Singing Yoruba Christianity

Music, Media, and Morality

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Vicki L. Brennan
African Expressive Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253032096.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Vicki Brennan’s well-researched ethnographic study Singing Yoruba Christianity: Music, Media, and Morality is a scholarly contribution and analytical exposition of the interconnected roles music and other cultural factors play in not only creating a worship experience, but fulfilling didactic and motivational needs for Yoruba Christians. Brennan explores how Cherubim and Seraphim Ayo Ni O, one of the Aladura churches, engages media, dress styles, music, and other elements that constitute worship for connecting with their members as they make meaning in a world characterized by uncertainties. Musical and ritual performances in the Cherubim and Seraphim churches have rules, but each performance is also malleable. These two characteristics might seem contradictory, but they allow for the expression of Cherubim and Seraphim’s value system, ethics, and worldview.

Brennan structures her discussion into eight chapters and an appendix, explaining the formation of the church, use of music/media, the church’s growth, political implications, an economic recession in the 1980s that positioned the church as a catalyst for change, members’ contributions during church services, including music making, and the discipline and training for making music professionally and for church use. The tendency to adapt the European hymnal for Yoruba cultural use illustrates the African religious practitioners’ receptivity to adapting other cultural forms as their own.

Brennan mentions the link to the past, how Cherubim and Seraphim uses hymns to construct a historical narrative that connects it to Christianah Abiodun’s defeat of witches and wizards. The church’s reenactment of history serves as a means through which the choir and Prophet Korode, the choir master during Brennan’s study, legitimate the transformation of Cherubim and Seraphim religious and musical practices.

Cherubim and Seraphim’s growth can best be understood when accompanied by an explanation of the Nigerian economic system. By providing historical context of the political upheaval and recession of the 1980s, Brennan explains how Cherubim and Seraphim allayed economic fears through music and recordings. Brennan argues that the Yoruba returnees’ influence on the centralization of the church repositioned it. Cherubim and Seraphim’s returnees grounded their changes in church tradition rather than rejecting the original church system. Cherubim and Seraphim recordings/music serve not as religious fantasy, but rather as a channel encouraging a good work ethic.

Brennan argues that the church’s white uniform links the bodies of members to angels in heaven. Therefore, this symbolism represents “the transition of life to death and from earth to heaven” (106). Popularly referred to as the white garment, this dress depicts modesty, equality, and how members receive spiritual power. Cherubim and Seraphim explicates the meaning of white garment even in the sermon and accompanying music, dance, chanting, and so on. Brennan cites outside scholarly sources that tie the color of the clothes to the indigenous Yoruba religion, while church members back up their claims with scriptural references (105). White clothes connect the ancestors and their descendants in the historical southern Nigeria—Yoruba. This connection explains Brennan’s observation that “Pentecostals often portray earlier forms of Christianity . . . as potentially evil, demonic, occultic, or spiritualistic, and they speak of the dangerous and ‘un-Christian’ practices of those who attend such churches” (20). While Cherubim and Seraphim is trying to avoid being associated with the indigenous religion, their values and practices are undeniably part of Yoruba indigenous culture.

Brennan’s text also covers a choir day performance where the choir mimicked the daily experience of individuals’ quest for salvation, navigating the religious marketplace, how to be responsible parents, making moral decisions, and so on. Her interviews with members demonstrate how they coped with the difficult economic situation in Nigeria through reliance on the church.

The place of the Holy Spirit in the life of Cherubim and Seraphim requires cultivating the body through discipline, for example, praying, fasting, dressing, and training. Brennan shows how self-discipline connects more to church foundation than personal achievement. To Brennan, it is important “that there is no corresponding loss of individual self, no violence done through the self through this process of submission as many North Atlantic theories of a sovereign self would have it” (156). Rather, the church is empowered through bodily weakness, openness, and submission.

In chapter 8, Brennan highlights the role of Fogo arm of the church and its hymnal rendition. Brennan also challenges the issue of inequality in the Cherubim and Seraphim, citing an occasion when Fogo members chose a different attire from the white, which illustrates inequality among members. Brennan’s observation reveals huge disparities within the church space that characterize oil-boom reliance in Nigeria. These economic and social imbalances are not isolated to governance alone. Brennan concludes by referencing internal politics that surrounded choosing Prophet Korode as the next leader after Fakeye’s demise. The confirmation of Korode as the next leader is reflective of the roles that Cherubim and Seraphim’s musical foundation plays in the church from the times of Orimolade and Abiodun to present. The role of music could also be seen as transcending the issue of inequality in this regard.

A huge portion of this book focuses on the socioeconomic situation in Nigeria rather than making a case for the Cherubim and Seraphim’s music and media. Brennan could join the conversation about how a lot of scholars grapple with how African churches, such as Cherubim and Seraphim, engage syncretism with Christianity via music and media. Would she see this as binary because syncretism, liminality, modernity, bricolage, alternative modernity, etc. are often derogatory words cited for various churches?

This book is a necessary read for anyone interested in understanding the Aladura churches and their contribution to music media in Nigeria. Brennan takes a painstaking approach in giving a “good measure, pressed down” of not just Yoruba church music media, but also the contemporary lifestyles that feature prominently in Nigeria. This excellent book serves as a tool in understanding Yoruba Christianity inside and outside Nigeria.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ajoke Adebisi is a doctoral student in the Religion Department at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vicki L. Brennan is associate professor of religion and director of the African Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

Keywords: 

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