Among the peoples of the Kénédougou region, music and speech are not separate things: speech is melodious, and melody can speak. The tribal languages are tonal, that is, the pitch of a word in relation to other words in a sentence can affect the meaning. In Jula, which has only two tones (high and low), the tonal structure of the sentence is all the difference between saying, “I play the balaphone” and “I greet the porcupine” (yes, there are porcupines in Africa). The difference between “Your elephant,” and “Bring it here” is also tonal. The common proverb “Death is better than shame,” could easily sound like “Death is better than rice,” if you get the tone off (I guess it depends on how you cook it). One can have much fun or court a lot of danger by bungling the tone in a sentence. You may think you’re asking a merchant in the market if he has yams for sale, but you could instead be asking him, “Do you have a head?”

Tone is not just a matter of emphasis, as in the difference between “I BEG your pardon!” and “I beg your pardon?” The words mean the same; the stress indicates the difference in emotion, and therefore, the speaker’s intention. In a tonal language, however, pitch changes meaning, grammar and whether a word is a noun, a verb or anything else, as in saMA (Jula noun for elephant) and SAma (a verb, to bring or to take down), or jaRA (lion) and JAra (past tense of “to please”).

Jula is useful as a trade language because it only has two tones, making it easier to learn compared to more localized tribal or “maternal” languages in Kénédougou, like Siamou, Samogho, Senufo or Toussian. They may have five tones or more. That makes developing a written form of the language difficult, but not impossible. It will require lots of extra markings and symbols to indicate tone.

Ask a native speaker, “How many tones does your language have?” and you will likely be met with incomprehension, the same as if you ask a fish, “What is water?” When you explain what “tone” and “tonal” mean grammatically speaking, your native Siamou or Senufo speaker will wonder why any language would not be tonal.

Think of all the things you can’t do without a tonal language. For example, you can’t broadcast messages with musical instruments like the balaphone  or the talking drum. How would all the people in your village know that they were invited to a baby-naming ceremony next Tuesday, and whose baby it is, unless the town spokesperson (the griot) goes around advertising it on his talking drum? Nor could you convey complex, sometimes contrasting, layers of meaning in a musical ensemble, as when the singer says one thing but the drum or balaphone accompaniment says something different, often to great contrasting, even comical effect? A Burkinabe man once explained to me, while he was nearly doubled over with laughter, that while the singer we heard over the radio was singing words to encourage us to work hard and steady, the talking drum accompanying him was saying over and over, “I’d rather go to the tavern and drink beer.” Not having grown up there, nor being a speaker of that particular language, I would never have caught the humor nor the complexity, had he not brought it to my attention. It was on a par with Bach’s mastery of melodic and harmonic counterpoint.

Just as language differs with each tribal group, so does music. The musical scales in and from Kénédougou cultures are pentatonic, that is, they hear, play and sing five notes within the range of what Westerners hear as an octave of eight notes. Some of those notes might sound to Western ears as flat or sharp in relation to each other. Western harmony might sound equally off to them. But you can’t switch tuned instruments, like balaphones, flutes, single string viols or the kora among the tribes, because each tribal/linguistic group uses a different pentatonic scale. Senufo balaphones “speak” Senufo, Siamou balaphones “speak” Siamou, etc., and so can only play the music of that tribe with the language of that tribe. Switch the instruments among the tribes and their languages, and not only does the scale not match, the pitches of the words will be off, for the melody must relate to the tonal structure of the words and sentences they convey. As the pitch of the spoken word varies, so must the melodies, but to a greater range and extent. Otherwise, the songs will sound to the Kénédougou ear like gibberish or some magical incantations. The one exception is that Jula words can be sung to any other tribal scale and melody because there are only two tones in Jula. The words would be understandable to almost any melody.

Music is such a part of life, it even accompanies work, such as the pounding of grain by women in the morning, the fieldwork of young men’s farming cooperatives, or the building of homes and huts. Any folktale worth its salt will also include a song to dramatize the point of greatest tension.

For the new churches in Kénédougou, it is vital that their own worship music develop in their tribal language, for God speaks to us most clearly in the language of every mother’s lullabies. Many of the residents, especially in outlying villages, are pre-literate. Yet that doesn’t keep them from being multi-lingual, and with amazing powers of memorization. They readily memorize genealogies, long historical epics and traditions, especially when couched in the neural memories of music, and the muscle memories of dance (Disney’s The Lion King is based on Mali’s national epic in song and dance, The Soundiata).

While new believers in a new church might start out by singing already existent Jula Christian songs, the Holy Spirit soon inspires new songs in languages, scales and styles of cultures new to the church and the gospel, especially if there is Bible translation happening in that language. Often, non-literate people only need to hear a song once to memorize it, and for it to take on a life of its own, spreading from one village to another, with even non-Christians singing them. So, the new Bible songs do their own evangelization.

As a new Samogho-speaking church and Bible translation were taking shape in the late 1990’s, new Samogho believers were composing songs in their own language, scale and style for some of the new Psalm translations. These songs were then played over the radio as part of a weekly hour-long program in Samogho, for the Samogho audience. Listeners who understood the songs reported being deeply touched, encouraged and convicted by them.