my observation was that the new has completely replaced the traditional in the congregations I encountered.  I found the pre-set rhythms to be “dated” and “cheesy” to my ears.  But, of course, I’m from a different culture.
            In the end, the Kenyans fully give themselves to the music when they are worshipping.  With the contagious joy of the dance and the full-throated voice of singing there is no holding back.  A far cry from the worship we experience in most American churches.  Too many of us are content to listen and be entertained or refuse to engage because it is not our preferred musical style.  The difference?  Certainly dance is central to this contagious and engaging worship style in Kenya.  But if Americans cannot learn to dance, I pray that we could learn to “give ourselves to the song” when we worship God through music.  In the end, I suspect fully engaging in worship song will be a large part of our eternal vocation around the Father’s throne.
Below is a youtube clip from a Kenyan Christian artist.  Enjoy!


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