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.

Writing worship music for the Indian urban audience

By Torie Speicher

INDIA — Seven months ago, Kiri Dutta* left her lucrative and fulfilling job in the corporate world to support her husband in ministry. It wasn’t an easy transition, but now God is using her to disciple urban young people in an Indian mega-city.

A lot of these young people are students, or recent graduates like Indra Sethi.* Sethi recently graduated from university with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, one of the more rigorous and competitive degrees for Indians. He wants to serve God in the marketplace.

Sethi accidentally ended up at the songwriting workshop sponsored by Dutta and her husband Mani.* Even though he found out about it only the night before, Sethi knows it was God’s plan for him to be there.

Attendees of the Song Writer's Workshop practice their new song

The purpose of the workshop, organized by Mani and Ethan Leyton,* an ethnomusicologist (or someone who studies the cultural and social aspects of music), was to lead these young people in writing songs for worship.

“I think the most important thing that people can take away from a conference is that they have a voice,” Leyton said.

“We want to offer workshops on songwriting because music doesn’t just happen and God’s word tells us to sing new songs to Him,” Leyton said. This is one of 20 workshops Leyton has organized in the last seven years for believers around South Asia.

“Many South Asian languages (and worldwide) don’t have a single song about Jesus in them,” Leyton said. “It takes time and concentrated energy to come up with songs that are understandable, biblically accurate and culturally relevant for people.”

This workshop is unique because it was in English. The students that Kiri and Mani work with speak many different native languages or mother tongues, but because they’ve been educated in English, they are more comfortable communicating in English than their mother tongues.

Leyton hopes the songwriters will take what they learn and apply it to their mother tongues.

Sethi, along with 17 other budding songwriters, collaborated with a small group to write a song before the weekend ended. The workshop produced four songs that are now a part of worship for the church Mani started.

“The strongest songs come from co-writing,” said Jeff Bourque, the American musician who led the workshop. Bourque leads worship for Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tenn., but has been writing original songs for 22 years.

“Jeff Bourque was not the ego-driven man I was expecting to teach us songs,” Sethi said.

Instead, Sethi found Bourque down-to-earth and humble — albeit tall by Indian standards — and prepared to share the gifts God has given him.

Bourque asked all the groups to choose a passage of Scripture and pick a theme from it. The theme that Sethi’s group settled on was wanting people to know that Christianity is not only a religion, but a relationship.

“According to Indian traditions and religious views, people need to sacrifice things (for salvation),” Sethi said. “I wanted people to know about the true God who is alive, who gave His Son as a sacrifice and a ransom for all our sins [meaning] there is no need for any sacrifices.”

Since two people from Sethi’s group had to leave the workshop early, Bourque joined their group. Together, they wrote This is not Tradition.

“Even though I helped write the song, the group wasn’t looking at me and saying it was a great song, they were looking at him and giving him all the affirmation. They said, ‘We want to hear it again!,’ “ Bourque said.

Bourque was happy that the song impacted people, but not just because he helped write it. As a teacher, he was proud of Sethi for taking the concepts he learned and using them to encourage worship of the one, true God.

Bourque came to India to lead a workshop on songwriting and was impressed with the quality of musicians and their hunger to learn and practice songwriting.

Even though Sethi has written songs before, they were more personal songs with his secular band. Worship songs are different because they are written to express to God what we feel about Him.

“I feel that a person who has been smothered by the love of God writes a worship song to pour out or express his heart in words,” Sethi said.

Sethi said the pleasures of the world cannot compare to the joy from intimate worship of God.

“Once we go to heaven, the only thing we’ll be doing is worshipping our God,” Sethi said. “So, what I’m doing here is I’m actually practicing.”

When Kiri talks about the song Sethi wrote and how people in her church love it, she won’t stop there. She’s ready for the next workshop and the next batch of songs that will build up the church among Indian young people.

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*Name changed.

Torie Speicher is a writer serving among South Asian peoples. To hear This is not Tradition and the other songs from the workshop, use this link: http://southasianpeoples.imb.org/?p=6152.

