The Origin of Mennonite Congolese Songs


Two years ago, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to research Congolese Mennonite music. The aim of my project was to study musical thought, which includes the concepts and ideologies that surround the music-making experience. Song origin, or how songs are created, emerged as one of the most important elements in understanding how Congolese Mennonites perceive the musical experience. I discovered that not all songs are created equal.

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Concepts surrounding song origin among Congolese Mennonites closely link back to life in Congo before Christian missionaries arrived. As with many traditional cultures, it was believed that sacred songs were given to men (and only men) directly from ancestors or spirits. Men received songs from the supernatural realm, and those songs were used in worship. After Christian missionaries arrived following the turn of the twentieth century, most of those songs and traditions were lost. The link between spirits and traditional songs was observed, and Congolese were encouraged to leave behind their previous ways of life, including songs.

As with other denominations in Congo, Mennonite missionaries shared translated versions of their hymnody with new Christian converts. The body of translated hymns was the only music used in worship for the first sixty years of Congolese Mennonite history. The first changes occurred after Congolese Independence, when Mennonites living in the countryside migrated to larger cities and were planted alongside churches from other denominations. Mennonites observed that other churches were using elements from traditional African religion, such as drums and shakers. These instruments, which were previously forbidden, were then added into the Mennonite worship service. This started a process that is referred to as animation. Animation changed, or “animated” the performance of the translated hymns, which included altered melodies, rhythms and textures. Exclamations such as “alleluia” were added at the ends of phrases.
An example of an animated Western hymn: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Animation was followed by what is referred to as inspiration. Inspiration is the process of receiving a song from the Holy Spirit. Congolese Mennonites believe that the hymns they received from missionaries were given through the process of inspiration, but they did not have the gift of receiving songs from the Holy Spirit until the 1970s. For the first time, at approximately seventy years into their one-hundred year history, Congolese Mennonites began creating their own songs.

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The process of receiving a song from the Holy Spirit varies from person to person, but a common occurrence is the giving of songs through dreams. Many composers reported they were given songs in this way. If given a song during the night, most said they had to get up and write them down immediately, or they would be forgotten. Many lamented that they had lost received songs because they could not remember them after waking up.

Inspiration can also come during the day. Songs from the Holy Spirit can come while reading the Bible, or they can come while doing life’s menial tasks. One composer described this as receiving songs in “natural” situations, such as walking down the street, waiting for the bus, while at work, or in the middle of a conversation with someone. In these instances, the receiving of the songs is usually an unexpected occurrence.

Inspired songs can also be given for a specific situation that an individual is facing. One composer reported:

I am in a situation and this helps me to make a song, but we know that inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit tells what we are living so we can write songs, for example, the second song was saying that our body is a parish of the church, of the Holy Spirit. This is what I wrote at one time in my Christian life. I was living in sin at the time and the church told me to go away. When the church put me out, the Holy Spirit inspired me this song. He says to me that my body belongs to the Holy Spirit and I must have a sanctified life. Every time, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can write a song.
An example of an inspired song

Inspiration is thought of as a gift, and although it can be coupled with formal education in music, it is often not. One composer said, “I studied music first in school. And God has given me a gift of singing and praising Him through song.” Another composer stated, “I haven’t studied music with notes, this is only my everyday experience.” A young composer named Samuel attributes his song writing, and his ability to play guitar, as a gift from God, “No, I didn’t study music in school. I think that music for me is a gift from God. One night I had an inspiration. And in the morning, I wrote for guitar.”

Typically, the person with the gift is the choir director, or director of the Adoration group, which is the equivalent of a “worship band,” but it can also be a choir member or member of the congregation. In contrast to traditional music making, both men and women may be inspired. The composer receives a song, or more commonly just a portion of a song, and then take it to the ensemble so they can learn it together and share it with the congregation.

Sometimes directors will arrange the song on their own and teach it to the ensemble. Other times it is a group project. I learned this while observing a Men’s Choir in an area called Batela. Before each song, I inquired about the composer of the song, desiring to know who provided the initial, inspired portion of the song. The answer I received was the same for every song, and each time it was given with increased impatience until I understood the answer: “We all wrote it!” Once arranged, songs were attributed to everyone in the group.

A feature of this system of song origin is that congregations create their own body of songs. Most congregations have at least one person who has the gift of receiving songs. The received songs, along with the altered Western hymns, become the body of song for each congregation. Even the hymns are altered in different ways from congregation to congregation, giving each church a unique musical sound. Occasionally, churches will not have a member who has the gift of receiving songs, putting them at a disadvantage. Other congregations have to give them songs.

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Inspiration is an important part of how Congolese Mennonites categorize music. The source is critical in determining the value of a song. People can make up songs from their own mind, like with secular or popular music, but those songs are considered to be less important. Songs from the mind of people were even referred to as “useless” by a few people. Songs that are received from the Holy Spirit, however, are always considered a precious and priceless gift.

About the Author

Jill Schroeder-Dorn

Jill Schroeder-Dorn is a native of Collinsville, Oklahoma, where she was a member of Westport Mennonite Brethren Church. Her interest in Congo was piqued at an early age; her father served in the PAX program in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. Schroeder-Dorn currently lives in Denver, and is an active music educator and performer.