A Personal View

Mervyn R. Joseph

Mervyn R. Joseph is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio

The musical variety at the General Conference Session in Toronto stirred my soul during the five days I was there. As would be expected, the music chosen for the session reflected the fact that the Church is truly a global community of believers. As such, well-performed and culturally authentic music had been chosen that would best represent the world division.

However, since the intent was to choose music that was in cultural context, it is not surprising that there would be some muted and spoken opposition to presentations that did not fit the mold of typical "Western sacred performance." The two elements of performance that seemed very troubling to some were the apparent ‘dancing’ of performers, and ‘the beat,’ or what a noted seminary professor called ‘beat music.’

Interestingly, these grave concerns were leveled mostly against performers of African origin. For instance, Samuele Bacchiocchi strongly condemned the performance of the musical meditation of the young Canadian that G. Ralph Thompson asked to sing just prior to his preaching on the first Sabbath as having too much of a ‘rock’ beat. He also was critical of the African Children’s Choir for their apparent dancing. Ruth Ann Wade’s article on the reaction of The Montemorelos University music faculty in the last issue of Notes also seemed to indicate that they thought such performances were entirely out of place.


As an African-American music educator with a background in ethnomusicology, I tended to view the music at Toronto as an exciting spiritual festival that captured the spirit of our global multi-cultural community. Whereas the two selections mentioned above were a blessing to me, they obviously offended others. Comments that the pre-sermon meditation music was too much ‘beat music’ is somewhat troubling to me - I considered it rather mild as far as a pronounced beat was concerned. That was not even a focus of my attention, but rather, it was the impact of the message and her performance that was a blessing to me.

Then there is the question of whether moving to the rhythm of the music was incompatible with a worshipful rendering of praise. The MU faculty seemed to think that this was not "sacred," and that there should be some clear definition of what constitutes an Adventist sacred music performance standard, one that could be adopted by the world church.

This is not an easy issue to resolve. It is also one of the "hot" topics in contemporary music educational philosophy, as well. Should we adopt a ‘melting pot’ approach in developing a worldwide standard that all Adventist musicians should adhere to? I agree with Professor William Chunestudy that this would be similar to a worldwide dress code for all Adventists. Or, should our approach be to choose the best in appropriate music performance styles based on a set of Adventist philosophical guidelines?


There are fundamental and contrasting philosophical underpinnings that may help explain the varied and strong reactions of some to many of the musical performances at Toronto. First, we tend to believe that Western European classical music represents the highest of musical development and that it is the ideal guide for sacred music performance style. By contrast, there is the another view that all musics must be understood contextually and comparatively, according to differing value systems.

If we subscribe only to the first view, then it is easy to understand the grave concerns over the "dancing" of the African Children’s Choir, because their performance style does not model the staidness of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, for example. A completely different aesthetic, however, governs the vocal and performance style of an African choir and the same is true for many typical Black African-American gospel choirs and singers.


Some of the specific cultural and aesthetic characteristics of African and African-American music (e.g., gospel music) include the use of antiphonal response, varying vocal tone, endless variation on the part of the lead singer, use of falsetto, religious dancing or ‘shouting,’ percussive-style playing/singing techniques, handclapping, foot tapping, and communal participation. What I observed with the African groups was their ability to combine versatile vocal technique within a culturally prescribed mode of presentation that affirmed their immersion in Black culture, creating a performance that reflected the total involvement of their mind and body in order to convey the all-consuming compelling force of their spiritual experience.

And who is to judge that a particular presentation was inappropriate or "not good"? By what standards or criteria? While I know that this is a contentious and controversial area of discussion, I am of the opinion that a close examination of the word pictures alluded to in the Psalms seem to indicate a close affinity with characteristics important to African musical practice. Specific references would include: "O clap your hands, all ye people,"1 "Shout for joy,"2 " Make a joyful noise unto the Lord ,"3 and "Praise Him with the timbrel and dance."4

Commenting on King David’s dance before the Lord, Ellen G. White simply states that "the music and dancing in joyful praise to God at the removal of the ark had not the faintest resemblance to the dissipation of modern dancing. The one tended to the remembrance of God and exalted His holy name. The other is a device of Satan to cause men to forget God and to dishonor Him."5 I believe that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings (e.g. the African Children’s Choir), God ordained praise. It was their way of expressing praise to God with their whole being, and what a refreshment and blessing that was to many of us.


I fear that some have made judgments using value systems that are inappropriate in this particular context. It was the clearly stated goal of the music selection committee in Toronto to choose music that was culturally authentic and that represented the region or country of origin. In my view they succeeded.


1Psalms 47:1 KJV

2Psalms 5:11; 35:27 KJV

3Psalms 98:4 KJV

4Psalms 150:4 KJV

5Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p.707

5Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p.707

This response to articles written in the Summer/Autumn 2000 issue of IAMA's publication Notes, was printed in the Winter/Spring 2001 issue of Notes.