This is an article from the July-August 1996 issue: Worship and Missions

Music to Their Ears:

An Ethnomusicologist Helps The Canelas Of Brazil Worship More Meaningfully

Music to Their Ears:

We were stumped. The musical system of the Canela people of Brazil's Amazon jungle had us completely baffled. Not because my wife Jo and I were tone deaf or didn't appreciate music--we sang for years in many musical groups. Not because we never heard Canela music. We were constantly surrounded by it while in the village. Every night the Canela sang us to sleep with their massive sing-songs at the village's central plaza.

We tried to learn to sing Canela, but we just couldn't. We could not make head or tail either of the rhythm or the tone system. Whenever we joined their singing and dancing, Jo didn't know what to sing, and I didn't know when to stomp my feet. How could we ever promote the composition of native Canela hymns when even after nearly 20 years of praying and trying, we just couldn't get the hang of their music?

Enter Tom Avery, a Wycliffe ethnomusicology consultant. Tom taped Canela music for several weeks. He took the music to his study and analyzed it, using a computer. The next year we got together and he introduced me to the rudiments of Canela music--at last.


Now we knew why we had never been able to learn it. Instead of a musical system of eight notes with some half notes, the Canela system has many more notes. Although Canela music can be sung or played on an instrument such as a violin or a slide flute, it is impossible to play on a keyboard.

Another difference was the words. So many additional syllables and fillers are put on the basic words, it was almost impossible to understand the lyrics. I guess we do something a bit like that with some of our songs. Think of "Glo-o-o-o-o-ria" in the Christmas carol with each "o" on a different note and beat: or "fa la la la" fillers in another carol.

The Canela system was not simple. Just as a symphony has distinct parts like the overture, etc., so the Canela music system has three main types. At every major or minor songfest, they always start with the slow, walking style "ihkenpoc" songs. Then they move to the faster jogging style, "kyjkyj" music and end up with a full cry, racing "ihkenpej" music. Tom discovered all this and more. Then he came back to us. As I provided Scripture-based lyrics, Tom composed original Canela music for more than 20 hymns.

Great Acceptance

We traveled to the Canela village to introduce the songs to the people. It was almost like pouring gasoline on a campfire! Within a few nights, hundreds of Canelas crowded around wanting to listen and to learn the new songs. The main song and dance leader was deeply moved. He wanted a hymnbook for himself and sat for hours listening to a tape we had prepared. He eventually learned all the songs and made improvements on them. Other Canelas started adding verses to some of the hymns.

Every night during our evening Bible classes with the Canela, more than half of the time was taken up singing the new songs. One Canela, with tears in his eyes, said, "You gave us the book in which God speaks to us, but your friend Tom gave us songs in which we speak to Him."

After the dedication of the Scriptures in 1990, all the Canela men and women who had received their copy of God's translated Word crowded around the main song leader in the center of the plaza. They sang several of the Canela songs--"God's Word is sweeter than honey to me" and " Let us hold onto and obey God's Word."

Tom's culturally sensitive work sped up not only the acceptance of the newly translated Scriptures, but the whole Gospel message among the Canela.

Canadians Jack and Jo Popjes spent 22 years studying the language and translating Scriptures for the Canela people of Brazil. Today, they promote the work of Bible translation as Wycliffe representatives in Canada.

Many more ethnomusicologists are needed to help indigenous peoples worship God in their own unique way. If you are interested in this field and would like more information please contact Dr. Tom Avery at 214-709-2400 ext. 2265 or e-mail at [email protected]


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