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Tuning in to Christ


From left, Philippe Seydou Traoré, Amidou Jabati, Siaka Jabati and Brahima Jabati compose the first Siamou Christian music in a January workshop in Burkina Faso.

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Oussmane Traoré, Philippe Seydou Traoré, Souleymane Traoré and Ruth Traoré sing the first Siamou Christian music that they composed together in a January workshop

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March 27, 2009
- Lillian (Haas) Nicolson with notes from Lynda Hollinger-Janzen

ORODARA, Burkina Faso — With only two days and slim resources, Bible translator Souleymane Traoré (Solo), called us together to compose and record Christian songs in Siamou. I was sceptical about what we could accomplish in such a short period of time, considering our limitations.

Our group gathered at 11 a.m. in an Orodara recording studio, two hours after the workshop was scheduled to begin. Among us were three griots (traditional musicians), a Siamou pastor’s wife, Ruth, a Catholic elder, two Mennonites (one of whom was a shoe repairman and the other a Bible translator) and me, completely unmusical and non-Siamou. The only unifying factor I could detect in the group was a common language and some interest in music.

But how could we draw a Christian theme for the songs we were invited to create? Siamou biblical translations are limited to creation stories and Adam and Eve. Solo and I were the only ones literate in Siamou and the griots were not Christian.

Solo wasn’t deterred. “When the music is in your mother tongue and in your mother music, people can sing with greater joy and understanding,” Traoré said. “It makes you do more than just sing. It makes you dance.”

Using a selected Bible passage, Mary Hendershott, a visiting ethnomusicologist who led the workshop, guided us through techniques for developing a good refrain. Solo followed with a reading of the creation story and we discussed the aspects of it that spoke to us most profoundly. One of the griots began to pick out a tune on the balaphon (wooden xylophone) and sing his interpretation of the story.

Soon Ruth’s voice hesitantly rose in a refrain she had composed and the others obediently but tentatively sang along. Then someone mentioned that the tune was in the Jula scale, a musical key from the trade language of the area. The griots transposed it into a Siamou scale and, suddenly, the room erupted with joy. Everyone sprang to their feet, praising God with music and song in their mother tongue, dancing to the balaphon and drums.

We managed to compose and record four rough drafts in this workshop – and plant many different kinds of seeds. The Christians present listened to the stories of creation and Adam and Eve in Siamou for the first time. The griots heard these Bible stories for the first time ever. The joy of working together and composing music in the language we shared sparked remarks of, “Let’s do this again!”

We pray that these seeds will take root and grow.

For the past ten years, Nicolson has immersed herself in the Siamou language and culture to develop a literacy program with the Siamou. She married Norm Nicolson in 2006, and the couple has served together in Burkina Faso since January 2008. Lillian has joined the Bible Translation team and Norm is engaged in an audio recording ministry.