FIRST PERSON: An audio engineer makes music in South Asia

One of the goals of the workshop was to record all of the songs written during the workshop, so that they could be distributed to other churches — in English because it's the only common language among participants. Hear the songs at http://southasianpeoples.imb.org/?p=6152

By Rocco Speicher*

INDIA — The Indian experience of life is different than the American or French experience. If you went into an American church and used only songs originally written in Swahili and translated into English, accompanied by “talking drums,” it would be a unique experience, but I daresay that most Americans would not want to repeat that every week. If worship is most deeply experienced in your heart language, then songs for Indians need to be written by Indians.

I’m the sound guy. At least, I was until my wife and I left for South Asia. But I still think like a sound guy. My philosophy of audio is that it is never important until it’s distracting and then it’s the most important thing. We don’t notice it until there’s feedback or it sticks out too much. In worship, it can distract us from what we’re meditating on about God. At its best, though, it can unconsciously help us focus and explore the thoughts and emotions that are a part of worshiping God.

During a trip to Poland, I listened to a congregation of cross-cultural workers sing in their heart language and I saw the power of worship music. For a believer, we often take for granted how worship music ties together the theology of the heart and mind. I think there’s a reason the Bible has such a large chunk of music from Psalms to Paul’s references to hymns. God gave us music as a way to connect right thinking about Him and our emotions.

I can’t tell you how many people in Poland talked about what it meant to them to get to worship in their heart language. For someone who’s living in a culture that’s not their own, they are often going to church in a language not their own, which causes a disconnect from singing and the heart. By removing that disconnect, we can help believers engage in worship more fully.

This experience began a vision for recording and distributing worship music to believers who may not have much access to music that encourages and strengthens believers.

A few years later, I learned of a need for an audio engineer in South Asia. They wanted someone to support an ethnomusicologist who was teaching national believers how to write their own worship music. On a short-term trip to India, I had the opportunity to work on some musical tracks that were recorded as part of a songwriting workshop in a native Indian language. Indian believers came together to write songs in their own language, using their turns of phrases and their musical style. It was “their music,” sung from their hearts to our God. I mastered a CD to be used by worshipers who are native speakers of this Indian language.

This experience was instrumental in God’s calling on my life to come to South Asia for a longer season. I came to South Asia because I wanted to participate in the growth of the worship of God, to see the worship of the one, true God spread beyond numbers or geography only, but in depth of worship. I want to see churches grow in their joy and fellowship. I wanted to give the skills and talents God has given me for growing the kingdom.

While I’ve been in South Asia, I’ve worked on three audio projects, none of which is worship. I’m not complaining – I was able to use my abilities in web development, plus grow a latent skillset in video production. But the passion that brought me over here hasn’t been touched.

Until recently.

Ethan Leyton,* an ethnomusicologist, invited an old friend of mine to teach a songwriting workshop to some local believers and asked if I could help capture the songs. Jeff Bourque and I go way back. All the way back to sophomore year in college. When I was coordinating the sound team crew for Grace Community Church, Jeff jumped in on both the sound and worship teams. Now, Jeff is the worship leader at Grace. So not only would I get to hang out with a dear friend, in a land far away from our familiar, comfortable life, but I’d get to do what I thought I was coming to the field to do. Sold!

I hung out at the conference for a few hours each day, and it was a great blessing to hear from people who work IT jobs, or are in college, discovering for the first time that they could write worship music for their churches. Not just worship music – good, singable, humming-it-three-days-later songs. Songs that were full of the Gospel.

The conference met together in an open-air pavilion, and then broke into small groups spread out across the wooded campus of the conference center in threes and fours to apply the lessons Jeff discussed with them. Many of them were slowly piecing together their first songs. They’d meet back, play and sing for each other, and lovingly critique the music, sharpening each other’s songs.

The conference ended with a worship service at the sponsoring church. A combination of Jeff’s own worship songs, the songs written at the conference, and more-widely-known songs were sung. The congregation responded enthusiastically to these new songs, written by their peers. I ran sound and recorded the service. It was a thrill to know that these recordings would continue to fuel their services in the months and years to come.

Selfishly, this service was a chance to relive the hundreds of services that I’d mixed with Jeff before. But, more than that, you could hear the joy of both the writers and the congregation with these news songs. Even though they were brand new songs, they sang them with gusto as if they’d been singing for 20 years. And, just getting to be a part of that was a blessing to me.

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*Name changed.

Rocco Speicher is an audio engineer serving among South Asian peoples. Songs from the songwriting conference can be heard here.

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