Musician Jeff Bourque equips Indian believers to write worship music

By Torie Speicher

INDIA — From Music City, USA, musician and songwriter Jeff Bourque made his way to India to share the basics of songwriting for a congregation with Indian believers. The mission: write songs.

Through a friend of a friend, Bourque was chosen by Ethan Leyton,* ethnomusicologist, and Mani Dutta,* an Indian pastor, to lead a workshop for 18 young men and women living in urban India and representing five churches.

“Dutta and I dreamed and prayed that instead of [English-speaking] Indian believers singing Hillsong and Chris Tomlin songs all the time, perhaps they could begin writing their own English songs for worship,” Leyton said.

Budding songwriters worked together to write a song that centers around God's character. Jeff Bourque, songwriter and worship leader, offered some one-on-one tips during small group time.

Roughly one out of every 70 persons in India believes in Jesus. Indian Christians are surrounded by temples full of idols and sounds like the cacophony of Muslim calls to prayer. With a unique perspective on their identity as Christians and living out their faith, these believers have a lot to offer Christian music.

In the last seven years, Leyton has organized 20 songwriting workshops for believers around South Asia. This one is unique because it’s the first one in English. In a diverse city of over 8 million people where four primary mother tongue languages are used, many Christians and young professionals are more comfortable communicating in English because it’s the language they have in common.

Leyton hopes the songwriters will take what they learn and apply it to their mother tongues, but also that these songs will be used in American churches one day.

As worship leader for Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tenn., Bourque thinks a lot about songs sung congregationally. When leading worship, he chooses songs that express the truth about who God is and what our response should be as His people.

Amit Dhawan* is studying in Bible college and serves at Dutta’s church. He has struggled to write songs before, but learned a lot at the workshop. He worked with a group of four people to write the song The Lord is Good.

“Many times I came to know the truth about God through worship songs and it encouraged me to come closer to God,” Dhawan said. “(As a songwriter), I want people to understand that God still saves, heals and delivers people from darkness.”

Like Dhawan, these budding songwriters had some experience writing songs, but almost no experience writing songs centered on God for the purpose of building up the church. Among the students were a former drug addict, an engineering student, a banker, a software developer, a pastor and the grandson of a village elder who practices witchcraft.

With 22 years of songwriting experience and a passion for the local church, Bourque’s interest in leading a workshop like this was peaked in 2005. He was leading worship overseas for a group of cross-cultural workers and heard about the importance of equipping new believers in different cultures to communicate their experience with God through song.

“When you have an experience of salvation, everyone is saved to Christ, but everyone is saved from something and that looks different,“ Bourque said. “So, the people of this country will have a completely different perspective on what it means to be a believer.”

A group of four Indians with different mother tongue languages collaborated in English to write a song about our relational God.

Bourque believes that believers from different cultures should be able to sing songs that relate to their experiences, rather than importing songs from other cultures, like the Western-sounding songs sung in American churches.

When he came to India, Bourque was expecting to offer tools that people could use to get started and hoped that with time and experience, they would learn to write lasting songs.

Instead, what he found was talented musicians hungry for the opportunity to learn and practice songwriting.

The language barrier — although minimal since the workshop was in English — was there, but it didn’t stop Bourque from connecting easily with the students from Bhutan, India and Africa.

As surprised as he was that it didn’t take long to build trust, Bourque credits their bond with knowing that their lives have been greatly impacted by Jesus. They were ready to soak in everything he had to share with them.

“I mean, it was two straight days of thinking of nothing but songs and songwriting and I started to get fatigued,” Bourque said. “But rather than taking a break, the students said, ‘Let’s write another song!’”

Sanjeet Devar* leads worship at another church in the city. He worked with a group of four to write the song You’re My Friend. Inspired by John 15:13-15, he wants his song to express God’s nature as our approachable friend.

“He created everything that we see and know and chooses to call us His friend,” Devar said. “God is nearer and more approachable than what most people in my culture think.”

Despite their different backgrounds, Bourque and the 18 young men and women living in urban India worshiped God together through familiar songs as well as songs they wrote.

