Chanting the Scriptures

When a New Testament translation project for the Wolayta of Ethiopia began in the early 1970s, the government would not allow books to be printed in indigenous languages; only in Amharic, the official language. The solution, at least short-term, was to record the translation as it was being done, making it accessible immediately and especially to those who could not read—about 80 percent of the some 2-million Wolayta speakers.

The Wolayta may not have been book oriented then, but they did have a rich oral tradition, which included their cultural chanting and singing styles. So chants and songs were added to the tapes to break up the reading. These also served as devices for memorizing the Scriptures. The word of God would become fixed in people’s hearts and minds when reinforced by tunes and chants the Wolayta loved, and would spring to their lips throughout the day.

By the time the Wolayta New Testament was printed in 1981, many Christians already knew some parts of the text by heart.

To record each passage, a few verses were read, lasting about a minute. Different voices spoke for the various participants in Gospel narratives. Before the listeners could lose interest, the next few verses would be chanted in traditional Wolayta style, in an antiphonal response along with the cassette. The chanter would sing only the words of the text, but the antiphonal response would provide an application of the passage to listeners’ own lives or a reinforcement of the subject being taught. The antiphonal refrains emphasized major truths and stirred in the listeners a rhythm that prevented drowsiness, as they listened in the dark of night after a hard day’s work in the fields.

After a minute or two of chanting had finished, another short reading followed. And then again the pace changed—the reading would be followed by a song composed from a key verse in the passage. The tune fixed the words in the listeners’ minds, as the singer on the tape repeated the memory verse four times in a contemporary Wolayta song form. The listeners would again be encouraged to sing along with the cassette, to memorize the Scripture verse. And in this way they continued listening, chanting, and singing God’s word.

 

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