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.”
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?
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