By the end of the workshop, Bourque’s students had written four songs ready to use in the church context. “Their excitement to write songs motivated me to write more,” Bourque said. To hear them, use this link: http://southasianpeoples.imb.org/?p=6152.

The last night of the workshop ended with a time of worship. Together, the pastor, former drug addict and Hindu background believer jammed together singing songs they wrote with faith in Christ as their bond. No one noticed the myriad of mosquitoes or flickering electricity as they praised the one, true God with voices, shakers, djembe, guitar and keyboard.

“I looked around the circle as we were worshipping one night just playing guitars and banging on instruments and singing songs and their hearts were so humble and filled with love that came from an understanding of who God is and a desire to know more (of Him),” Bourque said. “They were just obviously committed followers of Christ, without any pretense or shells, and that was such a blessing for me to spend time with them. “

Bourque’s prayer is that seeds of Truth taken from God’s word in these songs will bear fruit in the church in India.

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*Name changed.

Torie Speicher is a writer, serving among South Asian peoples. Jeff Bourque can be found online at http://congregationalsongs.com/

Musician Troy Akers makes sure music doesn’t overshadow the Gospel in India

By Torie Speicher

INDIA — Playing keys for the band The CO, Troy Akers is comfortable in the spotlight. At first glance, the 26-year old Nashville native smiles easily and looks trendy in fitted T-shirts and jeans that cover his seven tattoos. And, his hair gets a little crazy sometimes.

Musician Troy Akers plays keys for the band The Co and has a heart for the people of India. Used by permission. Photo credit: Jon Karr.

Akers’ band of seven years was recently named ABC Family Channel’s “Artist on the Rise” and is at work on a second album. What you can’t see from his physical appearance, but you will hear at a concert, is his heart for the people of India to be changed by the hope of the Gospel.

“I came to India because I have always been intrigued with the country and its people and how open their hearts are; how barren it can be,” Akers said, “So, when my youth leader from high school moved to India for Christian work, all I had to do was buy my tickets. I was there.”

On a scooter, running away from a storm barreling down mountain streets made of stone and loose dirt, Akers, then 19, fell in love with India. Now, he has been four times. “That first trip showed me how my life lacked the simple trusting of our Father,” Akers said. “The more I go, the more I see the need for the Gospel and for others to realize the immediacy there is for Truth to reach India.”

His travels have taken him all over the subcontinent, but in North India, there’s a taxi driver who calls him “Bro.” Santosh Patel* loves Akers. The CO’s music isn’t the Hindi music he’s used to hearing, but Patel’s happy to know that his brother in Christ is doing well.

“Santosh and I struck a friendship right off the bat on my first visit to India,” Akers said. “We have the same sense of humor.”

On his most recent visit, Akers toured schools in India, working with an organization that ministers to the Dalit (or untouchables), the largest people group of India. Their vision is to bring freedom to the Dalit through Christ’s love — a freedom that is not found in the culture. They fight for their freedom by educating them and rescuing them from sexual trafficking and slavery.

Akers teams up with an organization that ministers to the Dalit to bring them freedom through Christ's love.

As an American musician, Akers was greeted warmly among classrooms and church services. But something was missing.

Since India sometimes looks to the West for pop culture, it can become a popularity contest. “As a musician, coming to India to just play seemed to actually get in the way of the Gospel even though that wasn’t my intent,” Akers said. “So figuring out a way for that to just be a part of what my purpose is while in India is still coming to me.”

Akers finds concerts in the States to be completely the opposite. Since Americans aren’t easily accessible, music is an open door. “Fortunately, music is universal, and folks are more likely to listen initially. Once you have them listening, the hope is that they will be more willing to hear you out,” Akers said.

Earlier trips to India were different. He came as a Christian who wanted to share the Good News. Coming as a musician who happens to be a Christian made it more challenging to stay focused.

“I didn’t directly share the Gospel through conversations, but realized that many Indians view Americans and even more, American Christians, as people who do not want to go deeper than their own religious experience,” Akers said.

“As I began to see the needs around me, I could see a clear need for people who cared more about who they were reaching than themselves. Pride is deadly.”

