The South African Church Sound Influence.

I have always been fascinated by the clearly South African ability to adopt and readapt. We are a country and a people whom for decades were robbed of our identity and ability to be, yet still in our struggles we were able to strive and form derivative identities of our own.

Like many others in the black South African context, I grew up in what I’d term a diverse Christian surrounding where you would have parents who go to this type of church, and grandparents who go to that type of church and an uncle or aunt that at time frequents another type of church etc. This idea of our mirrored backgrounds and upbringings cannot be questioned and can often in the music world be heard and re-lived in the musical offerings of our artists across boards and genres. The influence of the hymn is evident, the sound of the tap and drum that forms backdrop to the songs of our indigenous churches is audible, and the rhythm is synonymous.

Particularly, it is the influence of the South African church sound that gets to me. I have sang hymns from hymn books of varying languages and through that I have noticed similarities in tunes, direct translation of lyrics, and the tweaking of melodies to accommodate dialect. In a similar vein, I have also learnt that though some of our tunes sing and sound the same, they are derived from the hymnbooks of different European countries as influenced by the Christian missionary culture in our country at some point of our history – this then speaks to varying writing styles and varying adaptations as per the dialect of the respective regions where the respective hymns were adopted and translated. This all has led to even further curiosity and questions. For instance, how do the English written Anglican and Methodist style hymns – that came with missionaries from the United Kingdom who did their work in the Eastern Cape and were translated into what we now know as the isiXhosa Umbedefo Namaculo AmaWesile Hymns – differ from the SeSotho Difela tsa Sione adapted from the French missionaries in their regions or maybe the TshiVenda Nyimbo dza Vhatendi adapted from a Lutheran style hymn from German Missionaries?

Below I try to somewhat make sense of all the influences that formed part of the initial identity and form of some of our respective South African church hymns as well as how these hymns and sounds went on to influence music in popular culture as can be heard to date in the music of the likes of Samthing Soweto, Mandisi Dyanytis and many others.

The politics of South Africa are hard to go ignored in any space.

Like with many, if not all parts and spaces of modern day South Africa, the [historical] politics of our country are hard to go ignored.

From as early as the 1800s Christian missionary culture had began after the arrival of European settlers on our shores and although I will not get into the detail of the ventures of these missionaries, I think in the context of this post it is key to highlight that by the early 1900s we had missionaries from different countries stationed in different regions of our country.

The influence of a missionary on a people and their culture is an exact replica of the influence of the colonizer, it is unavoidable. In this instance the religious beliefs of our people and the manner in which they practiced and engaged with their believed higher power was disturbed and to an extent changed. The frequency of religious practice, the form of gathering, the style of dress and the type of song and hymn were all affected.

As mentioned above, we had predominant French missionaries stationed in the SeSotho speaking QwaQwa regions, predominant German missionaries of Lutheran belief were stationed in the upper Transvaal regions, and English missionaries from Anglican and Methodist churches in the Cape and Transkei areas – though it is key to note that the stationing of missionaries in different regions did not limit the adaptation of those missionaries’ beliefs and practices to just those regions. This too is linked to the political history of our country.

South Africa has almost always been a mining hub from the time colonizers touched our shores, however from the early 1900s leading up to mid century, mining began to surge at a rapid pace leading up to the peak of the 70s and 80s where an approximate 21% of the country’s GDP could be credited to the mining industry. This peak can also be equated to increased migration, which then translates to a cultural shift and infusion that is still clear to see in modern day South Africa. In the context of our post, the now adopted church practices and beliefs were taken along by migraters and in many instances reinterpreted.

As we have seen from the late 1900s and early 2000s, accessibility to churches of all kinds is a no question in most regions of the country and what that then means for the hymns and songs originally adopted from missionaries is reinterpretation and creation.

Reinterpretation and creation

Praise and worship have always existed on our shores. Traces and symbols of religious practices can be linked back to as far as the first Khoisan settlers on our land. We have always had our own concept of the higher power, we have always had practices and rituals that we believed were catalysts to our relation and connection with the most high. To date we still have natives who continue to follow these practices and associate with these early religions.

The harmony

There has always been a form of harmony synonymous with the African people which is also evident in the way we play varying instruments. The African harmony can easily be picked up by our use of multiple melodies played concurrently, often referred to as polyphony. Beyond that we also have our unique call-and-response techniques, where a lead vocalist sings a phrase that is then echoed by a chorus.

The drum

Drums have formed part of African praise and worship from as far back as 500 A.D. The Djembe, also known as the talking drum, being one of the earliest and used for ancestral worship in the Mali region. We’ve since also had the Karyenda of Burundi, the Ugandan Entenga, the West African Gbedu and the Ngoma drum of the Bantu or Southern Africa people.

The Ngoma drum has been instrumental in the developing of our sound and melody. Our indigenous praise and worship song and reinterpreted hymns have tunes and singing tones that can easily be traced as imitating the beat and pitch of the Ngoma drum.

The tone

Being the diverse country that we are, it is no wonder that our people have varying tones informed by the different dialects of their regions (their synonymous pitch, limitations, and word pronunciation), picked habit, migration as well as historical lineage and genetics.

These varying tones, combined with the different writing styles of the hymns introduced to natives by the missionaries has also led to interesting reinterpretations and navigating of the hymns in question. The manner in which the isiXhosa tone with its ten vowels, click consonants and both ejective and implosive stops fuses with the hymn writing of the non-tonal English language that came with the missionaries in that region cannot be equated to say, the limited tone Tshivenda language fused with the varying tone language of the German missionaries.

All these interesting combinations in tones and language, inclusion of drum rhythm to tune and unique harmonizing style created new unique sounds only associated with our part of the world. Sounds that can be traced all round in our music today.

Sacred and secular sounds are spiritual in South Africa (by Nambi)

In a recently released BBC Africa documentary titled ‘This is Amapiano’ a rasping baritone starts an acapella song called Sipho while rising vocalist Daliwonga sings the lead harmony with the rest of Diepkloof United Male Voices backing him up. The song mourns the death of a fellow brother, Sipho, who was killed. In South Africa this could be for a multitude of reasons from gun violence, hijackings, xenophobic attacks, or service delivery protests, or any other symptom of a society rooted in such a violent divisive history.

The song beautifully captures the emotional feeling of the lyrics particularly because it is sung in acapella with a palm clap reminiscent of a “beat” popularized by gospel group Amadodana Ase Wesile and used in various churches across South Africa. The influence of gospel or the church sound is evident in all genres in Mzansi. This is perhaps a function of the need for hope that was offered by the churches in turbulent apartheid times. Churches were not only used as safe spaces for political meetings, but their songs were part of inspiring hope and faith to freedom fighters. Nothing is more exemplary of this than the real African National anthem Nkosi Sikela iAfrica.

This harmonious blending of different influences is what makes South African music truly phenomenal. The gospel-like lyrics of Nana Thula by Kabza de Small featuring Njelic reminds one of songs by the green and white gown wearing Zion groups like Blessings of Christ and Trust in Christ. The prayer through Apostolic melody worthy of the legendary “Ftsshh” in Samthing Soweto’s Omama Bomthandazo and Sebenzela Nina. The influence of the COGH District Choir on Mandisi Dyantyis’s singing in the album Cwaka or the obvious clap ‘n tap influence all over The Soil’s music. Not forgetting Master KG’s Jerusalema which took the world by storm in 2020. All these are examples of the influence “church music” or “gospel” has on various sounds particularly in South Africa. Although this is not unique to South Africa, singers like Anthony Hamilton, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and John Legend all started their careers with the church sound and went on to make different music.

 However, in South Africa there is seemingly a way that the genres get interwoven in a seamless manner. Churches in South Africa have been key in designing their sounds in line with their cultural music. Take the male singing voices of the ZCC churches for example, which are largely influenced by the Pedi initiation and Venda male Tshikona songs. Or the incorporation of the African drums, a sine qua non in all African cultures, in the Methodist church.  African cultural historian, Sanusi and healer Bab’ Credo Mutwa said about the drum; ‘The beat of the drums can cure what no medication can cure; it can heal the ills of the mind – it can heal the very soul.’ This goes to show that, before it is designated into categories and genres, cultural music in Africa is intricately linked with healing the soul. So, the church sound and our spirituality move together even through so-called secular sounds, because there is no real separation between the sacred and the secular in our cultures.