The ability to harmonize is not something in American blood. Maybe this is because we listen almost exclusively to solo artists. We have steady pitch, but generally lack musical understanding beyond melody. Here, pitch comes and goes. There’s more respect for sliding of the voice.
When you first hear it you’re like “ehck, no that sounds wrong.” But slowly it becomes beautiful.
I have yet to hear a magnificent soloist singer in Tanzania, but my lord does this culture know how to sing together. The centrality of gospel singing teaches children at a young age that there are many vocal lines to every song. Last night we sang some Swahili worship songs before bed – Mama carried the melody while Charity, the eight year old, sang up a fifth. I didn’t learn how to do that until my senior year AP Music Theory class, and even then I struggled to not fall in with the melody line.
At church services here in Tanzania, singers will riff on one word for the whole song or repeat each phrase and sing double time, or even fall into plain old “oo, oo, oo”s. When someone does this in an American singing environment, it is almost always a soloist, but here everyone does it. I think it is more common because the singers don’t riff to fill a missing piece of the song, rather they riff on instinct simply because they have the urge to do so.
I revealed my observation to Josephine yesterday and she nodded with pride and said, “The further south you go in Africa, the more beautiful the voices are. We sing better than Kenyans, they love our singing. But South Africans” she clicked her tongue and shook her head side to side, “Wow, they are something else.” She reasoned that it was because of Apartheid. “When they had nothing, no money, no happiness, no lives, they would sing. When they’d sing they would drink and dance and be happy. They had reason to live, reason to thank the lord. They came to depend upon the music so much, that it developed in a deeply emotional way. It’s like the slaves in America. Look at African Americans now – they have the best voices of all!”