At one church, Akers sang My Eyes are Dry — an old Keith Green song — to a few hundred Indian Christians because he thought they needed to hear it.

“I felt the words from this hymn were a vessel to me and the congregation, reminding us to reach out, to not let our faith run stagnant,” Akers said. “Like the song says, ‘our eyes can get dry, our faith can get old, our heart can get hard.’ And, while we may know exactly what we need to do, if we do not turn to Christ relentlessly we can shrivel up. Easily and deadly.”

Even in a developing country where the needs are so obvious, Akers warns that the enemy can make us lazy if we let him. “We must remember that the main focus of everything we do has to be giving Truth to the lost. Whether in America or India, we can become complacent.”

God brought Akers to India because it is a part of his calling, but Akers would say it’s a calling for all believers — to love the unloved and reach those who seem unreachable.
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*Name changed.

Torie Speicher is a writer serving among South Asian peoples. Troy Akers is a musician who tours with the band, The CO. The CO can be found online at thecomusic.com.

A couple in South Asia use art to reach Hindus

By Kate Taylor

SOUTH ASIA — Pete, and his wife Diane Bradee,* take their calling to live cross-culturally seriously. They are committed to communicating Jesus in a way that people in South Asia will better understand.

Repentance and faith are all that is necessary, Pete said. It should be, “Jesus period, not Jesus plus.”

Instead of forcing traditional methods of sharing the Good News to work in a unique culture, the Bradees use art and creative expression to share Christ with Hindus in a large city in North India. Music, dance, painting, poetry and storytelling are intrinsic to the culture of Hindus from high castes.

Pete and Diane Bradee have collaborated with local artists on music projects that use Indian song styles and local instruments to tell God’s truth in the Hindi language.

Hindu society observes a caste system, which segments the population into a multitude of separate social groupings that are determined by one’s birth.

“(Art is) a part of who they are,” Pete said of the high caste Hindus. “It gives you an avenue to say all you want about Jesus, because (the message is) coming in the right package.”

The Bradees use a variety of art forms — painting and poetry, music and dance — to relate Biblical stories and God’s truths. They see art as one culturally appropriate package that is used to wrap the gift of God’s word.

Because Hinduism and Christianity in India are not only religions, but also legal, political and social lifestyles, high caste Hindus have been resistant to traditional methods of sharing Christ with them. Christianity has been closely associated with foreign culture since the British colonial period in India. The Bradees desire to illuminate the truth of Christ separate from any loaded political idea or cultural misrepresentation.

“We (as followers of Christ) are supposed to be the ones who adapt,” Pete said.

Hindus should not have to completely abandon their culture in order to follow Christ, but should be equipped within their own cultural framework, he added.

An ancient Indian lyrical poem says:
Lead me out of what is not true into the truth;
Lead me out of the darkness into the light;
Lead me out of death into eternal life.

Of the poem, Pete said, “This Indian cry to God for the assurance of eternal life is the right longing, but it is only answered in our Lord Jesus Christ who is the truth, who is the light, who is the only source of eternal life.”

The Bradees have been heavily involved in creating a book of 24 stories of Jesus, written in an Indian poetry form and illustrated in a popular modern symbolic art style.

They have collaborated with local artists on music projects that use Indian song styles and local instruments to tell God’s truth in the Hindi language. Indian-style interpretive dances help enhance understanding of the songs.

Every form of art, down to the smallest decoration in their home, is a way for the Bradees to share Christ’s light in a dark place. Pete said it is their desire to use familiar art forms to share an unfamiliar faith. They do not change the message of Christ, but simply repackage it to increase understanding of the Gospel for a specific culture.

“Jesus is for you, no matter what community you were born into,” Pete said.

After leading people to faith in Christ, Pete said, they encourage them to stand for Jesus in their families and their communities. By reaching people where they are, and encouraging them to stay and share Christ where they are, they hope to see a whole community move toward Christ.

“Go back to your people group, to your family and you be salt and light there and tell them what God has done for you,” Pete said.

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*Name changed.

Kate Taylor is a student at Union University who recently spent six weeks in South Asia.