United in Harmony

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 05:24am on 19th April 2015

The outcome of the general election on Thursday 7th May is unpredictable.  Immigration has proved a significant issue, and Alex Massie heralded this as ‘the outsiders’ election’ in the Big Issue (February 23 – March 1, 2015) since more than 25% of the electorate are migrant voters, born overseas but now British citizens, born overseas to British parents, or from Commonwealth countries but now resident here.  A significant percentage of UK Catholics are migrants, based here temporarily or permanently.  Migration has enriched Catholic worship and life in this country, bringing to our attention the needs of the world, and the goodness of God’s creation across the globe.  This paper has reported Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ concern that we ‘keep the human person at the front of all these issues and remember this city would grind to a halt without the contribution of people who come to this country’ (The Tablet, 7 March 2015). Honouring this sentiment, for 10 years now, Catholics from the Dioceses of Brentwood, Southwark, Westminster, and further afield have gathered in London for a Mass celebrating the contributions of migrant communities to the Church, and praying together for the particular needs of their communities.  Prayers have focused on issues such as employment conditions, including a Living Wage; and a pathway to official status for undocumented migrants.  Voices are raised in songs from all around the world in many different languages, drawing in contributions from ethnic chaplaincies, schools, cultural dance troupes, and parishes.

British Catholic liturgy already includes much from all around the world.  A glance through the hymnbook reveals hymns and songs from many countries as standards in our repertoire.  There is plenty of music from the Iona Community, which has a strong commitment to gather music from across the world Church, and the Taizé community, whose music-making has developed to accommodate pilgrims singing simultaneously in many languages.  Since it is a universal liturgy, classic Catholic music, including Latin hymns and plainchant, features in churches across the world, so can unify different nationalities worshipping together here.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal encourages all Catholics across the world to learn to sing certain parts of the Mass in Latin, so that everyone can sing together at international events (#41).  In addition, it’s good to seek out songs from particular countries which others can share.  Singing songs from a part of the world particularly in need of prayer expresses solidarity and concern; there is a Kyrie Eleison common to many Catholic hymnals (find it on www.worshipworkshop.co.uk) which is variously attributed to Russia and Ukraine, so highly appropriate during the current conflict in that region.  Some pieces travel around the world and return here transformed.  If you believe and I believe is from Zimbabwe, and has proved a valuable means of praying for that troubled country.  It sounds like the Lincolnshire Poacher, a melody which may well have once travelled out to Africa with UK missionaries, and been adopted and adapted in Christian worship there before returning in its Africanised form. 


To expand the repertoire, one idea is to hold a song-sharing session as one of your parish socials, singing the songs of our heritage, from all around the world.  This also works well as a format for an international carol service.  Discover talented musicians who haven’t felt able to join in with the church’s music as it hasn’t felt familiar in content or style.  If parishioners disappear once a month or so to attend an ethnic chaplaincy Mass, consider going along with them to find out what they do musically and see if there’s anything you can incorporate into the parish liturgy.  A group of musicians from a particular country or language group might be willing to provide music for an occasional parish Mass, or sing at a certain point in the liturgy.  They may be waiting for an invitation.  It’s easier for new people to offer to contribute to the music if they see others from the same background visibly undertaking other liturgical ministries – serving, reading, distributing Communion - so involve members of different ethnic communities in all these ministries. 


On big occasions, such as the Triduum and Christmas, when all the musicians of the church get together, include pieces representing the different ethnic groups in the parish.  At Our Lady Help of Christians in Kentish Town, the parish priest concelebrated the Triduum with the Chinese chaplain, also members of the Latin American chaplaincy who held regular Masses in the church, alongside parishioners from the local area, sharing prayers, songs and readings in Cantonese, Spanish and English.  In a more racially homogeneous parish, songs from around the world still find place.  Join in the celebrations of different nations.  It’s common in British parishes to celebrate St Patrick’s as an Irish festival, but St Patrick is also patron of Nigeria.  St Patrick’s School in Kentish Town invited the Nigerian chaplain to celebrate its patronal feast, and he taught all the staff and children (including many of Nigerian heritage) music from Nigeria which they loved and went on to sing at school Masses on other occasions.  Some of the music at the Migrants’ Mass this year will be accompanied by the steel band from Newman Catholic College.  Theirs is a sound characteristic of immigration to this country, popularised by the Notting Hill Carnival and similar events.  Steel band musicians are available to run workshops in schools (as are gamelan players, and Gospel choir conductors), and could be invited into parishes to enliven music-making. 

There are diverse cultures of music-making and different approaches to learning and communicating music - sometimes written and reading music; sometimes improvising harmonies; some pieces driven by melody, others by harmony or compelling rhythms.  Not every parish music co-ordinator will have the skills to play in all of these different ways, so work with what you’ve got, creating your own parish culture as you go.  Some singers brought up singing by ear can harmonise everything beautifully, including traditional hymns, sometimes without even realising they’re doing it, but struggle to learn from notated music.  The oral tradition governs the transmission of hymnody, creating difference of opinion about how each song goes, but like each monastery developing its own customary way of singing the same chants, settle on a local way of honouring each song brought to you from around the world.  There’s inevitable variation between a song sung in one context and another with different resources and a different general style.  A little may be lost in translation but a lot will be gained. 

 Frances Novillo is a church and community musician with a passion for getting people singing.  She is based in north London and has co-ordinated music for the Migrants’ Mass in 2006, 2007, and 2015.

Published as United in Harmony on 19th April 2015 in The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly.  Reproduced with permission of the publisher.  https:///www.thetablet.co.uk

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