Ooh yah hee,” Swee Hong Lim sang over and over. “Think Italian on these words,” he said. “When you rehearse [with] people, get them to handle the ‘ooh yah hee’ well and the rest will fall in place.”
Lim, a professor of sacred music at Toronto’s Emmanuel College, was introducing a hymn to 90 young musicians gathered in Chicago in January for the fourth ELCA Glocal Musicians training event. (Glocal implies a blend of both global and local.) “Ooh yah hee,” written u i hi, means “praise the Lord.” The words are from a hymn composed by the Bunun people of Taiwan.
To capture the spirit of the song, Lim explained to the musicians, one must keep in mind that Asian music “is not as explosive or expressive as [music from] Latin America. The emotions are contained, reserved. Imagine all the emotions in a box.”
ELCA Glocal Musicians play at the Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly in May.
The story behind the song
Lim was one of four musicologists serving as mentors at the training event, sponsored by ELCA Global Mission. With help from these mentors, the musicians probed four regions’ musical contexts, traditions and styles, learning five songs from each area.
Later the musicians practiced teaching the 20 songs to others, step by step. Lyrics — explaining a phrase like “ooh yah hee” and coaching participants to say the words with confidence — are the first step. Melody comes next.
Sharing the story is the most important thing. “When we tell someone’s story as if it is our own, we are celebrating communion as though Christ were with us,” Lim said. “When we sing a Syrian song, our Syrian brothers and sisters are with us. We are the communion of saints.”
Too often, Lim noted, the stories are left out when global songs are shared in worship. “The story of ‘Siyahamba’ (“We are marching in the light of God”),” he said, “is marching in front of tanks [and singing] a freedom song. Do we remember that as we are singing?
“Always ask the question: What is the story behind the song? You need to know the context of each song, not just ‘this is an Asian song and this is a great occasion to sing it.’ That understanding will help you bring life to that song and ensure that your effort is not tokenism or cultural appropriation — that you are not taking something that is not yours and using it.”
First recruited to provide musical leadership for ELCA Glocal Mission Gatherings, the musicians now lead worship and workshops at synod assemblies, seminary orientations, youth gatherings and interdenominational events.
Swee Hong Lim serves as a mentor to ELCA Glocal Musicians.
Like the word glocal, this diverse group of musicians is global and local. About 22 percent are African-American or of African descent, 22 percent are Caucasian, 18 percent are Asian and 15 percent are Latino. One musician is Native American, and the rest come from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Tonga. Lutherans are the majority but not the only denomination represented.
At ELCA synod assemblies, a trumpeter from Memphis might lead the vocals on a song from the Sudan. An Indonesian pastor from Seattle might teach a song from El Salvador. “Making songs accessible for communities in Iowa or North Carolina doesn’t mean everyone Latin has to sing a Latin song,” said Aisea Taimani of Newark, Calif., who is of Tongan descent. “Everyone is always singing across culture because we care more about participation than perfection.”
Not so much a band as an evolving community, a different combination of musicians play at each “gig.” Because of this “there is a short time to put together and make a balance of all the dynamics present,” said Mikyoung Park from Arden Hills, Minn. In the pre-event rehearsal, the musicians decide who will teach which song, which instruments to play and how to share the microphone.
The process isn’t without conflict, but the musicians’ shared commitment makes it smoother. “I love who I am when I am with you,” Taimani told the group at the training in January.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers