One of the greatest tragedies of the West is that we’ve lost the magic of song.
In the Maasai community, singing is part of everyday life. People sing to praise God, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or followers of their own indigenous spiritual tradition (where ‘Engai’ is actually translated more accurately as ‘Goddess’).
People sing to preserve their memories and histories, most of which are still unwritten. All the rites of passage have their own songs associated with them, including weddings, ceremonies to bless unborn children, child-naming ceremonies, initiation into adulthood, and the transition from warriorhood into elderhood (although the latter doesn’t have an equivalent for women), and funerals.
Songs are used to welcome important visitors, to launch projects, or – as in the photo above – to entertain parents at the school Open Day. Crucially, they can also be used to open people’s minds to the possibility of change: in our project to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM), we started every seminar and workshop with a performance by a women’s commuity choir.
Yet, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve created a culture in which most people are afraid to sing.
Shows like ‘The X Factor’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where harsh criticism of people’s vocal performance is seen as entertaining – certainly haven’t helped. But a bigger issue is that, with the decline in church attendance, most people just don’t have a space in which they can sing freely without being criticised or judged.
When I recently started attending my local Baptist church in England and the very first song we sang was one that I recognised from an international church that I used to attend in Tanzania, it felt like coming home. But traditional church services don’t appeal to everyone, and despite the vast amount of content available on YouTube, a lot of people – whatever their religion – wouldn’t know where to start looking for inspiring, uplifting, soul-stirring, life-changing, motivating songs that can support their own personal journey to reconnection and wholeness.
I’m a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s book Sing You Home, which has a downloadable soundtrack. I LOVE those songs, especially ‘Ordinary Life’ – a cry from the heart for LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination – and the title track, a haunting song dedicated to a child lost through miscarriage.
Maybe it’s time we all started learning how to sing ourselves home?