A Global Music Paradox

William Chunestudy

Associate Professor in Music

La Sierra University

In addition to directing choral groups and giving voice lessons at La Sierra University and serving as Minister of Music for the university church, William Chunestudy teaches classes in ethnomusicology and world music, areas of great interest to him, given his personal heritage as a Native American. One of his groups, The La Sierra University Vocal Octet which performs a wide range of music at a sophisticated level, performed on the SkyDome and Global Mission stages and presented a concert in the Bassett Theatre.


At the 2000 General Conference session in Toronto it was clear that the question of musical standards for the church will never be resolved until we all agree that those standards must be based upon cultural context. While the GC is rightly responsible for many aspects of the world wide church, none of us would want nameless persons or committees to tell us what is right or wrong in the area of music. Even so, the failure of the church to promote constructive dialogue about this important issue, particularly at this time, is a glaring oversight.


While the church’s publication in 1972 of Guidelines Towards a Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy in Music was well intentioned, I’m afraid it has been misused in the quarter century since its release to set a musical standard worldwide which is unrealistic. I first encountered the booklet when I was overseas doing a week of prayer and presenting music seminars at one of our schools. During one of the seminars a student brought it to me and asked if the church in America was following the guidelines it expressed, and, if not, why not?

I responded with a couple of questions of my own. A gentleman there was dressed in what seemed typically African attire, so I asked him what type of music was appropriate in his home church. He responded that the people come into church singing, clapping and playing hand drums.

I asked the student who had posed the question if that would be appropriate in the church on this campus. He responded no, it did not match the standards expressed in booklet. I then asked him if it was appropriate for the African children and adults to enter worship in their churches in that manner. With just a little thought he responded that it was probably okay because the culture was different than his own.

"Exactly," I responded. "Standards are different the world over. They change from culture to culture and they change within cultures over time. Only principles remain constant." I then listed a few principles that I believed were never to be violated, including music must honor God, music must not honor or promote evil, and music must not be presented in a way that promotes the performer.


As the resident ethnomusicologist at La Sierra University, I have tracked many of the world’s traditional musical forms in recent years, carefully observing the Western influences that have influenced and become part of them. Even ten years ago there was not this kind of permeation of Western ideas into the traditions found in world cultures.

Today, with our global technology even the most remote cultures of the world are being saturated with Western ideas and styles. It is evident in all aspects of daily living, but especially in music.

Two decades ago many remote areas of the world were without electricity. But since then, with the availability of TV, radio, boom boxes and electronic keyboards, even the most remote Adventist churches have access to the latest artists and accompaniment tracks and have the ability to create Western style accompaniments for all types of music, both traditional and Western.

What I saw in several of the venues I attended (Skydome, Bassett Theater and performance stages in the ABC and Exhibit Hall) was, in general, Adventist musicians in native dress from many parts of the world, performing traditional/cultural music mixed with Western musical styles (contemporary Christian, light pop, classical, Adventist hymn arrangements, etc.) or playing with accompaniments that were digital synthesis. This reflects the trend worldwide in all musical genres, a global music paradox in which the music is not authentically global but a Westernized version of it.


Examples I heard included a brass ensemble from Germany playing traditional Western hymn arrangements and classical music; an African men’s group singing in a style resembling the now popular South African group Ladysmith Black Mombazo; a vocal trio from South America singing traditional American hymns in their native tongue with small keyboard or tape recorded accompaniments; a children’s singing group from Eastern Europe singing beautifully in their native tongue but, again, with a typical Adventist hymn arrangement supported by a light beat from synthesized accompaniment tracks. Black gospel choirs performed in their inimitable style, while Korean and Philippine choirs sang traditional anthems. There was an incredible variety.


So what can we make of this? Why didn’t all the groups conform to the same set of guidelines? The primary question seems to be, "Is there an appropriate worldwide standard that all musicians should conform to?" I believe not. May I suggest that it would be similar to a worldwide dress code for all Adventists. In a world church made up of hundreds of cultures, each creates its own standards for appropriate dress and modesty. They should be empowered to do the same for what they feel are musical styles suitable for worship.

A source of tension was created when most evangelized countries adopted an early 20th-century music and worship style, one which still remains the standard for some in an ever-changing world. Traditionalists mention choral anthems as the appropriate musical style regardless of the culture, yet all those great choral anthems were imported from the West and are not a part of any of the traditional cultures of non-Western countries. In time that Western music was tempered by the host country’s culture and music, and a kind of hybrid music evolved. Hypothetically, if evangelism had waited until today, then the church musical standards for those countries might have been "praise songs" or maybe the music of Big Face Grace.


I can tell you from my own experience that those of us who participated made prayerful decisions when submitting music for consideration for Toronto. Will it honor God? Will we rightly represent our part of the worldwide work? Do we have the right musical gifts to present to the Lord as well as our sisters and brothers in Christ? What style is appropriate for this venue or that? These were not easy decisions for the performers or the music committee.


I suggest that we not quibble over what one part of the world is or is not doing and focus on the ministry that God has given each of us to do. For most of us that mission field is in our own back yard where our task will be best accomplished if we work with an awareness of what is acceptable in our own culture.

Published in the Summer/Autumn 2000 issue of Notes, an IAMA publication