Over the last several months I have gone kinda crazy for Tuareg guitar rock. (No idea what I’m talking about? A couple of examples would be the venerable band Tinariwen and the relative newcomer Tamikrest.) The history of this genre of music is curious and offers a metaphor that I want to explore a bit. Prior to the 1970s the music of this region was what Western ears might think of as traditionally Arabic or Moroccan. (Mali is directly south of Morocco, with a corner of Algeria in between them.) But in the 1970s a civil war broke out and by the 1980s many the Tuareg people ended up in refugee camps that were more akin to prison camps.
At the same time far north in Scotland, Mark Knopfler formed the band Dire Straits. For whatever reason (although music scholars think they know why) Dire Straits became wildly popular in the camps. According to Christopher Kirkley, the founder of Sahel Sounds and the producer of the wonderful and quirky “Music from Saharan Cellphones” vols. 1 & 2, the most common music track found on cell phones in this regions is Dire Straits’ 1985 hit, “Money for Nothing.”
South of Mali, in the coastal countries stretching from Guinea to Benin traditional music was based on drumming. When rock and roll arrived in this part of Africa, music with a strong beat thrived. Artists such as Jimi Hendrix and James Brown became both popular and influential, shaping the musicians for a generation. But the sometimes frenetic sound of drumming as the musical foundation did not stretch north into the Sahel (ie, Mali, Chad, and Algeria). That music was much more sparse and simple and was typically based on two equal beats (that give me the sense of a camel rocking back and forth as it walks) rather than emphasizing the offbeat, or other complex rhythm systems, as found in both African drumming and Western rock and roll.
That unforgettable guitar riff that starts Money for Nothing (about 30 sec. into the linked video) is not traditional rock. Tap your toe to it and you’ll discover its foundation is two equal beats. (The subdued bass drum relegated to the background is hitting on the off beats, making it classic rock, but the prominent sound is the beat created by the guitar itself pounding on the two primary beats.)
Compare this track with Tinariwen’s Sastanaqqam. The basic Tuareg two beat pattern is there. The influence of African drumming from farther south is also apparent in the first 30 seconds, but the guitar riff (starting at the 40th sec) is very Knopfler-esque. Dire Straits offered the perfect combination of Western sound (rock and roll), simplicity (something the budding guitar players in the prison camps could actually copy and learn to play), and cultural identification (the swaying two equal beat sound that is common in Dire Straits music), that the popularity of this music exploded, and it became the foundation of a whole genre of music that almost immediately swept the Sahel and Sahara.
Earlier this week I went to the cigar lounge to puff on my pipe. Two pastors were there smoking cigars and trading bitter and dark stories about the state of the church, the gospel, and their uncommitted flocks. This dark outlook is a common malady among clergy but these two seem to revel in their despair in a manner uncommon even among clergy. God has failed! The gospel has failed! Or, in the words of Mundo Cani, the dog in Book of the Dun Cow, “Ooooooooooooh, woe is me!” (God wasn’t particularly amused by Mundo Cani either and smote him with skin problems.)
The two aforementioned clergy suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel. It is a widespread misunderstanding and thus I mention the incident at the cigar bar. But I want to put it into the context of the Tuareg prison camps and “Money for Nothing.” Rock and Roll had been around a long time before 1985 (the release date of the album Brothers in Arms). Throughout the 70s it transformed West African music but it had never penetrated Tuareg culture. And then something came along that was compelling, culturally appropriate, and simple enough that the musicians could (and did!) latch on to it. From that moment when Dire Straits music reached the camps, it spread like wildfire and within months changed the face of Toureg music.
Similarly, that’s how the Gospel works. For the most part the Gospel is ignored or domesticated so that it fits comfortably into our lives lived by our rules and our standards. Jesus told us this was the case over and over during his ministry. And then … “in the fullness of time” … something happens. It’s an unpredictable confluence, such as civil war in Mali, the release of a rock and roll album in Glasgow, a culture where women always used to make the music, but now the men were thrown together in a men’s only prison camp and had to make music without the women, and some well meaning aid worker who brought the brand new Dire Straits album to the camp.
To be a minister of the Gospel (and here I’m not referring to ordained clergy but to all of us who are God’s ministers to the world) is, the majority of the time, just being faithful without much happening. The world goes on as it always had. The congregation we are a part of goes on as it always had. And then … “in the fullness of time” … there’s a confluence.
Complaining about the dire straits of the modern church is both a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Gospel works and a confession that we believe God is untrustworthy to handle it. Instead of howling miserably like Mundo Cani dog, we need to get on with life and be faithful to our small task.