I just heard that Tom Avery died, and found this neat story on the following blog:
“For nearly 20 years Jack and Jo Popjes, Canadian missionaries with Wycliffe, tried to learn the music of the Canela people of northeastern Brazil. Jack and Jo could not grasp the subtleties of Canela music. The Canelas showed little interest in writing any new music for themselves. Despite their love of music, the Canelas sang only ancient songs. They did not compose new music. Everyone was content to sing the old songs about ghosts and water monsters, just as their ancestors had done. It would have been easy for the Popjeses to simply translate hymns (using the Canela language and the original European/American music). “But this would have caused problems,” they report. “Hymn translation can perpetuate the false idea that Christianity is a foreign religion.”
Jack and Jo sought help from Dr. Tom Avery, a Wycliffe ethnomusicologist also working in Brazil at the time. Tom did extensive library research on the tribe. He then went with Jack and Jo and recorded Canela music so he could analyze it using a computer program he had written. After making recordings of Canela music Tom transcribed the music note by note, aided by computer-generated graphs of the melodies. Every part of the Canela music system was examined — form, melody, rhythm, scale, and more. He discovered that the intervals between notes of the Canela scale differ from the European scale. Therefore, Canela music cannot be played on a piano, because some of the notes would “fall in the cracks.”
Then Tom Avery and Jack Popjes teamed up to create 23 Canela songs with Christian lyrics, most of which were direct quotations from Scripture. With lyric sheets in hand and a tape recording of themselves singing the songs, Avery and the Popjeses arrived in the main villages. The moment they started playing the tape, the Canelas became very excited. Within minutes, the Canela men started to join in. Soon the women added a high-pitched harmony part. “I just stood there and bawled. It was so perfect,” Jack remembers.
Over the next few nights, hundreds of villagers gathered to learn the new songs. One Canela song leader told the Popjeses, “I never realized we could make up our own songs.” Another Canela told them: “You have been here all these years and gave us writing. Your friend Tom has only been here a little while, and he taught us how to sing to God.” Jack estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of the tribe have now placed their faith in Jesus Christ. New Christians enjoy freedom from the fear of ghosts and evil spirits. Looking back on their whole ministry, Jack says providing the songs may have been their most important contribution. “While the Bible translation was essential, the Scripture in those songs did more for them than the Bible translation.” “